The protests were a justifiable response to the unprecedentedly bad material conditions of life
Vox Populi, Vox Dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God. That may not always be true, but this is one of those times that it is. If President Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not heed the voice of the people and go, the awakened citizenry will ensure he cannot stay.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his inner circle of securocrats were taught a singular lesson by the citizens on Sunday 3 April 2022. While the 20th amendment makes for an autocratic presidency, this Constitution, like the previous one, defines Sri Lanka as a democratic republic where sovereignty derives from and resides in the people. The Sri Lankan people are fully conscious of that sovereignty and are exercising it, bravely defying the curfew despite Police and the armed military presence on the streets.
Having exercised universal suffrage for almost a century, the people are verbally exercising their right of recall, shouting that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should quit because he has shown himself manifestly unable to function in the job they elected him to do.
Avoid the interim landmine
All speculative leaks about an interim/caretaker/provisional government are meaningless and misleading chatter unless there is absolute clarity on what it is supposedly “interim” to. The people have spoken: Gota must go and take the Rajapaksa clan with him.
The votaries of an interim administration are those who target Basil Rajapaksa while being silent on Gotabaya. But it was Gotabaya and not Basil who drove the disastrous ban on chemical fertiliser and ruined peasant agriculture. Therefore, any political formula that makes BR rather than GR the primary target is a diversion. There can be no interim administration which keeps Gota in place until 2024 and the present Parliament till 2025.
An interim government can only be meaningful if it meets three political conditions:
1) It is interim to/caretaker until the early, time-specific resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,
2) A schedule for the holding of national elections, parliamentary and presidential within a compressed timeframe which includes a timeline for amendments which permit such elections.
3) The early passage in parliament of a drastically downshifted 20th amendment which stands somewhere between today’s autocratic 20th and yesterday’s dysfunctional 19th amendments.
Mirihana to 3 April
The colossally counter-productive close-down was a response to the protests, the protests were a justifiable response to the unprecedentedly bad material conditions of life. The thing is, it was predictable, actually predicted, and could all have been avoided. All it took was one decision; either the right one or the wrong one. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa signed-off on the wrong one.
Dr. Nishan de Mel had drawn the distinction between default and bankruptcy, kept asking the Government’s economic decision-makers in two languages and in every type of mass media, how they planned to pay for essentials like gas, petroleum and food, once they had paid off the first round of debt repayments instead of restructuring it. He said that if the repayment was made on schedule, then the country would be bankrupt and the people would suffer.
The regime and its economic managers arrogantly brushed him aside. They misread the people. They also misread the very classes that they belonged to or had once belonged to. Mirihana proved that, but it was not the wake-up call it should.
The arrogance of the regime had now reached the next level, namely, a false sense of security that the armed forces and Police are with it. Even if that is true, the military and law enforcement apparatuses are not monoliths, military-men are not robots, and the armed forces do not consist of only one regiment.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Defence Ministry’s ham-handed shutdown of social media, declaration of a curfew and infusion of armed troops into Colombo did not achieve the elimination of protest but there is a high probability that it killed-off Sri Lanka’s chances of obtaining the GSP Plus concession. If that happens it will greatly exacerbate an already grave economic crisis.
The regime however fails to see the situation it is in, when it makes its repressive moves. In its propaganda and its own mind, the militancy during the latter half of the Mirihana mobilisation justifies its actions. By any international standard this is ridiculous. The protest was dramatic especially because of its location, but no one died and not a single building was burnt down, which are the markers of a violent demonstration. There was no justification whatsoever to impose a curfew and shutdown social media.
The regime’s aims were not achieved. Every political tendency—the SJB, JVP-NPP and FSP-IUSF broke the ban. Earlier, the mood of the courts was seen in the decisions on the arrests of the Mirihana demonstrators and the young university student-cum-social media activist. The unprecedented mobilisation of the legal fraternity was a signal which would not have been lost on Mahinda Rajapaksa but would have been lost in translation even had he told his brother the President.
More impressive than the demonstrations by the various political parties, which were significant enough, were the lines of protestors in dozens of townships; protestors without party affiliations but with quite pronounced views; protestors who were not ‘outside agitators’ but residents of those neighbourhoods.
