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Innocence and guilt in accusation and punditry

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by Malinda Seneviratne

It’s a Covid19-dominated week. Well, what week in the last nine months or so has not been dominated by the deadly virus, one may ask. This is true. The numbers pertaining to what is now called ‘The Second Wave’ are far more alarming than those we saw during the initial stages of the outbreak.Covid-19 may not be here forever, but it certainly is going to be around for quite a while. The experts have put together a strategy and various institutions are engaged in doing their parts in combating the pandemic. While there are containment measures being put in place whenever a cluster is identified, there’s no indication of an island-wide lockdown being imposed. Protection protocols are now well known by one and all. They are imposed in various degrees of strictness by all institutions, public and private. Lapses there were, are and will be. This is to be expected and this is unfortunate because all the good work of authorities working tirelessly and at great risk can be undone by one errant individual or a relaxing of protection regimes by any institution.

That’s Covid. Covid or no Covid, as the Opposition has often enough argued, the economy must function. Obviously, this throws sand in the wheels of the Opposition’s oft-expressed horror about constitutional reform. The fact of the matter is that parliamentarians are required to make laws, not administer Covid tests.

So let’s move to the ‘usual’ matters of the week. Last week court absolved the then President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and the Director General, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of any wrongdoing over the much publicized sil-redi case. This week, former Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan was granted bail by the Batticaloa Magistrate’s Court. Pillayan was arrested on October 11, 2015, more than five years ago. No trial. Hold on to that.

Now we have various people complaining about LTTE cadres being held without trial. Among them are NGO personalities, representatives of various countries and UN agencies and political commentators. None of them saw anything wrong about Pillayan being held for so long. Was it because it was their friends (the Yahapalanists) during whose watch he was put behind bars? Is it then about friends and not about principles?

They appear to have abandoned the LTTE suspects (political prisoners, they call them) and have Hejaaz Hizbullah as their pinup boy of the moment. Hizbullah is being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. His case has not come up for trial. He could be held for years. Just like Pillayan. If one applied the principle, ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ then one has to be seriously worried about sloth in the judicial system which makes it possible for anyone to be held indefinitely (five years in the case of Pillayan, more than 10 in the case of LTTE cadres and who knows until when in the case of Hizbullah?).

Interestingly, the horror-stricken alluded to above have been and still are comfy in making out that accusation amounts to guilt. The Sri Lankan security forces have been berated over their heads for more than a decade with this twisted club. They don’t seem to realize that the same instrument can be used on Hizbullah.

Interestingly, the twist works in the other direction as well. If accusation does not amount to guilt (as those defending the Sri Lankan security forces often claim) then the patently nasty treatment of Hizbullah is out of order. Out of order too is a government that does not insist that this is unfair. Out of order also on account of the long and unexpected delay on the part of the prosecution with respect to Hizbullah.

This week, we also saw former President, Maithripala Sirisena in the news. He does cut a sorry figure considering that his newsworthiness is solely dependent on appearances at the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday attacks. Yahapalanists who were crowing that the 19th Amendment effectively clipped the executive wings of the president and made the Prime Minister (that’s Ranil Wickremesinghe) all powerful, ought to defend Sirisena, but they don’t. Neither do they blame Ranil Wickremesinghe. Easter Sunday is an egg laid by some unknown hen, as far as they are concerned.

Speaking of the Easter Sunday attacks, what really happened to that parliamentary committee on national security appointed by the previous government? A sectoral oversight committee on National Security submitted a report ‘for (the) formulation and implementation of relevant laws required to ensure national security that will eliminate “New Terrorism” and extremism by strengthening friendship among races and religions.’ That’s what’s on the title page of over 300 paged report. It was presented to Parliament on February 19th, 2020, days before Parliament was dissolved and the curtain officially fell on the Yahapalana circus.

The committee was chaired by Malith Jayathilake and included Shehan Semasinghe, Vijitha Herath, Weerakumara Dissanayake, Buddhika Pathirana, M.S. Thowfeek, Palitha Thevarapperuma, S Viyalanderan, Dharmalingam Siddarthan, A A Wijethunga, M.A. Sumanthiran, Chandima Gamage, Kavinda Jayawardane, Mayantha Dissanayake, Bandula Bandarigoda, Muhammad Ibrahim Mansoon and Ashu Marasinghe.

Some of the above are still members of the current Parliament. Regardless, it is a comprehensive report with what appears to be pragmatic measures. The President and his party repeatedly said that national security is a ‘Number One Priority’. The report covers important areas such as education, attire that makes identification impossible, national security policy, amendment of immigration and emigration laws to be in line with new national and international developments, media (print, electronic and social), amendment of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, empowerment of Muslim civil society, non-governmental organizations, amendment of the Waqf Act, stopping the registration of political parties that are based on ethnicity and religion, issuance of national identity cards that affirm a Sri Lankan identity, establishment of a ministry for religious affairs that includes all faith-communities, the conduct of religious schools and centers, guidelines for the use of religious iconography, and Halal certification, Why can’t this report be taken as a base document to formulate relevant acts with ‘national security’ as the desired outcome?

