Well, so that happened. Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in as the 6th President of Sri Lanka. I was there.
Until Maithri was sworn in, the streets of Colombo were completely empty. You couldn’t even hear traffic in the distance. It was a great day for street cricket, but no one was playing. It honestly felt like Avurudu.
During Avurudu, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, the sun goes from the house of Pisces to the house of Aries (astrologically). While it’s ‘between houses’ is an uncertain time, so you don’t do anything. You don’t eat, you don’t light a fire, you don’t draw water. You stay in the house and you wait till everything is cool. Most people in Sri Lanka actually do this, myself included.
More than the stars, however, our lives are governed by politicians. When politicians are between houses, Sri Lankans also don’t do anything. It’s a rahu kalaya, an inauspicious time.
During Avurudu nothing bad is actually going to happen if you go out. It’s just a custom. However, unlike astrology, politics is real [note to politicians]. This election was Sri Lanka’s first actual loss of power and we truly didn’t know what would happen. Mahinda literally has to leave Temple Trees and Maithripala seems like he will actually govern from another house. People were legitimately afraid of military coups, riots, violence and unrest. That’s why they stayed home, until things were settled.
Aside On Coup Rumors
I heard all kinds of stuff about Mahinda not wanting to leave power, drawing up coup plans etc. I dunno, but I have to judge him on his ultimate actions, which were conceding shortly after the results were clear. He left power in less than 24 hours.
I don’t doubt that he would have stayed if possible (or at least the people behind him would have wanted to) but you simply can’t stage a coup right in the face of a popular election loss. There’s too much momentum and too much attention. The local and international reaction would have made it impossible to govern and almost half of government servants and military voted against him. Even of people that did vote for him, only a small minority would support a coup. You could seize Rupavahini and stay in Temple Trees but there’d be nothing left to govern.
Whatever you think about Mahinda, he did draw his power from the people – he did win elections and marshall support. When he lost he simply didn’t have that power behind him and a coup would have been untenable.
However, until he left and Sirisena was sworn in, the country was legitimately in limbo.
The Swearing In
You can actually see the tension in this photo. Firstly, look at the Navy Commander’s face (he’s in white). I’m pretty sure he’s on team Mahinda. The Chief Of Defence Staff was also tight with the Rajapaksas, as was basically everybody in military command, by necessity, especially after they reshuffled and purged to get rid of Sarath Fonseka supporters. And they have swords.
Then look at the guy in front of the clock tower, in the tie. That’s Lalith Weeratunge. He’s the President’s Secretary. These guys are supposed to be apolitical civil servants but he actively (and illegally) campaigned for Mahinda. Unlike Bradman Weerakoon, I doubt he’s keeping his job.
Then, finally look at the guy Sirisena is taking oaths from. Sirisena is being sworn in by Justice K Sripavan, NOT Chief Justice Mohan Peiris. Many consider Mohan Peiris an illegal appointment after the former Chief Justice was impeached by a kangaroo court. Sirisena refused to take oaths from him.
So, as you can see, it’s a tense situation, at least around the table. The whole ceremony was done within like 30 minutes and it was obviously not planned for pomp and circumstance. It actually looked rushed and they forgot to play the national anthem until the dignitaries had left. They were just getting it done, so the country could unite and restart.
And then it did. It was weird. When I walked to Independence Square there was no traffic. The traffic lights weren’t even on. When I walked out maybe an hour later, Independence Arcade was full of people taking selfies and there was traffic on the roads. I even saw a bus with Maithripala’s face on it, and they’re usually covered in Mahinda. It’s like after the ceremony everything just went back to normal. The sun was in its new house and all was right with the world. And I guess it was.
Not that Maithripala won, which was nice. What I mean was that the country stitched back together, peacefully. Unity is very important, especially for a national government. More importantly, unity is essential for normal stuff like getting bread or taking kids to school.
After the inauspicious time in Avurudu, you have a very auspicious time where you talk to your neighbors, your family, etc. That’s what I’ve done since the election ended. I hope you’ve had the same experience, and I hope you’ve also talked to people that supported the ‘other side’. Because it’s a new year. It’s a time to retreat for a while and then re-emerge, pay our respects, forgive old hurts and start again with a clean slate. Together.
Suba aluth avurudak, jaya wewa.