The Aragalaya & Morality
By Leonard Jayawardena –
Dr Victory Till, otherwise known as Dayan Jaya-till-eke, has evidently been kept quite busy these days by the Aragalaya, the ongoing but now fizzling out anti-Government protest movement, with a steady stream of articles issuing forth from his metaphorical pen in support of it, and cheering and egging it on.His article titled “‘Ranil Resign!’: Awaken Aragalaya 3.0” (with Aragalaya 2.0 version having= had only a short life) in the Colombo Telegraph of 29 July represents his desperate attempt to revive the protest movement, which now appears to be in its last death throes. Hitherto I have read or at least glanced through his articles with bemusement, thinking that these are but the rantings of a man chronically and incurably afflicted with the “revolutionary itch.” His “credentials” as an adoring admirer and ardent fan of such revolutionary worthies like Che and Fidel Castro (all of whom violaters of human rights) are, of course, well known.
But in the above article he has taken matters to another level by accusing us opponents of the Aragalaya of being immoral and hypocritical, and this charge cannot be allowed to go unanswered.
He juxtaposes two facts, viz., the Presidency of Ranil Wicremesinghe (RW), who he says was “associated with the Central Bank bond scam (‘maha banku hora’!),” and the “arrest of the Aragalaya youngsters who discovered, counted, videoed and handed-over [sic] to the Police, Rs 17.5 million which they discovered at the President’s House and could have pocketed but chose not to,” and concludes, “[T]hose who denounce the Aragalaya and exalt President= Ranil Wickremesinghe or prefer the latter to the former, expose their ethics, morality and hypocrisy.”
I do not know the exact official reason for the arrest of these youngsters but presumably it was because they were tresspassers in and illegally occupying a state building. If so, the charge and arrest were technically correct—and even legally required on the part of the police—but made for poor optics, I concede. The discovery was, of course, purely accidental and the handing over of the money to the police was both necessary in view of the large number of witnesses that would have been present at the time of the discovery and beneficial to the Aragalaya’s cause as it seemed in their sight to substantiate the main (false) premise on which the protest movement is based, viz., that the present economic crisis in Sri Lanka is due to a corrupt President and Government. One wonders, however, what their course of action might have been if such a large sum of money had been discovered by them, esp. with a smaller number of them present, elsewhere with no connection to the Aragalaya.
“Maha banku hora” as an epithet for RW is pure hyperbole and exaggeration. To my knowledge, no reasonable-minded person with a decent acquaintance with the subject of the alleged bond scam has suggested that RW personally enriched himself from it. I am not sufficiently conversant with this subject to be able to reach firm, confident conclusions, but it appears that, at worst, RW had been guilty of a bad appointment and perhaps bad decisions relating to the bond deal, which falls short of moral torpitude.
DJ puts two choices before us: RW, who, in his eyes, is irredeemably tainted with the bond scam and therefore unsuitable to be President, or the Aragalaya, which, having ousted a democratically-elected President through coercion in violation of democratic principles, now wants RW, his successor, too, to go home, though he has now no literal home to go to courtesy of the Aragalaya protesters, who torched it on July 9—just because in his sight this one marvellous deed of integrity shows them worthy of more respect and honour than RW and eclipses all other considerations.
In a sense by presenting us with this choice DJ attempts to impale us on the horns of a false dilemma of sorts: Ranil or the Aragalaya. Actually, the one who prefers RW to the Aragalaya prefers not so much a particular person as law and order and democratic, constitutional governance to chaos and anarchy. It’s a choice between Chaoskampf (“struggle against chaos”) of ancient myths and a struggle generating chaos (the Aragalaya), and RW is an anti-hero striding forth to battle with the chaos monster.
I have never been an ardent fan of RW but I think in the present moment and circumstances he is the best person or, at least, the least unqualified person in Parliament to see the country out of the dire economic plight it is confronted with today, and I believe many reasonable-minded in this nation share this view.
