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A Second Chance at Independence

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Photo courtesy of Amalini de Sayrah

It is three days since the dramatic events of Saturday July 9 when Sri Lankans of all backgrounds poured onto the streets demanding that the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (together with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the government) must resign. With an approval rating for the government at 3%, the writing has been on the wall for months but those occupying these key positions were clinging onto the terms of the constitution and arguing that it would only be through an electoral process they could be removed. They knew full well that the country was in no position to fund and administer a national election, nor would an election done with their interference have any chance of being free and fair.

Given the economic collapse and the absence of fuel and transport with people lacking food and hospitals non-functional, when schools have been closed for months and when most of the wheels of commerce have ground to a halt, this claim to constitutional privileges seemed like nothing more than a fiasco or a sick joke. So the people came out on July 9 to make known their will, not by means of a secret ballot conducted after months of painful and costly electioneering but by a simple, unmistakeable head count.

Without fuel for private vehicles and with the government cancelling public transport, the determined people set out from their homes in the early hours of July 9. They were going to reach Colombo somehow, whether it was by walking five kilometres or hitchhiking from 150 kilometres away. It was the largest protest ever held in the country. People didn’t come out in their thousands but in the hundreds of thousands until the number at Galle Face swelled to a couple of million. Millions more were gathering in other towns across the land.

Everyone sensed that this was a last opportunity to remove the vestiges of the most corrupt dynasty of modern times. The Rajapaksas had patterned themselves on the royal dynasties of ancient times and the masses had bought into the illusion. They had exploited patriotism as a theme to endear themselves to a populace beleaguered by war and then by simultaneously vilifying their critics as traitors, they had cleared the pathway for decades of corrupt family rule. Tragically for the country (but perhaps fortuitously on the long run), their greed got the better of them. Waiting for each proverbial golden egg was too taxing on their patience. So they tore open the nation’s belly in a mad scramble to take all its wealth in one scoop, as though they were at a closing down sale. But there was nothing left to take. After 74 years of steady thieving by successive regimes, and most recklessly by the Rajapaksas, the second strongest Asian economy of 1948 had reached total bankruptcy. We had known this for some time but the official announcement from the Central Bank came on April 12.

With egg on their face, and their once-adoring followers shell shocked, the Rajapaksas’ goose was well and truly cooked. So, since May this year, the people have insistently called out these powerful and corrupt public servants and given them their marching orders. The timing could not have been more poetic. On May 9 the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa and son Namal Rajapaksa were forced to resign. This was followed on June 9 when the once powerful finance minister, the younger brother Basil Rajapaksa, had to hand in his resignation. It was this sequence of dates that made July 9 so important in the collective imagination and why most of the country saw this as the opportune moment for the final Rajapaksa to be removed.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not at home when the GotaGoHome protesters arrived at his living room and took over the President’s House. They had to overcome several obstacles after being repelled for hours by water cannons and tear gas and by massive numbers of confused and highly-strung military and police personnel. But the president had fled. Most believe that he got away in a hurry on board a naval vessel while soldiers fired several live rounds in the air to keep the crowds back and distracted. Amateur video shows a few suitcases being hurriedly dragged up the gangway of SLNS Gajabahu, presumably his most important personal belongings. But when some university students later found a stash of cash amounting to Rs. 17.8 million left behind in a cupboard at the President’s House, speculation escalated about the amount of cash that must have been there if this was the small change that was left behind unnoticed. They counted it on video and then handed the money to the police while others cooked meals in the presidential kitchen, reclined on the presidential bed, took a dip in the presidential pool and explored the presidential bunker.

No one knows where President Rajapaksa is hiding but later he has issued a statement through the Speaker that he will resign on July 13. He reiterated this through the Prime Minister’s office. Everyone breathed a short sigh of relief but the unexplainable delay of the inevitable has kept all on high alert. The protestors are still at Galle Face and continue to occupy the President’s House, the Prime Minister’s official residence and the Presidential Secretariat. These will be relinquished only when the promised resignations are effected and a new interim government has been appointed.

Parliamentary party leaders are meeting to decide the interim course of governance. Lawyers, civil activists and religious leaders have weighed in and, most importantly, the spokespersons of the aragalaya have made their ideas and demands abundantly clear.

It’s a remarkable moment in a series of dramatic events that have marred the lives of 22 million Sri Lankans. It began with the constitutional coup engineered by the Rajapaksas in 2018. The inexplicable and horrific Easter attacks in April 2019 followed. Thereafter the controversial presidential bid of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in late 2019 was followed by the onset of the Covid-19 in March 2020. The massive general election victory by the Rajapaksa party in August 2020 paved the way for the passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution that gave sweeping powers to the president.

Hubris and impunity went into overdrive and 2021 is remembered as the year when inane policies grew fangs of insanity. Protected forest lands were given up for felling, traditional farming was destroyed by reckless fertilizer policies, Covid vaccinations were delayed due to corrupt deals and needless deaths ensued and a chemical laden ship was allowed into Sri Lankan waters in a perverse bid to claim dollars in insurance payments. When that ship burned ferociously for days, it spilled thousands of tons of deadly cargo destroying acres of coral reefs and thousands of marine creatures and covering stretches of tropical beaches with billions of plastic pellets. The prospect of any insurance and compensation has now disappeared from view like the remaining plastic pellets that were carried by ocean currents to pollute the seven seas for the next 50 years.

But this series of unfortunate events does not define the moment. There is a whiff of hope in the air. The misery has had a soul cleansing effect on our national consciousness. We are more aware of our relatedness and interdependence. With the scales falling from our eyes we can see more clearly that the next person we have to deal with is our neighbour and not a terrorist with a license to kill.

There is a vocal determination about a system change and a longing for an authentic Sri Lankan identity. This new national identity is being described not by religion or ethnicity or language but by a loyalty to serve the interests of the community to whom Sri Lanka is home; a loyalty that will treasure Sri Lanka’s amazing resources and build strong on her beautiful traditions and evolving culture for the sake of her unborn generations.

Many around the world look at Sri Lanka and are understandably appalled. But on July 9 I saw a battered people set out with an unimaginable resolve, their deep pain and frustrations tempered by their commitment to the end game. Although their protestations became more strident and their strides became more urgent, they were bonded by the conviction that only what is won non-violently may be enjoyed in peace. And they prevailed. It is still a long way from where we need to get to but we can be quietly confident that we are well on our way for a second chance at independence.

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