Krishantha Prasad Cooray
Saturday the 9th of July was a moment of truth for our people. In coming together to Colombo in an unmistakable show of force, Sri Lankans brought to life the words of Albert Einstein that “in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.”
Sri Lanka has never faced a crisis of this magnitude, but I have no doubt that if our people can unite and remain singularly focused on the goal of saving our country, together, we will prevail. The whole country just came together to make clear that enough is enough. We have spoken with one voice against nepotism, graft, political witch hunts, ethnonationalism and brazen administrative incompetence.
Now it is time for professionals, policy makers and political leaders to do their part. This is not a time for vengeance or more violence. There should have been none in the first place. It is a time for the opposition to unite and do its duty, to send a message to the world that the Sri Lanka of tomorrow is a new Sri Lanka, one that is united, and ready to regroup and rebuild.
The image of a corrupt, ethnically divided, bankrupt nation at the mercy of strongmen and militarized rule must give way to a new brand for a pluralist, united nation on the path to recovery and prosperity. From now on, the institutions that form the pillars of order and justice must know that they cannot get away with blindly following illegal orders.
The vast majority of our people have not taken to the streets looking for perks, political patronage or other personal benefits. They are fighting to save our country and are doing that duty to give future generations of Sri Lankans a chance at a better life. The government has failed to protect its people and has failed to honour their oath to the people and the Constitution. The public service, especially the military, prosecutors and police, must not be the next to fail.
Never again can we tolerate an IGP, an Attorney General, military commanders or any of their subordinates who justify illegality by saying they were “just following orders.” This is the only way that they can restore their credibility and win back the faith of our people that has been squandered over a generation of cronyism.
It was chilling last night, to watch police officers outside Ranil Wickremasinghe’s private residence targeting and brutally assaulting journalists, including a young woman, on live television. They thrashed reporters for simply doing their job under extremely difficult circumstances. As outrageous and barbaric as this attack was, it tragically and inexcusably gave way to one of the most disgusting acts of vandalism in our lifetimes. I was not alone in being shocked, devastated and enraged to see the historic home of one of our most senior political leaders set ablaze.
No matter how much anyone agrees with or opposes the policies of individual politicians, there is no justification for violence or arson. It is barbaric and unbecoming of anyone who claims to be fighting against what the Rajapaksas stood for. For better or worse, places like Medamulana and 55 5th Lane are iconic symbols of our democratic history and home to some of the most consequential decisions that charted the course of our nation.
They are home to politicians who at different times were elected by large majorities of our people. In a democracy, when such popularity weans, we speak with our votes and our voices on the street. You only need to look anywhere in the world to see that when regimes are dislodged through bloodshed, generations of bloodshed will follow. It is time that we stopped letting violence dictate the course of events.
The Rajapaksas were the capstone of a political culture in which far too often, Sri Lankans resorted to enacting political ends through violence and destruction. They bombed and burned buildings and left several journalists dead and ended the careers of many others through thuggery and brutality. At least now that the Rajapaksas are almost gone, it is imperative that we condemn all violence, especially attacks against people’s homes and against media personnel, in the strongest possible terms.
Never again should anyone in Sri Lanka have to fear taking a political position or expressing an opinion, whether right or wrong, for fear of being abducted, assaulted, tortured, killed, or have their home or office bombed or burned. As the Rajapaksas go, their signature culture of violence must go with them and play no part in the next chapter of our country’s journey.
Now that the government has collapsed, we must move swiftly to show the world that Sri Lanka will not descend into the kind of anarchy that plagued the countries who threw out strongmen during the Arab Spring. We have a proud tradition of constitutional rule and lawful transfer of power dating back to independence. Just as we had never defaulted on our debt before the Rajapaksas, we had never had a successful change of government or leadership that was not dictated by law. We must ensure that there is no question that the present regime lawfully ceases to hold power, and lawfully makes way for a democratically credible caretaker regime consisting of leaders with the necessary integrity and competence to stop the bleeding in the economy and to enact meaningful constitutional reform and put the country on the path to recovery.
This will be a long, arduous struggle. No sooner our political leaders make it possible, the people must get a chance to vote on who we want to be led by, and how we should be governed. It is essential that the new constitution doesn’t leave room for another executive president who can overstay his welcome through fear or force. Under such a system, we will all have to rely on a dwindling number of talented professionals and courageous leaders to try and right the ship and mitigate the suffering of our people.
Rebuilding the credibility of our nation, demonstrating our stability to the world, ending the poverty and famine that has struck the poorest Sri Lankans must be the number one priorities of the next government, but these things will take time. We will have to think very carefully about who we elect and what policies they put forward. We must respect the decision of our people and give our new leaders time to deliver. The entire world believes that it will take generations to repair the damage done by the Rajapaksas to the fabric of our society and to rebuild Sri Lanka into a functional state.
But the entire world also thought that the Mahaweli project would take decades. Sri Lanka did it in five years. No one thought that a country could win the cricket world cup less than a decade after building its national cricket infrastructure. In 2015, no one thought the Rajapaksas could be defeated. And in 2018 during the 52-day coup, no one believed that the people of our country could take the reins of government back from the Rajapaksas. And as recently as a few months ago, no one could have predicted that the Sri Lankan people would have the courage to rise up against a regime that commanded a two-thirds majority in Parliament with an iron fist and send them packing in less than two and a half years. On each of these occasions, the Sri Lankan people stunned the world by doing the impossible.
Each one of us too can play a role by showing each other and the world that we stand united in times of need and crisis. The immediate task before us is to work together to stop our people from dying on the street, desperate for food, fuel and medicine. Even today, while some are desperate for these things, many live in abundance. Now we must realize that our country cannot be saved without hard work, courage and most importantly, personal sacrifice.
If you see someone in desperate need of the essential items that our government has turned into luxuries, do what you can to share. Today, every ounce of fuel or handful of food makes a difference and can mean the difference between life and death for so many ordinary people.
For all the misfortune Sri Lanka has suffered at the hands of a few, our country and our people have a habit of surprising the world by outperforming expectations. We need to do so now more than ever. If we succeed in turning a new leaf and starting a new chapter, we can manifest the reality we want to see for our children.