This false dillemma DJ presents us with is silly, simplistic and betrays a lack of awareness of or deliberate disregard for the deeper reasons why one may oppose the Aragalaya while fully holding fast to one’s integrity. In my article titled “Why I Don’t Support the Aragalaya” I stated four important reasons why I opposed the Aragalaya, two of which are directly relevant to the title of the present article and discussed together with one other in what follows, at the end of which the reader will be in a position to judge on whose side morality is: the Aragalaya or those who oppose it.
The Aragalaya is based on lies
Arguably, the most immoral aspect of the Aragalaya is that it is built on a tissue of lies, the principal one which is that the present economic crisis in the country is mainly due to a corrupt President (Gotabaya Rajapaksa) and Government, which is not true. As I have personally observed, Sri Lankans from all walks of life and educational attainments have swallowed this lie hook, line and sinker. While many are aware of the charge of economic mismanagement against the Government, it is alleged corruption of the Government in general and the Rajapaksas in particular that has loomed large in the public psyche as the supposed principal causative factor for the economic crisis.
My plumber/electrician believed this lie and when I pointed out that economists did not analyse the current crisis in that manner, he thought they were being partisan to the Government! A handyman who has worked for me said, “Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he fled the country carried loads of dollars with him and before that paid the foreign debt out of the dollar reserves because he received a discount [I think he meant a commission!] for it.” He was serious! In case you think these are the views of uneducated folk, a member of my own family who has an MSc thought that the Rajapaksas had siphoned abroad dollars to the tune of USD 30 billion. Even the total external debt is only about USD 50b, out of which the Government debt is about USD 21b!
According to a Daily Mirror report dated 18 July 2022, “Some migrants said they were waiting for President Rajapaksa to step down to resume their remittances via formal channels as they were of the belief that the ruling family was siphoning off what they had been sending to Sri Lanka” [Note 1].
And Sri Lanka boasts of a high literacy level!
The Aragalaya site at Galle Face was emblazoned with banners decrying the alleged corruption of the Rajapaksas and displaying exhortions to take steps to recover the loot allegedly stolen by them from the nation. This message was reinforced by the slogans and statements blared day in and day out through the loadspeakers. Critics of the Government, including opposition politicians, echoed this falsehood. The leader of opposition in particular, I noted, repeatedly talked about the need to chase out “corrupt rulers” because it obviously furthered his own political interests. Certain sections of the conventional media, too, did their dirty part and, of course, the social media would have been the main culprit.
To be sure, the Rajapaksas would have committed their “fare share” of corruption—Basil Rajapaksa couldn’t have been called Mr. Ten Percent for nothing—but the point is that that was not the cause of the current economic crisis.
The readers are recommended to listen to Karan Thapar’s interview with Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, a former Governor of the Central Bank, on the YouTube channel “Wire.” [Note 2]. In this video, just under 40 minutes long, the Sri Lankan crisis is discussed in detail and not even once is the word “corruption” mentioned at any time.
I have outlined the causes of the present economic crisis in Sri Lanka in my earlier article “Why I Don’t Support the Aragalaya,” and I will briefly restate them here for the benefit of the reader.
The roots of the economic crisis lie in the twin-deficit the nation has been carrying since Independence in 1948: the budget deficit and the trade deficit. The former has resulted from the Government’s expenditure exceeding its revenue from taxes and the latter from the country’s imports exceeding exports.
This was accelerated and exacerbated by the reduction in taxes by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration and the Corona pandemic, the latter of which dealt a double whammy to the nation’s tourism sector, which was just raising its head above water after the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019. Foreign exchange remittances from expatriate workers, too, dropped as a result of loss of jobs due to Corona.
Against the above backdrop credit ratings agencies downgraded Sri Lanka, which effectively locked it out of international capital markets. In turn, Sri Lanka’s debt management programme, which depended on accessing those markets (to obtain more loans), derailed and foreign exchange reserves plummeted alarmingly in a short time because reserves were utilized to service debts. We are now officially a debt defaulter nation. The lack of dollars have resulted in shortages of fuel, gas, electricity cuts, etc.
