This confidence may have been facilitated by the abortive attempts of the government to utilize the legal system to scuttle the planned protest. The courts rebuffed the police who sought to restrict the scope of the protests. As their next option, the police attempted to declare a curfew in the Colombo district and its environs. This too came to naught. The Bar Association promptly argued the police curfew was illegal. The Human Rights Commission agreed, pointing out that the curfew sought to do by indirect means what the police had tried to restrict by direct means. In any event, the tens of thousands of protestors behaved, by and large, in exemplary fashion, not seeking to fight anyone and respecting the rights of others.
The events of Saturday commenced peacefully with tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country converging on Colombo and to the main site of the anti-government protests that have been taking place on a daily basis for the past four months. They came in makeshift transport, many in trucks and on foot with immense hardship due to the absence of public transport caused in part by an overnight police curfew declared for an indefinite period which was subsequently lifted in the morning. The peacefulness with which they gathered in their tens of thousands was in contrast to what we often see in the media when large crowds gather for protests in other parts of the world, including Europe, where looting and drunken behavior may be observed.
Notwithstanding the physical effort expended by those traveling from out of Colombo, there was a festive atmosphere in the morning for the most part. Elderly people on wheelchairs, toddlers in the parents’ arms, young children with national flags, farmers and working people all converged peacefully to the protest site. There was a harking back to the early days of the protests that saw the departure of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 9. Recent weeks had seen a dip in numbers as people weary of protests with no change taking place. The common slogan remained “Gota go home” calling on the president to step down interspersed with other slogans. The overrunning of the President’s House could have been prevented, and he could have made a dignified exit, if his decision to resign had been taken earlier.
The storming of the presidential secretariat, prime minister’s office and official residence and president’s official residence took place thereafter. Tear gas and live bullets fired into the air which led to some serious injuries failed to stop the vanguard who wanted to break in even at the cost of their lives. There were thousands pressing in behind those at the gates. Eventually the security forces stepped back, and then it was all over. People just poured over the walls and into the compounds to marvel at the privileges that the country’s rulers had access to, video them and even take a dip in the swimming pool in the president’s residence.
The question is what next? The Aragalaya needs to remain a nonviolent initiative of like-minded non-partisan individuals to bring about a political change that would contribute to a meaningful political change devoid of corruption and respect for the rule of law at a national level. Political stability and an economic plan to take the country out of its current pit are urgently required. However, there has been open infighting within the government. The international community has not been as supportive as hoped for. Prices have kept rising, shortages of fuel, medicine, food and dollars have continued, and the lines in front of fuel stations have lengthened by the kilometer. The IMF and friendly governments have made their support conditional on these essential requirements. The two months that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been at the helm following the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa from the post, has not brought the expected results.
In the aftermath of the mass protests of July 9, there is still no assurance of political change. The presidential secretariat, president’s official residence and prime minister’s office and official residence are under occupation by the protestors. They intend to stay there till the president and prime minister step down. The Speaker of Parliament has announced that the president intends to resign on July 13. The prime minister has made a conditional offer. Whether they will indeed resign is a question that time will answer. There is no sign of where the president might be, whether in Sri Lanka or abroad, but his office has announced that he is making important decisions to overcome the shortage of cooking gas. An uneasy calm has arisen from the unsettled nature of the president and prime minister’s commitments to step down from their high offices.
Elections as soon as possible is the way forward and needs to include not only national elections but also provincial elections, which have been postponed for over three years on various pretexts. All people in all parts of the country need governments at their level which they trust if Sri Lanka is to make the difficult transition to a growth economy. There is a need for haste as the country sinks deeper in the morass in the absence of trust between those who rule and those who are ruled. The controversy that swirls around the night time torching of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private residence is reflective of the divisive and hate filled politics of the country from which it needs to emerge. The brutality of the security forces personnel towards journalists in the vicinity has been recorded which needs to be dealt with so that there is non-recurrence.
In this context, influential civil society groups, such as the Bar Association, have proposed an all -party government to be followed by elections to be held soon in order to restore the trust of the people in government. This can be justified as the mandate which was given by the people at the presidential and parliamentary elections has been withdrawn by the people who are with the Aragalaya and now occupy the buildings of state as their representatives. In this context, the best might be to have all the party leaders in the parliament form the interim government, not on the basis of numbers but on their representation as a party to achieve a consensus on who should lead the country in the interim period. As a non-political option, an independent and respected civic institution such as the Bar Association may be a possibility for leadership of the caretaker government.