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A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka

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by Mathias Keittle

Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internal Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The Government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.

Background: After 27 years of bloody conflict Sri Lanka’s internal mayhem came to an end with the comprehensive defeat of the Tamil Tigers. In an Alice in Wonderland scenario, the country changed from an environment of unconstrained fear and uncertainty to peace and utter relief overnight. Thousands poured out on to the streets to celebrate in an outpouring of incomparable joy and restaurant keepers spontaneously distributed food to all passersby along busy thoroughfares.

Over the following months approximately 300,000 IDPs were returned to their own towns and villages, admittedly not to the best of living conditions. But one has to remember that their circumstances were hardly comfortable under the iron rule of the LTTE (Tamil Tiger Terrorist Group) for close to 27 years or as they were herded from one tent camp to another as a human shield and a bargaining chip by the retreating LTTE.

The LTTE had also removed roofing material from houses to prevent the return of their human shield to their homes. The captured child soldiers (approximately 600) have undergone rehabilitation and have returned to their communities. UNICEF documented 5,700 child recruits by the LTTE. Of the 11,700 former LTTE combatants, over 7,000 have been returned to their communities after rehabilitation despite the real risk of some returning to the only profession that they had been trained in – that of being trained killers.

The risk is magnified by the fact that caches of buried weapons continue to be unearthed in the North and the Tamil militants in the West continue to drum up separatism and violence from their safe havens. The continued presence of the military in the North is naively criticized, but the above background factors are ignored. Only a fraction of the detainees will face trial as the evidence against the rest may not be adequate to satisfy the evidential requirements of the courts. A vast effort has been undertaken to restore the economy of the North and huge sums are being pumped in for the purpose. All this receives hardly a mention in the West while an intense campaign is being orchestrated to pin down individuals allegedly guilty of war crimes and human rights violations.

This must surely be the only case in history that a winner in a conflict has been hounded in this manner to account for alleged war crimes and breaches of human rights in the process of winning the conflict – leave alone defeating a ruthless terrorist group. There have been no such demands made following World War II, or after the Korean Conflict, after Vietnam, after Gulf War 1, the continuing occupation of Afghanistan or Iraq. Remarkably, all sorts of people have flocked together to demand accountability from Sri Lanka.

It cannot simply be that they all were encouraged by the sexiness of the subject or simply by the nobility of advancing humanity’s highest ideals. The Reasons: It is difficult to pin down one reason for this attitude of a number of key Western countries and some high profile individuals. Were pure principled attachment to humanitarian standards the reason, then Sri Lanka would, in their view, appear to be the one egregious offender in the whole world. This obviously cannot be the case. But Sri Lanka is certainly a developing country from the non-Western world and hence easier to beat up. Sri Lanka also was unusual in not responding positively to intense pressure when a number of Western leaders demanded a ceasefire towards the very end of the conflict and this refusal set an uncomfortable precedent.

Bernard Kouchner, David Miliband and Hillary Clinton, all demanded a ceasefire which Sri Lanka rejected. Both sides had good reasons for the approaches that they adopted. Sri Lanka had the Tamil Tigers on their haunches and victory after 27 years of brutal bloodshed was temptingly within grasp. The Western leaders were under intense pressure to intervene from the Tamil Diaspora, which wielded enormous financial and some political clout. Cities like Toronto, London, Melbourne and Sydney were brought to a standstill by massive Tamil demonstrations. During his visit to Sri Lanka in the middle of May 2009, David Milliband was told in no uncertain terms to butt out and mind his own business by the Sri Lankan leadership and may not have forgiven this slight by the former colonial minion.

The US proposed an evacuation of the trapped civilians and, perhaps the LTTE leadership, using its naval assets and this was rejected both by India and the Sri Lankan Government. There were predictions of a blood bath and, at the time, no one claimed that it actually happened. (Subsequently and, suspiciously, evidence began to be produced by interested parties to establish that a blood bath did actually happen!). Interestingly, allegations of war crimes and human rights violations have emerged from countries that have provided refuge to massive numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils. Many have used the then existing violence as a basis for their claims for refugee status.