The Government reduced interest rates in an attempt to boost business and at the same time pegged the value of the rupee to the U.S. dollar. The latter resulted in the formal financial sector losing out remittances to grey market channels such as Undiyal and Hawala, which paid a higher rate for a dollar. The migrants thought they were being robbed by the policy makers by not being paid the true value for their hard earned income.
A sudden shift to organic farming resulted in reduced harvests, food shortages and much pain to conventional farmers. A transition to 100% organic agriculture, too, was in GR’s manifesto and, though framed as the fulfillment of an election pledge, the move was almost certainly triggered by the scarcity of dollars.
The failure to seek the assistance of the International Monetory Fund in a timely manner brought matters to this pass. GR’s administration and the Central Bank resisted calls by experts and opposition leaders for months to seek help from the IMF despite rising risks. But after oil prices soared in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the Government eventually drew up a plan to approach the IMF in April. On 7 June Gota reportedly admitted that it was a mistake not to have sought the help of the IMF six months or one year ago and, in a recent interview with the BBC, the new Governor of the Central Bank expressed the view that the present crisis could have been averted if the Government had gone to the IMF sooner.
It is doubtful whether the Aragalaya would have assumed the proportions it did or whether it would have arisen at all if the populace in general and the Aragalaya youth in particular had been properly educated on the actual causes of the economic crisis as outlined above. Clearly the youths who took part in the Aragalaya were long on idealism and zeal but woefully short on knowledge, understanding and wisdom. They say a hungry man is an angry man. A hungry man is also an irrational man. Pressed by economic hardships, the populace uncritically accepted this false narrative peddled by those with an agenda of their own, irrationally thought that by chasing out a democratically-elected President they would find relief for their economic distresses and united behind the misguided youths. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Those intellectuals who fed and nurtured this false narrative or, at least, were aware of it but disregarded it and supported the Aragalaya in spite of it for reasons of expediency have the blood of those killed in consequence of the Aragalaya on their hands.
To his credit, I have not seen DJ himself peddling this lie in his articles. His view is that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lost his legitimacy on the day he decided on an overnight ban on agrochemicals in spite of promising to make a gradual transition to organic agriculture over a period of ten years in his manifesto. But surely is this decision so egregious and of such earth-shattering importance as to warrant his forfeiting his continued right to be President, especially when it was triggered, as we now know, by the scarcity of dollars, the move was reversed within a year in the face of opposition to it and its worst critics commended the concept of fully organic agriculture?
Another Aragalaya lie concerns the name given to the protest site opposite the Temple Trees (now no more). Originally called “Mynahgogama,” it was later changed to “Nodealgama” following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation on the assumption that the newly appointed PM, Ranil Wickremesinghe, had a deal with the Rajapaksas to protect them.
Actually, before RW was appointed as PM, Sajith Premadasa (SP), the opposition leader, was offered that post and, according to a recent statement made by Sarath Fonseka (SF) in Parliament, he had been offered that post even before SP. Both declined (more details on this in my earlier article). If political survival was uppermost in the minds of the Rajapaksas and Ranil was just a compliant stooge who could be relied on to protect them, why wasn’t he approached first? In any case, RW’s public statements after appointment as PM have not given us that impression.
A third hoax perpetrated by the Aragalaya is that it is non-partisan. Some say that it started pure and non-partisan but was infiltrated later by those with different party affiliations. Whatever be the truth, what was clear is that from very early stages of the Aragalaya protests the protesters who formed its hard core and spearheaded it were anti-capitalist, anti-western, radical leftists (youths for the most part), who would vote for the JVP or the FSP at an election. They falsely professed to be non-partisan in order to rope in as many people from the population as they could to further their cause. These others who fell for their con had limited objectives, such as seeing the back of Gotabaya Rajapakse, but little did they realize that the hard core protesters had an extended agenda, that is, establishing a leftist regime. This would also explain why they showed no interest in forming a new political party: They already had a political party or parties they could vote for!
