Updated: July 20, 2022 8:18:43 am
It started with the farmers. They were the first to protest after an edict in April 2021 by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then Sri Lanka’s President, that they should switch over to organic farming. The sudden change came as the country’s foreign exchange crisis had started to show, and by stopping the use of chemical fertilisers, Rajapaksa was trying to cut down on the import bill. Paddy farmers began to express their concerns as the yala season, the first in the cultivation calendar, came upon them in May. By the time of the second season or maha in September, farmers had begun coming out in the hinterland, trying to make their voice heard.
Aragalaya, the Sinhalese word for “struggle”, is being used widely to describe the daily gathering of people at Colombo’s Galle Face Green that began with the demand that Gotabaya resign as President and make way for a new dispensation, even “a new system”. That gathering marked 100 days on July 17, after forcing Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down on May 9, and two months later, sending his brother Gotabaya fleeing.
But it had begun months before in the hinterland, forcing a government U-turn on the ban on chemical fertilisers, and permit the import of ammonia-based fertilisers. In its essential meaning, aragalaya also captures the struggle of individual Sri Lankans to find food, fuel and medicines on a daily basis, bringing them all together in a “janatha aragalaya” — a people’s struggle. It has been mostly leaderless, though some individuals have spoken for the group on occasion. It also used social media to relay its messages.
As Sri Lanka’s Parliament votes for a new President on Wednesday, some sections of the aragalaya – which attracted the participation of a wide range of people from students to professionals, from trade unions to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna — have sent out the signal that they will not accept a leader who bats for the status quo. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the acting President, and a frontrunner in the election, is unacceptable to the aragalaya.
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In the eyes of these sections, he represents the ancient regime. A nominated member of Parliament, without a single elected parliamentarian from his party, Wickremesinghe is not just dependent on the votes of the parliamentarians of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna — the Rajapaksa party — but is also seen by the protestors as someone who will protect the discredited and ousted former leaders, and may even enable Gotabaya’s return to Sri Lanka.
In May, after Gotabaya appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, the aragalaya lost some momentum. But as the shortages worsened, and the anger spread, it got second wind, culminating in the July 9 protests that led to Gotabaya’s resignation. By then, Wickremesinghe was being tagged as “Ranil Rajapaksa”.
The occupation of Temple Trees, the Prime Minister’s official home, and the arson at his private residence were two signs that there would be no easy transition. The expectation that the people would go home after Gotabaya’s resignation has not materialised. If Wickremesinghe is elected, the aragalaya may continue, perhaps in new and different ways, and with more involvement of political parties opposed to him.
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