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Sri Lanka: Wickremesinghe in Presidential avatar

By Col. R. Hariharan

9 July 2022 will long be remembered in Sri Lanka as the day the three-month long Aragalaya or people’s protest movement succeeded in forcing the country’s elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to agree to resign on 13 July. 

However, the President agreed to resign only after protesters forcibly occupied the President’s House and Secretariat and laid siege to the Prime Minister’s Temple Trees residence on 9 July. They forced him to flee from Sri Lanka to the Maldives and later end up in Singapore. His resignation came by email to the Speaker four days later from Singapore. His future continues to be uncertain as the country claws its way back from bankruptcy. 

The month also saw the change of fortune of Ranil Wickremesinghe, long-time presidential aspirant, who never got elected. Wickremesinghe was brought in as Prime Minister by President Rajapaksa after the public protests on 9 May forced then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa to quit and seek safe haven. On the fateful night of 9 July, irate mobs set fire to PM Wickremesinghe’s private residence to punish him for his association with the President. 

It is ironic that the continuing Aragalaya protests have paved the way for PM Wickremesinghe to be elected President by a majority of parliamentarians. In a secret ballot held on 20 July, he secured 134 votes, with a comfortable margin of 52 votes over his nearest rival Dullas Alahapperuma of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Dullas had wanted the Rajapaksas to quit and apparently this had cost him the election, despite the support of the main Opposition party – the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) – led by Sajith Premadasa.

Rajapaksa influence

Wickremesinghe’s victory is a demonstration of the influence wielded by the Rajapaksas in the present Parliament, despite their absence. President Wickremesinghe will resist any call for him to quit, instead serving till November 2024 when the next Presidential Election is due. 

As he enjoys majority support in Parliament, courtesy of the shadowy influence of Rajapaksas, he will be in no hurry to call for a General Election, as his detractors have demanded. It will be reasonable to suppose the Wickremesinghe Government’s long arm of law will show no haste to book the Rajapaksas for the excesses of the earlier Government.

It is equally plausible that the cases against the Rajapaksas that were hurriedly closed during the last three years may not be reopened at least till the next election. After all, under Wickremesinghe’s watch as PM during the Yahapalana Government days, prosecutions against the Rajapaksas were never completed. 

The effort to safeguard the interests of the Rajapaksas is evident from Cabinet Spokesman Dr. Bandula Gunawardena’s statement that Gotabaya Rajapaksa went to Singapore through formal channels. He said it was not accurate to say that he was hiding. In view of this, the Spokesman’s statement that he expected Gotabaya to return to Sri Lanka from Singapore has to be taken with a pinch of salt.  

In short, the Rajapaksa fortunes may be down for some time, but not out. This was amply demonstrated by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who managed to bring back the Rajapaksa raj after a short and troubled interregnum of only five years of Opposition rule. Mahinda, the astute politician, may well be working now to find answers to the questions of when and how to stage a political comeback.

Taking on the Aragalaya

The lingering influence of the Rajapaksas can stoke President Wickremesinghe’s own desire to put down Aragalaya protests, which turned his private residence to ashes. 

Even as Acting President, the first thing he did was to declare a State of Emergency “in the interests of public security, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community” in the absence of President Rajapaksa. 

Later, curfew was again enforced to ensure the smooth conduct of the parliamentary Presidential Ballot on 20 July. A power outage that blacked out the direct telecast of the swearing-in ceremony of President Wickremesinghe a day later triggered a Police investigation. It dramatically depicted the troubles that the newly-anointed President would be facing in gaining public confidence in the political process, lost in three months of Aragalaya protests. 

This would explain President Wickremesinghe’s rather heavy-handed crackdown on protesters, using the Army and the STF to clear the President’s House and Secretariat occupied by them. The authorities have arrested Pathum Kerner, one the founders of the ‘GotaGoGama’ protests. Police are on the lookout to arrest other leaders of the Aragalaya. They are searching several church premises to arrest Rev. Fr. Amila Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and activist.

Arrest warrants have also been issued to nab activists Lahiru Weerasekara and Ven. Tampitiye Sugathananda Thera after they failed to appear before the Court to answer charges of Unlawful Assembly. Inter-University Student’ Federation (IUSF) Convenor Wasantha Mudalige, who is one of the brains behind the Aragalaya, has been served with a no foreign flight order.

Action is also in hand to intimidate digital journalists and block the social media sites which stoked the flames of protest from shadowy domains. The Aragalaya protesters’ sloganeering has now changed from ‘GotaGoGama’ to ‘GoHomeRanil,’ as displayed in an artwork at the Galle Face promenade, after the Police cleared the site of over three months of protest.

Old wine in old bottles

President Wickremesinghe has brought in the SLPP’s former Leader of the House and long-time parliamentarian Dinesh Gunawardena as PM. His 21-member Cabinet is largely composed of those who had served in the Rajapaksa Government. This has drawn derisive comments of old wine in old bottles, with a new Wickremesinghe label.

President Wickremesinghe and PM Gunawardena have started their rule with the inherited burden that brought down President Rajapaksa’s rule. For the common man it meant high inflation and cost of living, shortages, rationing of fuel, queues, power cuts, restricted functioning of public offices and schools, nepotism, cronyism, bribery, and corruption.

The President-PM pair have to not only overcome, but also outlive, their image tarnished by associating with the Rajapaksas. This is probably a no-win situation for them as the present Parliament is dominated by the SLPP largely under the influence of the Rajapaksas.

Political and economic recovery

The President made his policy statement in his throne speech when the Parliament was reconvened on 3 August. His policy thrust focused on forming an all-party administration to help the country cruise through the current economic and political crises. This is a tall order as major parties have their own agenda and interpretation of an all-party government. Finding common ground among them is likely to be the President’s number one political challenge. 

Equally important for him is to find common ground with the younger generation and middle class, who form the core of the Aragalaya protests. Their demands may seem to be irreconcilable, but the President has to find a middle ground to bring them to the political mainstream. 

Well-known entrepreneur and philanthropist J.R.D. Tata said: “The future belongs to the young. We must not only trust them with the responsibility, but must thrust it upon them whilst they are still young and full of energy, zest, hope, and even illusions. However heartbreaking it may be to ourselves, we must make way for the new generations even when we feel we are still in our prime.”

That should be the mantra of President Wickremesinghe.

Perhaps, this is the first time in South Asia that a largely peaceful people’s protest has succeeded in forcing a leadership change. Of course, such changes have taken place in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, mostly with military intervention or meddling with the Constitution, so Sri Lankans should feel proud and confident of the future; their energies should focus on using the tools of democracy to create an environment conducive for political and economic recovery. They have no other option. The onus to create such an environment largely rests on President Wickremesinghe’s conduct.

(The writer, a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the Head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-’90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email: haridirect@gmail.com; website: https://col.hariharan.info)