THE REIGN OF MAHINDA RAJAPAKSE (Part 5)
Posted on April 5th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

C.A .Chandraprema writing on the Joint Opposition May Day rally of   2017 observed that ‘crowds at meetings have always been a way of judging which way the political winds are blowing. Those above their mid-fifties and above remember the 1977 May Day held in Maradana which at that time had been considered the mother of all political meetings. But at that time, the roads in Maradana were not even as wide as they are today.    (Island 4.5.17)

Chandraprema  said that ‘back in 2016 when I arrived at the May Day rally of the Joint Opposition in Kirulapone at around 5.00 p.m. and told friends over the phone that the crowd there was much bigger than the UNP and JVP rallies both put together, none of them believed me.’

 I had arrived at the Joint Opposition rally after having observed the other two rallies from about 4.00 in the afternoon when the rallies are usually at their peak. To say that an opposition grouping had drawn a bigger crowd than the UNP and JVP put together was at that time considered to be an extravagant statement. This was especially so because the drone footage of that meeting did not show what I had seen.

I arrived at that rally from the side of the Kirulapone police station but was never able to push through the crowd to observe how far it extended towards the Nugegoda end. Nor was I able to see how far the crowd extended towards Narahenpita along Baseline Road. At Kirulapone, the majority of the participants went away without having got even a glimpse of the stage. The crowd, that got stuck on Baseline Road, never got to look even in the direction in which the stage was situated and the crowd was so dense that it was an exhausting effort to push one’s way through it.

The crowd at the Joint Opposition rally held in Nugegoda in January 2017 was much larger than the crowd that attended the first ‘Mahinda sulanga’ rally in Nugegoda in February 2015. The fact that there was such a turnout despite overcast skies the whole day and torrential rains in many parts of the country was telling. The large crowd at Nugegoda proved the unpopularity of the present government.

Unlike at previous such meetings that this writer has observed, this was an uncommunicative and almost unfriendly crowd. Attempts to engage people in conversation elicited only grunts and monosyllables. Everybody wanted to listen to the speeches that were being made even though nothing new was being said.

At previous meetings, people did not look as though they had come to listen to speeches but to express solidarity with a cause. But this time, in January 2017, people were very serious, with hardly a smile on their faces. They were listening to the speeches as if their lives depended on it. A request to raise their hands and cheer elicited a single minded response even from the fringes of the crowd on the Nawala and Pagoda Roads with people lustily bellowing their allegiance to the cause. Each person seemed to be bound to the stage, not to his fellows around him.  

The Galle Face rally of May 2017 however is in a class of its own. Though I usually observe all the major rallies being held in Colombo, this year, there was no need to do that. Whatever happened at Galle Face would be the defining event,  observed Chandraprema.

The Yahapalana government underestimated the Joint Opposition and gave them Galle Face green thinking they would never be able to fill it. The government even went to the extent of dictating where the stage should be constructed so as to increase the embarrassment of the Joint Opposition when they were not able to muster sufficient crowds. But with the UNP, SLFP and JVP all actively openly opposing the Galle Face rally, the Joint Opposition managed to outdo everyone else.

The day before May Day, I took a drive along Galle Face to see whether the Joint Opposition would be able to fill it with crowds and my own assessment was that they may not be able to do it. This was on the assumption that Galle Face green meant only the ‘green’ part of it without the broad tarred walkway towards the sea side or the Galle Road.

But what we saw on May Day 2017 was a phenomenon that no one has ever seen in this country. The Galle Face green, the broad walkway on the seaside and the main road were just one sea of heads from the Galle Face Hotel to the Bandaranaike statue on the other side of the esplanade and beyond. There were people lining the road up to the roundabout near the Kingsbury and Galadari hotels.

This was not a crowd that had been transported there to put on a show. Every one of those people there were die hard supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa. They were motivated and enthusiastic. They had come in private coaches and smaller vehicles since state run buses were not hired to SLPP. Buses may have been deployed, but no bus service can transport a crowd of that size. There was a continuous arrival of people from both ends of Galle Face.

The fact that two elderly participants died in the crush at Galle Face green was significant. If anybody was to get crushed or suffocated, that should have been at the Kirulapone rally in 2016, where the crowd was so dense that one could not even push through it. Galle Face on the other hand is a wide open space. The fact that anyone can get crushed in such a place is a clear indication of how dense the crowd was at its peak.

Thinking that there would be no crowd in Fort because the entrance to the Galle Face meeting was supposed to be from the Kollupitiya side, I went to Fort and got stuck in the middle of a river of people near the Fort YMBA, all marching purposefully to enter Galle Face through Lotus Road. The number of people that passed my vehicle near the YMBA would by itself have sufficed for a separate May Day rally. It is quite clear that tens of thousands of people at that meeting had come there entirely on their own.