The LTTE raised large amounts of money from the Diaspora to fund the war effort. Today these funds are used to advance their cause. Tamils for Clinton contributed substantially to her campaign until this was brought to public attention and the funds were returned. The LTTE has quietly funded politicians in many Western countries and continue to do so. The US lawyer, Bruce Fein, is funded by the Tamil Diaspora. The liberal end of Western politics, ever ready to champion the underdog, was a willing champion of the Tamil Diaspora cause. The shadow LTTE incessantly targets the media and the diplomatic community in Colombo.

The availability of funds, articulate advocates, the liberal tendency to take up the causes of apparent underdogs, horror stories, real or concocted, sympathetic journalists who were ever ready to use their privileged position in the Western media to support the cause, the sense of unhappiness with Sri Lanka among liberal political leaders in the West, the slow pace with which Sri Lanka countered some of the issues, were a cogent mix to activate the major humanitarian NGOS in the West. Many Western journalists unashamedly adopted the ‘Tamilnet’ version of the conflict and were willing to use influential Western newspapers (London Times, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) to propagate the version fed by the ‘Taminet’.

It would also seem that a not so subtle campaign is being mounted against the Sri Lankan leadership, orchestrated by elements of the Tamil Diaspora and picked up by the Western media. The settling of scores by using the international community, now that the battle on the ground has been lost, appears to be the major objective. Efforts persist to pin charges of war crimes and human rights violations, on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations and innuendo. This powerful surge is further augmented by allegations of abuses, corruption and nepotism. If these allegations stick, it would be a short step to drag Sri Lankan leaders before international tribunals. Recent history suggests that some allegations get a life of their own by the simple process of repetition. The Machiavellian story line is simple. “The Sri Lankan Government deliberately set about using its military to target the Tamil population of the North and killed thousands in the process”. This line is repeated for effect while the authenticated history of the LTTE’s murderous bombing campaign targeting civilians over a period of 27 years and killing thousands, the recruitment of thousands of children as child soldiers, the murder of dozens of moderate Tamil leaders, the extortion of millions from Tamils around the world, the ethnic cleansing of the Northern Province, the deliberate destruction of UNESCO protected places of worship, the deliberate and cynical use of thousands as a human shield, the human trafficking and the drug trafficking are air brushed as the frenzied campaign is cranked up using NGOs, eminent persons and the media to establish human rights violations and war crimes by the Government.

The focus is deliberately shifted from the murderous Tigers to the Government and these allegations are designed to stay around for a long while. The one goal of this campaign appears to be to punish the Government leadership, in order to avenge the defeat of the murderous Tigers, if not today then at some later time. A lie repeated often enough acquires a life of its own. This also gradually contributes to causing feelings of discomfort and doubt in the minds of ordinary Sri Lankans whose confidence in their Government, unshakable at present, could falter in time giving rise to prospects of regime change possibilities.

Some elementary fallacies: Were Thousands Killed in the Final Stages of the War? Were thousands of civilians killed in the final stages of the conflict? Was the number 1,000? 7,000 (as claimed in an internal UN document, later denied)? 20,000 as claimed by Jeremy Page in the London Times?

 

40,000 as claimed in the book, Cage by Gordon Weiss (commonly known as Gordon the Unwise) and referred to in the Darusman Report to the UNSG? or higher. The exact number will never be known just as much as we will never know the exact number of civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq following the intervention by Western governments. (The ‘Lancet’ claimed in 2005 that already over 500,000 civilians had been killed in Iraq).

But certain established facts cannot be ignored. In the final weeks of the conflict, the ICRC with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy evacuated approximately 7,000 injured and the sick, including pregnant women, and over 8,000 others from the last holdout of the LTTE. Is it likely that if there had been other injured, the ICRC would have left them behind and ferried out 8,000 healthy persons? Experience and records of other recent conflicts would suggest that the number killed must be substantially lower than the number injured. This is a fact derived from experience. Most importantly, at the end of the conflict both sides were hell bent on fighting to the end leaving no time to bury the dead. In the circumstances, the LTTE is unlikely to have had the time to bury the alleged large numbers of dead.

