The Aragalaya: A sceptic’s notes

Tuesday, 9 August 2022 03:08 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Following historic protests, Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit as President. In Rajapaksa’s place now sits Ranil Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister and long-time friend of the Rajapaksa family. Rajapaksa’s cabinet of ministers, for the most part, continue in power. Another family loyalist, Dinesh Gunawardena, is the new prime minister. The country is under a state of emergency and the Government has initiated a violent crackdown on the protesters. 

In this context, I reflect on three dominant myths surrounding the Aragalaya movement that changed everything and also, somehow, left everything unchanged. 

Myth #1: The Aragalaya is an exceptional event

 There is a widespread view that the Aragalaya is utterly exceptional, not just in terms of its outcomes but also in how it was constituted. For instance, speaking at a Teach Out session — a series of independently organised short lectures that took place on the sidelines of the main protest — the historian Shamara Wettimuny framed the uniqueness of the Aragalaya in terms of the breadth of solidarities it assembled.

Before I unpack Wettimuny’s specific claims, it is worth recognising, first, that one can always find a combination of axes for every event such that it is novel along those axes. For instance, the fact that the Aragalaya is the first and only protest to have established the Gota Go Gama village at the Galle Face Green, on 10 April, 2022, makes it utterly unique on that count alone. Given that every event is exceptional with respect to some combination of features, no event really is. Second, novel events are not always nice: indeed, the very novelty of many historic moments is entirely rooted in their evil. 

Third, there is a tendency amongst Sri Lankans to superficially count themselves as an exceptional people and I view the exceptionalist claims about the Aragalaya as a symptom of the same malady. Allow me to digress to a relevant anecdote. I was recently at a gathering where a senior Sri Lankan career diplomat lectured for half-a-dozen minutes on the theme of Sri Lankan exceptionalism. I could not reconcile the claims of how smart, great, and wonderful we are against the distressing reality of our elderly dropping dead in fuel queues. At the end, I remarked that it is precisely such exceptional Sri Lankan thinking that left us with Dhammikka Paniya as the COVID-19 cure. 

More to the point on Wettimuny’s analysis. She says what sets the latest protest moment apart from the past is that all four key drivers of protests — identity, ideology, interest groups and issues — coalesced to drive change. In past protests, by contrast, only a subset of these were present. According to Wettimuny, past instances of civil resistance, particularly in the colonial period, only brought the immediately affected parties to the street. They ‘remained confined to ethnic, religious, class, caste, or gender-based lines’. The Aragalaya, on the other hand, appeared to have ‘overcome those divisions and have a stab at unity’. 

While I do not doubt her grasp of history, the underlying cause of such exceptional solidarity appears rather trivial to me. Is it possible that since everyone in Sri Lanka is an immediate victim of the economic crisis, everyone is in solidarity with everyone else? What is exceptional, then, is the situation, not the solidarity. In any case, Wettimuny’s portrayal of the Aragalaya, like many other accounts, misses a critical fact. Much of the north-east, with concentrated minority Tamil and Muslim populations, remained largely ambivalent towards it. In fact, there was even resistance to organising solidarity protests in some parts of the north-east. 

Moreover, a not-so-insignificant number of Tamils found not-so-insignificant joy from gallery-watching the ‘Sinhalese on Sinhalese’ violence that unfolded after Rajapaksa-sponsored thugs attacked Gota Go Gama on 9 May. To be fair to Wettimuny, she offered her analysis in the early weeks of April without the advantage of hindsight. She was also teaching a new generation of protesters the history of civil resistance and may have been intentionally idealistic in her framings.   

Now, the foregoing does not seek to invalidate the many positive solidarities that did develop around Aragalaya. Remembering Tamil war victims on 18 May in any part of Sri Lanka is hard and comes with its costs. The protesters at Gota Go Gama held a commemoration at the same location where the military holds its annual victory parade. This was, no doubt, an extraordinary moment. Similarly, there was also the pride march emphasising equality of gender and sexual orientation. 

Gota Go Gama hosted speeches, discussions, performing arts, and handcrafts addressing a diverse set of social and political issues. Beyond the intrinsic value of the discourses these spawned, citizens claiming public spaces such as the Independence Square and the Galle Face Green for civic conversations, at their own initiative, is a powerful democratic exercise.

All this should not detract from the fact that there was the Aragalaya and there were the aragalayas. The Aragalaya was the mass protests at the Galle Face Green on 9 April, the subsequent build up to 9 May, and what transpired on 9 July. The Aragalaya was the tens of thousands of people from around the island, united in their singular aim of driving the Rajapaksas out of power. The aragalayas, smaller in size yet broader in goals, comprised the 18 May commemoration, the pride march, the Teach Outs, the iftars as well as the Frontline Socialist Party’s (FSP) call for anarchy and extra-constitutional governance. 

