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Closer scrutiny of criticisms against 20A

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by C.A.Chandraprema

Over the past several days, we have been hearing various criticisms of the 20A by members of the opposition as well as from pro-government quarters. Some members of the government audit service too came out against certain provisions in the 20A. Are these criticisms valid or are we missing something? If we grade the criticisms that have got the most amount of media coverage from the most serious to the irrelevant, the most serious allegation relates to the issues concerning the Auditor General and the Audit Service Commission.

The decision of the government to abolish the Audit Service Commission and to make changes in the 19th Amendment provisions relating to the Auditor General are being portrayed as preparations for grand larceny on a hitherto unprecedented scale by the new Rajapaksa government. This is due to a misconception about the role of the Audit Service Commission. Many people are obviously under the impression that the Audit Service Commission is similar to the Elections Commission that the 19A created.

 We all know that the Elections Commission is the body that’s responsible for holding elections and after an election, all three members of the Elections Commission sign the Gazette announcing the names of those who have won seats. The Audit Service Commission that the 19A created was not a body like that. It’s not an Audit Commission but an Audit ‘Service’ Commission.  According to Article 153C(1) of the Constitution introduced by the 19A, the sole purpose of the Audit Service Commission is to preside over the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of the members belonging to the Sri Lanka State Audit Service. The only other task it has been assigned is to prepare the annual estimates of the National Audit Office, but you don’t need an Audit Service Commission for that.

 In other words, the Audit Service Commission was created simply to duplicate the work already being done by the Public Service Commission. The question that has to be asked is, why have a clone of the Public Service Commission just to cater to the rather limited number of employees in the government audit service? Furthermore, if the Auditor General’s subordinates come under a specially created Audit Service Commission, shouldn’t the subordinates of the Attorney General also come under an AG’s Dept. Service Commission? If taken to its logical conclusion, there will be as many ‘service commissions’ as there are divisions of the government service. The decision to abolish the Audit Service Commission is therefore obviously a housekeeping measure so as not to needlessly duplicate work already being done by other bodies such as the Public Service Commission.

 

Powers of the Auditor General

 

Changes have also been proposed to the provisions relating to the Auditor General. Under the 19th Amendment, the provisions relating to the powers of the Auditor General reads as follows:

 “154(1)The Auditor-General shall audit all departments of the Government, the  Office of the Secretary to the President, the Office of the Secretary to the Prime Minister, the Offices of the Cabinet of Ministers, the Judicial Services Commission, the Constitutional Council, the Commissions referred to in the Schedule to Article 41B, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Secretary-General of Parliament, local authorities, public corporations, business and other undertakings vested in the Government under any written law and companies registered or deemed to be registered under the Companies Act, No. 7 of 2007 in which the Government or a public corporation or local authority holds fifty per centum or more of the shares of that company including the accounts thereof.”

 Under the proposed 20A, the above provision is to be replaced with the following:

 “154(1) The Auditor-General shall audit the accounts of all departments of Government, the Offices of the Cabinet of Ministers, the Judicial Service Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Provincial Public Service Commissions, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Secretary-General of Parliament and the Commissioner of Elections, local authorities, public corporations and business or other undertakings vested in the Government under any written law.”

 We see that under the changes contemplated by the 20A, references to the Office of the Secretary to the President, the Office of the Secretary to the Prime Minister is being taken out of Article 154(1). We also see that companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares has also been taken out of Article 154(1) by the 20A Bill. These changes are being portrayed as moves by the President and Prime Minister to create an environment conducive to engaging in grand larceny with complete impunity. The removal of the reference to companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares in the 20A is also being portrayed as a situation where all these companies will be placed outside the ambit of the Auditor General. But is that true? It has to be understood that all that the 20A seeks to do with regard to Article 154(1) which deals with the powers of the Auditor General is to restore the status quo ante before the 19th Amendment was enacted – nothing more. Before the 19th Amendment was enacted, the old Article 154(1) was identical to that which is now being proposed in the 20A.

