The case against ‘Aragalaya 2’ | Sunday Observer

The case against ‘Aragalaya 2’

27 November, 2022

Some of the parties and leaders who had a hand in the Aragalaya (struggle) in July this year, seem to be in a hurry to create an ‘Aragalaya 2’, judging by their statements to the media. They are threatening to raid Colombo City, the offices and residences of the President and the Prime Minister (like they did on July 9) and also Parliament in this quest to oust President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Government.

It is true that the Aragalaya started as a people’s movement way back in April sans the participation of political parties. The reasons that led to a public uprising were not unfair – there were widespread shortages of fuel, LP Gas and even essential foods and the Cost of Living (CoL) had skyrocketed. But certain political parties saw this as an ideal opportunity to infiltrate the protests, which had coalesced into a single point at Galle Face Green, to achieve their own political ends.

They hijacked the protests and infused an element of violence into it, liberally backed by certain media institutions that added fuel to the fire. It is these elements that were mainly responsible for the violence on May 9, where a Member of Parliament was killed and scores of houses of MPs were razed to the ground.

While the Aragalaya did ultimately result in a change of Government, it will take some time for economists and political historians to calculate the damage caused to the country’s socio-economic fabric as a result of the Aragalaya.

The economic disruption caused by the incessant protests at Galle Face and at other key cities in the island is perhaps incalculable, given the losses sustained by sectors such as tourism. Most tourists simply stayed away as a result of the adverse travel advisories issued by their Governments which cited that travellers should be wary of frequent protests.

To his credit, President Wickremesinghe is striving to address the root causes of the Aragalaya so that there would be no need for the public to agitate again for a change of leadership. The fuel queues are gone and so are the LP Gas queues. The fertiliser issue is being addressed successfully with the overturning of the ban on agrochemicals and the import of urea and other fertilisers. There is also a slight improvement in the CoL situation. The Government is also taking steps to stabilise the rupee and generally improve the economy.

But for all this to happen, there should be political, economic and social stability for a few more years. President Wickremesinghe has said on more than one occasion that things will get much better by end 2024. But the road to that goal will be difficult to traverse and unpopular decisions will have to be taken for the sake of the nation. Clearly, the President and the Government need – and should be given – the time and space required for these much-needed programs and reforms. Another Aragalaya will only serve to derail this transformation and take the country back by at least another decade.

It is with this aim in mind that President Wickremesinghe vowed not to permit an ‘Aragalaya 2’ during a speech in Parliament last week. Although the Opposition is portraying this statement as an anti-democratic move, the President clearly said that demonstrations and protests against the Government can go ahead with the permission of relevant law enforcement authorities.

However, even the Opposition will concede that a Government has the right to quell an insurgency aimed purely at toppling it. This has been done twice before in our history – in 1971 and in 1988/89. Many examples abound from other countries – in the US, the Police successfully thwarted an insurrection by Donald Trump loyalists aimed at changing the results of the US Presidential Election on January 6, 2021.

Hence one cannot find fault with President Wickremesinghe’s statement that he will use all means available within legal parametres to curb an uprising, such as the declaration of Emergency Regulations and the deployment of Security Forces. Far from threatening the edifice of democracy, this will actually protect it from the extremist parties aiming to capture power at any cost through undemocratic means. These parties will not let even a bloodbath stop their plans.

As for those advocating the democratic option of a General Election (GE) instead of an Aragalaya, the President made it clear that it will disrupt the current momentum towards socio-economic stability.

Quite apart from the nearly Rs.1 billion needed to hold a General Election (which we can ill-afford at this juncture), the months of campaigning and political vitriol will set back any progress made so far on the economic front, with the nation’s attention fixed on the GE. And there is no guarantee that the people will elect a squeaky clean Parliament this time around. In this respect, it is better to wait two more years, when elections are due anyway.

It is heartening to note that more Opposition MPs are upholding the same views. Opposition MP Kumara Welgama has echoed the President’s sentiments, saying that any Aragalaya should take place only after two years, if the same issues that led to the original Aragalaya still persist.

In his opinion, the President should be allowed to work unhindered in the meantime. All mainstream political parties should actually subscribe to this view and such a consensus could be developed at the proposed All Party Conferences (APC), even if the fringe parties may oppose it. The country really needs a dose of realism and political unity at this stage, not a violent insurrection that will negate any gains made so far.