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Opposition blues

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By Uditha Devapriya

Udaya Gammanpila’s advice to politicians over the growing economic crisis is a five-point checklist: accepting there is an issue, identifying it, understanding it, revealing the truth to the people, and leading by example by making sacrifices.

The checklist reads like the Buddha’s take on the notion of suffering, all the way from accepting it right down to avoiding it. Social media users, particularly on Twitter, were quick to criticise it, calling it yet another example of the government’s indifference to the plight of the people. And yet, at some strange, existential level, it makes sense.

More importantly, it points at the cleavages that are fast emerging in the government. The most discernible such cleavage is, of course, between the SLPP and the SLFP. The SLFP now says that it will never contest with the SLPP. That remains to be seen, given that not a few SLFP MPs favour sticking up with the ruling party. For its part the SLPP will much lose if the SLFP decides to go about it alone, particularly its parliamentary majority. In that sense, it remains to be seen whether the SLPP will be as cocky and confident as it was in 2020 over the prospect of its most important coalition partner calling it quits.

There is another more significant cleavage, however. The likes of Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa have been voicing criticism about the regime over the last few months, especially with regard to its attitude to the power and debt crisis. Given that they aired similar sentiments in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second government, it would be interesting to find out how far they’d go this time. Gammanpila is particularly candid with his diagnosis and prognosis of the crisis, putting him on a collision course with SLPP bigwigs, though it’s doubtful whether that in itself will pave the way for future defections.

In any case, these are developments the Opposition will have to account for. But is the Opposition, or any of the Oppositions, accounting for them? Apart from MPs touting a holier-than-thou line, from Anura Dissanayake’s disparagement of mainstream politics to Champika Ranawaka’s rebranding of what one wit calls developmentalist presidentialism, no one is making the contingency plans they should be making.

Partly, of course, this is because of the political dynamics the SLPP inherited after coming to power: the SLFP and the UNP had long parted ways even before the Rajapaksas staked their claim at the election, while the UNP’s colossal defeats led to a similar breach between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa. But that isn’t the only reason.

The country’s political situation reminds me of the standoff at the end of Reservoir Dogs: if you pull the trigger, everyone else will pull theirs, but you still don’t want to put down your gun, because you’re sure none of the others will put down theirs. It’s the worst stalemate an Opposition can be in, and the best thing a government can hope for.

Underlying this problem is an inability, on the Opposition’s part, to make distinctions vis-à-vis the SLPP. Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s point that the history of post-independence Sri Lanka has essentially been a series of maru weem is true in the sense that Oppositions and governments have painted each other as the worst option there is and made promises they have reneged after coming to power. But this is painting just half the picture.

I think a pragmatic Opposition should draw the line between progressive and regressive elements in a government, welcoming the former and critiquing the latter. Of course, what’s progressive and regressive is highly debatable; we saw this two weeks ago, when those who thought Basil Rajapaksa had announced that Sri Lanka would go to the IMF urged the SJB and the JVP to support the government. My idea of a progressive inclination in the regime would be Udaya Gammanpila’s dissenting remarks. Yet no one seems to even have noticed, much less noted them. This doesn’t do anyone, in the SJB or the JVP, any credit.

A pragmatic Opposition should also do all it can to prevent fragmentation within its ranks. Yet the Opposition remains more fragmented than ever. On the one hand, the JVP-NPP airs contradictory statements about the debt crisis, with one faction opposing the IMF line and another calling rating agencies “independent.” On the other hand, the SJB dithers between neoliberal prescriptions and populist statements. On yet another hand, the Opposition led by the SJB has split between Sajith Premadasa and Champika Ranakawa.

Personality politics can get you only that far. The Champika Ranawaka faction’s claim to being more popular than the Sajith Premadasa faction is at best intriguing, given that the man they are touting emerged fifth in Colombo district while the man they are favourably comparing him with got the top slot. Twitter liberals, as is typical of that class, remain split over Ranawaka: some prefer him to Premadasa, while others see him as a more efficient and more dangerous ideologue than Rajapaksa. It’s hard to take sides here, but that’s not the point: the point is that by dividing the Opposition, these factions threaten to shift what could be a progressive bloc to the right even of the government.

A more worrying trend is Opposition MPs promoting paranoia on social media, especially Twitter, distracting not just online users but the public from more important issues. One Opposition MP’s tweet of a video purportedly showing an inferior imported rice variety, for instance, gained much traction, until it was pointed out even by critics of the government that the rice in question was neither imported nor inferior.

Faux-pas of this sort shows the level of disconnect between Colombo-based Opposition MPs and the grassroots, particularly the rural grassroots. That can only delegitimize an already besieged Opposition, lending credence to liberal opprobrium and converting floating voters to outfits promoting a leaner, “cleaner” version of Rajapaksist politics.

Complicating matters further, liberals and left-liberals talk of replacing the presidency with a parliamentary system. Laudable as this may be in political discourses, it is counterproductive and ultimately helps no one, least of all an Opposition reeling in disunity.

A parliamentary system worked in Sri Lanka at a time when regional and international geopolitics was more orderly than it is now. To go for such a system when politics is more unstable than ever before is to give way to centrifugal forces and, in the long term, one big backlash. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, the country did not necessarily do better under Westminster: the disenfranchisement of estate Tamils, for instance, took place under a parliamentary system, as Dayan Jayatilleka has recently reminded us.

The same goes for left-liberal rhetoric about constitutional reform. To draft a new document and do away with the presidency now, when centripetal forces are at their peak, would almost certainly lead to implosion. Conversely, to push forward reforms that rock the boat and galvanise those forces would achieve the same thing. Ironically, though not surprisingly, nationalists who want a more entrenched Constitution and Presidency and idealists who want to do away with both are no longer talking at cross-purposes: they are operating from two camps, but leading us to the same battle-ground. That cannot end well.

None of this is to say that the Opposition shouldn’t be debating or talking about these issues. They should, as indeed they are. Yet as the experience of the yahapalana years should tell us, rattling on about the need for reform, and amputating existing structures where a simple surgery would do – a distinction Dayan Jayatilleka draws in his latest piece – would neither achieve reformist aims nor keep back populist backlashes.

The bottom line is that the Opposition, be it green, red, even blue, needs to be more open and candid than it is now. It needs to realise that working alone will not work and it needs to overhaul the failed strategies of the past, substituting new tactics.

The problem is that left-liberal ideologues who once identified with the yahapalana regime, and eventually became beneficiaries of yahapalanist largesse, focus on centrifugal forces, while government supporters want to entrench centripetal forces. This never-ending tug-of-war between ultra-nationalist fringes and liberal peripheries is not going to work for anyone, especially an Opposition desperate for popular legitimacy.

For its part the Opposition, in particular the SJB, needs to get more pragmatic than it is. It needs to recognise progressive dissent in the government, offer resistance to breakaway factions within its ranks, and not get enmeshed in social media paranoia. In a word, it needs to get more practical about tactics and strategies. As Hegel wrote long ago, freedom is really the recognition of necessity. This is a credo the SJB would do well to heed.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Politics

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

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

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

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

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

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

GOTA vs. THE REST

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

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

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

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

NO ONE TO BELL THE CAT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE TARGET: THE AUTOCRAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUICIDAL SECTARIANISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNITY, NOT FANTASY

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

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

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

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

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The government’s very bleak future

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By Uditha Devapriya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What should we normalise?

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By Uditha Devapriya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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