 Does this mean that before the 19th Amendment was enacted, the Offices of the President and Prime Minister and companies in which the state owned more than 50% of the shares, were exempt from the scrutiny of the Auditor General? To make any such assertion would be to be unfair to President J.R.Jayewardene and the UNP which promulgated the 1978 Constitution. The President’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office were ALWAYS under the purview of the Auditor General under the 1978 Constitution. The reference to “all departments of Government” in the pre-19th Amendment Article 154(1) includes the Offices of the President and Prime Minister. Any pre-19th Amendment version of the Government Financial Regulations will bear this out. This writer is in possession of an old 1992 copy of the government Financial Regulations in which Appendix 10  on pages 411-43 lists the Presidential Secretariat under ‘A Class’ government departments and the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office under ‘B Class’ departments. The Office of Former Presidents is also categorized as a ‘B Class’ government department.

 So all these bodies were always under the purview of the Auditor General. This writer can distinctly recall that there were exchanges between members of the opposition and the government regarding the Auditor General’s reports on the President’s Fund during the previous Rajapaksa government long before the 19th Amendment was enacted. All that the 19th Amendment did was to specify the inclusion of the Offices of the President and Prime Minister under Article 154(1) in a situation where they already came under that provision anyway. This a bit like the 19th Amendment repealing Article 42 of JRJ’s 1978 Constitution, and re-enacting it as Article 33A without changing a single word or comma and then claiming that it was the yahapalana government that made the President responsible to Parliament!

 The actual fact was that from the time the 1978 Constitution was first promulgated, the President had always been responsible to Parliament under old Article 42! (It may be stated as an aside that the 20A has sought to undo this piece of chicanery by repealing Article 33A and restoring JRJ’s old Article 42 to its rightful place.) If the yahapalanites fraudulently sought to claim credit for making the President responsible to Parliament by engaging in such blatant manipulation, it’s only to be expected that they would try to do the same when it comes to the changes made to Article 154(1).

 

Government owned companies

 Another criticism being made is that while the 19th Amendment brought companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares within the ambit of the Auditor General, the 20A seeks to abolish that provision. To be sure, the 19th Amendment has included under Article 154(1) “business and other undertakings vested in the Government in which the Government or a public corporation or local authority holds fifty per centum or more of the shares”. The 20A replaces this with the more general phrase “business and other undertakings vested in the Government”. Some members of the government audit service even went to see the Ven. Mahanayake Theras and complained that all the companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares were to be taken out of the ambit of the Auditor General. That too is a false assertion. Companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares refers to business undertakings like Lake House and Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd. The Auditor General did audit the accounts of such companies even in the pre-19th Amendment era.

 However both before and after the 19th Amendment, it was not mandatory for any business undertaking in which the government held shares over 50% to use the services of the Auditor General. Article 154 (2) of the Constitution as introduced by the 19th Amendment reads as follows:

 “154 (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Article, the Minister in charge of any such public corporation, business or other undertaking or a company referred to in paragraph (1) may, with the concurrence of the Minister in charge of the subject of Finance and in consultation with the Auditor-General, appoint a qualified auditor or auditors to audit the accounts of such public corporation, business or other undertaking or a company referred to in paragraph (1). Where such appointment has been made by the Minister, the Auditor General may, in writing, inform such auditor or auditors that he proposes to utilize his or their services for the performance and discharge of the Auditor-General’s duties and functions in relation to such public corporation, business or other undertaking or a company referred to in paragraph (1) and thereupon such auditor or auditors shall act under the direction and control of the Auditor-General.”

 Before the 19th Amendment, the old Article 154(2) read as follows:

 “154 (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (1) of this Article, the Minister in charge of any such public corporation or business or other undertaking may, with the concurrence of the Minister in charge of the subject of Finance, and in consultation with the Auditor-General, appoint a qualified auditor or auditors to audit the accounts of such public corporation or business or other undertaking. Where such appointment has been made by the Minister, the Auditor-General may, in writing, inform such auditor or auditors that he proposes to utilize his or their services for the performance and discharge of the Auditor-General’s duties and functions in relation to such public corporation, business or other undertaking and thereupon such auditor or auditors shall act under the direction and control of the Auditor-General.”

