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From Galle Face to the IMF

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By Uditha Devapriya

For better or worse, the protesters calling for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation have been engaging with other issues and concerns. These include minority rights, the abduction and assassination of journalists, and the need for a clearer foreign policy. While weeks ago such concerns may have been belittled, even sidelined, now they have been incorporated into the protests. Such a development should be welcomed, even if, in the long run, it can dilute the demonstrations and eventually lose focus and direction.

The point I made last week still stands, though. Unless and until we turn the protests into a large-scale consciousness raising exercise, a campaign to educate the public, including supporters of the regime, on issues that had never been seriously considered before, we can’t hope to achieve real change, still less radical change. It’s not only because of the Rajapaksas that we are ignorant of these “peripheral” issues; indeed it’s not only because of them that such issues have become peripheralized. But 17 years of Rajapaksist rule, whether in the government or the opposition, have sidelined them.

The main problem with the Colombo protests, the way I see it, is that they lack leadership and remain limited to a largely urban social milieu. This doesn’t de-validate the protesters themselves, but it does open them to the risk of infiltration from outside. There’s no doubt that these protests are here to stay with us for a long time, possibly even after the Rajapaksas leave. But one critique that’s frequently bandied about them is that, on the one hand, they have incorporated too many ideas and concerns, on the other hand, they have prioritised some ideas and concerns to the exclusion of others.

It’s important to know where these criticisms are coming from. It’s not just supporters of the regime: even critics are painting the protests as unnecessary and counterproductive. While recognising and even lauding the protesters for standing up to the government, they point out that the economic reforms needed at this juncture – which they claim can and will be achieved, thanks to the new leadership at the Central Bank – require stability of the sort that the Galle Face demonstrations are pre-empting. This is basically a neoliberal or right-wing crowd, whose opposition to the government was predicated on their frustration at the ruling party not following their recommendations and prescriptions.

To be sure, the protests that began in Mirihana and led to Galle Face were fuelled by these same frustrations. Not a few protesters equated the regime’s failures with its unwillingness to go to the IMF. What they themselves failed to realise was that, as a populist who could swing both ways, going to the IMF was hardly non-negotiable for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. For the government, despatching a delegation to Washington and securing Basil Rajapaksa’s and Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s resignations was easy and could be done. Yet to think that all the country needed then were their resignations would be rather naïve.

Why do I say this? Because while Basil and Cabraal and their policies were universally loathed, their resignations will not end these protests. For neoliberal commentators, the economy seems more important than the political crisis, which is perhaps why they tend to single out the likes of Basil, Cabraal, W. D. Lakshman, and S. R. Attygalle. Yet the situation is too complex to draw up lines between the political and economic aspects of the protests. If the preferred medicine of the neoliberal crowd is going to the IMF, and the government has gone to the IMF, the discussion over sending the regime home could have ended there. But political crises are never that simple, nor should they be considered simple.

If anyone thinks IMF reforms will dampen these protests, they are sadly mistaken. IMF reforms involve austerity, of the severest sort. No one likes austerity: not the middle-classes that try to keep up with the Joneses and not the rural peasantry and working class that just cannot think beyond survival. The combination of IMF austerity and unpopular regime is a powder keg waiting to go off, and all guesses are things will start falling apart, pretty badly, in another month or so. Already there’s talk of public utility tariff hikes to the tune of 100 percent. In enforcing these reforms and marketing them as inevitable, the government will sink deeper. This has happened before, and it will happen again, here.

Pinning all hopes on the IMF, in that sense, will not do. There are two many parties and too many tendencies within parties pitted against IMF austerity. Although the right-wing of the SJB are for these reforms, the populist (Dayan Jayatilleka identifies this as “Premadasist”) wing is not. The LSSP and Communist Party are no longer partners in the government; as the two oldest leftist formations in Sri Lanka, they are vehemently opposed to the IMF line. The Frontline Socialist Party, which controls and organises student groups in our universities, is also against it. The JVP’s case is interesting and rather fascinating, in that it thinks there is no alternative to the IMF. Yet it too is opposed to austerity for the masses.

Which brings me to my earlier point. Initially clamouring and shouting for the exit of the Rajapaksas, the Galle Face protesters are now assessing other concerns. As far as the IMF goes, most of them are not in favour of a return to Cabraal’s tenure. Yet that does not mean they are for the IMF line either. It’s clear that while many among them preferred going to Washington to Cabraal’s homegrown solutions, since Ali Sabry’s jaunt to the IMF they have been reading, thinking, and considering what that would entail for the country. What this means is that the second wave of protests will be aimed against the IMF, and not even the most blue-eyed of neoliberal commentators will be able to escape the tide.

