Last week a group of protestors including several social activists were arrested in Mirihana as they gathered at the Jubilee Post to mark one year since the Mirihana protests to oust former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Mirihana protests in the vicinity of the then president’s personal home was a watershed moment in our country’s contemporary history. What started as a spontaneous protest by disgruntled citizens snowballed into a mass movement that ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa from power in little over four months.
Within those short months the popular uprising galvanised into a movement of change that demanded system-wide reforms in governance. The Aragalaya or struggle that it became was a once in a generation moment that could have catalysed a much-needed structural change. While it achieved an unprecedented feat of ousting an executive president, the principles it aspired were betrayed by a handful of opportunistic politicians.
Instead of a change in the structure of governance, the institutions that brought about the disaster that was the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime are still in place. Chief among this is the executive presidency which concentrates power to one single individual while compromising other democratic institutions. By accepting the premiership under Gotabaya Rajapaksa and then becoming the President through machinations within Parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe betrayed the opposition consensus to change the constitution, abolish the executive presidency and once and for all address the national question regarding power sharing with minorities and the periphery.
The people’s demands for accountability for crimes committed against citizens, including mass atrocities and corruption, have now been silenced by the current administration. Instead of holding the likes of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, accused of numerous crimes including the killing of journalists, abduction and assault of journalists and activists and involvement in specific war crimes, accountable the Wickremesinghe government has granted them with impunity. Other emblematic criminal cases such as abduction and killing of several Tamil and Muslim men by the Sri Lanka navy and the cases concerning disappearances of combatants have seen no progress under the present regime.
One of the main demands of last year’s protests was to address corruption and wastage. Today the Wickremesinghe administration relies on the very elements that brought this country to its knees through corruption. Those who were found guilty continue to be in the Wickremesinghe government without any hindrance. Any attempts of rectifying the menace of corruption have been traded for the political survival of the President.
In the year since the Mirihana uprising that brought in Ranil Wickremesinghe to the highest office in the land, he has turned against all protestors and clamped down on them with a vengeance. Leaders of the protests campaign have been arrested and held under draconian anti-terror laws for months and the police and the military have been constantly mobilised to crush any expression of public will.
The events of one year ago in Mirihana should be a reminder to any leader of the phenomenal power of a popular uprising. One year ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the president of the country, elected with an overwhelming mandate of 6.9 million votes and an all-powerful executive strengthened through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Today, he is in oblivion surviving on the good graces of his successor. This could be the plight of any leader who stifles the will of the people. Mirihana is a lesson.