Almost as impressive as the demonstrations on the roadsides in very many localities was the phenomenon of demonstrations by Sri Lankans in many parts of the world. The Sri Lankan Diaspora which was a solid Gota vote-bank in 2019, now wants to see the back of him.
The regime is besieged not by violent protestors but by society itself; by all classes of society. It is marooned in a social ocean. It is entirely encircled by public opinion. Now the Gotabaya administration is reduced to the military, the STF and the Police (run by retd. General Kamal Gunaratna and retd. Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara), the ruling clan and a few militant Bhikkhus (leftover from the Islamophobia campaign).
How often can curfew be used before what’s left of the economic life of the nation disintegrates? How many more people can be arrested, and what’s the point anyway because others replace them in the protests and pickets?
So, what’s the Gotabaya regime’s gameplan? The cat not merely jumped out of the bag but was paraded by Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga who displayed weighty ignorance of the difference between a militant demonstration (or a demonstration which turns militant) on the one hand and “organised extremism” on the other. The cat was his follow-up remark to the mass media: “that’s also the same thing that happened at Rathupaswela. The Army officer in charge had handed over a piece of paper stating the compromise on the issue when some people began to throw stones at the army”.
This was utterly revealing in two ways. Firstly, the very invocation of Rathupaswela, the scene of a massacre. Secondly its justification. Thirdly, the extension of its logic to the present moment, post-Mirihana.
Rathupaswela was a gruesome affair that Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa would prefer to forget, because it had nothing to do with them and yet helped cause Mahinda’s 2015 defeat. So, if it is now permissible to brandish it in public, justify it, and use it as a cautionary tale, it means there’s a dangerous new discourse.
Let us say people threw stones at the Army at Rathupaswela (though I recall it happening after the army went berserk). What is more pertinent is that there were three killings of unarmed youth, one of whom had just spoken to his wife while in the church he was hiding. He was dragged out and killed by smashing his head in with a rifle butt.
Catholic nuns were made to kneel and had weapons pointed at them by the army. Shooting into the church left bullet holes in the walls.
So, the implication of what Minister Ranatunga said is that anyone who casts the first stone must know that he or she will be replied to with live bullets from automatic weapons.
The scenario seems to be that unarmed protestors will be met as in Mirihana with tear-gas, baton charges, water-cannon and rubber bullets, and if they dare retaliate with sticks and stones, they will be shot or beaten to death as in Rathupaswela.
That’s the plan then. Here’s a word of free advice. Dictatorship of any kind, including or especially military dictatorship, works, only when the economy works and by works, I mean the standards of living of the bulk of the people improve. If it doesn’t, no dictatorship can be sustained. In Chile the economy was ‘working’ according to the benchmarks of neoliberal technocrats but was failing the people by generating inequity and marginality. The people rebelled in the streets under a slogan “neoliberalism was born here; it will die here!”. They forced a new Constitution and an election in which a leftist former student leader, 35-year-old Gabriel Boric, was elected President.
If Sri Lankan dictatorship worsens an economy already in free-fall, it will either be subject to implosive collapse or explosive overthrow. Any military dictatorship or lethal use of violence by the military and sanctions will hit an already failing economy. The economy will spiral downwards at a faster rate while social resistance spirals upwards into rebellion at an accelerated rate.
President GR deployed armed soldiers in Colombo to prevent peaceful protests by middleclass city-dwellers. What will he do, what can he do with that same approach, when the rural peasantry begins to march in huge numbers, in the coming weeks and months?
Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga made a related and no less distressing point while expounding his views on “organised extremism”. He identified the JVP and SJB as examples of likely suspects. That was eerily reminiscent of Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis of the JR Jayewardene Cabinet naming the JVP as the likeliest perpetrator of the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 as the driver of a three-stage plot to topple the Government and seize power. That was a complete lie, but the resultant crackdown on the JVP drove it underground, only to resurface as an ultraviolent insurrectional movement, which wrecked the southern economy.