The Sri Lankan army never found large numbers of dead bodies either. But what is a fact is that in April and May 2009, close to 300,000 civilians streamed out of the LTTE enclave to seek the protection of the Government Security Forces. Importantly, the Government which adopted a zero civilian casualty policy had learned from the experience of other armies fighting amongst civilians that indiscriminate attacks on civilians only result in producing more volunteer martyrs. In early 2009, the Committee to Coordinate Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) to the North was working on the figure that there were approximately 121,000 people in Kilinochchi and 127,000 in Mullaitivu for the purpose of directing relief supplies to the North. It is quite likely that the LTTE took with them around 100,000 from Mannar. Considering that around 60,000 escaped to Government controlled areas in the previous year, the numbers detained by the LTTE settles around the number accommodated in the Government organized refugee camps in May 2009.

It is also on record that the Government adopted a zero civilian casualty policy and consciously adopted an infantry based approach. This resulted in 6,000 deaths of security personnel as the final battles were fought by infantry when more devastating approaches could have been adopted. The allegation of deliberate targeting of civilians by the military and the large numbers killed appears to be a convenient and Machiavellian story to pin a charge of crimes against humanity. Was the Tamil Community the Target of the Security Forces? This is an accusation which could be dismissed outright if not for the seriousness with which it is expressed. The majority of the Tamils of Sri Lanka do not live in the North or the East. The vast majority lives among the majority community, the Sinhalese. It is estimated that 41% of the population of the capital, Colombo, is Tamil.

In Colombo, the Tamil community has schools, temples, flourishing businesses and a significant number of Tamils are successful professionals and businessmen in Colombo. Many business houses in Colombo are Tamil owned. The UN has acknowledged that for over 27 years, the Government funded the health services and the schools in the LTTE controlled areas and sent food supplies to those areas. The food requirements were determined by the Government Agents stationed in the District capitals, although in fact under the control of the LTTE. The CCHA which consisted of the Ambassadors of the US, EU, Japan, Norway and the ICRC, in addition to senior representatives of key ministries, monitored the supply of essentials to the North on a weekly basis. In the circumstances, to suggest that the Tamil community was targeted by the Government’s security forces, as was done in the Channel 4 documentary, is a base attempt to exacerbate ethnic divisions and create a negative impression of the Government.

It also appears to be part of an insidious scheme to pin a charge of crimes against humanity on the security forces and its leadership in addition to aggravating and perpetuating latent ethnic tensions. No armed conflict is a game played in the school yard leave alone a terrorist war unleashed by a brutal proscribed group. Civilians do get hurt in war. Elsewhere this is referred to as “collateral damage”, and we know of wars in the wider region where collateral damage can be counted in the thousands. But the Government of Sri Lanka adopted a policy of minimizing civilian casualties and to denigrate this approach now is reprehensible. It was because of the adherence to this policy that the Security Forces incurred over 6,000 deaths by approaching the last pockets of the LTTE on foot. Perhaps, it is also convenient for the thousands of Tamils who went to the West claiming discrimination and oppression to maintain this façade until their refugee claims have been processed. To acknowledge anything else may result in being sent back. It is also a fact that thousands who have received refugee status and travel documents from Western countries have travelled back to Sri Lanka to reclaim their properties and visit family and have not suffered any harassment.

 

(Mathias Keittle is a German researcher in Colombo hailing from Statalendorf.



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Politics

The daunting challenge before PM Ranil Wickremesinghe

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by Gnana Moonesinghe

At long last the nation has a new prime minister who has a unique record of having been PM of the country five times in the past. The wealth of experience such a person must have will be invaluable in the present context.

