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In this episode, we discuss the three-way contest in Parliament to elect Sri Lanka’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned last week amid an astounding protest movement. We also unpack heightened tensions between the Sri Lankan government and protesters, and what the political implications of this dramatic reconfiguration of political roles will be.
In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we look at Myanmar junta’s attempts to roll out Chinese-built surveillance cameras across the country, arbitrary travel restrictions and harassment of journalists and activists in India, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) landslide victory in Punjab by-elections, and more.
Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we talk about ‘14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible’, a 2021 Netflix documentary that follows Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja’s quest to summit all fourteen of the world’s 8000-meter peaks in seven months, plus our monthly recommendations for reading and watching.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, our monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Shubhanga, Marlon and Shwetha from Colombo, as well as Aimun from Karachi, and Sana from New Delhi. Hi guys!
RW: Our main story this week will be unpacking what’s happening in Sri Lanka and especially the political implications of what the shift in power will be.
[Audio from protests in Colombo on 9 July]
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Thanks Raisa. And I think our listeners might have followed the extensive coverage on media on Sri Lanka for the last few months. So these new developments were precipitated after massive crowds poured into the capital from all over Sri Lanka on 9 July, despite facing immense difficulties like fuel shortages and crippled public transport. Still, they came in their thousands, and for me, it was just surreal to see that many people congregated in one place.
There was excessive force used by the armed forces and the police in the morning and a protester was shot and killed. Then the crowd occupied the official residence of the president and the Presidential Secretariat. After that, the mood of the protest completely changed and you could see people walking into these premises – which were hitherto exclusive to the public, and people just started having a great time.
Sana and Aimun, while we were living through this and we were seeing it, I’m curious to know how did it seem to you two. Did it seem like bat *bleep* crazy from afar?
Sana Amir: I will be honest, yes, it was crazy but it was quite powerful too because we have been following the protests since the start and it has been around a hundred days since the protestors have been peacefully protesting, laying down their demands, and then to see everything culminate to that day and to actually make the president, who wasn’t ready to resign, flee the country (to no one knew where), literally felt like watching a film. The videos where we could see people walking long distances to reach the protest site because there were few transport options, actually showed how frustrated and angry the people must be with the fuel and food crisis and the overall situation of the economy.
I was also curious to see how protesters and protests unfold now since Ranil has been elected as the president. And I think one of the demands of the protesters was also the resignation of Ranil, along with Gotabaya.
Aimun Faisal: Yeah, I just wanted to follow up on that – I was also interested in knowing what was the general perception among Sri Lankans about Gotabaya’s escape during what looked like a moment of massive victory for the people.
[Audio from news clips reporting on Gotabaya’s escape to the Maldives and Singapore]
MA: Well, the general perception Aimun, I think is quite difficult to put into words. I’m sure we were all grappling with a lot of complex emotions. We were up early in the morning because our colleagues from the Maldives were giving us updates. There’s actually a really informative article that I can recommend which lists out exactly how the events unfolded. We were all glued to the screen. I think the flight he was on from the Maldives to Singapore set a record for the most tracked flight of all time. I remember what Shubhanga said afterwards – it was like a highspeed car chase, but without the cars or anyone chasing them.
So, Sri Lankans were all waiting for him to land in Singapore because it was announced that this is when official resignation would come in. And finally, after about 20 hours of collective anxiety, the resignation finally came. Which meant that one of the key demands of the protests that continued for months was achieved. The other demand was the resignation of the PM, Ranil Wickremesinghe. He did not resign, but as you know, he took up the role of acting president and now he is elected the president.
Shwetha Srikanthan: Yes Marlon. On Wednesday 20 July, Sri Lanka’s parliament elected Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe as the 8th Executive President with 134 lawmakers in the 225-member parliament voting in favour. And this victory means he will serve out the rest of the presidential term until November 2024.