 Readers will note that the content of the two provisions are identical. Both before and after the 19th Amendment, the Minister in charge of the subject may appoint an audit firm to audit the accounts of a government owned company. In doing so, he is required to obtain the concurrence of the Minister of finance, and to consult the Auditor General. After an audit company has been appointed to audit the accounts of a mostly government owned company, the Auditor General can write to that audit company and make them perform their duties under the direction of the Auditor General. Nothing has changed in this regard before and after the 19th Amendment. So if anyone claims that the 20th Amendment seeks to take companies in which the government owns more than 50% of the shares out of the ambit of the Auditor General, that’s a complete falsehood.  

 

Urgent Bills and dual citizenship

 

One of the changes made by the 19th Amendment was to amend Article 78 so that the time that had to lapse between Gazetting a Bill and presenting it to Parliament was increased from seven days to fourteen days. The 19A also repealed Article 122 which made provision for urgent Bills. Under the provisions of old Article 122, if the Cabinet certifies a Bill as being urgent in the national interest, the provision that a certain number of days has to lapse between the time a Bill is gazetted and presented in Parliament will have no application. The provision of Article 121 which enabled citizens to challenge the constitutionality of a Bill within one week of it being placed on the order paper of Parliament also ceased to apply. When Article 122 was invoked in the case of urgent Bills, the President could write to the Chief Justice requesting him to issue a special determination on the constitutionality of that Bill and the Supreme Court had to make their determination within 24 hours or a period not exceeding three days, as specified by the President.

 The 20A proposes to revive the provision for urgent Bills by re-enacting the old Article 122. The 20A also proposes to amend Article 78 so as to shorten the time between the gazetting of a Bill and its introduction in Parliament from fourteen days to seven days as it was in the pre-19th Amendment days. The proposed reintroduction of this provision for urgent Bills by the 20A has also run into much criticism. According to this writer’s recollection, nobody had any real issue with the provision for urgent Bills in Article 122 until for more than three decades until the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was brought forward as an urgent Bill in 2010. The NGO lobby which seeks to hit out at the government with everything they can lay their hands on, raised a hue and cry about the 18th Amendment being introduced as an urgent Bill. However in actual fact, even if the 18th Amendment had been introduced as an ordinary Bill, and gazetted seven days before it was presented in Parliament, as per the provisions of Article 78, the end result would be the same. 

 Even urgent Bills have to go before the Supreme Court. If there was anything unconstitutional in the 18th Amendment, it would have been shot down by the SC. If it was not shot down by the SC, then it was going to be passed anyway because the 2010 government had a steamroller majority in Parliament. The fact that it was brought as an urgent Bill had little or no impact on how things finally turned out. Yet the provision for urgent Bills itself became a target of those opposed to the Rajapaksas. As a matter of principle, every country should be able to introduce urgent legislation when the need arises. This is a necessary safeguard and a fallback position. The antipathy to the provision for urgent Bills stemmed from the fact that it was used to bring in a constitutional amendment. However the proposed Article 122 in the 20A has taken this into consideration and introduced a totally new clause 122(3) which states that the provisions relating to urgent Bills will not apply to any Bill for the amendment of the Constitution. If the 20A is passed into law, the provision for urgent Bills cannot be used to bring in constitutional amendments.

 The 20A also seeks to repeal Article 91(1)(d)(xiii) by which the 19th Amendment added dual citizenship to the list of disqualifications for election to Parliament. Nobody in this country had any issue with dual citizens contesting elections. This became an issue only because the yahapalana government wanted to remove Gotabaya and Basil Rajapaksa from politics. To countenance this will mean wholesale surrender to yahapalana thinking. The yahapalana side is trying to pass off one of the most egregious outrages they committed as a virtue. We have heard some people citing the instance of Arjuna Mahendran to justify the ban on dual citizens contesting elections. However, Mahendran was not a dual citizen. He was a Singaporean not holding any kind of Sri Lankan citizenship. 