We are living in interesting times. They are about to get more interesting.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Politics

ENDING GOTA’S DEMOCIDE: WILL ALL OPPOSITION PARTY LEADERS UNITE?

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

Democide is defined in as “the of members of a country’s as a result of its government’s policy, including by direct action, , and “. ()

I’d translate “democide” into Sinhala as “praja-naashaka” or “puravesi-naashaka” (which is closer to ‘citizenocide’ if I may coin a term).

When the base of human existence, food, is almost destroyed by a ruler’s policy; when on his watch and due to policies he signed-off on, the economic and material basis of production and distribution is shutting down; human life becomes unsustainable and the human collective, the very community as a whole, is threatened. The very existence of the community is in danger. That is the threat of ECONOMIC EXTERMINISM or ECONOMIC DEMOCIDE: democide through economics.

Logically therefore, Gotabaya’s rule presents us with the threat of democide, and going by probable consequence, not intentionality, he stands in danger of becoming a “democidaire”.

GOTA vs. THE REST

It is the starkest of choices: our survival as a community and as individuals vs the survival of Gota’s rule.

Isn’t there anyone or any place—individual or institution—who can get the leaders of the Opposition and Resistance parties together to discuss, debate and agree on a common platform to remove Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office non-violently and in the shortest possible time?

All political leaders and personalities will be judged by what they did and were willing to, and what they didn’t and were unwilling to, in the service of the cause of peacefully, democratically ending Gota’s rule. Any political sacrifice should not be ruled out for this cause. No political compromise or concession should be seen as too expensive. But that is not the situation.

The Sri Lankan tragedy is not only what the bad guy has done and is doing to us but what the good guys are unwilling to do for us.

NO ONE TO BELL THE CAT?

The country will know when the endgame, the last phase of the Gotabaya presidency has begun when they see an unmistakable sign. That sign is when all the leaders of the Opposition parties without exclusion or exception, get on the same platform and start campaigning for one thing and one thing only: the ending of the curse of Gotabaya Rajapaksa rule on this island.

The situation is unprecedentedly dire and the country needs all Opposition parties at the leadership level to arrive at a formal agreement.

Imagine the impact if all the leaders of the Opposition without exception were to address the people while literally gathered upon one platform?

Imagine if all leaders of the Opposition parties were to sign a common declaration expressing their dedication to the goal of removing the ruler?

The question is who will bell the cat? Who will bring these leaders together?

In the 1970s and 1980s there were several individuals who brought together leaders or leading representatives of all parties. Prominent among these were Fr Tissa Balasuriya, Godfrey Gunatilleke, Fr Paul Caspersz. Fr Paul Caspersz’ Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality, better known by its anagram as MIRJE, had representation from every Oppositional political party, trade union, student movement and peasants front. (Kumar David, Rajan Phillips and I are among those listed as signatories to the founding statement.)

The Lanka Guardian magazine also served as a platform for all Opposition party leaders and intellectuals from its founding by Mervyn de Silva in the late 1970s through the 1980s.

Today there is no such personality, place or publication. Everyone works their side of the street. Thus, the UNP, SJB and liberal civil society can be gathered together by certain personalities and organizations, while the JVP and FSP, not as parties but through their affiliates the NPP and IUSF can be gathered together by left trade unions.

No one has brought together the JVP and FSP at leadership level.

No one has brought together the SJB and the JVP leaders.

No one has brought together the SJB, SLFP and 10 parties.

Certainly no one has brought together all of the above-named parties at leadership level. Unless that happens, the day of departure of Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be postponed.

The very fact that none of these permutations and combinations have taken place shows that the political leaders are insufficiently motivated to do so.

ONE TARGET: THE AUTOCRAT

If one really wants to end the autocrat’s rule, and in our case an unwittingly democidal autocrat’s rule, one must target the autocrat, not the whole executive or the Government, from which crucial defectors may come! To do so, only means to objectively protect and prolong Gotabaya’s rule—because an iron rule is that the broader you make the target, the narrower your coalition of support and conversely the more you delimit your target, the broader the support base of the Movement to overthrow him.