In the seething public anger against the Government due to the mounting economic crisis these leftists saw an opportune moment to grab power or, at least, to increase their parliamentary power, by forcing an early election, something they knew they could not achieve under normal conditions in normal times in normal circumstances. The opposition parties, chiefly the SJB, saw the public support for the Aragalaya and thought it politically injudicious to condemn it despite them being included in the all 225 MPs that the Aragalaya protesters professedly rejected and even supported it seeing the advantage of an early election for their own political interests. So we have the leader of the opposition pathetically being reduced to a grovelling puppy before the Aragalaya protesters in spite of being reportedly manhandled by them on May 9.
Judging from his public utterances, I am not whether President RW has still read this protest movement properly. For one thing, in a recent interview with a foreign media organisation, he said that the protest movement had arisen due to “economic mismanagement” by the Rajapaksa administration, which is only partly true. After his appointment as PM, RW tried to win over the Aragalaya protesters, who wanted him, too, to “go home,” by placating and even expressing support for them, little realizing that the hard core protesters were a brood of venomous snakes that could not be charmed and implacably opposed to him.
Two notable recent international parallels to the Aragalaya hoax can be found in
1. the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., which is based on the false premises that police brutality unequally targets African Americans (in particular that blacks are killed disproportionately in police confrontations), that the police present a danger to blacks and that there is systemic (or institutional) racism in the U.S. police in particular and more generally in all spheres of American society. (To be sure, there is racism in the U.S. at the individual level as there is in all societies around the world.) I have refuted these false premises in my CT article “Black Li(v)es Matter vs. Facts, Stats and Logic” [Note 3].
There were other eerie parallels too. Gotagogama was no doubt influenced by and a copy of “Chaz” (“Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone”), which was established on June 8, 2020 by George Floyd protesters in Seattle, Washington and whose name was later changed to “Chop” (acronym for “Capitol Hill Organized [or Occupied] Protest”). Like Gotagogama it, too, was without official leadership. The zone was cleared of occupants by the police on 1 July.
2. the storming of the Capitol Hill, the U.S. legislature, by Trump supporters on 6 January of this year on the mistaken belief that Trump had been robbed of a rightful win by election fraud whereas several U.S. courts ruled otherwise. Trump still believes that he won the last presidential election!
The Aragalaya has subverted the rule of law
The second immoral aspect of the Aragalaya lies in its subversion of the rule of law.
The incumbent President and the Government were duly elected in free and fair elections for specified periods of office. The election results were uncontroversial and there were no accusations of ballot rigging. Fundamental rights, including freedom of speech and assembly, are respected. The authorities have responded to the ongoing protests in Colombo and elsewhere in largely a tolerant manner, resorting to force only when compelled. The bogeyman of white vans raised during the run up to the election of the current president has not materialized. There are no threats to future elections to the Presidency and the Parliament of being postponed or not being held or free and fair.
If a crisis hits the nation due to mismanagement, then the rulers responsible may have a moral duty to resign, but if they do not, then the Constitution provides ways for their removal from office. The rule of law requires adherence to the laws of the nation, of which the Constitution is chief, not only by the Government but also by its citizens. To seek the ouster of a democratically elected President or other elected representatives outside of the Constitution by coercive means is a subversion of the rule of law.
But that is exactly what happened.
The catalyst for the resignation of the cabinet was the siege of the President’s private residence in Mirihana by protesters on 31 March and the tense situation that followed. Doubtless, they were intimidated into it. Nivard Cabraal, too, tendered his resignation on the basis that his post, Governor of the Central Bank, was on a par with a cabinet minister.
Trade unions launched a hartal on May 6 demanding that the entire Government, including the President and the Prime Minister, step down to pave the way for fresh elections. They threatened a hartal of indefinite duration in the event their demands were not met. It is against this backdrop of the country becoming virtually ungovernable that the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa came under pressure to resign. The alleged role of MR in the attacks against the Aragalaya protesters on May 9 by pro-Government thugs made his resignation inevitable.