This vote was a three-way contest through a secret ballot for presidency, between Ranil Wickremesinghe; the Rajapaksa-aligned and now independent Dullas Alahapperuma; and the leftist leader of People’s Liberation Front (JVP), Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Although Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa previously announced he would contest, he withdrew his bid and pledged his support for Alahapperuma on Tuesday.
Shubhanga Pandey: Now for those of our listeners not closely following party politics in Sri Lanka, we should perhaps also mention how unusual these developments are at so many levels – one of them being that Wickremesinghe is the only representative of his party in the house, and that the votes that actually made him the president have come from his former rival party.
Raisa, could you give us a quick snapshot of his recent political career and how he managed to achieve the necessary votes in the Parliament?
RW: Sure, Shubhanga. You could say that him getting the post of president was almost a foregone conclusion once the SLPP announced that they were backing Ranil Wickremesinghe as their candidate, since they do hold the majority of seats in Parliament and the vote was decided by secret ballot through parliament, in line with the process which is laid out in our constitution. Although it was an unusual choice as he was previously leader of the UNP and opposition leader, there was a bit of a tussle there because there was another candidate who was also backed by the SLPP. But given that establishment, the core group of the SLPP, indicated early on that they were backing Ranil, you could say that it was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Now that this has happened, the next step is to appoint an interim government which will consist of representatives from different parties. Until then, what we’re hearing is that Wickremesinghe has plans to continue on with the last appointed cabinet until opposition parties are ready to cooperate and form an all-party government. And in a twist of fate, Wickremesinghe, who as I said was previously the opposition leader, now finds himself having to work with his former political opponents.
Post-2015, when he was prime minister, Wickremesinghe faced some criticism for failing to hold the Rajapaksas accountable for corruption and allegations of human rights violations during the last phase of the civil war. He is also deeply unpopular – during the last general elections, his party, the UNP, secured just one seat via the national list, which Wickremesinghe promptly claimed for himself. He is known as being the ultimate survivor – he has been in politics since the mid-1970s, and has been a prime minister six times, despite being unable to complete a full term.
His bid was eventually successful as he received 134 votes out of 219, which was the majority. And then next up was Dullas Alahapperuma, who was also backed by the SLPP, specifically a breakaway faction, who received 82 votes. As Shwetha mentioned, some of the opposition candidates, notably the lead opposition party SJB announced that they were going to be backing Dullas during the vote. Meanwhile, Anura Kumara Dissanayake received just 3 votes.
SA: And what is the background of the other presidential candidates?
MA: The other candidate was Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who is the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the larger coalition of National People’s Power (NPP). Now given all the intrigue, betrayals and backstabbing which surrounded the hidden ballot, I think we can say for certain that (since he got only three votes) all the parliamentarians elected through his party voted for him. In his speech after the elections, he stated that there is a huge disconnect between the parliament and the will of the people on the ground. He called for immediate elections.
SS: And if we look at Dullas Alahapperuma, he’s somewhat of a wildcard. He started his career as a Sinhala journalist, before he was elected as an MP for the Matara District in 1994 until 2001. He’s a staunch Rajapaksa ally, who was initially with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) before joining the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP).
His political opportunism can also be seen in that he has voted in favour of amendments that centralise presidential powers as well as for those that seek to redress power imbalances introduced by opposition parties. His presidential bid also indicated that there’s some internal division within the ruling party, SLPP, who had announced that they were backing Ranil Wickremesinghe for the spot.
And Alahapperuma has also consistently opposed Tamil demands. Recently, protesters have criticised his long-time affiliation to the Rajapaksa regime, and asked how citizens, especially ethnic minorities, could have expected him to deliver justice to their communities.
SA: I’m curious – now that Ranil Wickremesinghe is president, how do you guys think things might unfold now?
RW: Yeah Sana, I think one likely consequence will probably be heightened tensions between the government and protesters. It didn’t help that even in the process of trying to appoint the president, Ranil was openly trying to coerce SLPP MPs to vote for him. One of his promises was that he’s going to rebuild the houses [of SLPP MPs] that were destroyed or damaged by fire in the protests, which caused anger because there are many other dire needs that need to be addressed right now, and it was seen as an open attempt to curry favour and win votes.