The SJB says it will bring all parties together in a Movement of mass struggle to overthrow Gotabaya. Sajith told the Reform Movement activists that in his expansive view, the executive means not only the President, the PM and the Cabinet but all those in parliament who politically sustain them.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake says the JVP leadership is willing to take a backseat in a Movement to overthrow Gotabaya which everyone can join irrespective of party affiliation. AKD is new campaign is to overthrow the government (“Aanduwa”).

Both AKD and SP are making a huge error, both in the historical and the strategic senses. The notorious Filipino autocrat Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown not only by the gigantic mass movement, but in the final moment, by his own Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. Surely Enrile was a member of the government (AKD’s “Aanduwa”) but also the Executive?

If the SJB and JVP-NPP leaders really mean what they say, they should have sent out invitations to all Opposition political party leaders to attend a conclave for the purpose. However, no one is talking clearly about a joint platform all Opposition political parties as represented at the top leadership level.

More basically, I have yet to see Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake around the same table, willing to sign a document for the common purpose of throwing Gota out and discussing a program of action—a campaign—for that single purpose. the day I see that, I will know that Gota is operating on borrowed time.

If there is such a common platform and common campaign, I am certain that the Sri Lankan Diaspora will renew its impressive campaign of April 2022.

SUICIDAL SECTARIANISM

The political parties are choosy about the company they keep. They are allergic to each other.

The dirty little secret is that they care more about what divides them – ideological identities and electoral competition–than what should unite them, namely the zeal to see the back of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as soon as possible and the fire in the belly to make that happen.

The SJB doesn’t mind sitting together with the JVP. But the JVP does not let the term SJB pass its collective lips while Anura Kumara Dissanayaka the JVP leader mentions the Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa only to insult him.

This is no display of anti-capitalist sentiment because the same Anura Kumara Dissanayaka does not sully his lips by uttering either the name Frontline socialist party or Kumar Gunaratnam. So, sectarianism is what it is.

For his part, Gunaratnam says the FSP is willing to enter “united actions” with the JVP and its trade unions, peasant unions, student unions etc., but he makes no mention of a leadership -level bloc of the JVP and FSP.

The SJB is no paragon of non-sectarian virtue. It sits down with individuals from the 11 party Independents but never with the party leaders. The reason given is that all of them were once members of the ruling coalition.

If the SLFP and the 10 parties were to go by that logic, then the SJB leaders would stand accused of being in the UNP governments which entered a lopsided Ceasefire Agreement with Prabhakaran, entertained federalizing constitutional change and remained in-house during the Bond scam.

Furthermore, the presence of the SLFP in a broad Opposition in-gathering is vital since it would guarantee linkage with the rural heartland where peasant disaffection makes it a reservoir of anti-Gotabaya resistance.

UNITY, NOT FANTASY

The aim and objective, the goal of removing Gota, should rise above any other but obviously does not.

My hunch is that each party leadership thinks that it is either going to be swept into office by the collapse and consequent uprising and/or by the election that inevitably follows.

Hence the conditionalities, the excuses, the caveats, the exceptions, the evasion and the prevarication.

If the citizens see a coordinated Opposition leadership, then coordinated actions to end Gota rule will be that much easier. The very sight of Opposition party leaders in cooperative mode will lead to a spike in the morale of the masses. As the old Resistance fighters used to say in support of the wartime anti-Fascist Popular Front, ‘unity not merely adds, it multiplies’.

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The government’s very bleak future

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By Uditha Devapriya

When Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister a month or so ago, he warned that things would get worse before they get better. Mr Wickremesinghe has addressed the nation at least thrice since then, and on all three occasions he has reiterated this warning. To be fair, he is right: we will hit rock-bottom before we start climbing up.

In appointing Wickremesinghe as his Prime Minister, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took a gamble. The gamble worked for a month. Now, however, we are at a standstill. CPC sheds no longer pump fuel to private vehicles. Until late July, we will operate with less than 5,000 MT of petrol and 11,000 MT of diesel. The president may or may not have foreseen this, but for Wickremesinghe, the tightrope act just got a little tighter.

At the initial stages, his entry helped pacify the protests. Despite parading themselves as non-aligned, Gotagogama protesters had their own beliefs regarding the leadership of this country. When President Rajapaksa let his brother go and appointed a new Prime Minister, he ruptured the protests. Now, with a worsening fuel crisis, it is likely that what was ruptured will come back together again, stronger this time.