There are some who are opposed to his appointment. They are of the opinion that since he is not an elected member of parliament, as he entered the House through the National List, he is not entitled to be made PM. Further, he being a single member representing his party in Parliament, his claim to lead the country is challenged once again. Another objection to his selection is that when the 21st Amendment to the constitution is implemented, he as PM will become the Chief Executive of the country over and above an elected incumbent for whom 6.3 million people voted.

The need of the hour is that a nation faced with a gigantic economic crisis which has left its citizen without basic essentials, which they are angrily demanding, be urgently addressed. The prime ministerial post was first offered to the leader of the Opposition who initially rejected it. But later, after it was offered to and accepted by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa agreed to accept it if certain conditions he placed were accepted.

Urgent action to make the economy viable and create tolerable living conditions for the people is essential. Protesters in their tens of thousands are demanding quick solutions. The urgency for action needs be recognized. This certainly is not the time for placing conditions for unity or for support.

There is no more cash to pay for essential imports and no longer is the nation held creditworthy. People are protesting about economic mismanagement and demanding the resignation of the President. He, however, is constitutionally entitled to stay in office expires until his term expires in two years.

In the meantime the elected Prime Minister has resigned in the face of widespread demand and as a result the cabinet stood dissolved. A new cabinet in now in place and, hopefully, the challenge of getting the economy back on track and making necessary systemic changes will be addressed.

The consensus among the people is for all groups in parliament to get together and find a resolution to the country’s crisis and the peoples’ plight. There is suspicion that Ranil had been chosen to cover up the misdeeds of the government. Much was expected during Ranil’s last tenure.

The people wanted the Rajapaksas charged with fraud and other misdemeanors but no action on this front was seen by the public. Hence the suspicion of cover-up. Many explanations have been offered for his inaction during his previous tenure. He now has to prove himself. Time will tell whether he will succeed.

This is however not a time for picking holes. It is for Ranil to deliver on our expectations of taking take the nation out of this crisis and bringing peace in society. By accepting the premiership he has given the promise of uniting the nation at a time when the nation was looking for a leader with the capacity to do so. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s experience holds promise.In his address to the nation he analyzed the government’s present predicament. A budget deficit of Rs 2.4 trillion, 11 % of GDP, cannot be wished away.He cannot present a rosy picture of quick recovery. Instead he presented our grim situation and said inflation will further increase. That is how dire the situation is.

Against his better judgment he is compelled to permit printing money to pay state employees and fund procurement of essential goods and services. The immediate future will be challenging but in the near future he expects our foreign allies to help us. But we will also have to tread a new path, he stresses.

A National Assembly has to be established or a political body where all parties will participate and take decisions for short, medium and long term plans to end this crisis within a specified time frame. Ranil hopes to build a contented nation where peoples needs are satisfied. The task is daunting but he promises to deliver with the support of the nation.He has presented the problems and the way to resolve them in the short term. He hopes to solve the problems with the support of friendly external allies . He did not minimize the problem in his analysis. In this context his reference to the budget deficit as 11% of GDP reveals the magnitude of the problem facing us.

I remember his calling for unity among the different political parties amid raucous shouting by parliamentarians during a recent parliamentary session. The seriousness of the situation has been demonstrated by the spontaneous reaction of a cross-section of our people protesting against corruption and bad governance inflicted upon us for many years.

That we must map our own strategy as agreed by the parliamentarians is evident. What may this be? Wickremesinghe says it has to be developed in consultation with all. The challenge is to work with all shades of opinion and come up with an action plan after wide ranging discussion. It is not one man’s job . The task before us belongs to all. Critics are not the need of the moment; problem solvers are. I think Ranil Wickremesinghe is a man who can meet this daunting challenge. He has accepted it and we wish him well.

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Politics

The fall of the middle-class

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By Uditha Devapriya

I distinctly remember one day in January 2020 when I felt I had everything I could want. I couldn’t explain the feeling; it just came up. I had resigned from work after three years, and was preparing for my higher studies, with hopes of going abroad.