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Politics

A pivotal shift in the status quo

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By Uditha Devapriya

The Mahanayakes of Sri Lanka’s three Buddhist monastic orders – Siam, Amarapura, and Ramanya – have written a letter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. They have requested concessions on the recent electricity tariff hikes, which they claim are impacting temples severely. Citing the “enormous service” they render to society, the monks have pointed out that these temples are not in a position to absorb the current rates. They moreover imply that since people visit them after work and in the evening, their contribution to the cultural and social life of the country cannot and should not be neglected.

The missive, seen as an attempt at reaching a truce with the government, followed from a number of demonstrations organised by Buddhist monks and other religious leaders. The protests centred on the point that religious institutions are being crushed by a 500 percent rise in electricity bills, whereas the impact on factories and business establishments has been less. Taking the lead in these protests, Venerable Omalpe Sobitha has threatened the government that Buddhist temples will not pay these bills.

The country’s Power and Energy Minister, Kanchana Wijesekera, took to social media immediately when the protests started. Pointing out that there had been no discrimination when finalising the list of categories for electricity users, Wijesekera bluntly stated that if temples did not pay up, power would be disconnected. He noted that ordinary people had not been spared these hikes, and that they were suffering too. These remarks aggravated an already tense situation, compelling the Mahanayakes to pen a missive to the President. For his part, the latter offered an olive branch to the Chief Prelates, flagging their concerns and assuring them that the State would look into installing solar panels at temples.

These developments mark an interesting turnaround in the country’s politics. Buddhist monks have traditionally been seen as political creatures, actively involved or playing the more passive role of patrons and financiers. Their justification for this has been historical: Buddhist monks played an important part in the lives and politics of the country’s kings, so it is only natural that they continue playing it, though the country has transformed from a hereditary monarchy to a constitutional republic. They have typically latched themselves on to parties and personalities that claim to uphold the trinity of populist politics in Sri Lanka: country, race, religion (“rata, jathiya, agama”). This has enabled some parties to take a lead over others, though all major parties have a history of flirting with the clergy.

Such attitudes belie deep-rooted feelings of insecurity and unease. Narratives, mainly Western, liberal, and Colombo-centric, depict Buddhist monks as authoritarian, proto-fascist, and no different to fundamentalist Muslim and Hindu clerics. But such commentaries fail to note the historical basis for the sentiments that monks air from time to time. To be sure, these sentiments are intolerant, illiberal, and ill-founded, particularly those that evoke fascist inclinations: Venerable Vendaruwe Upali’s call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to “become a Hitler”, if people assumed him to be one, is a case in point. Yet they underscore two points, which the monks themselves and their more zealous followers highlight: Sinhala Buddhism has no institutional support outside Sri Lanka (“We have nowhere else to go”), and Sinhala Buddhism is the centre of Sri Lankan society (“This country belongs to us”).

The biggest reason for the Buddhist clergy’s insecurity is a simple historical one: British colonial policies deprived temples of the wherewithal and the means to sustain themselves. As the historian Kitsiri Malalgoda has observed in Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, the effect of colonial legislation, which vested temple lands in the hands of the Chief Prelates, was to turn Chief Prelates into landowners and commercial-minded clerics. This had a debilitating effect on these institutions, compelling monks to seek sustenance through whatever means. Colonial reforms also turned the Church, especially the Anglican and the Catholic, into one of the country’s biggest landowners, a point which often gets missed out by narratives that frame Buddhist monks as rapacious landowners and political machines.

None of this justifies the excesses of Buddhist monks. The original conception of political Bhikkhus, as the United National Party derisively called them then, was along the lines of an activist and radical clergy: the prototypes of political Buddhism, after all, were two Marxist monks, Walpola Rahula and Udakendawala Sri Saranankara, the latter of whom received no less than the Lenin Peace Prize in 1957. Yet as often happens with such transformations, this gentle, humanist, and radical conception of the Buddhist clergy has been disfigured, and has now turned into an echo-chamber for intolerance. As Regi Siriwardena has observed more than once, Buddhist monks neglected to use their precepts and mores as a rallying cry for radical social and political change, on the lines of a Thomas Müntzer. Instead they deployed these values to entrench the status quo, and by extension themselves.