One of the key demands has been for Ranil to step down, and protesters have already indicated that some of them plan to continue with the protests. Wickremesinghe has already shown a willingness to crackdown on protesters as acting president, authorising military and police to act without political interference to ‘control the situation’, as he put it, after protests on July 13. Shortly before the elections, Wickremesinghe also passed Emergency Regulations which significantly heightened police powers to restrict freedom of assembly, and a court order has now prohibited protesters from gathering within 50 metres of the SWRD Bandaranaike statue on Galle Face, which is seen by the protesters as a bid to shift them from occupying the space. For example, some of the tents where people are staying the night are not far from that statue.
Despite this, Wickremesinghe is seen by some as the best available candidate for presidency, given his relatively better standing in the international community, and with some people arguing that he’s perhaps the best positioned to steer Sri Lanka through negotiations with the IMF. Related to this, within Sri Lanka, his key vote base has historically been from Colombo, especially segments of the business community and the upper-middle class, who now hope that his election will usher in political stability for IMF negotiations. It’s possible that this is also a silent hope held by those impacted by the crisis as well, who are looking for solutions to the deprivation that they are facing. However, Wickremesinghe will probably have to work with some of his former adversaries in an interim government, so it’s going to be an uphill challenge and it’s not a given that his appointment alone is going to usher in political stability. And of course, there’s also the reality of what a successful IMF negotiation will entail for the public, and how protesters will react to the reality of how long a return to normalcy will take. There are different statements being made on this front. But going into that is a whole different podcast in itself.
Moving on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
MA: Reports coming from Myanmar states that the junta government is installing Chinese-built cameras with facial recognition capabilities. This project which started after the military took over last year is now being extended to other cities across the country. There are fears by human rights activists that this initiative could be used to crack down on activists and dissenters, who have been described as terrorists by the junta. It has been already reported that the junta uses widespread surveillance like intercepting telecom and web suppliers through spyware to observe communications and crackdown on protesters.
SP: So, many of us might have seen the news of the inauguration of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge in Bangladesh in late June. This is the longest bridge in the country, that goes over the Padma River (also called river Ganga in India), and is expected to connect nearly 30 million people in the country’s southwest to Dhaka, and it’s been seen as a pride project by the Bangladeshi government because they financed it entirely from their own resources.
But there was another interesting story linked to the bridge that has seen no reporting outside Bangladesh. This is a High Court verdict issued just 3 days after the opening of the bridge, which ordered the government to form a commission within 30 days to identify people who made allegations of corruption during the Padma Bridge project, which lasted for over 20 years. But the project has actually been mired in allegations of corruption from its very early years, with both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank actually backing out of its financing. So, the allegations are not without some merit. Still, the court’s observations that those who made such allegations or claims in the past are “enemies of the state and the nation” seems rather unusual, and I wonder if this new commission is another instrument that the Hasina government can use against dissidents and political rivals.
SA: In India, there were several cases of harassment of journalists and activists who are critical of the current government, the Bharatiya Janata Party. On 27 June, last month, Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt-News, was arrested based on a four-year-old tweet where he had shared a screenshot from a popular Hindi movie to make a satirical comment. After that, six more First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed against him, all from the state of Uttar Pradesh. Three of these cases are over a tweet in which he had called right-wing leaders “hate mongers”. Zubair was finally granted bail on 20 July on all the seven cases by the Supreme Court of India.
There was another case of harassment of journalists in the state of Jharkhand. On 17 July, independent journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh was arrested by the police on charges of supporting Maoist groups. The journalist was charged with the draconian law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and sections of the Indian Penal Code. Rupesh is an independent journalist and writes on issues of Adivasis and other marginalised communities.
Kashmiri journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo was stopped from travelling abroad on 2nd July despite holding a valid visa. The authorities did not give any specific reason for not allowing her to travel.
