by Malinda Seneviratne
The year 2020 was eminently forgettable and that has very little to do with politics. The obvious need not be stated. As for the political, we had parliamentary elections and the passage of the 20th Amendment. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna effectively consolidated its hold on power, securing close to a two-thirds majority. The UNP (official) was routed and the UNP (in new garb, i.e. the SJB) was a distant second.
The new parliamentary configuration resulted in the 20th Amendment being passed. Of course there were objections. Court was petitioned. The Attorney General promised that certain articles would be amended at the ‘Committee Stage’ and the court ruled, except with regard to just a single article, that if this was done a special majority (two-thirds) would suffice. Clarity in the structure of governance, sorely compromised by the 19th Amendment, was restored. Most of the powers clipped from the office of the president by the 19th Amendment (in order to strengthen the then prime minister, appointed in contravention of all established procedure and at the time not even enjoying a parliamentary majority), were restored. The dangers are obvious but that’s something that the Opposition cannot complain about.
So, in effect, 2020 was a ‘pohottuwa’ year. The Opposition, in disarray, did make a few noises towards the end of the year thanks to Covid-19 and little else. The Opposition could not even hold on to the worrisome incident at the Mahara prison where 11 persons died and over 100 were wounded. It was distracted by the controversial ‘Dhammika Syrup’. The UNP is yet to name someone to the national list slot that came its way. The JVP has gone silent. The strongest party in the Opposition, the SJB, seems to be readying for a cold war for party leadership.
Patali Champika Ranawaka launched a separate political project called ‘The Group of 43.’ Ranawaka, who left the Jathika Hela Urumaya, was named one of six Deputy Chairmen of the SJB which technically dilutes his position in the party. He is not even the Deputy Leader (there is no such post, at present). Tissa Attanayake, former General Secretary of the UNP and recently appointed as the General Secretary of the SJB, claimed ‘Sajith Premadasa will be the common candidate of the Opposition.’ There’s a long way to go before parties nominate presidential candidates but if Attanayake’s predictions come true, Ranawaka’s obvious political ambitions would take a hit. It is unlikely that he would let himself be shoved to the sidelines. Interesting times ahead, therefore.
With the two major elections done and dusted following a rousing victory for the SLPP in the local government elections (February 2018) which in fact gave that party its initial momentum, only the provincial councils are left to be fought over.
The PCs have been dissolved for several years now. The administrative apparatus remains and of course Governors who are from time to time appointed, removed and replaced. Illegally constituted though they are, the PCs remain part of the overall governance structure. They are constitutional by habit, if you will. Have they served any purpose, though? They have certainly helped the career politicians, many of whom have seen PCs as stepping stones to Parliament. A lot happens at the provincial level, especially with regard to education and health, but as we’ve seen over the past three years or so, all you need for effective delivery of services is decentralization of administration. It is not as efficient as could be, but in the very least things are no worse than when the PCs were fully functional.
Anyway, whether or not to hold PC elections is a political decision. The Government is currently mulling comprehensive constitutional reform which could take the form of a fresh constitution. The future of the 13th Amendment is at stake here.
Perhaps this is why the likes of Dayasiri Jayasekera and former president Maithripala Sirisena have made some noise on the subject (Note: the SJB, the JVP, the UNP and not even the TNA has uttered a single worry-word in this regard).
Dayasiri Jayasekera, State Minister and General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), while acknowledging that the electoral system should be amended has stated that any decision regarding PCs should be first discussed with India. That’s strange because India didn’t keep her part of the deal in the Indo-Lanka Accord signed in July 1987. It was, in the first place an Indo-Indo Accord; drafted by India, signed by Rajiv Gandhi who saw it as ‘the beginning of the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka’ and by J.R.Jayewardene (under duress) to secure India’s interests. Sri Lanka was only interested in getting the LTTE disarmed. India undertook to do it but did not.
Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the SLFP and former President, in an interview with ‘The Hindu’ told Meera Srinivasan that ‘abolishing PCs [would be like] playing with fire.’ That comment was taken as the headline. Sirisena, to his credit, wasn’t at all gungho about PCs, a point that ‘The Hindu’ has played down for obvious reasons. Sirisena clearly expressed disappointment with the PCs and proposes decentralization through ‘District Development Boards.’ It is only when Srinivasan pushed him on ‘abolition’ that Sirisena, slipped to diplospeak, alluding to (non-existent) ‘friendship’ between the two countries, speculating that ‘India could get a little upset’ and quickly upping it to the headline-possible, ‘abolishing PCs is like playing with fire.’
The Government, meanwhile, has decided that PC elections will not be held soon. That’s not good news to politicians looking to move up. The so-called lower ranks do play a role in the larger political game, but then again the next test, so to speak, is several years away. Postponement of elections is not a good thing. The previous government paid a heavy price in this regard. This government could too, unless abolition is being seriously contemplated. That would require a constitutional amendment where the two-thirds might be harder to secure than it was in the passage of the 20th Amendment.
Sirisena, in that same interview, has stated bravely that the SLFP is planning a rejuvenation program. He complains about SLFPers being treated like second-class citizens by the SLPP, forgetting that such is the fate of any small party aligning itself with one that is larger, more popular and far better organized. Srinivasan interjects the SLFP’s numbers (14), but doesn’t state the obvious that it is highly unlikely that the SLFP would have got so many members in had it gone alone in August 2020. Sirisena’s comments about the SLPP-SLFP alliance is a sad whine. If, for example, the 13 who contested under the lotus bud symbol were asked to choose one party over the other, the majority are likely to ditch Sirisena and the SLFP. The SLFP is ready to go alone, Sirisena says. The SLFP did go alone just three years ago (Local Government Elections) and was well and truly creamed. There’s nothing to indicate a mass migration of people from the SLPP (or any other party for that matter) to the SLFP.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has discussed the matter of constitutional reform and concluded that it would call for a mechanism formulated with the involvement of the international community. The party has already drafted a 21-page proposal to the experts’ committee appointed to draft a new constitution. It is reported that this draft includes suggestions to formulate new laws pertaining to certain aspects such as education, law, land tenure, health, agriculture and irrigation on the Northern and Eastern Provinces. 13A+, so to speak, is what the TNA’s proposal would be, certainly not support for abolition or a shift to a district-based system of devolution/decentralization as the SLFP seems to be inclined towards.
The SLFP is not the only party that’s in crisis. Developments in the Northern Province indicates that internal disagreement has cost the TNA. The elections of the Mayor of Jaffna by the Municipal Council following the budget being defeated twice resulted in Wishvalingam Manivannan of the EPDP with 21 votes edging out the TNA’s Arnold Emmanuel who got 20 votes. On the same day, the TNA candidate for the post of Chairman, Nallur Pradeshiya Sabha, Koomaraswamy Mathusuthan (8 votes) was pipped by Padmanathan Mayuran, the candidate filled by the TNPF, a party led by Ganendran Ponnambalam.
These losses do indicate that Tamil people are to some degree disenchanted with the TNA and may look for leadership elsewhere. That, however, would be later. These squabbles notwithstanding, it is likely that all Tamil political parties will resist any moves to abolish the 13th Amendment. They are also likely to welcome any move in any multilateral forum that had the potential to embarrass or wound the present government.
The most thorny issue at hand of course is that of how to dispose the bodies of people who have died on account of Covid-19. At present the Government has ruled out burials on account of infection worries. This has irked many Muslims, here and abroad, who see this as a racially motivated position. A Muslim organization based in the UK is to sue the Government. The BBC has put a spin on the story. Par for the course, one might say. It all points to one thing: all roads lead to Geneva when the government in power is not to the liking of Europe and North American governments.