The leaders of the political coalition who pushed for this committee are silent. The government is silent. The silence obviously doesn’t sit well with sections of all ethnic and religious communities that are wary of extremism and suspect that politicians are hedging bets with narrow political objectives in mind.

The government is also cagey on the issue of burials, i.e. the disposal of the bodies of Muslims who have succumbed to Covid19. The Government has not spoken in one voice on this matter. No decision to allow burials, Cabinet Spokesperson and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said. It will be allowed, opined Chamal Rajapaksa. A Muslim organization said ‘Justice Minister Ali Sabry said it will be allowed.’ Sabry did bring it up in cabinet, but no such decision was taken. The President has insisted that response to Covid-19 is framed by the advice given by health professionals. Well, the health professionals can give a clear determination on the matter without twiddling thumbs and indulging in navel-gazing. They will have to take into consideration the science which informed the decisions taken by other countries. For the record, almost all countries have sanctioned burials. If issues of water contamination are worrisome, then a way to circumvent the problem can be found, not just for Muslims who died of Covid-19 but in the case of anyone from any community whose family prefers internment to cremation.

The sooner the better. Faith is a personal thing, yes. Faith sparks emotion, more than reason. Fears need to be taken into consideration. Science needs to drive decision-making. Above all, the thinking needs to be logical and moreover communicated clearly, without ambiguity or convoluted arguments. The onus is on the government.

Let’s give the budget some play here. Once again, Harsha de Silva of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya had to bat for the Opposition with regard to foreign policy. Perhaps this is because he was associated with that ministry during the previous regime; Mangala Samaraweera, the subject minister, although he hasn’t retired his mouth, has retired or at least taken a break from parliamentary politics.

De Silva claims that the government has a confused foreign policy. Dinesh Gunawardena didn’t do himself any favors by alluding to the non-aligned concept. De Silva pounced on it. However, the degree and choice of alignment in a complex international system was spelled out recently by the President when he met the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: a) friendly relations with all nations, b) China has been a long-time friend, c) nothing will be done to jeopardize India’s national security concerns, d) investment welcome more than aid. The President didn’t speak on foreign policy during the budget debate obviously, but the position should have been emphasized.

That said, what are De Silva’s credentials when it comes to foreign policy? Back in the day he spoke of ‘economic diplomacy’. It translated into ‘whatever Uncle Sam says.’ However, the Brexit Moment, so to speak, brought this theory and application crashing to the ground. His former boss said ‘We will look East.’ As though he had been sleeping for twenty years!

De Silva claims that diplomacy is about honesty, sincerity, civility and responsibility. That’s a fairytale if ever there was one. In any case, such things were non-existent in the foreign policy doctrine of the previous regime. Servility on the other hand was observed as though it was an article of faith. If his party had got it all right, how come nothing tangible resulted?

De Silva speaks of servility replacing meritocracy and ability. Servility or loyalty (if one wants to be polite) does seem to be a key factor in diplomatic appointments/promotions. The Yahapalana Government was no different (which is not an excuse for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime to follow suit). De Silva knows about the appointments of J.C. Weliamuna, Lal Wickramatunge, A.S.P. Liyanage and Lalith Allahakoone among others, as well as rubbishing seniority within the service in promotions. He knows how sovereignty was compromised by Mangala Samaraweera via co-sponsorship of Resolution 30/1. Amazing how one’s skills, knowledge, competence and capacity to govern seem to increase -as soon one leaves the government and sits in the Opposition. He knows how low-ranking US civil servants were offered VIP treatment violating all established protocol. Maybe he believes it is ‘civility.’An FB comment on De Silva is applicable to many in the Opposition including those currently in the Government who once sat on that side of the House: ‘Amazing how one’s skills, knowledge, competence and capacity to govern seem to increase -as soon one leaves the government and sits in the Opposition.’ And this is another comment that says a lot about diplomacy in general: ‘Sri Lanka’s ambassadors have no mandate to serve the host nations interests. They have a duty to uphold ours. There is nothing diplomatically great about begging and pleading big bullies to keep us on their friends lists. His lack of reference to Sri Lanka’s ties with any nation which doesn’t conform to capitalist models is evidence that for de Silva a diplomatic win is only a win with the West. All other victories are not worth talking about. This is also how Colombo liberals think.’In other matters that might have gone under the radar, Russia has pledged to improve ties with Sri Lanka. Sarath Weerasekera, who got the most number of preferential votes from the Colombo District has been sworn in as the Minister of Public Security. More importantly, two ministries have been brought under the purview of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He will now handle the subjects of Defense and Technology. Perhaps the President has decided it is time to get things moving without allowing Covid-19 to bog him down. A response system has been put in place, as mentioned above. People with decent track records are in charge. He obviously trusts their judgment. They will no doubt do the best they can given constraints of a) resources, b) the need to balance response with economic and social imperatives, c) the as yet unknown factors of how the virus behaves. The President can and should take a break. His leadership is required elsewhere now. malindasenevi@gmail.com.

 

www.malindawords.blogspot.com.



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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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