Sri Lanka opposition leader vows to bring millions to the streets

Sri Lanka opposition leader Sajith Premadasa has vowed to bring millions to the streets in defiance of a controversial statement by President Ranil Wickremesinghe that he would use the military to block another uprising.

Speaking at an event organised by the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in Negombo on Saturday November 26, Premadasa said the SJB under his leadership would defeat efforts by the Wickremesinghe government to quell protests.

“The president and government groups are saying in parliament that if another people’s struggle comes, they will suppress it using the military. That they will use the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to suppress the struggle. We’re not prepared to be cowards,” said Premadasa.

“We’re told to obtain permission to go on a political march on the road. If this is a challenge, the SJB and the SJB alliance under the leadership of Sajith Premadasa, [are prepared] to come out to the road in the millions. We will defeat these hollow boasts of the government using the power of the people,” he said.

Addressing parliament last week, President Wickremesinghe said the authorities will block any unlawful protests aimed at toppling the government. The state forces and a state of emergency would be used for this purpose, he said. However, peaceful protests may continue as long as permission is obtained from the police, he said.

President Wickremesinghe, who had long maintained the image of a democrat and a statesman, has been under fire both locally and internationally ever since he assumed the presidency for an alleged intolerance of protest.

He has been courting controversy since his ascend to Sri Lanka’s all powerful executive presidency, with activists, civil society groups, human rights defenders and opposition legislators critcising him for what they claim has been a crackdown on peaceful protest – the same series of youth-led peaceful protests that unseated his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa, landing him the highest seat of power in the land.

His recent pronouncements on human rights activists have not helped matters.

Wickremesinghe and his defenders, however, claim that he is still a liberal democrat who respects the right to free speech and peaceful assembly, and that he only wants to stop the more extremist elements that they claim have hijacked the protests with a view to toppling the government through a violent revolt. These groups, government spokesmen and other backers of the president claim, are attempting to destabilise the country at a time when stability is crucial to economic recovery.

Government members and other critics of the SJB, meanwhile, argue that the main opposition party is using the Aragalaya to their own political ends and are criticising Wickremesinghe in bad faith. They claim that Premadasa and his party have forgotten or are pretending to have forgotten how the opposition leader was almost ambushed and attack by more violent elements within the protest movement on May 09.

Critics of the SJB also question the purported popularity of the party and its leadership with the public. Analysts question the party’s capacity to bring millions out on to the streets as claimed by the SJB leadership.

The party, however, is prepared to show its strength at an upcoming election, whichever one comes first.

The president, meanwhile, has said he has no plans to dissolve parliament anytime soon. A parliamentary election, according to him, may have to wait till Sri Lanka’s economy has sufficiently recovered.

The SJB and opposition parties have condemned this announcement as an undemocratic attempt at suppressing the people’s rights.