Sri Lanka does not stand to win anything by appeasing those who knowingly or unknowingly play into the hands of the big boys and girls on the global stage. It’s a naduth-haamuduruwange, baduth-hamuduruwange game, after all; a global version of the USA’s play on Sri Lanka with respect to the MCC Compact. It was supposed to be a gift which Sri Lanka didn’t seem to be interested in; so the offer was withdrawn with not so veiled threats of repercussions. It’s just about playing a game skewed against you under rules made by the powerful and amended at will by the same.
The issue of burial has been politicized. The Muslim leaders are guilty of this politicization — when a solution (burial in the Maldives) was proposed, those who take diktat from God and aspire to God’s kingdom suddenly became patriotic, wanting the dead to be buried in ‘The Motherland’. It has been politicized by extremists in the majority community who demand that the Government should not pander to the whims and fancies of the Muslims. The Government has not done itself any favors by doing zilch about necessary changes in accordance with the election promise, ‘One country, one law.’ The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act stands. The unchecked Madrasas still function.
However, it is wrong to dismiss the burial option simply because Muslim leaders have been intransigent, extremist and absolutely racist. It is also wrong to dismiss the dismissal of the burial option because it is espoused by Sinhala Buddhist extremists and chauvinists. Acceptance or rejection has to be based on scientific evidence.
As things stand and as the eminent virologist Dr Malik Peiris has explained, it is highly unlikely that burial is risky in terms of infection. ‘Highly unlikely’ sits this side of ‘absolutely impossible,’ but then again, if strict burial protocols are observed, it is less risky than, say, the possibility of infection in a supermarket by an unidentified carrier. Moreover, there are theoretically hundreds of locations on this island where burial would have no risk whatsoever. Sure, the chest-beating Muslims worried about the afterlife haven’t bothered to look for empty land in all-Muslim areas so they could say ‘if there’s a risk, we’ll take it.’ That’s beside the point.
The question is simple: how should bodies be disposed? The answer, based on scientific evidence, should be expressed by the Government. Experts have been asked to give their recommendations. They’ve had enough time. Their conclusion should be made public. Clearly. Logically. Regardless of who is pleased or displeased. It is a communication problem, in essence. If ‘politics’ HAS to be injected (and we do understand that this is more probable than possible) AND if it’s an issue of allaying the anxieties of one community at the cost of aggravating the anxieties of another community, it has to be sorted out by addressing the full gamut of issues that come under ‘politics of religion.’ For example, if burial is deemed safe and it is felt that this would cause the Sinhalese to suspect that the government is pandering to particular minority, then all relevant and unresolved political issues need to be sorted out. As pointed out in this column previously, the full implementation of the recommendations tabled by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Extremism (February, 2020).
Death-rites cannot wait, though. Politicians and officials are notorious for foot-dragging. Disposal is a ‘Right Now’ issue. The Government can, if it is concerned about political fallout, issue clear statements about what’s being done on other counts as alluded to above.
The disposal issue is likely to be sorted out soon. It won’t stop the USA, UK and other rogue states from beating Sri Lanka down with one or more heavy clubs at their disposal in Geneva in a few weeks time. Those are factors beyond anyone’s control. We saw what Mangala Samaraweera’s appeasement strategy did. Nothing.
In the end, the government can trust only one political entity. The people. Take the hard decisions, explain them and trust the people to understand. Do a lot, not just one thing, for in ‘the lot’ there will be several things that will be applauded. Otherwise, like what happened to the yahapalana gang, the tag ‘anti-people’ will be pinned firmly on the body of the government. Not by NGOs and foreign powers (their pins just won’t stick) but the people!
Writing this on January 1st, I am acutely aware that today is not unlike the 31st day of December, 2020. The world has not changed and change has little or nothing to do with the structure of a calendar.
But let’s say hello to 2021 anyway. Let’s learn to live with Covid-19 until such time we can bury it for good. Let’s learn to live with one another, because we just can’t bury each other.
