TIDAL waves of humanity are sweeping through Sri Lanka. The masses Tsunami is sweeping away anything in its path. Public buildings, including the Presidency and Prime Minister’s, have been submerged or burnt.
The long-time politicians who for decades have manipulated the masses using all sorts of divides, especially ethnicity, are begging the people for a respite and prostrating before the opposition and the protesters to join in appointing a new government that would be acceptable to the streets.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, even before fleeing, had been rendered homeless as protesters had on Saturday taken over his house as they did that of the now lame-duck Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
President Rajapaksa who had deluded himself that he was a popular leader and war hero, was a pathetic figure as he tried to flee the country like an armed robber desperate to flee a crime scene.
On Monday, the President was prevented at least twice by immigration and other patriots from boarding an aircraft because he refused to join a public immigration queue at the Bandaranaike International Airport.
The next day, protest organiser, Father Jeevantha Peiris, gave the President and his government a 24-hour ultimatum to relinquish power: “We want to caution President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister and this entire government that 13th is the last day for you to be in power.
Hundreds of protesters are already approaching Colombo this very moment. If by tomorrow such change does not materialise, the peoples struggle that led to this revolution will again be proved, shown through protests, stringent action and people power.”
Afraid of what might happen at the expiration of the ultimatum on Wednesday, July 13, 2022, the President who had ran to a naval ship when his house was burnt four days earlier, headed to the airport where an AN32 Air Force troop transport plane smuggled him, his First Lady, Loma and two bodyguards into exile in Male, the Maldives capital. But the Maldivian air traffic control refused the aircraft permission to land until the Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament and former President Mohamed Nasheed, intervened.
But the Maldivians, seeing President Rajapaksa as a leper, immediately protested his presence, accusing their government of colluding with a rogue president to escape justice. Soon, the fleeing President headed for Singapore.
Many Sri Lankans were unhappy the President had fled, preferring he faced justice for ruining the country. A protester, G P Nimal, summarised these feelings: “We don’t like it. We want to keep him. We want our money back! And we want to put all the Rajapaksas in an open prison where they can do farm work.”
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who was left to carry the can was announced by parliament as Acting President. With that announcement, the masses overran his office.
Wickremesinghe, under the illusion that as Acting President and Prime Minister, he had some powers, announced a curfew and state of emergency. When he realised he had made those pronouncements in vain, he quickly withdrew them and asked for a new inclusive leadership in the country. In a show of power, protesters went to the state broadcaster, Sri Lanka Rupavahini, and demanded that news from the government should no longer be broadcast. The station complied by running only cultural programmes.
With dual power in the country, just as President Rajapaksa had begged to flee the country, so also is Wickremesinghe begging to be relieved of the two highest positions.
The trigger for the protests is due to Rajapaksa who with his brothers have been in power for two decades, running down the country. With massive corruption, mismanagement and burying Sri Lanka in debts, the country went bankrupt. The prices of basic needs, including food, fuel and medicines, were out of the reach of many. These were made worse by frequent power cuts and a political leadership that seems to have gone deaf.
The first time I heard about Sri Lanka was in my primary school civics class in 1972/73 when we were taught about Heads of State in the world and had to memorise a name I found tough: Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first female Prime Minister in the world. The country was then known as Ceylon. She was first Prime Minister in 1960, then from 1970-77 and then when her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, was President, she was elected a third time as Prime Mister from 1994-2000.
The first time I met Sri Lankans was in 1986,during my first foreign trip. As I passed through immigration at the Madrid Airport, Spain, I saw a group of people assembled and under watch. You could see fear in some of their eyes and apprehension written on their faces. I enquired and was told they were Tamils from Sri Lanka seeking refuge from a bloody war in their country. The war which began in July 1983 was one in which prisoners were not taken as the majority Sinhalese tried to pulverise the minority Tamils.
Painfully, as the war was coming to a close in 2009 with the Tamils clearly defeated, the victorious Sinhalese would not accept a ceasefire as they moved to execute what amounted to a genocide. The Sri Lankan leader who led that needless butcher of the defeated Tamils was Mahinda Rajapaksa whose brother, the now fleeing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was then Defence Minister.
Another of the Rajapaksa brothers, Basil, former Finance Minister has also fled Sri Lanka and said to be heading to the United States.
The situation today, remains unclear as the Sri Lankan ruling class, afraid of losing power, has appointed a committee of senior Armed Forces commanders headed by the Chief of Defence Staff, Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva to “restore law and order” across the nation. This in plain terms, may be an invitation for a military coup which would preserve privileges and maintain the status quo.
This type of scenario played out in Sudan when a similar civil uprising forced President Omar al-Bashir out of power in 2019 and a cunning military, pretending to be sharing power with the protesters, turned round to massacre them on the streets.
There was the case of the Peoples Power in the Philippines which on February 25, 1986 forced President Ferdinard Marcus to flee. He was not just a bloody dictator who killed at will, he also stole over $10 billion from the country’s treasury. Although the late Marcus family led by his widow, Imelda, has not stopped looting the country’s economy, their son, Marcos Jnr was elected President in May 2022, that is 36 years after his parents fled the country.
So, hunger, anger and protests are not enough to make a sustainable change; the masses with a peoples programme would need to seize power and evolve an alternative system.
- Owei Lakemfa is a journalist, labour and social rights activist and host of Diplomatic Hour, Citizen FM, Abuja.