All these are interconnected. The economic base of Buddhist temples is no longer what it used to be, even though the lower peasantry still considers ordinations as a way out of economic misery for their children. The latter point has also been missed out by Western, liberal, and Colombo-centric commentators: not unlike the military, the Buddhist temple has become a rural subsidy, enabling a poor peasant youth to escape the drudgery of poverty. This has been so because, since the 1950s, the Buddhist clergy has become a beneficiary of State subsidies: the main reason for the recent protests.

The government has played its cards carefully and strategically, framing monks clamouring for State subsidies as moochers who cannot be given favoured treatment. The Opposition has also played its cards strategically, meeting the clergy and assuring them of an uprising against recent tariff revisions. The SJB, which heads the Opposition, is in itself housed by MPs who are in favour of tariff revisions and neoliberal reforms. Its attitude to these issues thus reveals its contradictory character, a point that Dr Dayan Jayatilleka has implied in his criticism of the party. What this means for the trajectory of relations between the State and the clergy is that a government which courted the support and approval of monks has now become the bête noire of the latter, while an Opposition housing MPs once seen as enemies of Buddhist interests is fast becoming the darling of those monks.

The response of the public has been even more interesting. Going by social media posts and memes, it’s probably not an exaggeration to conclude that the hikes revealed an underlying, seething, and barely concealed anti-clerical sentiment in society. Of course, social media is not Sri Lankan society writ large: when it comes to Twitter in particular, it is a self-contained and self-defined space. Yet social media memes are a significantly accurate gauge of wider, and widespread, sentiments. In that sense, as far as memes about the recent protests are concerned, Sri Lankans dwell on two points: that monks did next to nothing when the State imposed hardships on ordinary people, and that they are asking for favourable treatment at a time when even more hardships are being imposed on those people.

It goes without saying that both these points reflect larger, more widespread feelings of hostility towards these institutions. This is a remarkable turnaround from two or three years ago, when monks could say whatever they wanted to in favour of their preferred politicians and deploy people to do their bidding for those politicians. Now that politicians have fallen out of favour, and have lost their place among the people, those seen as supporters of such individuals have lost their prestige. These include Buddhist temples and monks, particularly the bigger ones, which as President Wickremesinghe stated were the only monasteries that have faced severe tariff hikes. One cynical friend noted for me that since monks preached humility and tolerance for politicians when people rose up in arms, people should respond in kind to monks who ask the public to rise up in arms against the State.

The Opposition and the government would do well to note these reconfigurations. For a brief while at least, people are bothering themselves less over cultural trivialities than over the immediate imperative of finding food, gas, and fuel. Economics, in other words, has triumphed over ideology, though ideology is very much present in the people’s discontent. Certainly, the government may find itself at a loss, come the next election cycle, if monks remember how it responded to their protests. The Opposition, by contrast, will find itself at an advantage here. The people, however, are fed up with both politicians and monks, the parliament and the temple. The SJB would do well to flag this, instead of capitalising on the fears and grievances of the clergy for petty, short-term electoral gains.

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

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DB Wijetunga’s political rise

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Excerpted from Sarath Amunugama’s autobiography

The appointment of D.B. Wijetunga as Minister of Information and Broadcasting (in 1977) was a surprise. A senior member of the UNP who had been inducted to politics by his mentor A. Ratnayake, Wijetunga was known as a diehard party man who was close to his constituents. When Dudley suffered a humiliating defeat in 1970 Wijetunga was unlucky to lose his Udunuwara seat by a few hundred votes.

For seven years after that he persisted in working for his electors in spite of the many obstacles that he had to face, including economic problems. Fortunately, his wife’s `Walawwe’ was located in the centre of Pilimatalawe town and it was within easy reach of his voters. He was not a person who pushed himself forward and no party bigwig thought he was a threat to their ambitions. Having been Minister Ratnayake’s Private Secretary during the DS and Dudley regimes, Wijetunga had a mastery of public administration and the goodwill of district officials.

