Friday, 7 April 2023 00:15 –      – 29

The Aragalaya did not have an organisational structure or a special vision for establishing a government of their own after overthrowing the

government in power – Pic Ruwan Walpola

 


Though the socio-political atmosphere in Sri Lanka is replete with struggles following the country’s fall into a state of bankruptcy, it has not reflected an intelligent or sensible approach in addressing the situation except for adopting backward and undesirable measures which we cannot not be happy with. Of the three insurrections launched by the youth, two by the Sinhalese youth in the south in 1971 and 1987-89 respectively, and one by the Tamil youth in the north which was protracted and lasted for 25 years, the rebels had displayed a great strength and courage in their ability to fight. But they lacked the intelligence to match the magnitude of these uprisings.

Out of the three uprisings, the last two have gone down the annals of the history of Sri Lanka as two great tragedies. Despite the fact that the JVP and the LTTE, the two political parties that led these two violent insurrections were endowed with the mettle to launch an uprising of such scale, neither of them possessed the intellectual capacity to turn them into a chain of actions that would have yielded far reaching results and avoided catastrophic circumstances which they actually had caused.

If the JVP rebels including Wijeweera, had been able to make the optimum use of the opportunity available for them at the run-up to the 1988 presidential election and abandoned the rebellion and joined the mainstream politics, it would certainly have been possible to prevent the destruction that had occurred up to that point, and averted the devastation that ensued thereafter. But the JVP rebels including their leader Wijeweera, were of the view that if they could prevent Sirima Bandaranaike from coming to power, the UNP government which the public was fed up with, would be reinstated, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party after losing the presidential election, will support their rebellion and consequently they will be able to propel the insurrection to a point of victory.

But the defeat of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in the presidential election did not strengthen the rebellion as they envisaged except causing a great anger in the members of SLFP for denying them the ruling power that their party deserved. This situation further strengthened the ability of the Premadasa government in suppressing the rebellion. Similarly, if Prabhakaran’s Tigers had put down their arms in the peace process initiated by Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2002 and entered the democratic stream, the political course of Sri Lanka would have been very different from what it is today. Both these leaders knew how to rebel, but they did not know the right time to stop it.

About the Aragalaya

The aforementioned weakness was evident in a different way in the Aragalaya which burst out in the context of the great crisis that followed when Sri Lanka was plunged into a state of bankruptcy. It could be considered as the biggest and most terrible crisis that occurred after Sri Lanka had become a modern nation.

Unlike the previous two violent uprisings, the Aragalaya was not an armed uprising led by a single political movement. Despite some limitations, it could be considered as a large gathering of numerous power groups of Sri Lanka which have not yet formed into a cohesive force but had been maintained and pursued as a fragmented movement of oppressed middle class people, political parties, trade unions, oppressed ethnic groups, academics, professionals, artists, clergy and businessmen. Even there, the demonstrators of the Aragalaya displayed some degree of militancy, but they were not able to offer the society a perspective or an imagination that would cause a profound transformation in the country.

The Aragalaya led to make a few significant changes at political level such as forcing the Cabinet of Ministers led by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign and compelling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to abandon his presidency and flee the country. But the country’s system of governance was set up in such a way that it was impossible to overthrow a government in power or create a new government outside the system enshrined in the constitution. The Aragalaya did not have an organisational structure or a special vision for establishing a government of their own after overthrowing the government in power.

In that situation, taking into account the gravity of the crisis that Sri Lanka is facing, the practical course of action the Aragalaya should have adopted for the good of the country was to discuss the issue with all political parties, public organisations and reach a common consensus for a reform program that will bring about a profound and positive change in the system, including the formulation of a new constitution, and persuading and forcing the political authorities to implement it. If those who led the Aragalaya had done that, in an atmosphere in which the incumbent president too, had stressed the need for reforms, it would have been possible to win a people-centred reform program that would lead to a profound change in the system.