In the same way we would not equate the Aragalaya with the FSP aragalaya’s call for anarchy, we should not equate the Aragalaya with the other aragalayas’ goals, no matter their nobility. While all aragalayas are certainly connected to the Aragalaya, they are not the same. The distinguishing feature is popular support. While there was near universal support for the Aragalaya objective of dethroning the Rajapaksas, other exogenous aragalaya agendas do not enjoy the same appeal. The disparity in the number of participants at the pride march and the 9 July siege of the Presidential Secretariat should establish the point. Perhaps, the one demand that had broad agreement outside collapsing the Rajapaksa rule was abolishing the executive presidency. Even on this, I am not entirely sold.

Myth #2: The Aragalaya represents a constitutional moment

This brings me to the second myth that I wish to interrogate. Many believe that we are living in revolutionary times. Such are the times that in their view the Office of the Executive President, the Parliament, and indeed the Constitution of Sri Lanka — all stand null and void. The country’s citizens, the argument goes, through their participation in the Aragalaya, have undergone a tectonic shift in their understanding of social order and state-people relations, rendering our present structures of democracy at best inadequate or, at worst, invalid. Ergo, we are living through a constitutional moment, requiring a new constitution. There are essentially two denominations amongst the faithful: liberals living in the constitutional moment wish to enact a new constitution within the framework of the existing constitution while others, most of them Marxists, living in the same moment appear willing to do as they please. See, for instance, what the legal scholar Ayesha Wijayalath has to say: 

“The people’s sovereign power overrides any existing constitutional framework now! Constitutional scholars of Sri Lanka must acknowledge the constituent moment of SL! We need to look beyond short-term fixes and capitalise [on] the moment!” 

Wijayalath, and others like her, are a step away from justifying revolutionary terror as divine violence. Suspending the pertinent question of who forms the people, is it fair game if the people’s sovereign power wills that all Rajapaksas be summarily executed? After all, in the words of the French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, ‘If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time [both] virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent.’

Now, to the question of whether the present is a constitutional moment. There is no question that we have a disaster for a constitution. That the document has been amended 20 times in 44 years is ample proof that it is not fit for purpose. It has only served to entrench a majoritarian ethno-nationalist ethos into our social fabric and perpetrate relentless violence against the country’s minorities. As we saw in the past three months, it effectively leaves the citizens at the mercy of whichever criminal is capable of grabbing executive power. The net effect is a dysfunctional country. 

We certainly need a new social contract. And there are, no doubt, wild attitude changes in chunks of the Sinhalese polity because of the economic crisis and the protests. More and more people are willing to stand up against state intimidation. I have witnessed, amongst my Sinhalese colleagues, a new willingness to question, even ridicule the Sri Lankan military. Following the Wickremesinghe-ordered early morning military attack on Gota Go Gama on 22 July, a formerly staunch Rajapaksa supporter equated the armed forces to animals. 

Even though only a few dozen people participated in Gota Go Gama’s 18 May commemoration, in a reflection of the prevailing accommodating atmosphere, no Sinhalese hardline group dared disturb the event. Journalists attest to a sense of suspicion about the Buddhist clergy in the Sinhala Buddhist heartland. I also think there is a widespread, if latent, awareness that successive leaders instrumentalised Sinhala Buddhist nationalism for their own benefit. Do these attitude shifts represent a new national democratic consciousness undergirding a national constitutional or constituent moment?

Only those whose conception of the nation excludes Tamils, Muslims and Malayaha Tamils would assert the emergence of a new national consciousness. As I observed earlier, the critical mass of minorities has remained ambivalent to the Aragalaya. In any case, in the Sinhala social media content I survey monthly, I do not yet see evidence of the foundations of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism being shaken. In contrast, there is consolidation against a perceived threat. A recent video, on the hardline Buddhist YouTube channel “Unstoppable”, features a young monk labelling the Aragalaya as a plot to eradicate Sinhala Buddhist ideology and way of life. In the past month, the channel’s subscriber base grew by 600%. Similarly, while I see plenty of chatter about corruption and cronyism, I do not see advocacy against executive arbitrariness or the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). 

Are the Sinhalese willing to reconsider the primacy our constitution accords to Buddhism? Do they now see the Tamils as a people entitled to collective rights? Likewise, have the Tamils stopped viewing the Muslims who reside in their midst as aliens? We need to bear in mind that the 18 May commemorations took place within a few hundred metres of Gota Go Gama’s ‘war heroes’ tent. The iftar sharing Muslim clergymen, captured in colourful photographs at the protests as poster children of an emerging unity, are the same Jamiyyathul Ulama clerics blocking reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). Such are the potent contradictions afflicting claims of a new national democratic consciousness.

People got on the streets not because they attained liberal or Marxist nirvana. Piyadasa from Mirihana is no more enlightened about how the executive presidency corrupts governance today than he was on 15 November 2019. When he crossed opposite the budding lotus on the ballot sheet, Piyadasa wanted more, not less, executive arbitrariness. The common denominator between the protesting Piyadasa, Priyadharshan and Pasha is their enlightenment on power cuts and fuel shortages. They are also penniless and understand that the Rajapaksas caused their misery. Hence, the clarion call for the entire Rajapaksa clan to vacate their seats of power. 