Then filmmaker Avinash Das was detained by the Gujarat police on 19 July for sharing a photo of India’s Union home minister Amit Shah with an arrested IAS officer on Twitter.
Apart from journalists, last month, social activist Teesta Setalvad and two other police officers were arrested by the Gujarat crime branch in the 2002 Gujarat riots case. The charges are that she allegedly fabricated evidence to frame innocent people in the riots case and for being part of a larger conspiracy to frame the then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi and others as accused in the case. The activist and others have refuted all the charges against them and have sought bail.
An FIR was registered against social activist and founder of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) movement, Medha Patkar, and 11 others for allegedly misusing funds collected for education of tribal children. Medha Patkar has refuted the allegations and has also hinted that the complainant was connected with the Hindu nationalist group, RSS.
[Audio from news clips of PTI winning in Punjab elections]
AF: In Pakistan, the by-elections held in Punjab saw PTI win 15 of the 20 provincial assembly seats up for grabs. This was particularly surprising given the tension between the political party and the military establishment following Imran Khan’s ouster as prime minister. The results of the election go against the conventional wisdom in the country that dictated it was impossible to win over the most populous province in the country while taking an anti-military establishment stance. Thus, even groups who have had their reservations with the PTI in the past, have welcomed the results as a moment of democratic strength in the country. This also provides PTI the momentum for the upcoming general elections and while no one can predict what the results of it can look like, as things currently stand, the party appears to be a strong contender for federal power once again.
And now it’s time for our next segment, Bookmarked.
RW: So, my recommendation is a documentary on Netflix. It’s called ‘14 Peaks’ and it follows the story of a Nepalese mountaineer, Nirmal Purja and his ambitious desire to climb all 14 eight-thousander peaks (eight-thousanders meaning those which are taller than 8000 metres) in just under 7 months, which would be a record-breaking attempt.
[Audio from ‘14 Peaks’ trailer]
And what I found interesting about this documentary is it’s positioned as this attempt to reclaim mountain climbing as something that has historically been pioneered by Southasians and especially Nepalese. It is widely known that the Sherpas usually pave the way for foreign climbers to ascend safely, but their names and role are usually obscured or downplayed.
In contrast, I think Nirmal highlighted his all-Nepali team’s work and efforts. Incidentally, the documentary also made the news because the music which was composed by Nainita Desai was nominated for an Emmy Award in the documentary category.
I still found that when I watched it, I felt that it centres on just one person’s ambition. There were also some really interesting parts in the documentary where there are these interviews with Nirmal’s mother and partner, and they express concerns about the ambition of this project and indirectly revealed the toll that it takes on them. Another underexplored topic that I thought didn’t really come up in the film was the cost of mountaineering, which can often be a barrier to undertaking these ambitious feats. So, it’s kind of almost mentioned in passing that Nirmal re-mortgages his house just to complete his climb, and I think that reveals a reason why more Southasian can’t try similar feats.
I should add that climbing is also, in my view, often such a masculine activity. I actually used to be part of a group which did quite a few hikes, and this is coming from my experience where it was just so interesting to watch the emphasis that was placed on endurance, where we would actually give each other awards based on who displayed the most stamina during hikes. So, I was reminded of that when I was watching this.
MA: Stamina in what sense, Raisa? Like getting to the place first or…
RW: Getting to the top. Well, it was based on different criteria. So in my case, it was because I climbed Adam’s Peak using the Ratnapura king’s route. I really enjoyed it too, but it is more than double the Matale route.
MA: How were the leeches, by the way?
RW: It wasn’t too bad, but it was off-season. So it was raining pretty hard and one of the other people with me, their knee gave out halfway, so I basically had to drag them up and down the mountain, and that is why I got the award.