That day three friends paid me a visit. We talked about the future. I pointed out we had nothing to lose. By “we”, I meant our generation: a generation which had come of age and left school around the time the war ended. We were now spending our way through life and saving very little of it. Our dreams remained the same: study hard, do a job, earn what you can, and spend what you will. This simple formula was what had pushed my generation on. My friends – younger than I – agreed that it would push them on as well.

We were supremely egotistical. We felt we could bend the world to our will. And to an extent, we did. We gorged on the latest consumables and luxuries, took cabs when earlier we took buses, and revelled in parties and outings. Education, for us, was a way of securing enough money to sustain this lifestyle. That is why we concentrated so hard on our A Levels and university exams: because it was our path out of poverty and misery.

Not surprisingly, we defined our status in terms of ownership: the latest phones, the fastest cars, the cleanest homes, the sexiest dresses. These remained our benchmarks.

We didn’t realise how fragile the ground beneath us was. We didn’t understand that our enjoyment of these luxuries depended on certain things. We called ourselves middle-class, even bragging about it to each other. Yet to remain middle-class, paradoxically, our lives had to be subsidised. Back then the minimum bus fare cost LKR 17. A litre of petrol cost LKR 117, and a kilometre in a metre taxi cost LKR 60. We failed to appreciate that to become who we were, these fares had to remain at those levels. And for them to remain at those levels, the government had to, in essence, absorb losses from lower prices.

We also failed to realise, I think, that the country’s economic model, which had sustained us for so long, could not sustain itself for too long. In the absence of an industrial base, or to be more specific an industrial ecosystem, the gap between what we wanted – which we had to pay for in dollars – and what we exported – which never brought in the dollars the country needed – could only widen. Successive governments made up for this deficit by borrowing. In other words, to subsidise the middle-class and their lifestyles, the country had to keep on running trade and budget deficits, and borrowing beyond its capacity.

It’s not that we didn’t understand this. Economists have been warning against Sri Lanka’s failure to industrialise for years. But we didn’t appreciate how steep borrowing, widening deficits, and diminishing export proceeds were financing our lifestyles. We didn’t realise, I think, that this couldn’t go on for much longer. A country aspiring for middle-class status, and had more or less achieved that status, had to extricate itself from what has been called the middle-income trap. To escape this trap, it had to start producing, and take the next step in manufacture. Yet the model we seemed content with was a rentier one: importing what we wanted, adding a profit mark-up, and reselling it to the local market.

This carnival of sorts began in 1977. It ended somewhere last April, when for the first time in its history and the first time in Asia in over a quarter-century, Sri Lanka announced that it would not service its foreign debts. It will now, for the 17th time or so, go to the IMF, only this time it will have to become debt sustainable. For a lot of Sri Lankans this seems like good news: we’ll be back on our feet and we can all go back to the way things were before COVID-19 and the wretched Rajapaksas. But some of us know better.

Sri Lanka’s middle-classes have always been vulnerable to external shocks. Yet until now, they were shielded from these shocks thanks to government intervention. The government kept the prices of essentials down, enabling the middle-classes to focus on other priorities. Since petrol and diesel were relatively affordable, they could prioritise buying vehicles and phones. So between 2011 and 2014 the country witnessed a tsunami of vehicle imports. The streets of Colombo flooded with SUVs and cabs. A JICA report, published during the second Mahinda Rajapaksa government, warned against rising vehicle numbers. But we didn’t care: since everything seemed within our reach, we wanted more.

We never thought of public infrastructure. We never thought of improving our public services. Yes, we built Expressways and Highways. But these, by themselves, were never enough. We never paid renewable energy the attention it deserved, for instance. Even at the height of the recent crisis several months ago, we witnessed CEB officials bemoaning the previous government’s decision to close a coal power plant. Now coal prices are on their way up and several countries, India included, are facing acute shortages, the worst in over 25 or so years. Meanwhile the sun keeps shining and the winds keep blowing. We’ve made use of neither. And officials who should be caring don’t seem to be.