In the final analysis, the momentum of anti-government protests depends on the availability or unavailability of essential items. At present, Sri Lanka spends more than USD 600 million on fuel, every month. To get an idea of the magnitude of this expense, one only needs to recall that it represents half the entire annual coal requirement of Sri Lanka. The country spends less than a third on consumer goods, including food, but with the president’s ill-timed fertiliser ban, this too has become an urgent imperative.

Sri Lankans will tolerate all these deprivations only if two conditions are met. First, they need promises of better days to come. Second, these promises must be kept. The issue is that while the government has been quick with promises, it has been slow with action. The fuel crisis is just one example: why it took months to travel to Russia, and Qatar, to make urgent appeals for fuel shipments for the rest of the year, is anybody’s guess.

Sri Lankans typically reward governments that deprive them of necessities – and even some luxuries – by voting them out. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government chose to expel the Left, then made the mistake of extending parliament by two years. This gave an opening to the Opposition, led by J. R. Jayewardene, to woo over discontented voters and reduce the SLFP, sans the LSSP and Communist Party, to a paltry eight seats.

The situation is somewhat different now. The dynamics have changed. People did queue for food in the Bandaranaike years, but they always got a share. Whatever criticism one can make of that government’s socialist policies, they at least ensured a ration for everyone. For his part, the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene made use of middle-class opposition to queues and rations, but it was also deft enough not to promise to dismantle the latter: that is why Jayewardene pledged a weekly quota of eight measures of rice.

Commentators tend to compare Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policies to the Bandaranaike regime. Despite certain superficial similarities, they fail to note that under Rajapaksa, nothing has been consistent, and nothing has worked out for anyone.

This is a government that has, since 2020, operated on a laissez-faire basis. The President has done little, apart from dispensing instructions, like the Central Bank allocating dollars for fuel, that have gone nowhere. That is a far cry from the United Front years, when, to quote a leading political commentator, “there was some method in the madness.”

It is this uncertainty which feeds people’s rage. Had there been a plan in place, had the plans supposedly in place not tended to slip away – the fuel token system, vaunted for weeks but discontinued less than a day after being inaugurated, being the best and most recent example – people would have tolerated up to a point. Had the powers that be identified future shortages and adjusted accordingly, people would have given them more time. Had they done more to source funds from other countries, especially our traditional partners, to bring queues down to manageable levels, people would have cut them some slack.

Yet none of this has happened so far, at least not to expected levels. It’s not like the government didn’t see what was coming. We did. Why couldn’t they?

Blaming Wickremesinghe for these failures is hardly fair. But he is the Prime Minister of a collapsing economy. For his part, he has warned the country of a bleak future. This is in stark contrast to the government’s deny-everything approach, which got us into the current mess. Yet issuing warnings every three weeks, though necessary, is hardly adequate. To be sure, Wickremesinghe’s biggest impediment has been the ineptitude of those he has had to work with. This does not, however, exonerate him.

In any case, a key factor for the next three or four weeks will be whether the government gets everything in place before July 10. For daily wage earners, these two weeks will be the toughest they’ve faced in their lives. The economic cost will be unbearable, and the loss of livelihoods, particularly for trishaw drivers, will be immense.

I am confident enough to say that we won’t turn into another Lebanon, at least not anytime soon. Indeed, certain economic commentators suggest that things will get better by September or October, when remittances and export incomes grow. But this will not, and should not, make us forget the government’s ineptitude.

Lankans have, since independence, generally been tolerant of political inaction. Yet as things stand now, the powder keg fuse is burning to its end, and the people are feeling the brunt of the crisis. The day when they will force accountability on this regime, whether through peaceful protests or a re-enactment of May 9, won’t be that far off.

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

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What should we normalise?

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By Uditha Devapriya

In 1977 J. R. Jayewardene came to power promising a weekly eta ata or eight kilos of grain. Perceived, rather unfairly perhaps, as an unmitigated disaster, the United Front government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike was accused by several groups – including Sinhala nationalists who faulted her for caving into minority interests and minority politicians who accused her of doing the same with chauvinist elements – of mishandling the economy.

Jayewardene was shrewd enough not to promise a complete turnaround from the United Front’s policies. Having expelled the LSSP and the Communist Party, the SLFP had, under Felix Dias Bandaranaike, turned to the right. Given these developments, it was obvious that any UNP government would take this shift further to the right.

For obvious reasons, Jayewardene could not promise continuity here. Instead he pledged to establish a righteous society, based implicitly on social democratic ideals. His promise of a guaranteed weekly rice ration was part of a wider strategy of demonising the Bandaranaike regime: he was, in effect, accusing it of failing to live up to its own ideals.

