President has to work overtime to restore confidence and credibility
by Jehan Perera
The election of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, by a large majority in Parliament, gave a momentary sense of hope to the general population that the political and economic chaos of the past four months would end. There is recognition that the new President has both the intellectual wherewithal and years of experience in governance to stabilize the ship of state in the current storm. The population in general, apart from those who are activists, are getting tired of the endless struggle on the streets and in their daily lives in queues and are looking for a respite. This recognition was given at least indirectly by the leaders of the protest movement when they agreed they would respect the Court order, obtained by the police, and vacate specific areas of the protest site they had held for 104 days.
In the light of these positive developments the combined military-police attack on the protest site, in the wee hours of the morning and 12 hours before the voluntary move-out by the protestors from the protest site, is difficult to understand. They have shown the iron fist within the velvet glove. The ferocity and sheer ugliness of the thrashing of the unarmed and young (and old) protestors at the site, and the acts of torture perpetrated upon them, has come as an unexpected shock. There is suspicion that a third force was also present, with allegations that some of those who were there, along with the uniformed security forces personnel, were in a state of intoxication.
The attack was sufficiently outrageous to merit immediate condemnation by the Human Rights Commission which described it as a “brutal and despicable attack on the peaceful protesters, at the Galle Face vicinity, by the Military, in the early morning hours.” Further, while being itself a state body, it advised the state “to identify the perpetrators and take appropriate action and ensure such actions by the Military, or any action within the control of the State, to violate the fundamental rights of the people, will never occur in the future.” It also said it would conduct its own investigation to ensure that rule of law is maintained. The possibility that this attack was a trial run for future forcible interventions to deter mass protests needs to be precluded.
The failure of the government to give the protesters the few extra hours to exit has opened it to criticism and put it on the defensive. The coordinated attack by police and military on peaceful protesters and acts such as preventing ambulances and medical personnel from gaining immediate access to the site of attack has brought international opprobrium at a time when the country needs international financial assistance. Both the IMF and EU have made their assistance conditional on the following of human rights norms and principles of accountability. The EU statement has reminded the government that the continuing receipt of the GSP Plus tax concession is conditional upon meeting human rights obligations.
In this time of heightened emotion, with the danger of polarization growing, it is necessary for the government in particular to de-escalate tensions. The President’s media unit has issued a statement that the President had reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s commitment to upholding the right of peaceful and non-violent assembly in a meeting with the diplomatic community. The availability of several places, within Colombo, for such protests was also pointed out. The President had also shown his awareness of international practices, for which he is much reputed, by citing the American Civil Liberties Union’s position on the occupation and blocking of government buildings, which he asserted was not permissible.
The better way of dealing with the protest movement, and their continued protests, would be to address their concerns, which are also the concerns of the larger population that has backed the protest movement. This would restore the legitimacy of the government. It is necessary to keep in mind the participation in the protest movement of a wide cross section of the population that has spanned the generations and ethnic divides. It has the ability to melt into the homes of the people, giving the impression of a return to normalcy, and then re-emerge as a massive tide of people out on the streets when the occasion demands and a date is fixed.
Ironically, it is the very success of the protest movement that gave President Wickremesinghe the presidency. It would be transformational if he could view the protest movement in a positive light rather than as his foe as it is the force that has brought him to power. With the economic factors that brought them to the fore still very much in evidence, they remain a potent force. No sooner was the election result announced that they called for his resignation. But the main demands for reform they have made are reasonable. They consist of a systems change that would ensure accountability and put an end to corruption in government which is also what the international donor community, specifically the IMF, is also seeking.
In addition, the parliamentary majority that elected the President is based on an electoral mandate given three years ago. The problem of legitimacy of the newly elected President and the government he has appointed at the present time, which consists of the ministers of the previous government, is compounded by the allegations that swirl around the election of the President. Following the election, one of the presidential candidates publicly alleged that votes were purchased just like teak trees are. The margin of defeat of the opposition candidates was unexpectedly large. Since then there have been social media posts that enormous sums of money were negotiated to cross party lines and vote.
The questionable nature of the government’s mandate today is the reason why both former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and President Wickremesinghe, when he was Prime Minister, pledged to form all-party governments. However, the controversial start of the new government will make it more difficult for him to achieve the all-party government that has been widely seen as the panacea to the present crisis of legitimacy of the government. The President has to try still harder to re-establish a legitimate government that could both engage with the protest movement and with the international donor community. As president Ranil Wickremesinghe has an opportunity to rise above the party divides, including the party that voted him into power. The alternative would be to go into confrontation with the protest movement, an inkling of which was seen.