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Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister till a few days ago, has sought refuge at a naval base in Trincomalee. As thousands of angry protestors gathered outside his Colombo residence, Rajapaksa was reportedly rescued by Sri Lankan troops in a dramatic pre-dawn operation on Tuesday. On Monday, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister, just hours after his supporters, armed with sticks and poles, brutally attacked peaceful anti government protesters and burnt down their tents. In the violence that ensued, the homes of ruling party politicians were attacked, eight people were killed, at least 200 wounded.

The violence that erupted across the country now threatens to thwart bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund. Unless, perhaps, the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa paves the way for a national unity govt to be formed. Will that happen? Or is the island nation heading towards martial law? spoke to Dr Gehan Gunatilleke, a lawyer specialising in constitutional and human rights law. This is an excerpt from the conversation.

Is Gotabaya Rajapaksa going to resign or is he likely to rule through martial law? In this regard, what is your understanding of the position of the Sri Lankan military? We’ve heard the Chief of Defense Staff and Commander of the Army, General Shavendra Silva, speak at a press conference where he reportedly assured people of the neutrality of the armed forces. In the face of this massive public uprising, will General Silva stay aligned to the president? Or do you see the military leadership, as some are speculating, lean on the president to quit.

These unprecedented emergency powers President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has now given himself certainly do not reflect measures of a person preparing to resign. It is hard to believe that the military will go against the office of the president, when the law itself vests the president with these extraordinary powers. It is also unsustainable and dangerous to expect the military to play a role in resolving the crisis, it has to be done politically.

The president is required to immediately appoint an MP, who he thinks commands the confidence of Parliament, as prime minister. Unless a new PM, Cabinet is sworn in, some may argue, the president can exercise residual executive powers with respect to all subjects and functions. This is extremely dangerous. He has already enhanced his powers by declaring a state of emergency. Party leaders have an obligation to quickly present a nominee and they can no longer wait because the situation is precarious because all powers are now concentrated with the president.

There is no viable solution that involves the current president continuing to hold office. Let us not forget the headline demand of the people is for the president to resign. There is no appeasing the people by just having the PM resign. An interim government under the current president will lack legitimacy. The opposition cannot be associated with that kind of interim arrangement. But if a neutral figure takes over the opposition can provide an interim govt until elections take place. It is important that the president resigns with dignity instead of doing what the prime minister did.

How have independent institutions in Sri Lanka acquitted themselves? Sanjay Rajarathnam, the Attorney General, your country’s top law officer, has written to the IG of police asking for an immediate probe into Monday’s attack on peaceful protestors, an attack carried out, by ruling party supporters. Were you surprised by this? How significant is this in the larger scheme of things?

It is too early to come to a conclusion on whether the independent institutions have come out of the shadow of the 20th amendment which was passed in September 2020. The 20th amendment concentrated powers of appointment in the president. At that time, it was pointed out how the move would lead to politicisation of institutions. So while the 20th amendment is in operation there is a limit to how independent an institution can be.

Having said that, all institutional actors understand the political moment we are in. They understand that they must signal their commitment to democratic values. Accountability for the violence we saw, has to be delivered. It would be a shame if only lip service is paid. I think there has to be real action by investigations, indictments, prosecutions and convictions. We will have to wait to see if that really happens. It is too early to say if institutions have become truly independent.

Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have been revered as heroes by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, their politics of muscular nationalism has been wildly popular. But many of their cheerleaders are now asking for the family to leave. The protests are seeing people across ethnicities and religions join forces. I read a statement by a former chief of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, she said…this moment of potential and promise needs to tackle Sinhala Buddhist nature of state that has enabled and led to the discrimination of, and violence against Tamils and Muslims for decades. My question to you is, is this indeed that moment of reckoning for Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority ?

It is important to understand that transforming majoritarianism doesn’t happen in a month of protest. It will take a generation of undoing entitlement complexes, existential fears that are embedded in the majority community. This moment is special, but it should not be confused for a moment that will produce sustainable inter communal harmony because this is after all an economic crisis and everyone is in the same boat. We will need to see whether the fault lines reappear when ethno-religious fault lines become relevant again.

Right now, I think, the crisis, because it is economic, it does not discriminate. But there may be future events when our society may be tested again and I am not ready to celebrate inter communal solidarity and harmony just yet. I think there is a long way to go for that and anyone who makes grand claims about that must make more thorough and thoughtful research on the subject. Having said that, there are some special moments worth talking about. When the Tamil version of the national anthem was not played at the Gota Go Gama protest site at first, people pointed it out and it was immediately sung the next day. That is progress, small, but still, progress. There are little stories of hope that tell us we might be able to learn from all of this and not let ethno-religious politics dominate our culture. The Rajapaksas thrived on the politics of muscular nationalism, so with their rejection, perhaps there comes a genuine opportunity for a culture change.

I think there will be a political vacuum created when the Rajapaksas are pushed out. It is up to the opposition political parties to fill that with something that is more desirable, sustainable than the opportunistic politics of the current government. The current government is a mix of ideological commitment to majoritarianism and opportunism. I am not discounting the re-emergence of majoritarianism in the future, but I think we have all learnt a lesson that it is not sustainable and when you play this kind of politics, you end up in the place the Rajapaksas have found themselves in. Any politician who can clearly see the long term, should firmly reject that brand of politics.

In conclusion, a question about Sri Lanka’s elite. Something that generated much interest in India is the public stand taken by cricketers like Sangakkara and Jayawardane and their vocal criticism of the Rajapaksas. Indian celebrities, cricketers in particular, have been criticised for never speaking out. Have those like Sangakarra always been outspoken or is it the overwhelming public anger that has goaded them into action?

I don’t follow them closely enough to know if there has been a specific change in their messaging. But it is a good thing to see celebrities, particularly former and present cricketers speak out and even at the protest site, you will bump into them. And I think their voices mean a lot to protestors and they also add to the protection of ordinary citizens. When they speak out, there is a protection that is offered to everyone else. So they need to keep it up until the president resigns.