The result was a thumping victory for the UNP. The following year Jayewardene saw through the biggest constitutional overhaul in the history of the country. Having enthroned himself as its first Executive President, he quickly set in motion the policies he actually envisaged and embraced. These involved, if not centred on, the liberalisation of the economy. Hence, instead of increasing the rice ration, he did away with such subsidies.

In Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, it was the first real assault on Sri Lanka’s social services. Partly on the advice of the World Bank and the IMF, Jayewardene then let the rupee float. From seven to the dollar, it eventually depreciated to 30. In theory, this should have made exports more competitive. In reality, it made imports more expensive, turning a current account surplus of USD 142 million in 1977 to a deficit of USD 655 million in 1980. Except for a marginal surplus in 1984, we’ve been seeing deficits since then.

The impact on the poor was, to say the least, considerable. From 1978 to 1988 the real value of food stamps reduced by around half. From 1971 to 1981 social welfare spending as a percentage of total government expenditure fell from 40 percent to 11 percent. Imports of not just consumer, but also agricultural, goods dampened the market and crushed farmers: one reason why several electorates in Jaffna gave the Sinhala and Buddhist SLFP candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa, a majority at the 1982 election. Sisira Jayasuriya (2010) has estimated that by 1981 over half the population had fallen below the poverty line.

And yet, despite his brutal crackdown of striking workers in 1980, Jayewardene obtained an easy victory in 1982. This had to do, partly, with the personality clashes in the SLFP: while one section of the Bandaranaike family supported Kobbekaduwa, another section, led by Anura, did not. But to a considerable extent, it also had to do with how people, in the face of a deteriorating economic situation, normalised the country’s descent into crisis.

Before making comparisons between 1982 and 2022 – for today, too, we are seeing a section of the population normalising a deteriorating economic situation – it would be apt to highlight the differences. Jayewardene’s policies had their biggest and most adverse impact on the poor. The middle-classes, by contrast, benefitted from them: by opening the domestic market to imports, he co-opted Sri Lanka’s highly consumerist middle bourgeoisie. Today, on the other hand, we are seeing a middle-class rebelling against the present regime because an iPhone costs two or three times what it did eight months ago.

Yet the similarities should be obvious to anyone. Sri Lankans, particularly the middle-classes, tend to normalise political and economic problems. They could not tolerate the queues of the United Front era because, historically, as a class, they are not capable of withstanding the drop in status that accompanies such deprivations. And yet, even when the United Front government extended the life of the legislature by two years – a move opposed by a few SLFP parliamentarians – people chose to go along with it, preferring to throw out the regime through the ballot box rather than through mass agitation.

If the goal of the Gotagogama agitators is to overthrow the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government through a campaign involving mass agitation, they should take stock of what happened in and after 1977. The people responded to an unpopular government by voting it out, then normalised a deteriorating economic situation five years later by retaining the new regime. Even at the height of the 1987-1989 insurgency, the middle-classes that threw out the SLFP and voted in the UNP sided with the latter. They only articulated their opposition to the UNP at the 1994 election, returning the SLFP to power after a space of 17 years.

If the aragalaya has sagged at all today, it is because a section within it has, for the lack of a better way of putting it, given up on it. One particularly eager young follower of the Galle Face aragalaya I personally know, who participated at the protests not once, but thrice, tells me now that the aragalaya has been a failure. Another young man tells me that Rajapaksa’s appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe was “the best thing Gotabaya could have done”, in effect faulting the #GotaGoHome protesters of disrupting his programme.

What are we to make of such developments? First and foremost, that they are natural and inevitable, especially in Sri Lanka. The LSSP and the Communist Party were the first to recognise this: that is why, having attempted to foment revolution outside the legislature, powerful factions in both parties entered into electoral alliances with the SLFP, preferring to side with a petty bourgeois dispensation in the hopes of radicalising the latter. The JVP also realised this: hence its entry to the democratic mainstream after 1994.

Sri Lanka’s middle-classes have historically been incapable of seeing through a revolution, even less a regime change. Only by recognising this point will the #GotaGoHome protesters be able to carry forward their campaigns. They can choose to ignore it, but at the cost of their very future: a fact we learnt last Monday, when, as several protesters were speedily being arrested, even former supporters denounced, not the government, but the Galle Face agitators, for disrupting discussions and negotiations with the IMF.

Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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