There is no need to rehearse here in detail the lawlessness, violence, destruction and mayhem committed in the name of the Aragalaya from the time they began their “peaceful” protest at Galle Face by blocking the street in front of the Presidential Secretariat in disregard of the rights of other users of the road to their eviction from that building and the area in front on 22 July by the authorities—the street lynchings, assaults, the burning of houses (where they didn’t even the spare the school books of children), the storming and desecration of state buildings culminating in the torching of PM Ranil Wicremasinghe’s private residence on the night of July 9 (where even a valuable collections of books was not spared and RW’s dog was shown afterwards on TV dazed and traumatized, showing what barbarians these Aragalaya protesters are) and other acts not mentioned— for these are too vividly etched in our collective memories to require detailed rehearsal.
DJ presented us with his dilemma. Let me put forward for his consideration a better “dilemma”: Should we choose the Aragalaya protesters, who torched the former PM’s house and didn’t spare even his valuable and irreplaceable collection of books, thus showing themselves to be barbarians, or Ranil, who bore the loss stoically and said that his greatest loss was his valuable collection of books? In case any one wishes to differentiate the “good” Aragalaya protesters from the bad ones, let him consider that the “good” Aragalaya protesters to date have not uttered a word in condemnation of the burning of the PM’s house (or the other houses on May 9 and the street lynchings for that matter), thus justifying tarring them with the same brush.
A rebellion, even a violent one, is justifiable if that is the only way to get rid of an inept, corrupt, repressive and odious regime with no possibility of a democratic transfer of power. In the times of ancient kings, there were no popular elections to select a king and the only way to appoint a new king was to await the death of the old one or assassinate him. But in Sri Lanka, we have been blessed at least in recent history with the ability to have free and fair elections at the due time. The much reviled Rajapaksas posed no threats to future elections to the Presidency and the Parliament of being postponed or not being held or free and fair. The Judiciary is at least decently independent. The political opposition is not suppressed or stifled. Hence there is no place for the extra-constitutional ouster of a duly elected President or Government in a country like Sri Lanka.
A question I have not yet heard asked is, if the present “corrupt” set of rulers are forcibly replaced by a group of people approved by the Aragalaya protesters, can they guarantee economic recovery within a reasonable period? And if they fail to deliver, what compensation would they and their supporters be willing to give us opponents of the Aragalaya?
The Aragalaya is both destructive and obstructive
We have already noted the damage and destruction caused to state and private property caused by the Aragalaya protesters and this can be quantified for the most part, but what cannot be so easily measured is the damage caused to our democratic system and economy by the Aragalaya protests.
I have already pointed out above that the ouster of a democratically-elected president and government by extra-constitutional means amounts to a subversion of the rule of law, which is the foundation of constitutional democracy. Once we cut off the moorings of constitutional governance, then we are all left adrift in the sea of anarchy. Further, once a dangerous precedent is set of an extra-contitutional change of government, there is no guarantee against a recurrence of the same in the future. Such a course of action is justifiable only if the rulers do not adhere to the Constitution.
An extra-contitutional change of government cannot be justified by appealing to the fact that the majority of the population is in favour of it and that it is done in what is perceived to be the “national interest.” For the minority—in this case opponents of the Aragalaya such as yours truly—have their rights too. When we vote at an election we enter into a contract with the candidates and with other voters that the elected representatives will be in office for the agreed period and that they may be removed from office only at a future election or other by means provided by the Constitution. Forcing elected representatives out of office through violence and intimidation or by making the state ungovernable (through hartals, etc.) constitutes a breach of contract.
Every citizen has a right to belong to and work for a political party of one’s choice. The lynchings and the vandalism that took place on May 9 following the attacks against the protesters were an assault against that democratic right. In the run up to the election of President by Parliament on July 20 following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, posters were displayed around the country warning the MPs not to return to their villages and towns if they voted for Ranil.
