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MCC, PUC, SLMC and PCRby

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A week of acronyms:

by Malinda Seneviratne

We’ve had a fire at the Supreme Court, the reconstitution of the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC), moves to reconstitute the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), an official statement from the US Embassy announcing that the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement has been tossed into the proverbial waste paper basket and unprecedented scenes in Anuradhapura where the man who claimed he had found a cure for Covid-19 courtesy the blessings of Goddess Kali created quite a rumpus.

Let’s start with the controversial ‘peniya.’ Now it is fashionable to laugh-off anything that’s ‘native’. Call it a colonial cultural remnant if you like. The problem is that Dhammika Bandara’s ‘cure’ was not tested properly. It was however ‘endorsed’ by sections of the government and given publicity by the state media. It was essentially a commodity in the market. There was a seller and lots of buyers. Seller and buyers violated Covid-19 protocols. Officials failed to enforce them. There was a buzz which knowingly or unknowingly helped divert attention from important issues such as the prison riots in Mahara. The Opposition waded into the syrup and is still stuck there. Good publicity for Dhammika Bandara and the ‘peniya.’

That’s old news. The ‘latest’ is the man making quite a scene before the Chief Prelate of the Atamastanaya in Anuradhapura, Ven Pallegama Hemarathana Thero, claiming that he was Mother Kali and was therefore the good bikkhu’s mother as well! Now there are many Sinhala Vedamahattayas who go about curing the sick quietly. No stamping feet. No advertisements. Most importantly, they don’t use efficacy as though it is a license to demand anything and everything. Dhammika Bandara is different, obviously. He hasn’t done himself any favors.

That’s ‘ongoing’ and could divert attention from the other issues flagged above. The Opposition was quick to claim that the fire at the Supreme Court was an act of arson aimed at destroying important documents. Sajith Premadasa visited the courts complex and called for an ‘independent investigation’. The word ‘independent’ has been used so often that it has lost all value, more so because the ‘independents’ that successive governments have appointed to various councils and commissions have essentially been political fellow-travelers of the particular regimes.

The truth is that the fire had not caused any damage to court records or papers. It was in a location where there was broken/abandoned furniture. Why such garbage was not removed, we do not know. We do not know how the fire started. Investigations are ongoing, we are told.

Interestingly, the fire was intense enough to drag Ranil Wickremesinghe from virtual cold storage. Following the historic election debacle in August 2020, Wickremesinghe has been in political hibernation, so to speak. The UNP is still to name someone to the national list slot. The issue of party leadership is as yet unresolved. Wickremesinghe hinted at retirement. It is well known that he is an expert at quelling opposition in the ranks. The ranks left, more or less, and that has made ‘quelling’ irrelevant. He is not one to let go, however low his political fortunes sink. He’s come out. It is interesting to see what he does next.

Then there’s the MCC, the PUC and the SLMC. The media release issued by the US Embassy in Colombo is full of contempt, of course couched in diplospeak. ‘Funds approved for Sri Lanka will be made available to other eligible partner countries in need of grant funding to pursue their economic development priorities, reduce poverty, and grow their economies,’ it says, implying that Sri Lanka doesn’t have or is not interested in pursuing ‘development priorities.’ ‘Development’ and ‘priorities’ as understood by the USA, obviously, which are not necessarily in Sri Lanka’s interests. Sri Lanka doesn’t want to reduce poverty, is another element of the subtext. One remembers that such plans as are praised by countries like the USA gave us first ‘structural adjustment’ then ‘structural adjustment with a human face,’ and finally ‘structural adjustment with poverty alleviation.’ That taught us where poverty comes from.

The media release also claims, ‘country ownership, transparency, and accountability for grant results are fundamental to MCC’s development model.’ Well, the entire process of project proposal writing was overseen by the US Embassy. There were ‘MCC experts’ herding ‘local experts’ at Temple Trees during the Yahapalana years. Mangala Samaraweera was pushing it. Wickremesinghe went along. They were all dumped by the voters eventually. And, following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pledge to review all such agreements, even Premadasa said that the MCC agreement would be revisited. The JVP and the SJB wanted to know the new government’s position. The Gunaruwan Committee appointed by the President clearly objected to the agreement in its current form, but the Government kept it on the table. Now it’s off the table. No credit to the Government though.

The Embassy finally says, ‘The United States remains a friend and partner to Sri Lanka and will continue to assist Sri Lanka in responding to COVID and building its economy.’ This is almost like saying ‘we are mad at you for not following the script!’ The USA’s ‘friendship’ will be once again on show in a few months in Geneva when the Sri Lankan case comes up for review. Let’s see what happens then.

‘Diplomacy’ is in the subtext of the controversy over the sacking of certain members of the SLMC, but it’s not the whole story. There are ex-officio members in the SLMC as well as a certain number who are elected. There are also those appointed by the Minister.

Now there’s a hue and cry about the sacking of certain members. The replacements are political appointees, cry the objectors. What’s forgotten is that the lot that were moved out were themselves political appointees. Sunil Ratnapriya is not just a political loyalist, he is a politician. Dr Harendra de Silva, whose work in the Child Protection Authority is highly commended by one and all, was a close associate of former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. They were all appointed by Rajitha Senaratne, now a man who anyone can say is dignified and honorable to the last letter.

There are allegations against those appointed by Senaratne in particular and the SLMC in general which basically went along with what the minister’s friends said or what they believed were the minister’s wishes. Replacing them with a set of people that another minister trusts is not guaranteed to produce startlingly different outcomes though. At the end of the day, the outfit that clashed with the SLMC (the Government Medical Officers’ Association, GMOA) seems to have got its way. A committee was appointed to review the work of the SLMC, certain serious allegations were examined, there were disturbing findings and some members of the GMOA were elected to the SLMC. Politics of different kinds were and are clearly at play.

