A clarion call for unity | Sunday Observer

A clarion call for unity

5 March, 2023

President Ranil Wickremesinghe got it right when he said at a function in Trincomalee that Governments cannot be changed by street agitations. That, he said, can only be done through the ballot. President Wickremesinghe, during a speech in Parliament on an earlier occasion, also categorically said that he would not permit another Aragalaya (Struggle) to destablise the country. He pledged to take all measures to prevent a recurrence of an Aragalaya.

The Aragalaya at Galle Face Green came remarkably close to causing anarchy, though democracy won in the end. As some observers said, if an attempt by certain subversive elements to attack Parliament (on the lines of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol) succeeded, the course of history would have taken a different turn. However, Parliament sessions were held without interruption and a new President was chosen according to a constitutionally mandated procedure. Since then, President Wickremesinghe has taken all legally validated steps to protect democracy.

Yet, some Opposition politicians still talk in terms of a “revolution” that would topple the current President and the Government, with terms like gahala elawanawa (they will be beaten and chased away) being liberally used even by those who usually pose as diehard defenders of democracy. This is dangerous talk in a country that has experienced two insurrections and a 30-year-war. They are increasingly resorting to strikes and street demonstrations aimed at crippling everyday essential services, perhaps with a view to making the Government unpopular and forcing it out.

True, some of the recent actions taken by the Government to prop up the ailing economy have not gone down well with the public. Subsidies have ended for fossil fuels and electricity, while income tax rates have been hiked sharply. No Government would have taken these steps if it was possible to circumvent them, knowing the political repercussions. But with the abysmal state of our economy, there seems to be no other alternative. Besides, certain tough conditions have to be fulfilled to be eligible for International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance.

But even if one leaves the IMF factor apart, these measures are strictly necessary to revive the stagnant economy in the long run. Such strict fiscal discipline can pay good dividends too – the Sri Lanka Rupee appreciated sharply against the US Dollar over the last few days, which will help bring down the costs of essential imported items. As President Wickremesinghe said recently, if we make a sacrifice now, there will be a much better outlook for the future.

But this has to be a collective effort. If the economy falls apart, even the Opposition will have no country left to govern if and when they come to power. This is why we can no longer afford to engage in petty political bickering and street agitations which will not resolve the issues at hand. In this context, we have to seriously consider the proposal forwarded by former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) for a “political ceasefire” at this critical juncture.

“It is our sole belief that in the current situation, political parties will not be able to find any solution by boycotting Parliament or by taking measures to disable the country. All challenges must be won democratically and peacefully. There, the primary responsibility is assigned to the public representatives representing the Parliament,” Jayasuriya said. He said such a united approach by Parliamentarians will automatically lead to the “System Change” demanded by the youth. “To achieve that goal that the entire nation aspires to, we must unite before anything else. We should act collectively at least for a specific short period of time. It should be considered as an absolute responsibility not to contribute to any activity that may have any effect on anarchy in the country,” Jayasuriya said.

This, in a nutshell, is just what the doctor ordered to cure the ailments afflicting the country. Actually, not only the political parties represented in Parliament, but also the parties outside of it, civil society organisations, trade unions, professional bodies and religious bodies should be a part of this effort. After all, some of these parties and organisations which are in the forefront of the present agitations against the Government will stand to benefit more by talking to the Government rather than adopting a wholly confrontational attitude.

World history is replete with instances where various forces in countries have joined hands to overcome almost insurmountable challenges facing their peoples. Right here in Sri Lanka, the Opposition led by President Wickremesinghe unconditionally supported the Government led by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami catastrophe for the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts.

The country is now staring at a similar peril and disunity will not help us to recover from the unprecedented economic crisis. A Local Government election is certainly not the answer to these woes either. Right now, what we need first and foremost is an all-hands on deck approach to extricate ourselves from this economic quagmire. Politics can play second fiddle at least until we make a substantial recovery.