‘Aragalaya’ a new political pillar in Sri Lanka’s politics - FSP leader Kumar Gunaratnam | Sunday Observer

‘Aragalaya’ a new political pillar in Sri Lanka’s politics - FSP leader Kumar Gunaratnam

16 July, 2022

There are many connotations for the word Argalaya or Aragalaya. It is a bolt, an obstacle, or a wooden bolt or pin used to fasten a door or the cover of a vessel in Sanskrit. In Sinhala, Aragalaya means a fight or struggle. Aargalaya is also known as “a wave.”

In the near future, the term “Argalaya” may find its place in a number of international dictionaries as a word for a wave of non- violent independent public protest trying to overturn a standing Government failing to deliver for the people.

The Aragalaya is a new citizen youth protest movement that has grown increasingly critical of Government corruption and inefficiency. The youth began it on Galle Face in front of the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo, demanding that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign.

However, this did not bar Opposition political bodies from supporting it. But it compelled the Arggalaya activists to take extra care to avoid being exploited by some politicians.

They have reached a significant juncture of ending their struggle or relaxing their struggle for a bit to allow significant space for peaceful transition of political power under the country’s Constitution.

According to a former Chief Justice, the President has fled the country, and the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would serve as interim President until a new President is elected by the House. According to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, the President informed him over the phone that he has nominated Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as Acting President while he is out of the country.

According to Constitutional experts the President’s House and his offices have been taken over by the protesting public, and the President had evidently fled the country and that from the time of the President fleeing the country the Prime Minister is the Acting President.

The Sunday Observer contacted Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Leader and General Secretary Premakumar Gunaratnam for an interview under tumultuous conditions caused by the rulers’ pachydermia and the Aragalaya activists’ last-ditch hopes for fulfillment.

Gunaratnam was a key mover in propelling the Aragalaya ahead, with University Students of Anthare, Ven Dr. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera of the Buddhist clergy, and His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. The FSP General Secretary was a former Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) politician who served as the Trincomalee leader of Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV). He served as a liaison between the JVP and Tamil Marxist organisations.

The following are excerpts of the interview:

Q. What do you think will happen if the current social and political upheaval persists, as seen by the protesters’ tenacity in holding public protests and their refusal to leave the President’s, Prime Minister’s, and Government residences.

A. The core expression of the Aragalaya and the political changes that it is looking at should be understood by the ruling politicians as well as the Opposition political parties. The President, the Prime Minister and the Government have to step down immediately.

The lawmakers are expected to pave the way for a fresh start. The members of the House must act fast to provide the people’s basic needs. They must give a breather to the public suffering from economic distress. First all MPs must get their act together to slim down the mammoth executive powers of the President within the existing framework.

The people’s desire for political change reflects the country’s political insecurity. Within a year, the Executive powers could be completely eliminated. Among other things, a full-scale system change will include electoral reforms and new tax regimes.

Within a year, a new people’s Constitution that empowers the people and limits the influence of the elite on the Constitution must be enacted. The new Constitution should give the people the right to request judicial reviews and hold referendums.

It should be brought through holding a referendum. It should address the national question.

The transition is expected to take one year. Following that transition phase, a general election may be held. Last Tuesday, we, the Aragalaya activists, communicated a list of proposals in this regard to the political party leaders.

Q. Aren’t these initiatives suggestive of the socialist principles you’re attempting to promote as the Frontline Socialist Party leader?

A. No, these are democratic initiatives that can be accommodated within the existing system. They have been agreed upon by all parties involved in our effort. They do not reflect the ideas of our Frontline Socialist Party.

Q. How can one understand where these proposals come from?

A. Consider how Aragalaya has brought a new political power. The Aragalaya participants are not the same people they were when they first joined the wave of protests. They are not the same people who merely voted and hoped for the best. They are more politically engaged and motivated now.

In other words, when we speak about democracy, we are referring to three pillars of governance: the Executive, the judiciary, and the legislative. The Aragalaya activists have created a new political pillar in Sri Lankan politics.

Q. What is the potential importance of that new pillar?

A. It is that in the future, no one will be able to invent political formulas at whim for the benefit of their own or political prominence, neglecting this new pillar.

This will usher in a new era of political dialogue. It will intrude on the 225 MPs’ traditional political debate. They will be unable to escape the effect of the new political pillar, which will represent the power of the people.

The power of the people will not be discovered on a piece of paper or a book page. It will operate on a practical basis. We will not be delivering just another political speech on stage.

