By PKBalachandran/Prothom Alo
Colombo, 17 July: After a period of extreme tension and violence, law and order was restored to Sri Lanka on 15 July. Calm prevailed as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president and preparations for a presidential election on July 20 began. . The masses, who had occupied the official residences and offices of the President and Prime Minister, left them at the behest of civil society leaders. The main irritant, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had fled the country and emailed his resignation from Singapore.
But the question now is: will the calm last? Will the administration under Ranil Wickremesinghe, whether temporary or long-term, be accepted by political parties and agitators? He has been portrayed by them and the media as a “lackey” of the discredited Rajapaksa clan. Will the curmudgeon politicians in parliament iron out their petty differences and come together to form a multi-party government as the agitators demand? Above all, will the government be able to get the dollars needed to import essential goods, especially fuel? Will the distribution system be freed from the clutches of hoarders and profiteers? Sri Lankans keep their fingers crossed on these issues.
Sri Lanka’s law enforcement apparatus was an idle bystander for much of the violence, as no orders came from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who had lost his temper. This had encouraged violent elements led by the radical Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) to set fire to buses and houses of ruling party bigwigs on May 9, and to burn down the Prime Minister’s residence in Colombo on July 9.
While the events of July 9 forced President Gotabaya to flee Sri Lanka and tender his resignation from Singapore, the day also brought an end to violence and other illegal actions. Civil society has become aware of the dangers of anarchy. Catholic and Buddhist clergy, the Sri Lankan Bar Association, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and most editorials in major daily newspapers have called for an end to violence and a return to constitutionalism.
A group of “independent” parties released a statement saying violence and political instability could lead to foreign military intervention. The trigger for this fear may have been an unintended consequence of tweets by India’s Bharatiya Janata Party MP, Dr Subramanian Swamy, saying that violence and instability in Sri Lanka would be detrimental to the region and that India should intervene militarily. if Colombo asked for it.
Acting President Wickremesinghe said he would not be bamboozled by ‘fascists’ hiding behind protesters and ordered the law and order apparatus to do their duty even while using firearms . “I am not against peaceful struggles. However, one must identify the difference between insurgents and protesters. It was the insurgents who took the weapons of two policemen and injured 24 soldiers. We cannot allow it. The unrest will lead to economic turmoil as the distribution of essential items such as food, fuel and gas will stop,” he said.
Addressing the political class, Wickremesinghe said: “I invite all parties to agree to form a multi-party government. It is time to forget the political aspirations of individuals. There should be a country for us to engage in politics. Therefore, I invite all political parties to be part of the nation-building process.
Parliament is expected to elect a new president on July 20. Wickremesinghe and opposition leader Sajith Premadasa are the main candidates. Former army chief Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Janatha Vimmukthi Peramuna leader Anura Dissanayake are also in the fray.
Wickremesinghe is supported by Sri Lanka Podjana Peramuna (SLPP), the largest party and is therefore the favourite. The United States and India are comfortable with him. But the troubling question is: will the opposition and out-of-parliament agitators resume agitation? Won’t there be an upsurge in violence? After all, Wickremesinghe is portrayed by the opposition and agitators as a “lackey” of the hated Rajapaksa family. It was the Rajapaksa family that made him prime minister and interim president.
But Wickremesinghe is not necessarily a Rajapaksa stooge. The history of political succession in Sri Lanka (and other South Asian countries) shows that each ruler becomes “his own man” once in power. To give the most recent example, Wickremesinghe, who brought Maithripala Sirisena to the Sri Lankan presidency in 2014, thought President Sirisena would dance to his tune. But Sirisena turned out to be Wickremesinghe’s executioner! Each new leader would strive to build their own team of hand-picked people with little or no ties to the old leaders. Wickremesinghe could do just that.