PROPPING-UP THIS PRESIDENT IS A PRESCRIPTION FOR POLITICAL SUICIDE
DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
In one dimension, Sri Lankan politics is a tale of cross-party political collaboration that should have taken place but didn’t, and those that shouldn’t have taken place but did.The two varying yet intermittently intertwining story-lines have widely discrepant endings, though. Collaborations that should have taken place but didn’t are stories of what might have been and wasn’t. What might have been is often better than what actually was.By contrast, stories of collaboration that should not have taken place but did, are stories of disasters that were avoidable but weren’t.
Sometimes the collaborations that should have been preceded those that should not have been but were acted upon. These are particularly poignant because an alliance or political equation that had the potential of leading to something positive, was immediately substituted by an equation which culminated in catastrophe.
There is another, inner connection. It is the causal link between the alliances that should have been made and weren’t, that led to lost potential, which was then sought to be offset by alliances that should not have been entered into but were, with worse consequences than the stagnation sought to be avoided or offset by entering into them.
The Left was never as strong as it was after the General Election of 1947. If the discussion at H. Sri Nissanka’s residence ‘Yamuna’ succeed and a bloc had formed of the three left parties—the LSSP, CP and the BLP—and the independent progressives, Ceylon would have had a left oriented Government which would have taken the country on a Nehruvian or ‘left-Nehruvian’ path.
Having rejected that option, the same leftist parties were later reviled, and correctly so, for having clung to “Sirima’s sari pota” and electorally decimated where they remain to this very day. Just recently, and incredibly, their residues voted for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Emergency under which the Aragalaya activists are being arrested.
After the magnificent Hartal of August 1953, the political parties that participated and supported it failed to unite in a single bloc. The result was that SWRD’s SLFP fell prey to the temptation of Sinhala Only, lobbied for by a civil society caucus led by Prof GP Malalasekara and the All- Ceylon Buddhist Congress he chaired, riding the surf of the Buddha Jayanthi and the ACBC report.
When SWRD tried to compensate by course-correction through the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact, the Left didn’t come forward to enter a bloc with him in support. Ironically the same left entered a united front with his far less progressive widow and enthroned Sinhala only in the 1972 Constitution.
The Left finally entered a United Front in 1963, accompanied by the unification of the left-led trade union movement. The united left won the Borella by-election that year. In 1964 the LSSP broke the left front and joined Mrs. Bandaranaike’s cabinet. In 1968, in place of a reunified Left, the CPSL joined the LSSP in a coalition with the SLFP, holding a joint rally in Bogambara.The resultant vacuum on the left permitted the birth and rapid growth of the JVP.
Fifteen years after the LSSP’s co-optation and nine years after the CPSL’s, the entire old left had been electorally wiped out, with Philip Gunawardena who had joined a UNP cabinet, having been electorally eliminated earlier in 1970.I could go on. The moral of the story is simple. Left unity is a good thing and left disunity is not. Left and the unity with progressive independents is a good thing and its absence is not. The Left uniting with a center party under left dominance is bad but doing so on an equal footing, isn’t.The Left uniting with a dominant center party, i.e., with the SLFP in 1964 and 1970-1975/’77, is a terrible thing.
A center-left or center party uniting with a rightwing or center-right party is a bad thing. President Sirisena and the SLFP learned that lesson the hard way and the current trend of the SLPP opting for Ranil Wickremesinghe over Dullas Alahapperuma, the SLFP and the 10-parties being drawn into President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s orbit, having voted for his draconian Emergency (the SLFP was absent), will prove electorally fatal.
The Tamil parties have a sad history of supporting the rightwing UNP which inevitably winds up unpopular and the target of a huge backlash. The presence of the Tamil parties in a bloc with the UNP, unfortunately facilitates an utterly reprehensible entry of Sinhala chauvinism into the anti-government backlash.
It is utterly counterproductive for the Tamil parties to be in an elitist UNP bloc. It was the presence of those parties in the UNP-led seven-party national Government of 1965-1970 that facilitated the opportunistic or semi-spontaneous injection of Sinhala ethno-populism into the Opposition campaign of the second half of the 1960s, which even more horridly, culminated in the official Sinhala racism after it assumed office, e.g., media-wise and district-wise Standardization of university entrance, the hegemonistic status of Sinhala and Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution.