When I was walking down Lotus Road on my way to observe the rally at around 5.00 pm, thousands of people were leaving the meeting. Usually people start leaving such meetings at around 6.00 pm. This time they would have started leaving earlier because everything began earlier. Usually the peak of a rally would be around 5.00 pm to 6.00 pm. This time the peak of the Galle Face rally would have been around 4.00 pm to 4.30 pm. By the time Wimal Weerawansa and Mahinda Rajapaksa made their speeches, large numbers of exhausted people had left. The intolerable heat would have been an additional reason for people to start leaving early.

According to Surveyor General, the Galle Face Green (together with the adjacent roads) is 18 acres in extent. The Campbell Park, (where the United National Party (UNP) held its rally) was only 3.5 acres and the Municipal playground in Getambe (where the pro-Maithripala Sirisena SLFP rally was held) was only 2.5 acres, The extents itself give one an idea of the numbers each venue could hold, said an analyst.

Government intelligence agencies estimated the crowd at Galle Face Green to be well over 100,000 perhaps equaling the crowds that had gathered during the visit to Sri Lanka by Pope Francis in January 2015. During that visit, the 40 foot wide Galle Face Centre Road (from the Galle Face Hotel roundabout end to near the Kingsbury Hotel) was blocked for use by the pontiff’s motorcade. However, during the ‘JO’ rally, crowds jam-packed the roads too. (Sunday Times 7.5.17)

The UNP rally in Campbell Park, according to intelligence assessments, came a second with an estimated turnout of 45,000 whilst at Getambe the turnout was around 40,000.  The estimated figures show that the crowds at Galle Face Green had surpassed both the UNP and the pro-Maithripala SLFP crowds put together.

That the large turnout at the Galle Face Green on May Day has come as a wakeup call to the Government is not in doubt, said analysts.   There is also little doubt, judging by their reactions, that both the SLFP and the UNP are shaken by the developments. The reactions of Ministers and MPs of both sides underscore this.

The news of substantial crowds at Galle Face Green had jolted Government leaders. This is how a senior Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Minister, who did not wish to be identified for obvious reasons, described it: The turnout at the ‘JO’ rally was unexpectedly good and shows there is anti-Government feeling in the country. We have to accept that. This is food for thought. We should not underestimate what took place. The fact that they were able to muster a vast crowd and have a good media strategy makes them a force to reckon with. It is time we get our act together and stop criticizing each other.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe had ordered the police to provide security to Mahinda Rajapaksa during the rally.  However, President Sirisena ordered the withdrawal of 42 Police officers, including an Assistant Superintendent, from Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s personal protection group as news trickled in of the massive gathering. The Director of the Ministerial Security Division (MSD) sent a letter withdrawing these Police officers. 

The letter came past 5 p.m. on Tuesday asking them to withdraw before 9 pm,” Mahinda Rajapaksa said. He did not wish to make public comments on matters relating to his personal security. However, he said, I cannot understand how threat perceptions against me have reduced immediately after the May Day. Orders also went out to   state investigation units to proceed with Court action against members of the Rajapaksa family in cases where probes have been concluded. 

In the near two and half years of the Government’s existence, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had not made a significant impact against the Government on any major issue, except for some utterances  at public events, said the Sunday Times analyst. Therefore it is clear that Rajapaksa and his group have been benefiting and earning bonus points from the Government’s misdeeds, inactions, the spiraling cost of living and even allegations of widespread corruption.  The May Day rally showed that this has snowballed in Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s favor and bolstered his political position.

It is not just the large crowds at the Galle Face Green that was cause for worry for Government leaders. Some took comfort in the perception that they would not all translate into votes at an election. However, as the SLFP minister conceded, it demonstrated the anti-Government feeling in the country” or in other words the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance had become unpopular.

The turnout showed that the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) had come to stay and now has a substantial following. The Sri Lanka Podujana Party which they formed to contest future elections is just a year old, yet they have already broken all records as a crowd puller not once but on multiple occasions in different locations, Galle Face being the most impressive show of strength yet. The entire political future of this country is being determined by a political force that has taken shape outside the main political parties in the country, concluded Chandraprema. Clearly the SLFP organizations are cracking countrywide into two groups, the larger one now supporting Rajapaksa and the relatively smaller group backing Sirisena. The Sirisena-led SLFP is being pushed to a lower ranking.  (Continued)

One Response to “THE REIGN OF MAHINDA RAJAPAKSE (Part 5)”

  1. aloy Says:

    Kamalika always comes out with interesting facts regarding SL and in particular with leaders who take the Sinhalas as modayas. I want to ask her whether the 24/7 Channel Derana also took them on the same vain when they streamed a video on 1st of April 2019 regarding the custodianship of Sri Dalada. According to the video the link of which I give below, D.S. Senanayake considered as father of the nation, took a letter written by him, concealed in his shoe in 1948 and presented it to Her Majesty the Queen stating that there is no heir to the throne as per the Kandyan Convention at the time and therefore he should be given the PM’s post to lead Sri Lanka. According to the contents of the video this letter is preserved in a British museum.
    Is this a fact or a prank by Derana on that day?. They should come out with an explanation. If true Derana should put out the video with English text so that the world will know who are the patriots and traitors are as far as Sri Lanka is concerned.

    “https://youtu.be/pXV95Cv5QNw”

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