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Emergency Declared Ahead Of Sri Lankan Presidential Election – Analysis

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To meet a possible threat from the new “Ranil Go Home” campaign    

By P.K.Balachandran

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A State of Emergency has been declared in Sri Lanka by the Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe in view of the possibility of the struggle to oust former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa metamorphosing into a similarly violent “Ranil Go Home” campaign. 

Parliament is to meet on July 19 for candidates to file nominations for the election of a President on July 20. Acting President Wickremesinghe said on Sunday that a section of the agitators (collectively called the Aragalaya or Struggle) have been threatening MPs on the issue of the election using social media platforms.

He asked the Crime Investigation Department (CID) to probe these social media messages. He stated that he will not allow any activities aimed at scuttling constitutional processes. He also branded the violent elements as “fascists” and that these would be dealt with sternly. 

The Chief of Defense Staff, Gen.Shavendra Silva, under instructions from the Acting President, has warned violent elements that they would be held responsible for the consequences of their actions.

The Aragayala (Sinhalese for Struggle) which observed its 100 th.Day on Sunday, was peaceful for the most part, but on May 9, in response to a pro-government group’s violence against peaceful protestors, violent elements who had infiltrated the latter, burnt scores of government buses and set fire to almost 60 ruling party leaders’ houses in the districts. Then on July 9, masses of people stormed into the Presidential Palace, the Presidential Office, the Prime Minister’s office and occupied them for more than a day. The outnumbered police lacked orders to counter them effectively. The State structure had collapsed. 

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In the night of July 9, a section of the agitators burnt the Prime Minister’s private residence reducing thousands of books and valuable objects d’art to ashes collected by Wickremesinghe and his professor wife Maithree. The next day, an attempt was made by violent elements to storm parliament also. Some T-56 assault rifles were grabbed from the police on duty. A number of Tear gas canisters were seized in a violent clash with the police.   

The continued occupation of the government buildings, the burning of the Prime Minister’s house, and the attempted assault on parliament rang alarm bells even among ardent supporters of the Aragalaya. The Catholic clergy, the all-Island lawyers organization and business associations appealed for a return to law and order and constitutionalism.

But all of them continued to harp on the theme that Acting President Ranil Wickremesinhhe should resign as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did. Their argument is that Wickremesinghe lacks legitimacy as he was handpicked by Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the Premiership when he was only a non-elected nominated MP and leader of a party which did not have a single elected member in parliament. They also pointed out that Wickremesinghe has the unsavory attribute of being the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Permuna (SLPP), the political party of the despised Rajapaksas in the July 20 Presidential election. 

The fact that the SLPP is still the single-largest party in parliament might  enable Wickremesinghe to win the Presidential election. Thereafter, the opposition fears, Wickremesinghe would be a handmaiden of the Rajapaksas engineering their comeback.

With the media sharing this view, the possibility of the “Ranil Go Home” campaign gathering strength and possibly becoming violent in desperation, is real. Intellectuals writing in the papers tout the argument that while Wickremesinghe’s appointment as Prime Minister and Acting President was constitutional, it clashed with the will of the people as expressed by the Aragalaya. Therefore it was immoral. Even if he wins the July 20 election, he will not have legitimacy in the peoples’ eyes, they say. 

Be that as it may, the government has reasons to believe that this time round, the possibility of violence is greater than before. Those who support Aragalaya point that it had been an effective tool. “Did it not drive the mighty Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his clan out?” they ask, upholding its efficacy. 

But the fact is that the essentially peaceful Aragalaya was hijacked at one stage by violent elements led by the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). Its leader, Kumar Gunaratnam, had returned from self-exile in Australia to radicalize the followers of the Marxist Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramna (JVP) which had softened by entering constitutional parliamentary politics.

The FSP, also called “Peratugami” sensed that the youth were losing faith in electoral politics and institutions like the parliament, thanks to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s irresponsible two and a half year rule. The FSP plunged into the “Go Home Gota” then being conducted by educated, middle and upper class youth. It took over the movement.                     

The FSP, which was in the shadows for years, began holding press conferences, and its Supremo Kumar Gunaratnam (a Sinhalized Tamil) began to be interviewed by the media. He propagated a radical ideology demolishing the value of constitutional institutions like parliament.

Gunaratnam was earlier the Trincomalee district leader of the Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (Patriotic Peoples’ Movement) a Marxist militant organization which was the military wing of the Marxist–Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the late 1980s. It was designated as a terrorist organization by the then Sri Lankan government for its violent activities between 1987 and 1989. It staged attacks on the Sri Lankan army and those it dubbed as Indian agents.  The Indian army was in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces at the time trying to keep peace between the Tamils and Sinhalese.  A majority of the attacks attributed to the JVP were actually carried out by the DJV.

In an interview to Sunday Observer on July 16 Gunaratnam questioned  the validity of the Sri Lankan constitution. “It was created by lawmakers to support the power project of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They also made it such that dual citizens may serve as MPs. This was done for Basil Rajapaksa’s sake. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced. They were all designed to work in their favor. These had been enacted into national law. They introduced these laws in order to advance their own political ambitions and gain more political clout.”

“They are asking that we accept them (these laws) as God’s word. A Constitution does not fall out of the sky. It is neither supremely historical nor extremely holy. It was made for political reasons. There are virtually few laws that protect the interests of the people. Lawmakers have theorized laws that empower them rather than the public.”

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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