The Tamil parties should think twice before being enticed into an alliance, de jure or de facto, with the unelected, illegitimate president Ranil Wickremesinghe who will cause a further spike in unprecedentedly high social disaffection by his economic “shock therapy”. It could cause a toxic cocktail as Sir John’s Delft speech did.
What would have happened to any Opposition political party that joined, propped up or let itself be drawn into the orbit of the hawkish UNP administration of Sir John Kotelawala after the Hartal of August 1953?
What if SWRD Bandaranaike, having left the UNP in 1951, helped it in 1953, after chairing the Hartal rally on Galle Face Green, though the SLFP didn’t participate in the Hartal?
The answers of these counterfactual history questions are obvious. Any such party which became a de jure or de facto prop (“mukkuwa”) of the Hartal-hit Establishment which had a harder-line post-Hartal leader, would have been committing political suicide.Had SWRD Bandaranaike done so, he would not have been the beneficiary of the anti-Establishment tectonic shift caused or denoted by the Hartal and swept into office through the Silent Revolution of 1956.
Why then are the Opposition parties of today doing or contemplating something even more colossally stupid, of joining, supporting or collaborating with the UNP leader of the Aragalaya-hit Establishment? It is suicidal for two reasons:
Firstly, the leader in question is utterly unelected, totally devoid of a popular mandate, and is therefore a completely illegitimate (though not illegal) ruler.Secondly, he will drive through a controversial and polarizing economic program, which will sink any party associated with it.Meanwhile, the failure of the pro-Aragalaya parties, the JVP, FSP, SJB and TNA, to unite is a repetition of the failure of the pro-Hartal parties to do so in 1953-1956.
THE SYSTEM CHANGE THAT CAN ENABLE SRI LANKA TO RECOVER FROM THIS MASSIVE CRISIS
by Prof.Tissa Vitarana
The massive crisis that has affected the lives of nearly all classes in our society, specially the poor and middle, in Sri Lanka is not new to us or to most other countries. It is an inherent cyclical feature, occurring at about seven year intervals, due to ‘boom and bust’ nature of the global market driven capitalist economic system brought on by over production. Periodically it may get out of control, like the Asian crisis of 1997 when a whole region was badly affected.
The affected countries that overcame the crisis by their own effort have learned to tide over these crises with minimal disruption. At an international conference in Cairo I had the good fortune to have a lengthy chat with Dr.Mahathir Mohamed (facilitated by us both being doctors turned politicians). He advised against succumbing to IMF pressure at any cost. This was because it is committed to the Prof. Friedman neo-liberal doctrine which facilitates the exploitation of our countries through an import dependent open economy that USA-led Imperialism controls.
The loans given lead to a debt trap which is the root cause of our situation. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt has reached US$ 52 billion and debt servicing last year was six billion dollars and this year seven billion. Hence the shortage of dollars and of essential imports like fuel, gas, chemical fertilizer, medicines and food items. To ensure that at least six months of these imports are obtained the Foreign Exchange Reserve (FOREX) has been maintained at US$ seven to eight billion. Now it is down to zero, and thus causing this severe crisis.
The answer is the development of a national economy with maximum self-sufficiency which is Government regulated in the real interest of all the people, not a few super rich. This was done by Dr. N.M. Perera as Minister of Finance in the 1970/75 SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition government. Since the neo-liberal UNP Government led by J.R.Jayewardene took power in 1977 the country has gone into a situation of economic crisis. While the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer.
Now it is estimated by nutritionists that about 70% of all families are living below the poverty line and have inadequate food and other essentials. The level of malnutrition has gone up above 20%. It is with great difficulty that the adults of many of these families survive on one meal a day, and provide two meals for their children. Many go to bed at night hungry. The productivity of the economy has gone down and, due to the economic crisis the closure of factories and other work places, has led to massive pay cuts and job losses.