The talk in Kandy was that no public official would deny Wijetunga a favour. With a good command of the English language having studied at St Andrew’s College in Gampola [where Thondaman was his classmate] he loved to write official letters in his own hand which his numerous followers took to senior administrators for relief. When I was the Director of Combined Services, I was inundated with his letters seeking redress for clerks and minor staff based in Kandy. I accommodated many of his requests which seemed reasonable.

While JRJ decided on the holders of the main ministries he relied on Menikdiwela, his secretary, for recommendations regarding the other positions. Menik would have recommended Wijetunga without hesitation and he was appointed as Minister of Information and Broadcasting since he was not in any one’s clique. His acceptability to every faction in the UNP carried him far in his political life. Later he was Minister of Finance, Prime Minister and President – a combination of posts that no other UNPer had enjoyed before or after.

For me he was the perfect boss since we were friends and relatives. He trusted me completely to run the Ministry though I was comparatively junior in the CCS. Equally, I made sure that he was well briefed and prompt in his responses to the President and the PM. Usually there were complaints that the media was not covering this or that minister’s activities. But the President was convinced that with Wijetunga who did not belong to any camp, there was no hanky panky or hidden agendas regarding media coverage.

It was Wijetunga who promoted the TV project with gusto as he knew that the President was keeping a watchful eye on it. I briefed him on the state of play before every cabinet meeting so that he could respond to his boss’s queries. His goodwill and courtesy, which fascinated the Japanese, helped in keeping up the momentum of the project. Unlike in the case of some other ministers who were delaying projects while bargaining for `kickbacks’, Wijetunga was scrupulously honest.

However, he refused to go out of the country be it to Japan or any other. Foreign travel never interested him. His only outing was his regular visit to home in Pilimatalawe every weekend. One reason for his reticence for travel was that he would miss his favourite local cuisine. Whenever we visited him in his Paget Road Bungalow, he would insist on our eating a simple homemade meal with him.

My daughter, Varuni, was then attending the lower classes of Sirimavo Bandaranaike College which was next door to the minister’s bungalow. She cheekily used to visit `Wije Aththa’ with her friends and demand cool drinks which the minister happily provided. Once I found Varuni and her friends busy with Wijetunga cutting up his broom sticks because they had forgotten to bring their ‘Li Keli’ sticks from home and were afraid to go to their dancing class without them.

His private staff led by Gamini Ratnayake, and Wilson were all from Kandy and the whole entourage would take off on Friday afternoons and reappear on Monday mornings. Since they were all Kandy boys, I could interact easily with them and get them to work cordially with my ministry staff. When the minister was transferred to the Telecommunications Ministry his whole entourage disappeared into Transworks House.

At that time W.J. Fernando, who was Wijetunga’s friend from his Kandy GA days, was a Director of the Davasa group which was very influential in the media field. This newspaper group supported our minister and that was well known to the President and the Cabinet. He was sought by his cabinet colleagues when they had problems with the Press. I will describe later how we earned much kudos by arranging a supply of newsprint to the Davasa group in an emergency.

Our actions were envied even by then Housing and Local Government Minister Premadasa. WJ Fernando was a pal of Sam Wijesinha, Secretary General of Parliament as both had attended Henry Kissinger’s annual Foreign Policy Seminar at Harvard. This was long before Kissinger became an influential advisor of President Nixon. Kissinger was a great networker and I have seen the letters he wrote to WJ from Harvard.

These two friends -WJ and Sam, were the most trusted advisors of Premadasa and they promoted Wijetunga to him as a counter-weight in the hill country to Gamini Dissanayake. This was the background to Wijetunga’s meteoric rise to several high positions.

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Politics

A post-mortem of Gotagogama

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By Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lanka is still living with the consequences of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency, partly because his government has not left and partly because resistance to it, though repressed, is still alive. Under Ranil Wickremesinghe the State has asserted its will and imposed it on those who disagree with it. It has arrested protesters without as much as a blink of an eye from those who walked to Gotagogama. Today their (mostly middle-class) supporters have relapsed into silence, seemingly getting on with their lives.