Napoleon reportedly called Britain a nation of shopkeepers. He might as well have called Sri Lanka a nation of consumers. Joseph Stiglitz advised us to learn to produce and to learn to learn. This country has enough and more talent to take us forward there: it has the capacity, for instance, to produce electric vehicles. But such initiative should have been encouraged early on. Instead, pushed on by our faith in quick fixes, we ignored what was in plain sight. The IMF will sooner or later turn us towards debt sustainability, yes. But this will come at a tremendous cost, and not just for the country’s poor and vulnerable.

The middle-classes that once thought no end of their future will have to take the bite soon. The irony is that this was a long, long time coming. We just chose to turn the other way. That is our tragedy, though we have only ourselves to blame.

The writer is an international analyst who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Politics

The future of the aragalaya

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By Uditha Devapriya

Lenin once remarked that there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen. Much more than a decade passed last week at Galle Face. Beginning with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s desperate and disastrous attempt at retaining his premiership, events began to cascade, one after another. Praised by everyone, locally and internationally, for their peaceful veneer, the Galle Face protests turned sour when Rajapaksist goons started vandalising the protest site and beating up protesters. As expected, the retaliation was swift and severe: although no one was killed at the protest sites, around eight people ended up dead elsewhere, a sad finale to an otherwise peaceful display of dissent.

This flow of events may or may not have convinced the Rajapaksas that they can no longer call the shots as they once did, but it compelled the elder brother’s resignation as Prime Minister. The main thrust of these protests remains, however: Gotabaya Rajapaksa must go home. Yet caught between a rock and a hard place, between the Scylla of resistance to his rule and the Charybdis of retribution following his resignation, Rajapaksa has opted for the safer option, appointing a Prime Minister and an interim administration while remaining as President. How different political formations have responded to these developments tells us much about the rut that Sri Lanka’s Opposition is currently in.

The mob-led violence earlier last week proved two things. Firstly, though middle-class protesters may have the patience to hold peaceful protests, the lower classes – urban and rural – will not tolerate political chicanery anymore. That neither police officers nor soldiers could handle the situation on Monday night should tell us that the situation has got out of control. Secondly, the Rajapaksas can remain oblivious to these developments at the cost of not just the country’s, but also their own future. This is why it is more than likely that the Rajapaksas will not enact the anti-climactic theatrics Mahinda engaged with on Sunday and Monday, again. People have reached their limit, and the First Family knows it.

The brief turnaround from a peaceful to a violent momentum at Galle Face signalled another, more paradigmatic shift among political parties. SJB MPs and UNP activists have, for quite a while now, been accusing the Galle Face protests of being manipulated by the JVP-NPP and the FSP. What happened on Monday has more or less hardened their stance: while not completely opposing the demonstrations, these MPs and supporters have been criticising the JVP-NPP-FSP’s involvement in them. Such a state of affairs came about after Sajith Premadasa’s attempt to enter Gotagogama on Monday was rebuffed.

Since this incident, social media has been rife with speculation about the real hands behind these protests. From the SJB’s and UNP’s perspective, the protesters are as much against their parties as they are against the Rajapaksas. At the same time, they see them as being lenient or soft on the New Left. Very naturally, the SJB and the UNP view this difference in treatment hostilely, claiming that the protests have been hijacked by certain political parties and are harbouring insidious agendas against certain others.

Is the SJB-UNP correct here? To an extent, yes. But we need to be clear on a few things. Firstly, if the protests have been infiltrated by the New Left, it is because outfits like the Inter University Students’ Federation have become active participants. The IUSF does not enjoy the support of the UNP or the SJB, nor does it endorse their politics. The IUSF is aligned with the FSP, more than with the JVP, and it identifies with an activist Left. As far as the Galle Face protests go, neither the SJB nor the UNP can up their ante here.