The farmers harvest outputs have dropped due to the shortage and high cost of fertilizer and other inputs. Due to the fall in the import of fuel the shortage and high price has disrupted the transport system, the operation of factories, and the use of machinery in agriculture and in the fishing industry. The economy is on the verge of total collapse.
In the midst of such crisis where the system itself is collapsing, clearly the country and the world requires a system change. Unfortunately those in power are content to tinker with the existing system and make both minor and some major changes, but the outcome has not been adequate. It is my opinion that there needs to be total change of the system that benefits the whole of society and not the few who can manage with the limited but expensive tinkering process.
Society itself needs to be driven not by the profit motive which largely benefits the rich but also by being re-organized to provide the needs of everybody. That is a society based on socialist principles. For instance the high cost of food (due to the massive food inflation) is an outcome of the profit motivated production, distribution and marketing system that exists today. Further, in Sri Lanka for instance due to the high cost of inputs the farmer has to take large loans to cover his cost. He gets into debt and at the time of harvest he has to pay the capital cost along with the interest.
The farmer generally takes big loans from the trader or from institutions (like banks) that provide credit. Many poor farmers in this country find it easier to obtain credit from the traders thereby avoiding the red tape they have to face when they go to institutions that provide credit. But this leads to further problems as the trader often demands that the produce is sold only to him at an amount below the prevailing market price. At times this does not even cover the actual cost of production. And the farmer gets caught up in a cycle of debt from which he has no escape. A majority of the farmers in this country are deeply in debt. They are trapped in a situation of perpetual poverty.
The same problem is faced by small and medium scale entrepreneurs. As a result value added industries too do not develop in the rural sector. There must be a new system which gives the farmers and the entrepreneurs the necessary credit, if possible at no or very low interest at the time that he needs it. This will have to be done by the Government which should ensure that bureaucratic pressures such as the taking of bribes is firmly eliminated.
The LSSP favours a truly cooperative system. There should be producer cooperatives and consumer cooperatives, and they should directly deal with each other without any intermediaries. In the prevailing private enterprise system the producer is exploited by a series of middlemen who jack up the price, so that the consumer has to pay a far higher amount than what the producer gets. This middleman system must be eliminated and the transaction should be directly between the producer cooperatives and the consumer cooperatives.
Thus the consumer will only have to pay the cost incurred in taking the produce between the two without any profit. Such a cooperative system is not a dream but it works in many countries abroad, specially those in Scandinavia. But this has already worked in Sri Lanka too, during the time that Dr.N.M.Perera was Finance Minister in the Government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Unfortunately the cooperatives that are still functioning in this country are cooperatives only in name operated by mudalalis. All the members of the producer and consumer cooperatives must meet and elect reliable office bearers who will function properly at all times. This system change is vital to bring down the cost of living and end hunger and poverty.
Twisting the aragalaya into what it is not
By Uditha Devapriya
Most analyses approach the crisis in Sri Lanka through the lens of human rights, democratic governance, and accountability. Many of them pin the blame on personalities and parties. Not surprisingly, the narrative has shifted over the last few months. From demonising the Rajapaksas, commentators and analysts now fault President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the country’s problems. More than anything else, they accuse him of trying to harness or tame protesters, citing the raid on Gotagogama in the early hours of July 22.
Internationally, these allegations have found a ready audience. Colombo’s civil society circuits have been given ample time and space on Indian and Western media outlets. The latter have been only too willing to amplify their concerns. In most cases, their narrative follows a set pattern: the government is oppressing protesters, it is using legal and extra-judicial methods to tame them, and it is resorting to militarisation to harness dissent. Such narratives reinforce Sri Lanka’s image as a militaristic State, more or less in line with what was churned about the country at the peak of the separatist conflict.