If that had been the case, it would certainly have resulted in creating a social dialogue at the national level for a positive and profound change in the system which would certainly have led to mitigating and reconciling the divisions among the people, integrating the nation and strengthening the democratic environment and improving the ability to solve the balance of payments crisis. And above all, it could have led to projecting a better political image of the country both nationally and internationally. However, even the eminent scholars and the academic circles who made their presence in the Aragalaya declared that there could be no reconciliation with those who have destroyed the country.

Therefore, instead of leading the country to a reform program, what actually had happened was that in the same way the President Gotabaya was ousted, the political power groups engaged themselves in a series of competitive and unsuccessful attempts to seize the political power by ousting the newly elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe. The street fighting and demonstrations continued to disrupt the daily life of the city of Colombo and pushed the government to adopt a strict policy against the agitations, for its security.

About repression

In launching a battle against a government, the leaders concerned have a responsibility to pursue it in a manner that would not push the government into adopting a policy of strict repression. It can be considered as a special virtue observed in the fighting tactics adopted by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi made it a point to inform the British Governor in advance, of the nature and purpose of the battle before every action that he took against the British rule. He also maintained that he would be prepared to abandon the struggle if the authorities agreed to rectify the cause that led him to take action. Gandhi advised the people not to hate the British but British imperialism.

During the Second World War, Gandhi adopted a policy of refraining from aggressive militant actions that would harm British ambitions in the anti-fascist war. Although the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Northern Ireland could have attacked the UK’s main airport (Heathrow) with mortars and caused great damage, instead of doing so, they launched mortars at the airport on three selected days in March 1994 so that no planes or passengers were harmed. It showed the need to start negotiations soon, cautioning that they will not do so, even though it has the potential to cause a big damage to the airport. It was as a result of this approach, that there arose a very strong opinion in England about the need for having a negotiated solution soon for the Irish issue.

This quality can be considered as a feature that was not seen in the second JVP uprising or the LTTE rebellion. JVP’s first uprising was not as brutal as the second uprising, and the repression against JVP’s first uprising was not as brutal as the second one. The main leaders of the first rebellion were lucky enough to survive while the leaders of the second rebellion were not. Even the leaders who at times had led the Aragalaya which arose in association with the state of bankruptcy facing the country, does not seem to have been aware of the doctrine that certain policies that are likely to prompt the government to adopt severe repressive measures, should have been avoided. Knowingly or unknowingly, they maintained a militant policy that forced the government to fight for the security of the government itself. It was an irresponsible policy in which, even an insignificant or trivial incident could have ignited a catastrophic destruction at any moment disrupting the functioning of the country.

False views

Sri Lanka is in a terrible crisis that, if mismanaged, could lead to long-term destruction of the entire country. It is dangerous to play with such a crisis. There are politicians in this country who think it is okay for the crisis to persist until they come to power. They should be ashamed of their ignorance. If you want to know about the terrible fate that a country which has plunged into a state of bankruptcy is likely to face, it is important that one should explore the terrible fate of Chavez’s Venezuela, which was once greatly admired and respected by the leftist politicians. Venezuela is one of the richest countries in Latin America. Even before the death of Chavez, the president of Venezuela, the country’s economy was collapsing due to serious errors in the management of the economy and due to the restrictions imposed on the country, internationally.

Today, Venezuela is in an extremely horrible and tragic situation. According to the information of the United Nations, in 2021, 94.5% of the country’s population lived in a very poor state, while 76.6% lived in an extremely poor state. Poverty and lack of food has become such a serious problem that during this period, 75% of the elderly population has lost weight by 8 kg per head. 5.4 million People have fled the country. The number of people reported to have been killed by Special Forces from 2017 to 2019 is 6,883. Sri Lanka should not be allowed to be pushed to a similar situation.

It must be said that the idea that taking an IMF loan facility could cause greater destruction to the country is also absurd. I have not heard of a single country that has been able to solve the balance of payments crisis by any other method other than securing the IMF credit facility. I earnestly request those who advocate that the IMF loan facility will cause greater destruction, to substantiate their claim with at least one example.

