On May 1, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa took the stage at the Campbell Park Ground in Colombo to address his party’s May Day rally to loud cheers from the crowd. The 77-year-old Rajapaksa, the chairman of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), told the assembled crowd that he acknowledges that the party could not do justice to the overwhelming mandate people gave them at the last presidential and parliamentary elections. He said this was partly because they made certain “wrong decisions,” but insisted that they had recognised where they went wrong. He urged working people to “unite to overcome challenges and take the country towards victory.”
For the SLPP, this first May Day since the events of last year was a chance to show that it is still a force to be reckoned with. It was the party’s first public rally in a year. Much of the Rajapaksa clan — including Mahinda’s brothers Chamal and Basil, as well as son Namal and other relatives who are in politics — was present at Monday’s rally. Other political parties, too, held rallies to mark the day. Unlike many of them, the SLPP, however, chose not to hold a march through parts of Colombo, instead organising its supporters to arrive direct to the venue, mostly via buses.
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Speaking to reporters the following day, SLPP MP SM Chandrasena, a senior party member, claimed the rally had drawn a far bigger crowd than they had anticipated. Given that it was less than a year ago that SLPP activists and their properties were attacked, he said the party can be proud that so many of its members had turned up in Colombo for the rally. “We are glad that in less than a year, we as a party and the government we are part of were able to suppress terrorism and ensure democracy in this country,” he said.
The events Chandrasena was referring to relate to several days of violence that broke out during the height of the protests held last year demanding the resignation of then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, then prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The violence erupted when supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked peaceful protesters camped outside his office and that of his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That attack on the camp site at the Galle Face promenade in Colombo set off several days of retaliatory violence against government politicians that left nine people dead, dozens injured and more than a hundred properties damaged or destroyed. Among the dead were an SLPP MP and his bodyguard.
With the one-year anniversary of those events approaching, Sri Lanka’s Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam instructed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandana Wickramaratne late last month to name 34 persons as suspects in the case regarding the attack on peaceful protesters at Galle Face. Among them are two ministers in the then government who are staunch Rajapaksa loyalists, namely Johnston Fernando and Sanath Nishantha. Nishantha also serves as the State Minister of Water Supply in the current government headed by President Wickremesinghe. Both Fernando and Nishantha were at the SLPP’s May Day rally on Monday. Fernando even made a speech.
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Nevertheless, neither the name of Mahinda Rajapaksa nor his eldest son Namal was on the list submitted by the AG to the police. The two had been accused by the protest movement of instigating the mob to attack them. Both father and son were questioned last year by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) over the attacks.
Hero or villain?
Another name that has figured prominently in the list of suspects that the AG wanted named is Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Deshabandu Tennakoon, who is the police officer in charge of the Western Province, which includes Colombo City. He is also among the front-runners to succeed IGP Wickramaratne as the nation’s top cop when the latter retires in July.
Footage from the day of the incident shows SDIG Tennakoon speaking with the attackers, including State Minister Nishantha. His defenders argue that he was attempting to defuse the situation through dialogue. But others have accused him of colluding with the mob and allowing them to move through the police barricades separating them from the protesters camped near the president’s office.
The AG had instructed the IGP to charge SDIG Tennakoon with the potentially serious charge of aiding and abetting the attackers by failing to carry out his duties. The senior officer, though, immediately filed a petition with the country’s Court of Appeal, which stayed the implementation of the letter sent by the AG instructing to name Tennakoon as a suspect until the court concludes hearing his petition.
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Activists have been critical of the delay in bringing charges against those involved in the May 9 attack on protesters, and have contrasted this with the hundreds of arrests and charges laid regarding the subsequent attacks on homes and properties of government politicians.
Have things changed?
Yet, as the anniversary of the May 9 incidents approaches, the SLPP is slowly starting to rebuild. It remains the largest party in Parliament, and President Ranil Wickremesinghe is heavily reliant on its support as he tries to take the country out of a crippling economic crisis.
The situation in the country however, has changed significantly since the protests, known as the ‘Aragalaya’ (Struggle), forced former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of power, says activist Lahiru Weerasekara, national organiser of the “Youth for Change” movement. “The SLPP may talk about its strength but you need to look at where it was before the struggle and where it is now. Its popularity is a mere fraction of what it used to be. The same can be said for Mahinda Rajapaksa.”
While the government may claim that stability has returned, the issues affecting the people remain and the masses are still suffering, the young activist noted. “We are getting by due to the decision not to pay our debts and the loan secured through the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The reality on the ground is that things are far from settled.”
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Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, those who were at the forefront in organising the protests against him have gone their separate ways. Some have aligned themselves with established political parties while others have formed completely new movements. Weerasekara does not see this as a defeat. “The struggle was always about different groups uniting under one common objective, which was to force Gotabaya Rajapaksa from power. Once he was gone, it was only natural each would have a different idea of what comes next.”
He said there was no disputing that the struggle has had a profound impact on Sri Lankan society. “I can see a clear change, especially among the youth. They are far more interested in politics and governance and are not prepared to accept things as they are. That in itself is a victory,” insisted Weerasekara.