Secondly, though the protests themselves remain leaderless, economic conditions have radicalised the middle-classes, including the Colombo middle-classes. What this means is that while they may have ridiculed student groups like the IUSF earlier, as they actually did when the latter organised demonstrations against SAITM in 2016, now the middle-classes sympathise with the likes of Wasantha Mudalige, the IUSF’s convenor. They have expressed solidarity with trade unions also, the latter of which have, in response these turnarounds, changed their strategies: whereas before, unions from institutions like the Ceylon Electricity Board went for all-out strikes, disrupting public services, now they are refraining from such action, claiming it would disrupt the protesters and their access to social media.

My private university student friend who declared, on Facebook, and in response to the growing solidarity between private and public university students over Gotagogama, that class is a convenient construct, and that the fight was always against political elites, may have got his reading of the situation wrong, but it testifies to how middle-class perceptions about Left politics and activism have changed. That is not to say that the Galle Face Protests are revolutionary in the classical Marxist sense: led primarily by a middle-class, it has more or less endorsed peaceful tactics over more violent strategies. But there is a definitive Left veneer to the protests. Whether the SJB and UNP likes it or not, therefore, the protests will continue to be dominated by groups identifying themselves with the Left.

To be sure, this does not shield the protests and the Left groups and parties themselves from criticism. On the one hand, as far as the JVP-NPP and FSP are concerned, one criticism that’s often dished out is that such parties milk our collective animus against politicians: this explains the “225 Ma Epa!” sloganeering of the New Left. The anti-corruption narrative of the JVP-NPP and FSP is that all politicians are equally bad and that if there is to be change, they must all leave. To say the least, this line is impractical and counterproductive. It can only be promoted by parties that don’t have a significant parliamentary presence: the JVP’s much derided three percent, for instance. The same goes for student groups: they too tout the “225 Ma Epa!” line, persistently advocating a so-called “system change.”

On the other hand, SJB MPs and UNP supporters may be grumbling about the Galle Face demonstrations turning against them, but they have a point. Engagement with all political parties, whatever their ideology, is essential to any real uprising. The JVP-NPP has always, since time immemorial, or at least since they left the Chandrika Bandaranaike government, held against engaging with other parties. This holier-than-thou attitude, which has infected Left student groups also, has turned supporters and activists away from the idea of politics itself. What parties that advocate this line forget is that no mass uprising will hold for long if it doesn’t engage productively with other political alliances.

At the same time, the protesters must come up with a programme that is at once reformist and radical. The UNP and the SJB have always been associated with right-wing politics and policies: they are for the IMF, for instance. It would be a mistake to assume that the likes of the IUSF, and the JVP-NPP and FSP, will extend their support to IMF austerity in the longer term. To be sure, it is difficult to think of an alternative to IMF reforms now, but it is possible to negotiate the level of austerity we will have to impose on ourselves.

Now the UNP and SJB may be adamant, orthodox neoliberals as far as these reforms go. But they should realise that the crisis we are seeing through today extends beyond Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit from politics. This is why the Left must engage with these concerns, while interacting in a spirit of goodwill and constructive critique with other parties.

The lesson from the protests that unfolded in Lebanon and at Tahrir Square in Egypt was that unless every social element of a mass scale uprising gets together, an aragalaya will gradually run the risk of dying down. The Lebanese protests were divided between a social democratic and a radical left wing, though the two often joined forces. The same went for the Tahrir Square protests. That these protests were aimed at, and against, unpopular and authoritarian governments, did not necessarily blind the protesters to the need for a radical social programme which went beyond the toppling of such governments. Yet without a clear sense of direction and focus, they soon ran out of steam.

The issue with the Galle Face protests is that they too seem to lack direction and focus. The underlying message of the protests is simple: Gotabaya Rajapaksa must go. But protesters must also engage practically with other issues, turning the aragalaya in a more progressive direction. One way the protests have become progressive is through the intervention of left-wing groups. Right-wing Opposition parties, in particular the UNP, may feel threatened by left-wing intervention in an anti-government uprising. Yet such parties must realise that in the present moment, only a radical programme can and will set things right. These parties should hence look at themselves in the mirror, and adjust accordingly.

The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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