When protests began in early March, I predicted that sooner or later, middle-class calls for IMF reforms would sour. While a section of the middle-class still bats for those reforms, the lower middle-classes have been so battered by price hikes and tariff revisions that they have wavered. Still, even they couch their hatred of such reforms in the rhetoric of resistance to political corruption. Sri Lanka’s middle-classes do not appear politically mature enough to take the leap from that sort of resistance to opposition to neoliberal reforms.

Sri Lanka’s middle-classes tend to sway from one extreme to another: from wholehearted support for the yahapalana regime, for instance, they shifted to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brand of Bonapartist nationalism. They are also so disenchanted with local institutions, particularly political institutions, that they believe any alternative is better than what we have. This explains their newfound love for the IMF, and their inability to translate their hatred of IMF reforms into a coherent critique of those reforms. Instead they have directed the brunt of their anger, not on the institution demanding such reforms, but the institutions enforcing them. This is a curious contradiction, and it needs examining.

The protests against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government did not begin in March and April. One of that government’s biggest blunders was its fertiliser policy. As Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out, the policy cost the regime its peasant heartland, a loss it could never hope to regain. The peasantry and the (predominantly Sinhala and Buddhist) middle-classes made up the biggest pillars of support for the government. It was these constituencies that gave the SLPP a two-thirds victory in 2020. The government had no better strategy for losing its momentum than losing these bases. This is what it began doing in 2021.

The class composition and preferences of these groups have not been seriously examined. The peasantry had been hit hard by the import bans. Yet what caught the headlines wasn’t farmer protests, but corporate opposition to those bans: in effect, the big estates and farms that would lose the most from the government’s policy. The outcome of such policies was to bring together a diverse array of class interests, which would otherwise not have united and coalesced into a resistance movement. The anger of the farmers was apparent enough, but it was left to corporate and middle-class elements to articulate it fully.

For obvious reasons, attitudes to neoliberal economic reforms differ from social class to social class. While the rupee was artificially pegged, and petrol was still going for less than 200 rupees a litre, the lower middle-classes felt no need to oppose such reforms, even as they were being imposed on the peasantry and the urban poor. When IMF reforms finally saw the light of day, they changed their tune. It was this that led to the peak in the protests between June and August. Once petrol prices hiked and shortages ensued in late June, the middle-class felt it had nothing to lose. So they walked to Gotagogama.

I have mentioned several times, in this column, that the ideological preferences of the bulk of the demonstrators at Gotagogama did not bear out progressive-liberal perceptions of the protests and the protesters. The UN Human Rights Council’s situation report on Sri Lanka, titled A/HRC/51/5, implies that the bulk of these protesters demanded accountability from the government. True as this may be, the document does not capture the essence of those demands. The reality is that middle-class perceptions of accountability, and transparency, differ considerably from liberal progressive definitions of such concepts. To put it bluntly, the call at Gotagogama was not so much the establishment of institutional mechanisms, as the restoration of fuel and gas supplies and uninterrupted electricity.

I am not suggesting here that the protests were regressive and reactionary, though at times they were almost that – particularly when their opposition to the political leadership in the country took on homophobic dimensions, as I personally witnessed on July 12. Yet, again as I have mentioned in this space, the Gotagogama demonstrations never fitted in with liberal progressive narratives that framed them as a mass, courageous, youth-driven and youth-led uprising. The youth themselves, who formed the crux of the protests, hardly ever bore out such stereotypes. Their class composition aside, the racial dimensions of the youth were so evident that one would have to be wilfully blind to ignore the cynical commentaries on the protesters authored by sections of Tamil civil society.

My point is that these divisions were never appreciated or understood when the protests gained steam. Had we taken stock of them, they would not have fragmented so soon. The middle-class’s confused attitude to IMF reforms should inform us that they are, as yet, not mature enough to take on the task of critiquing local and international institutions, including political institutions. Their resistance to power and privilege is couched in populist calls for personality and system changes. The task of the Left, particularly the New Left (the JVP and the FSP), is to transform these popular calls into a larger, broader programme, one that can carry the protests forward and ensure a leftward tilt within the middle-class. There are signs that the New Left is doing this. But more needs to be done. Much more.

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

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