The Government has already been forced to resign as a result of it. The President has fled, a Finance Ministers has resigned as well as a Prime Minister. When previous methods failed, it produced results within the present political structure.

The country should then move toward this new discourse. The anticipated power transition must take place in conformity with this new discourse. The Government must collaborate with the emerging political force.

We may not need to count the number of heads or identify who is A. B. or C. because it will make little difference when the new discourse emerges.

The Government will have to comply with the demands of this new power.

Q. Is that a democratic accomplishment?

A. It is determined by one’s political viewpoint. More power for the people is better for democracy. Can one now consider the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or the President to have a mandate to rule the country?

In the case of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the mandate is immaterial because he came to protect Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Q. But isn’t Ranil Wickremesinghe being appointed Prime Minister by the President and the former becoming Acting President as a result of recent political dynamics in the country within the bounds of the Constitution?

A. I believe the President chose Wickremesinghe to cover up for his own incompetence since he was under pressure from people’s movements and protests planned against him and his administration around the country.

Q. How will this new pillar of power establish itself in accordance with democratic principles?

A. It could be accomplished by establishing national councils for each subject. Galle Face protest activists, including FUTA, trade union officials, and professionals in related professions, will serve on the councils.

The system of council will be established on national, regional and village level.

The idea is having a parallel power that goes side by side with the Parliament outside of it.

Q. Acting President Wickremesinghe has said that political changes must be in line with the Constitution. He said in a special announcement that all activities reflecting fascism must be ended as with possessing President’s offices and other State institutions by the activists. What are your thoughts about that?

A. Wickremesinghe frequently uses words like this. He’ll stick with this position for as long as he wants.

The law of the land is the Constitution. Yet who created it? Who proposed the 20th Amendment, and why? 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 is being done for Basil Rajapaksa’s amusement. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced. They are all designed to work in their favor. These have 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 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. The lawmakers have theorised laws that empower them rather than the public.

If the present Constitutional rules prevent the introduction of new ones for the protection and benefit of the people, why don’t the Members of Parliament take efforts to hold referendums to change that disposition? Such amendments can be made into national legislation.

Q. Wickremesinghe had said in his speeches to the public that he had taken office as Prime Minister not to be hailed by the people, but to save the country from the economic catastrophe and to stabilise the country’s socio political condition.

A. I believe his political stability has been called into question while he continues to boast about his efforts to help the country’s stability. In numerous elections, he has been morally and politically rejected by the public. He has been unable to provide any perspective into the international transactions. His presence may have a negative impact on the political stability of Sri Lanka.

People would not have demanded his resignation if he had been stable. They would have helped his plans for political stability.

Q. Will the efforts of Aragalaya activists help in the formation of an all-party interim administration to get the country back on track?

A. The Aragalaya has a large number of stakeholders. They make no recommendations for those who should be nominated to form an all-party interim Government in Parliament. They say that whoever steps forward to meet the demands of the Aragalaya will be in the interim administration.

They do not give favour to any political party when choosing a President, Prime Minister, or Minister. They are even willing to choose a member from the SLPP for the positions in question as long as they are willing to review their former activities and correct any flaws. They are expected to understand the existing situation as well as the projected changes that the populace will face.

As the Frontline Socialist Party, we think that transitional Government roles should preferably be handled by individuals with a clean record and no political affiliations.

Even a new political party member may be selected to run for President and Prime Minister.

Q. Why not give your personal preference to a colleague from your previous political party, the JVP, let say Anura Kumara Dissanayake, for the position of President in the interim Government?

A. It all depends on how much a nominated member for relevant roles can commit to complying with the Gall Face Activists’ recommended program.

We would want to see any political party member or non-politician fill these posts. We want them to choose the country before their selfish political goals.

Q. Is the Aragalaya backed by any outside funding agencies?

A. The Sri Lankan Diaspora, Sri Lankan nationals living abroad, Tamils, Muslims, and Sinhalese contributed financially. The majority of them were members of independent international organisations. Overall, it was funded by the people of Sri Lanka.

Q. Isn’t it a fascist act that the protesters have burnt down the personal residence of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

A. I can assure you that members of the Aragalaya movement had no intention of setting fire to any public or private property.

They battled in a civilised manner.

The truth will gradually emerge. The arson attack on Wickremesinghe’s house had to be part of a scheme carried out by a certain political organisation or a group of that organisation utilising the Aragalaya as a cover.

The truth will gradually emerge.