But as I was saying, I feel that in these groups, a lot of what comes out is this emphasis on endurance and stamina, even if it comes at the cost of your own physical health. But in that sense, I have to say, it’s nice to see that there are some groups here which are trying to lower these barriers by allowing for more guided group hikes, and I do hope that continues because I think that Sri Lanka has a lot to offer in this front (economic crisis aside). And I should also add that we have a Sri Lankan who successfully summited Everest, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, and another who attempted and got close to the summit (Johann Pieris). I was reminded of that because the film also talks about the hype around Everest summits and how it has become extremely crowded as well.
SP: Yeah, and we should also add that, Raisa, you’re currently editing an article which briefly talks about this documentary as well. The article I guess is more about why scaling mountains became such a thing. I guess we’ll have the article out in the future, but any interesting comments you found in the review itself?
RW: Yeah, I have been working on an article and that’s also why I watched ‘14 Peaks’. The review itself actually does touch on a lot of the things that I was talking about, especially how it’s been dominated by white people and without really foregrounding the effort of Southasians, and it’s also talking about how even the exercise of measuring mountains is part of the imperial project, which is an aspect that I didn’t personally know about before, so that’s been interesting. It will probably come out in the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for it.
SP: Yeah, I watched this documentary a few months back, maybe when it was just out. And obviously, it’s a remarkable feat and the protagonist, Nirmal Purja, seems like an interesting character and athletically talented and hardworking. But it was also, like you were saying, this documentary I guess is part of this whole move to reappropriate what is the Global South or the previously colonised or dominated world to reassert themselves, and feels like it’s part of that narrative that’s quite popular in the cultural world in general. Although, what I did feel it was doing was also in a way – there is this kind of hyper-masculinity that’s kind of being associated with, I felt, a particular kind of identity. So, in this case, Nepali identity, but also actually the Gurkha identity because Nirmal Purja was in his early career a Gurkha soldier and actually, I think, left his job in the British military. And I also found that, in a way, almost kind of orientalising a particular identity for being fierce, brave and enduring and all of that. And also, it touched on the two most well-known clichés associated with Nepal: Mount Everest and the Gurkhas. There could not be a more clichéd connection.
But it’s an interesting documentation of a character and my sense is that someone like Nirmal Purja might also try to build a broader career in the West, out of this documentary. I think he actually shot a good chunk of the film and was actually quite intimately involved in the filmmaking, so that’s actually worth noting as well, that his cinematic role is significant in itself. In fact, that is in some ways equally impressive.
Shall we move on to other recommendations that we might have?
SS: Yeah. My recommendation, keeping in theme with our main discussion today, is an illustrated book called Kaputu Kaak: A Very Sri Lankan Struggle by Amal de Chickera and Deshan Tennekoon. This book is about protest and civic education for children and it outlines the current crisis in Sri Lanka, it’s about how we got here, our violent past and the people’s struggle in Sri Lanka, and it presents it in this very accessible manner.
I think this is a great project and it’s such a useful resource, not just for kids. And the book has some incredible artwork done by Deshan Tennekoon. This is also just one of the many examples of creative projects we’ve seen from the last few months – from protest music, artwork, poetry and so much more. The creators are distributing copies of this book with schools, libraries, protest sites, and they are also working on Sinhala and Tamil translations. So I’d definitely recommend checking this book out to learn more about what’s been happening in Sri Lanka.
MA: Yeah, and just to add to that – like you said Shwetha, it’s brilliant and I think it should be part of the school curriculum, if at all it is possible. And looking forward to seeing the translations also come out.
RA: Yeah, I fully agree. I thought the illustrations were so beautiful. And as you were saying Shwetha, I think it’s not just for kids, because unfortunately in Colombo, there is a very dismaying apathy around protests which are often seen as just obstructing traffic, and I think that this tries to combat that in a very accessible way. So I would argue that not just kids, but adults should read it too, just to get an idea of the protest movement. And yes, it’s just one of many really interesting forms of protests that we’ve seen coming out of Sri Lanka.
And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see more of Himal’s work, and while you’re at it, check out our membership plans and support us.
Thanks everyone. Bye!