A range of other demands occasionally rose above the kaputu kak kak cacophony. These ranged from accountability for war crimes to justice for Easter Sunday bombing victims to calls for answers concerning journalists disappeared under the Rajapaksa rule. It is quite a stretch, though, to claim that every protester on the street had signed up to all — or, even a substantial number of — these demands.  

The agenda for a new constitution is only an aragalaya and not the Aragalaya. This is not a constitutional moment but a moment of intense contestation. This is also why we will not see large-scale people’s mobilisations against the Wickremesinghe government on account of it failing to introduce constitutional reforms. Rather, Wickremesinghe’s fate rests on his ability to ease the economic misery and the extent to which people are willing to tolerate the ongoing State repression he has unleashed.

Myth #3: The Aragalaya got rid of the Rajapaksas

 Yes. Basil Rajapaksa quit as Finance Minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as Prime Minister. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is no longer the Executive President. Most would agree with my earlier remark that what we now have is Rajapaksa rule by proxy. But this is not why I contend that the Aragalaya deposing the Rajapaksas is a myth. I say so because we, too, are Rajapaksas. 

A deceased Tamil leftist intellectual from Jaffna, Veerakathy Senthan, held Tamil society in the same moral contempt with which he held the LTTE. He correctly saw that it is the vile contents of Tamil society that enabled Prabhakaran’s terror. The same is true for the Sinhalese polity which voted in Gotabaya Rajapaksa and further strengthened his hand with a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

What the Rajapaksas enacted at the apex of government is reproduced at every level of society. What Gotabaya Rajapaksa was to the country, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (alias Pillaiyan) is to the Eastern Province: a war criminal wielding excessive power while evading justice. What Namal Rajapaksa was to the nation, Angajan Ramanathan is to Jaffna: the minister of everything. Mahinda Rajapaksa appoints his incompetent loyalists to foreign missions. State university vice chancellors recruit incompetent loyalists to lecturer posts. 

The Rajapaksas stole our money. But how many of the private tutors who smile down from every canine-urinated wall in Nugegoda pay their taxes? We are outraged by Basil Rajapaksa’s ten percent cut. But how many Road Development Authority engineers can claim to have never overestimated their asphalt laying costs? Our progressive academics, so-called, can churn out a dozen academic papers in a year on military violence. Yet, in decades, they have not managed to fix ragging, a sinister form of violence thriving directly under their purview.   

The Rajapaksas ran the country like it was their private fiefdom. Every school principal treats the teachers, students, and resources at their disposal in the same way. Violating fuel quotas, members of our professional class casually bribe pump operators for full-tank fillings. After receiving State-funded tertiary education, university students elect to Parliament those who promise to further bloat our already obese public service.

We are the Rajapaksas. To paraphrase the comedian George Carlin: 

“Well, where do Sri Lankans think these Rajapaksas came from? They did not fall out of the sky. They did not pass through a membrane from another reality. They came from Sri Lankan parents, Sri Lankan families, and Sri Lankan homes. They studied at the same famed Sri Lankan schools. They worshipped at the same Buddhist temples. Sri Lankan businesses funded them. Sri Lankan state universities awarded them fake doctorates. Sri Lankan citizens elected the Rajapaksas. The Sinhalese elected them. Not once but thrice over. 

This, for me, is the central failure of the Aragalaya. Its participants have not introspected enough on their own culpability. Most Sinhalese still feign innocence. They maintain that they voted for the Rajapaksas not out of racist national security persuasions but for prosperity and splendour. Jaffna Tamils pretend it was not Angajan Ramananthan who won the highest number of preferential votes in their town. Countless Tamils in Batticaloa voted for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s Sathasivam Viyalenthrian because they saw him as the best answer to perceived Muslim aggression. A local candidate’s proximity to executive power appears to be the primary metric on which many Muslims decide their vote at the General Election. 

This is us and our decadence runs deep. If the Aragalaya does not centre this truth and instead promotes an ‘innocent people against evil politicians’ narrative, we cannot transform our society. The capacity for evil resides in all of us, including the working people. Yet, alongside the political elite, it is the business class and the salaried professional class that ought to engage in a terrible amount of soul searching. The working people of this island have remained a disenfranchised polity, decimated by poverty. We have crushed them in creative ways and continue to pick on them while airbrushing our far graver crimes. The proletariat has been incidental to the gory beach party on borrowed money that is our post-independence history. The poor have only been taxiing us back-and-forth from the party in our drunken state. We are the Rajapaksas. We need to be rid of ourselves. Aragalayata Jayawewa!


(The writer is a Chevening Scholar reading for a Master’s Degree in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on computational methods for dangerous speech monitoring on the internet.)

Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

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