On July 13 Aragalaya protesters broke into Rupavahini, the nation’s main state TV station, briefly took over broadcasts and announced that henceforth only protest-related news should be broadcast.
That’s facism for you, plain and simple.
Our democracy has also received a blow in the form of such violence and vandalism deterring honourable, capable, patriotic men of good will from seeking public office out of fear of similar reprisal attacks against themselves, their families and their properties in the event the party they represent falls out of favour and they become the object of public wrath. In an interview with WION, Harin Fernando, Minister for Tourism, said, “I fear the next parliament is going to be the worst parliament in Sri Lankan history.” In other words, you may get a higher percentage of scummy politicians elected to the next parliament than usual, which we will have ultimately the Aragalaya to thank for.
As for economic damage, the Aragalaya has had the effect of retarding economic recovery. The social and policitical instability resulting from the protests led to advisories being issued to potential travellers to Sri Lanka in foreign countries and would also have deterred potential investors. Recently, RW said that an agreement with the International Monetary Fund had been pushed back to September due to the unrest over the previous weeks. Winter is approaching in the West and a higher than normal number of travellers from that region are expected to visit Sri Lanka because of the increase in the cost of fuel due to the Russia-Ukraine war, according to a representative of the business community in Sri Lanka. The Aragalaya could stand in the way of that happening.
A few words about the much touted “achievements” of the Aragalaya would be in order. Many seem to feel that, if nothing else, the Aragalaya has justified its existence by forcing the resignation of Gota, Mynah, Kaputa and others, including the former Governor of the Central Bank Cabraal (or gobbaya, as he was described on a banner at Galle Face). While the departure of at least some of these may be a positive thing in itself, what subtantive difference has it made to the nation’s ailing economy? The GR administration was on the verge of going to the IMF when calls were raised for his resignation. An IMF bailout would have entailed first debt restructuring and then macroeconomic and structural reforms, including increasing tax rates and privatising unprofitable state ventures. Ranil as PM and Finance Minister and now as President and Finance Minister is doing the same thing.
From leftists’ point of view, the replacement of Gotabaya Rajapaksa by Ranil must be even more odious because the latter is a staunch advocate of neo-liberal economics. For them it must seem like exchanging ginger for chilli (inguru deela miris gaththa wagei). In view of this, the little cockadoodle of victory (“we have won”) uttered by Aragalaya protesters prior to their departure from the protest site at Galle Face in compliance with a Government order to them to vacate by August 5 rings hollow. The IMF has reportedly listed about twenty loss-making SOEs for privatisation and indeed it would be poetic justice served to these leftists if that happened.
I am disappointed with those politicians who say that there are things that we can learn from the Aragalaya. Pray, what can we learn from a bunch of lawless hooligans who started their protest by blocking a major road, thus inconveniencing other users of the road, thought nothing of burning houses and even books, and lynched and assaulted those whom they regarded as their enemies, and those not direct partakers of these crimes among their number have failed to condemn them to date? What moral high ground do they have? Perhaps these politicians are merely trying to appear accommodative and are not serious.
So, in conclusion, I trust that by now the reader is in a position to judge on which side morality is: the Aragalaya or those who oppose it. I think that those who love truth cannot be a partaker or supporter of this immoral, destructive enterprise in any shape or form. And lest any should get the wrong end of the stick I want to add that this article is written in response to Dr. DJ’s unfounded charge against opponents of the Aragalaya and as an appeal to reason, common sense and sanity, and should by no means be construed as an apology for the Rajapaksa regime or Ranil. It’s just a matter of choosing the lesser of the two evils (the Aragalaya or law and order and constitutional governance).
- “CB asks what more could incentivise remittances than current Fx and interest rates,” DailyMirror ONLINE, 18 July, 2022.
- “If Ranil Doesn’t Take Tough Steps, Sri Lanka Economy Could Fall into Abyss: Former Central Bank Head,” The Wire, 23 July 2022.
- “Black Li(v)es Matter vs. Facts, Stats and Logic,” The Colombo Telegraph, 30 June 2020.