There is nothing inherently or fundamentally misleading about these claims. Sri Lankans are clamouring for democratic change and they perceive the State and its organs, which include the military, as an affront to their dignity. Yet Colombo’s civil society narratives tend to miss more than a few important points. For instance, they fail to note that while the army has been deployed against protesters, a significant proportion of the latter criticise the army, not for militarising the country, but for acting as vassals of the State. The “People vs Army” line, in that sense, does not really hold when considering how individual soldiers have also joined the protests, to be gleefully welcomed by anti-regime demonstrators.
As far as these analyses go, the military is just the tip of the iceberg. Other narratives include the view that anti-regime protesters all unified under a slogan – #GoHomeGota – because they all had the same demands. These demands included widening access to political power and representation for Sri Lanka’s deprived minorities, not just its ethnic but also sexual minorities. According to this reading, opposition to Rajapaksa brought together different groups, classes, and interests: a welcoming development that can be used to push forward important liberal-democratic political and constitutional reforms.
There is no doubt that, viewed from a certain perspective, and as far as opposition to the State went, the anti-Rajapaksa movement was progressive and liberal. Yet to contend that this alone made the protests progressive would be taking things too far. The truth of the matter is that Gotagogama, out of necessity, lacked a cohesive leadership. This enabled it to play host to different interest groups, not all of whom shared a liberal progressive stance on certain themes and issues. Probably the most important point to take from the protests at Galle Face was that former supporters of the outgoing president formed a significant section there: not really a crowd you’d count on as supporters of liberal causes.
I realised this myself when I paid a visit on July 12, the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa vacated his office. Towards the evening, when crowds began swarming into Galle Face and emotions were running high, the rhetoric from the centre of the protest zone escalated rather wildly. The centre stood a few feet from a campsite set up for members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ community. It was more than a little ironic, then, when an anti-Rajapaksa heckler began shouting slogans which were rather homophobic, throwing words like “butterfly” on the country’s leadership. It was hardly what you’d expect from a protest that was, in every respect, supposed to be aligned with civil society visions of progressive dissent.
In an intriguing essay on the Gotagogama protests (“Sri Lanka’s Next Test”, Project Syndicate), Priyanka Krishnamoorthy raises an important question: was, and is, the aragalaya “a mere marriage of convenience”? In 2019 more than a third of the country gave a whopping majority to Mr Rajapaksa and his party, essentially “endorsing the Rajapaksas’ brand of majoritarian politics.” It goes without saying that the fuel and gas shortages and power cuts have brought them into the streets. But will that by itself be enough to ensure their unity with groups, such as minority rights activists, who have been traditionally viewed with suspicion and tarred as agents for NGO and Western agendas?
In depicting the aragalaya as a swelling of progressive anti-State sentiment, liberals make the same mistake that their nationalist counterparts do: portray the protests as a monolith movement, which it is not. The simple truth is that the aragalaya has hosted gay rights and pro-democracy activists as much as it has homophobes and ultra-nationalists. Liberal outfits may be shy of admitting this, but it’s important to make such a point because the aragalaya needs to be recognised for what it is: a diverse array of political, social, and cultural views and perspectives which do not necessarily cohere with each other, but which came together to oust an unpopular regime: in its simplest sense, a popular uprising.
The same goes for the July 22 raid. By all accounts, the raid was unexpected and, from several standpoints, reprehensible. Yet as the President made it clear, it was his way of demonstrating the State’s commitment to law and order. One may disagree, as I do, with his use of force, and validly concur that it tilted mass opinion against Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. But then government supporters can claim, as critics like me do not, that in no country has peaceful protests entailed the occupation of public property. This is a deeply divisive debate, one that is yet to be taken forward and concluded.
Civil society and international, particularly Western, media have given the protests the spotlight they deserve. Yet they have also twisted the aragalaya into something it is not. If opposition to the Rajapaksas can be considered liberal, the aragalaya should certainly be lauded for its unyielding stand against the Rajapaksa. Yet to deny its multifaceted character and the complex nature of the situation in the country would be going too far. One must be nuanced in everything. Even when lauding criticism of the State.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
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