Aragalaya through political lenses



Friday 12th May, 2023

There is hardly anything that the ruling party politicians and their cronies hate more than last year’s anti-government protests, which brought them down a peg or two. Never do they miss an opportunity to demonise Aragalaya. Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, speaking in Parliament, yesterday, demanded to know from Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa why the SJB had not mentioned the fact that a suspected sexual predator currently in police custody had been involved in Aragalaya. One cannot but agree with Ranatunga that such facts should not be suppressed.

Minister Ranatunga, however, should be reminded that the UNP, which his party, the SLPP, has closed ranks with, began its 17-year rule in 1977 by giving a presidential pardon to a notorious rapist called Gonawala Sunil, who was serving a jail term for raping a schoolgirl. He became more powerful than even some Cabinet ministers in the J. R. Jayewardene government. Soththi Upali was another rapist cum contract killer who worked for the UNP. A Pradeshiya Sabha chairman, who was accused of raping scores of women and throwing parties to celebrate his sex crimes backed the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, and after the 2015 regime change, he switched his allegiance to the SLFP.

Aragalaya represented in microcosm the Sri Lankan society, and therefore there were all sorts of characters among those who converged on the Galle Face Green in support of it. But the government politicians and their propagandists will be mistaken if they think they can use the presence of such anti-social elements at the Galle Face protest site to dupe the public into believing that Aragalaya was a coming together of a bunch of undesirables.

It is only natural that Aragalaya is viewed through various lenses, and opinions thereon are as conflicting as those of the proverbial blind men who tried to figure out the shape of an elephant by feeling it. The protest movement, which came to be dubbed Aragalaya, we believe, went through three main phases, which should be examined separately. Initially, it was apolitical, creative and leaderless; after a couple of weeks it became politicised and aggressive, and finally it turned out to be violent and destructive.

Aragalaya , in our book, began as a spontaneous eruption of public emotions owing to unprecedented economic hardships, corruption, shortages of essentials, and above all, a widespread sense of despondency in the polity; it was a catharsis of sorts for the resentful public, especially politically-conscious young netizens, who mobilised themselves via social media. Initially, a large number of youthful protesters unleashed their creative energy by taking to the streets and made their struggle hugely attractive to the public. Aragalaya, at that stage, was apolitical, leaderless, and similar, in some respects, to the wall-panting spree thousands of youth embarked on, in the aftermath of the 2019 regime change, the major difference, however, being that the former was a sudden outburst of anti-government sentiments characterised by anger while the latter was an expression of hope.

A couple of weeks later, political parties gained control of the protest movement with the help of their activists, especially artistes, among the protesters. Various other organisations such as foreign-funded NGOs, religious groups, also used Aragalaya to advance their agendas; claims being made in some quarters that certain external forces backed the protest campaign cannot be dismissed out of hand. Only a thorough probe will help establish their veracity or otherwise. Ultra-radical political outfits with anarchical agendas hijacked Aragalaya after the goon attacks on protesters at Galle Face in May 2022, and the retaliatory violence that ensued, and turned it into a firenado of sorts, and the interests of the genuine protesters fell by the wayside.

Ironically, it is at the hands of the biggest beneficiary of the Galle Face protest movement that Aragalaya suffered a decapitating blow. After being appointed the Acting President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who would never have been able to achieve his presidential dream if not for Aragalaya, ordered a crackdown on a mob that tried to march on Parliament. But for his decisive action, the country would have been plunged into anarchy. He went on to have the Galle Face Green cleared of protesters and ban political events on the oceanic park, which was the cradle Aragalaya.

It may be easier to demonise Aragalaya than to tackle the causes thereof, but such action will not help prevent mass uprisings in the future. Instead of lumping all Aragalaya protesters together and vilifying them, the government politicians ought to turn the searchlight inwards, engage in constructive self-criticism, and figure out what went wrong and make a course correction; ideally, they should step down, allowing the people to elect a new government.