End of Aragalaya | Sunday Observer

End of Aragalaya

14 August, 2022

The call by Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and some other political entities to carry out the Aragalaya (Struggle) to the bitter end from August 9 – until the ouster of the new President and the Government – went mostly unheeded by an Aragalaya-weary public. Worse, even those who remained at Galle Face left the premises – some for home while others went to the Government-sanctioned protest site at the Vihara Maha Devi Park. Fonseka himself was not seen at any of the protest sites that day. His party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) was right to distance itself from Fonseka’s alarming rhetoric.

This non-event was a welcome development since we cannot prosper as a Nation if every new President or Government has to be chased out by force. Sri Lankans have gone through a tumultuous three months that ousted former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and indeed, all Rajapaksas from their Governmental positions.

The Aragalaya, in its original form, had a definite aim and a purpose, since the masses were experiencing an unprecedented economic downturn, exacerbated by an acute shortage of essential goods. There was a consensus that the wrong policies followed by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, from the organic fertiliser fiasco to rampant nepotism, were no longer tenable. This led to massive public support for the Aragalaya in all corners of the country.

Although the Aragalaya was at first a genuine movement headed by religious dignitaries and truly progressive professional youth with the interests of the people and the country at heart, the influx of various politically motivated extremist groups with a violent bent to the movement was a harbinger of things to come.

True, the attack by Government supporters on Gota Go Gama at Galle Face on May 9 was a deplorable incident but the events that transpired later that day, where the houses of many ruling party Members of Parliament (MPs) were torched and one MP was killed in cold blood, showed the dark side of the Aragalaya. It is believed that these heinous acts were perpetrated by the extremist and violent elements that had infiltrated the Aragalaya.

On July 9, the day when massive crowds converged in Colombo in response to a call by Aragalaya leaders, these very same violent elements breached the defences at Government properties including the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office, damaging and ransacking them in the process. They even set the current President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private house and official car on fire. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), which had once championed the cause of the genuine Aragalaya activists, bluntly pointed out that the infiltration and occupation of Government buildings was a serious offence. Yet, they did not vacate the buildings for several days.

To his credit, the new President took firm and decisive action to clear the protesters from the Presidential Secretariat within 24 hours of being appointed, much to the relief of peace-loving members of the public, though local and foreign human rights organisations made the usual predictable noises.

Most of these organisations were silent when the US authorities evicted and arrested members of the mob that had entered the Capitol buildings in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021 as part of former President Donald Trump’s ‘Stop the Steal’ march. In fact, President Wickremesinghe pointed out this very fact to US Ambassador Julie Chung who met him to express concern over the military action taken against the protesters who remained at the Presidential Secretariat.

The President has since made it clear that while dissent and freedom of expression will be tolerated at all times, there would be no room for terrorist or fascist acts in the name of the Aragalaya. Thus the State has every right to prosecute those who engaged in violent behaviour, violated court orders or damaged public property on July 9 or thereafter. Otherwise, the public could get a wrong impression that anyone could act with impunity vis-à-vis Government property with no legal consequences.

The President has also promised to investigate and take action against those responsible for the attack on peaceful protesters in Colombo on May 9, because there cannot be two sets of laws in the country – one for those politically connected to the Government and another for all others. The law must be applied equally to all. Indeed, as the Opposition pointed out in Parliament the other day, legal action must be taken against those MPs who caused damage to seats and equipment in Parliament in a scuffle that occured during the tenure of the 52-day Government in 2018. The argument by some Government MPs that the law of the land is not valid within the chamber of the House is pure bunkum. As lawmakers, all MPs must uphold the law at all times and be an example to others in society.

Now is not the time to protest against the new President, who has promised to form an All-Party Government (APG) along with a People’s Assembly, both of which were demands of the Aragalaya youth. The President has also initiated a dialogue with the Aragalaya youth, pledging to incorporate their valuable suggestions to the governance mechanism.

Many Aragalaya activists have acknowledged that President Wickremesinghe was legally and constitutionally elected by Parliament and that he should be given the time and space to carry out the program outlined in his policy speech delivered to Parliament. There really is no need or justification for protests anymore, since many of the difficulties faced by the people are being successfully addressed. Now is the time to get together to rise above the challenges facing the Nation.