One of the murmured but not openly mentioned precipitating factors in this drama is the de-listing of several prestigious Russian universities. The process, the report indicates, wasn’t above board. We don’t know if the Russian Embassy expressed concern. Unlike their US counterparts they are not given to issuing media releases or reading out the Riot Act.

There’s a similar drama brewing with regard to the PUC. The President’s Secretary Dr P B Jayasundera has written to the Treasury Secretary directing that staff of the PUC be transferred out and offering that the PUC’s functions can theoretically be added to other state institutions. The current set of commissioners are certainly not saints. They’ve been repeatedly rapped on their knuckles by the Attorney General’s department for operating outside their mandate. They have essentially acted as though they are a body parallel to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), coming up with alternative long-term energy generation plans following solicitation of public comments of the CEB’s plans. The long term energy general plans are typically made for 15 years, with adjustments being made every two years. The PUC, citing trivialities, have delayed approval of the same, taking more than a year and a half on average, which essentially makes such plans redundant.

If the frustrations of the CEB have been noted by the President, that’s good. The CEB’s detractors claim that certain high-ups in the CEB have their own agendas. Perhaps they do. Well then, they should be investigated and brought to light. Chanting ‘CEB is corrupt, CEB is corrupt’ just won’t do. For the record, if the CEB was indeed corrupt and the PUC squeaky clean and effective, why wasn’t corruption in the CEB wiped out by those in the PUC?

Jayasundera’s directive is childish. It’s a shortcut at best. What’s required is that the rules be followed. They are clear as per Section 7 of the PUC Act No 35 of 2002 with respect to who could be a member of the PUC, and the term and removal of members. The mandate is clear. A regulator regulates but does not transfer to himself the functions/mandate of the regulated. The PUC does not make policy. It deals with guidelines and works to ensure that operations fall within the relevant parameters.

Overall, politics in the nuts-and-bolts, i.e. policy-making, institutional arrangement and procedural matters, seems to have trumped power games among and within political parties.

The only matter of interest, at least for political analysts who look at elections and candidates is the resignation of Patali Champika Ranawaka from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Ranawaka, who at one point led the Sihala Urumaya (SU) through which party he first entered Parliament 20 years ago, was instrumental in mobilizing sections of the Maha Sangha to contest parliamentary elections in 2004. The JHU secured nine seats on that occasion and played a key role in the election of W.J.M. Lokubandara (UNP) as Speaker. Lokubandara would thereafter morph into a staunch ally of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The fortunes of the JHU declined not too long thereafter, but Ranawaka’s star was on the rise. He is credited with having authored Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election manifesto in 2005 and was a key speaker during that election campaign. Following the resignation of National List MP Ven Omalpe Sobitha, Ranawaka entered parliament and was duly appointed as Minister of Environment.

The JHU joined the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in 2010 and had relatively meager returns, but Ranawaka came third in the preferential votes in Colombo. He was given the Power and Energy portfolio but later, perhaps since he didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with the Rajapaksas, was ‘downgraded’ to Minister of Science and Technology. The unilateral exit of Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero from the UPFA in late 2014 forced Ranawaka’s hand. The JHU quit the government, backed Maithripala Sirisena and Ranawaka was made Minister of Megapolis and Western Province Development. He was, then, a Gota+Basil version of the Yahapalana Government. He was President Sirisena’s nominee to the Constitutional Council and was the Secretary of the United National Front for Good Governance led by Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Ranawaka’s political history is akin to someone who has switched vehicles frequently. He either hit potholes or drove into them, abandoned the vehicle and jumped into another. His organizational history, so to speak, is colorful: JVP, Chinthana Sansadaya, Ratawesi Peramuna, Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism, SU (Sihala Urumaya), JHU, UPFA, UNPGG and now the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). As of today, the first nine are nonexistent or largely irrelevant. Ranawaka has moved. Up.

Yes, he was with the JHU for 16 years, but both he and the JHU would have gone into oblivion had he (and the JHU) not hooked up with the UPFA (2010), the UNP (2015) and the SJB (2020). Some argue that it was not that Ranawaka jumped from party to party but that the relevant parties had come to him. Well, writing manifestos notwithstanding, none of the big brothers listened to him after the polls closed.

The JHU is not even a rump as of now. It makes sense to quit. More importantly it’s a necessary first step for Ranawaka to further his political ambitions. Sajith Premadasa, whose sophomoric qualities got exposed during his presidential bid, is no match for Ranawaka when it comes to intellect, drive and even oratory. This was most evident during the constitutional crisis in late 2018. Wickremesinghe was ready to give up, senior UNPers were dumbfounded, but it was Ranawaka who held the fort and saved the day. Too late in the day to stop the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s inexorable drive to power of course, but although not a UNPer, he won the (grudging?) respect of that political camp. It is quite possible that a Ranawaka presidential bid would inject some hope and much needed passion into the SJB/UNP. Premadasa better watch out; the attacks from the pro-SLPP camp are directed at Ranawaka, not Premadasa, perhaps because he is seen as a more serious challenge. That’s good for Ranawaka and bad news for Premadasa.So it was essentially a week of acronyms: MCC, PUC, SLMC and PCR (that’s Patali Champika Ranawaka).



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Politics

PROPPING-UP THIS PRESIDENT IS A PRESCRIPTION FOR POLITICAL SUICIDE

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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.

TAMIL PARTIES

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.

TODAY’S OPPOSITION

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.

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THE SYSTEM CHANGE THAT CAN ENABLE SRI LANKA TO RECOVER FROM THIS MASSIVE CRISIS

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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.

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Twisting the aragalaya into what it is not

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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 udakdev1@gmail.com

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