Colombo, May 7: Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Friday declared a State of Emergency in the island following an attempt to block entry into and exit from parliament and the continued blockade of the President’s Office and the Prime Minister’s official residence by the “Gota Go Home” agitators. There has been disruption of public services too in several parts of the island.
A statement from the President’s office said that the State of Emergency had been proclaimed to “ensure public order and security for the maintenance of supplies and services essential for the life of the community.”
The “Gota God Home” agitation, which had morphed into a “Rajapaksas Go Home” agitation, was peaceful for the most part, but was recently infiltrated by unidentified elements which instilled a potential for violent action threatening to bring the constitutional machinery to a grinding halt and impede efforts to put the derailed Sri Lankan economy back on the rails.
The country-wide trade unions’ strike on May 6, was hailed as a “success”, but it cost Sri Lanka US$ 22 million in export earnings alone (DailyFT). Daily wage earners and shopkeepers lost a day’s income when they needed every cent to meet the soaring cost of living created by shortages.
The “Gota Go Home” agitators not only blocked the gates of the Presidential Secretariat but also the entrance to the Prime Minister’s official residence. Then they started blocking the roads to parliament preventing MPs from going in and getting out. The mobs had been demanding that all the 225 MPs resign and go home.
Initially, the agitators were apolitical young men and women mostly from well-heeled families. They were peacefully protesting against gross maladministration and the President’s unilateral decisions which had landed the country in a mess with no foreign exchange to repay debts and import daily essentials. For the most part, the ‘Gota Go Home’ agitation looked more like a youth carnival with participants indulging in creative expressions of political thoughts and demands.
But lately, new groups with a different agenda, had infiltrated the agitation and violence was fomented in more than one place in the country. A time came when the patience of the police began to wear thin. Tear gas and water cannons were used to disperse protesters in various places in the country.
The latest incident was near parliament. Entry into parliament was blocked by the Inter-University Students’ Federation (ISUF). MPs were neither able to get in or get out. The IUSF continued to protest in the area despite the use of tear gas and water cannons by the police.
With the declaration of the State of Emergency, the government has acquired a wide range of powers to control agitations and also to put troublesome elements behind bars. But the proclamation has to be sanctioned by parliament within 14 days. Parliament, which had been adjourned following unruly behavior by the MPs, is to meet again on May 17. The State of Emergency would ensure that it does so.
While the State of Emergency will help stop the disruption of normal life and normal economic activity by agitators, it will not solve the political problem which caused the disruptions in the first place. The country’s economic problem, stemming from an acute foreign exchange shortage, is being fixed by the Minister of Finance Ali Sabry with the help of India, the IMF, and other international donors, including China. But the political problem, threatening the stability of the government, and ultimately the economy, remains to be solved.
Both the Rajapaksa government and parliament are divided on several issues, resulting in an impasse. There is no attempt to negotiate and bring about a consensus. What one sees day after day, is groups voicing their different demands without any attempt to find common ground.
Finding a Scapegoat
The most striking event on May 6, apart from the declaration of the State of Emergency, was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘requesting’ Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign to pave the way for the establishment of an all-party government with a new Prime Minister. But while some cabinet ministers supported the President, others did not.
The Prime Minister has not reacted to this request yet, but earlier, he had said that he would quit if the President asked him to go or summarily sacked him. Therefore, there is an expectation that he would resign on Monday. But Mahinda Rajapaksa would be doing so with a heavy heart. By all accounts, he feels that he has been made the scapegoat. The economic and the political mess, Sri Lanka finds in, had been created principally by the President through a series of disastrous decisions taken arbitrarily since 2019 end when he was voted to power and during the pandemic which followed.
In an interview to Daily Mirror the Prime Minister said that he would be happy to sit in the opposition benches in parliament if sent out of the government. In other words, he was saying that he would be an opponent of the government and lead a rebel group of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in and out of parliament.
If he does that, the SLPP would be divided putting the political future of its MPs and others siding with the President in jeopardy, for it is Mahinda Rajapaksa who is the leader of the SLPP and not Gotabaya who is a greenhorn in politics. Recently, Mahinda had shown that he had the support of the SLPP at the provincial and local bodies levels, if not in the parliamentary party.
Within parliament too, there is no unity. The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has submitted two No Confidence Motions (NVMs), one against the President and other against the cabinet of ministers. The Tamil National Alliance MP, M.A. Sumanthiran, plans to submit an NCM against the President. The President has asked MPs to help form an all-party government, but there aren’t many takers for it. The SJB has said that it cannot be part of a government in which Gotabaya Rajapaksa is President. He should go. SJB MP Eran Wickremaratne has suggested that the Executive Presidency be abolished through a Referendum. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna wants all the Rajapaksas (the President, the Prime Minister and the former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa) to go.
Only a section of the SLPP and the breakaway the 11-party group, are for a multi-party government. But these too insist that Mahinda Rajapaksa should not be Prime Minister in any new set up.
The situation is so confusing that even an MP, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, who had been re-elected to the post of Deputy Speaker by a two thirds majority of MPs, said that he has resigned from the post. He had resigned from that post earlier on April 30 in support of the government rebel group called the 11-party alliance.
It is to ease the tangled situation that the President requested Mahinda Rajapaksa to quit. About the widespread demand that he should also quit, the President has said clearly that he has the mandate to rule for five years through a popular vote and he will not flinch from that mandate bowing to unconstitutional pressures.
Under the Sri Lankan constitution, the President can be removed only through an impeachment motion. But this is a complicated and demanding process. No political party in parliament is ready move such a motion.
Therefore, the prospects of political peace and the country’s stability rest with the President, the Prime Minister and the 225 MPs. With the Declaration of Emergency, prospects of direct action by the masses, have dimmed.
Peace Needed to Negotiate with Donors
The need for peace and political stability is urgent because the government has to engage with the IMF very seriously and negotiate for conditions which the government can meet without alienating the masses further. Other international donors and financial investors would be wary of putting their money in a Sri Lanka that is unstable politically.
The ball is therefore squarely in the court of politicians, both in the government and parliament, irrespective of their political labels.