There are lessons for the GR regime as well as the JVP to learn. For the GR regime it simply is “don’t even think about it”. For the JVP, it is that it might be in its best interest to rethink its snide sectarianism towards the SJB and its leadership, because one never knows when one may need the covering fire of a moderate-centrist Opposition party and the protective buffer or umbrella of an internationally recognised parliamentary Leader of the Opposition.
The JVP’s sectarianism goes beyond the attitude to the SJB. In Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s comments on Mirihana as well as the protests planned for Sunday 3 April, he emphasised the need for protests to be under the direction/management (“meheyaveema”) of a “recognised leadership”. He had obviously not studied either the Paris Commune nor the rise of the Soviets during the 1905 revolution (revived in 1917). Nor does he believe in the autonomous initiatives of self-organisation of various social sectors. It’s political party “meheyaveema” all the way down. One can just imagine the command economy and unfree society under a JVP administration.
Legitimacy, force, violence
There is some intellectual confusion about the dynamics of the Movement. One pertains to the criticism of the Mirihana event as violent and the dogmatic insistence that all resistance be non-violent, as a guarantee of legitimacy.
Non-violence is not the sole guarantee of legitimacy. A far older right, universally recognised as legitimate is the right of self-defence. The question of legitimacy does not run between peaceful and violence forms of struggle but between the right and wrong use of force.
How would a ‘military solution’ to the crisis as doubtless urged by uber-hawks, be avoided, and military intervention in politics be deterred by a strategy of absolute Gandhianism, in which the military knows that demonstrators will remain perfectly well-behaved so as keep their legitimacy spotless even if they are being clubbed to death as in Rathupaswela?
A far better, more credible deterrent is that contained in the letter of ultimatum by Roshan Ranasinghe of Polonnaruwa, which warns of the possibility of a peasant struggle and rural war. It is only such a possibility, that the unchecked violence of the state could lead to the emergence of a countervailing behaviour of legitimate self-defence, that can act as a deterrent to a military-presidential junta.
Besides, India will not wish to see another military-dominated Pakistan on its Southern doorstep, China will find it too much of a quagmire and the West will cut it off without a penny.
Gota in prospect and retrospect
That President Gotabaya would not succeed economically was clear to me at the very height of confidence in him of Colombo’s corporates. In my article on GR’s impressive breakthrough event, the second Convention of the Viyath Maga at Shangri-la, in May 2018, I predicted that:
“…My second concern is the economic policy model that was rolled-out at the Shangri-La by Gotabaya.…As a stand-alone model or the dominant (Presidential) one, it will generate major structural contradictions, triggering a cycle of conflict.
The GR model as unveiled at Viyath Maga gave no importance to poverty, the peasantry, landlessness, inequity, poverty reduction, and social upliftment. It had no place for the people or social justice. The goal was high economic growth with law and order. Social questions and public welfare were conspicuously absent and the assumption seemed to be ‘trickle down’…
… social insensitivity, inequity and structural marginalisation will trigger clashes with students, workers, peasants, fisherfolk and neighbourhood communities.
…So far, this is not a people’s project. It lacks a social soul…” (‘Gotabaya’s Breakthrough’, Dayan Jayatilleka, At Variance, Daily Mirror, 23 May 2018.)
What is ironic is that no sooner the article appeared, Dr. P.B. Jayasundara and Prof. W.D. Lakshman, who were later to be GR’s economic managers, commended me on it over Chinese cuisine and a glass of red wine.
Just GO, already
It isn’t true that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has broken all his election pledges. To be fair, he promised One Country, and he has delivered it: the country is united across race, religion, caste, class, gender, age, language and the urban-rural divide. Almost everyone is united against him. ‘Go, Gota, Go!’ a slogan that first appeared some weeks ago, coined by a young political figure of the SJB as a front (not the party), in its fast-paced hand-clapping version, is the protest anthem today.
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election in January 2015 he went home even before all the results had been announced. A very considerable number of people travelled South to Medamulana to meet him and plead for his return to politics. In the case of his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the people, perhaps the same people, besiege his residence, demanding that he goes home to LA, California. “Come back” was the people’s call to MR; “Get out” is their demand to GR.