A country that is bankrupt or facing a severe balance of payments crisis cannot recover with the credit facility extended by the IMF and its advice alone. It is only those countries that are capable of making the optimum use of this facility and securing the support of the people by convincing them of the bitter facts that would cause severe pressure on them temporarily, and thereby effectively managing the protest movements that are likely to arise from the public in achieving the goals of necessary reforms. There are many examples that could be cited in this respect. The United Kingdom, India, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Jamaica and Greece are some examples.

Even with IMF facilities, countries that fail for whatever reasons to implement the painful reforms needed for restoring the economy back to order might be compelled to live in a state of misery for a very long period. Argentina can be considered as the best example of it. It is important to briefly consider how India has overcome the balance of payments crisis.

The way forward

India’s balance of payments problem became acute in 1990. The foreign exchange reserves could have barely financed three weeks’ worth of imports. At that time, India was in a dire situation where it had lost the trust of the International Monetary Fund as it had failed to fulfil the conditions of the IMF on a loan facility obtained previously. Therefore, in order to secure the credit facilities of the International Monetary Fund without delay, the Indian government pledged its reserve of 67 metric tons of gold as collateral to receive a credit facility of $ 2.2 billion from the IMF.

Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s government appointed Manamohan Singh, an eminent economic expert in the country, as the Finance Minister and entrusted him with the responsibility of implementing the necessary reforms. There, the Indian government planned a restoration program that went even beyond the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund, and implemented it to the letter. He scrapped the old socialist welfare economic model that gave prominence to government control, and introduced reforms that led to creating a neo-liberal economic model that threw open the doors of the Indian economy to the world.

Some of the reforms caused great distress to the common people, albeit in a temporary sense. The Indian rupee was devalued by 19%. Exchange controls were removed. Subsidies to farmers were cut in substantial amounts. Labour laws were reformed. The licensing system for starting many businesses was also abolished. The monopolies maintained by the government on heavy industries, mining industries, electricity and sectors such as communications, power, ports and airports were abolished and were opened to the private sector. The private sector was given the right to start and run not only the ordinary businesses but even the huge commercial ventures like airports and seaports.

These reforms offered India a strong foundation for a better way forward. The foreign capital investment, which stood at $ 132 million in 1991-92, increased to $ 5.3 billion by 1995-96. During the same period, the country’s trade in goods and services increased from 17.2% to 30.6%. During this period, the level of poverty decreased from 36 to 24%. The increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased from 4.18% to 6.26%. India’s long-term gains from economic policy reforms were enormous. It yielded good results, dramatically improving the quality of life.

The economy, which remained at $ 266 billion in 1991, expanded to $ 3 trillion by 2019. During that period, India’s purchasing power also increased from $ 1 trillion to $ 12 trillion. As of March 2021, the value of India’s Foreign Currency Assets (FCA) stood at $ 532.69 billion. The amount of gold reserves held in the Reserve Bank of India is 695.31 metric tons. The most important lesson we can learn from India would be to realise fully the magnitude of the crisis faced by us and discuss it with all political parties and social movements (the government, SJB , ethnic and religious minorities, the JVP, the Frontline Socialist Party (Peratugami and other tendencies in the Aragalaya) and reach a common consensus and launch a reform program that goes beyond the conditions laid down by the IMF thereby paving the way for a fast and strong development for the country and implement it to the letter.

In order to prepare and implement this program, it is necessary that all of them should work together and create a democratic framework acceptable to all. It could be turned into a program empowered by an interim constitution and completed in two stages; the second stage is to be implemented after a general election; the entire process is bound by the interim constitution and culminates in the formulation and adoption of a People’s Constitution. The United Nations can also be made an observer of this program. It is desirable that one or two neutral countries could be appointed to facilitate the program. It is through a program of this nature that Sri Lanka could be lifted to a strong position in this crisis and promotes social integration.

If it is possible to do away with the ugly system of the protesters demonstrating on the streets almost every other day and the police suppressing them invariably, and reach a common consensus leading to make a positive and profound change in the outdated, corrupt and irregular system in the country in addition to resolving the balance of payments problem, and also help build the Sri Lankan nation by ending discrimination based on ethnic, caste, religious and gender differences, such a program could be considered as an initiative that would orientate the country towards a democratic revolution which is peaceful and civilised.

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