The daunting challenge in front of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – The Island
By Uditha Devapriya
Lenin once said that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen. Well over a decade has passed in the past week at Galle Face. From Mahinda Rajapaksa’s desperate and disastrous attempt to retain his post as Prime Minister, events began to unfold. Praised by everyone, locally and internationally, for their peaceful plating, the Galle Face protests turned sour when Rajapak thugs began vandalizing the protest site and beating protesters. As expected, the reprisals were swift and severe: although no one was killed at the scene of the protest, around eight people were killed elsewhere, a sad ending to an otherwise peaceful protest by dissent.
This flow of events may or may not have convinced the Rajapaksas that they can no longer decide as they once did, but it has forced the elder brother to resign as Prime Minister. The thrust of these protests remains, however: Gotabaya Rajapaksa must go home. Yet caught between a rock and a hard place, between the Scylla of resistance to his power and the Charybdis of retribution following his resignation, Rajapaksa opted for the safest option, appointing a prime minister and an interim administration while remaining president. How the various political formations reacted to these developments tells us a lot about the rut in which the Sri Lankan opposition currently finds itself.
The mob-led violence early last week proved two things. First, although middle-class protesters have the patience to organize peaceful demonstrations, the lower classes – urban and rural – will no longer tolerate political chicanery. The fact that neither the police nor the soldiers could handle the situation on Monday evening should tell us that the situation has gotten out of hand. Second, the Rajapaksas may remain oblivious to these developments to the detriment not only of the country, but also of their own future. That’s why it’s more than likely that the Rajapaksas won’t re-embrace the anti-climactic theatrics Mahinda engaged with on Sunday and Monday. People have reached their limits, and the First Family knows it.
The brief shift from peaceful to violent momentum in Galle Face signaled another, more paradigmatic shift among political parties. SJB MPs and UNP activists have long accused the Galle Face protests of being manipulated by the JVP-NPP and FSP. What happened on Monday more or less hardened their position: without totally opposing the demonstrations, these deputies and sympathizers criticized the involvement of the JVP-NPP-FSP in them. Such a situation arose after Sajith Premadasa’s attempt to enter Gotagogama on Monday was rebuffed.
Since that incident, social media has been plagued with speculation about the real hands behind these protests. From the point of view of the SJB and the UNP, the demonstrators are as much against their parties as against the Rajapaksas. At the same time, they see them as lenient or soft on the New Left. Very naturally, the SJB and the UNP see this difference in treatment with hostility, affirming that the protest has been hijacked by certain political parties and harbors insidious agendas against certain others.
Is the SJB-UNP correct here? To some extent, yes. But we have to be clear about some things. First, if the protests have been infiltrated by the New Left, it is because structures such as the Interuniversity Student Federation have become active participants. The IUSF does not enjoy the support of the UNP or the SJB, nor does it endorse their policy. The IUSF is aligned with the FSP, more than the JVP, and identifies with a militant left. When it comes to the Galle Face protests, neither the SJB nor the UNP can up the ante here.
Second, although the protests themselves remain leaderless, economic conditions have radicalized the middle classes, including the Colombo middle classes. This means that while they may have ridiculed student groups like IUSF earlier, as they did when the latter staged protests against SAITM in 2016, the middle classes now sympathize with Wasantha. Mudalige, the organizer of the IUSF. They also expressed their solidarity with the trade unions which, in the face of these reversals, have changed their strategy: whereas before, the unions of institutions like the Ceylon Electricity Board went on a general strike, disrupting public services, now they s refrain from such action, saying it would disrupt protesters and their access to social media.
My private university student friend who said, on Facebook, and in response to the growing solidarity between private and public university students over Gotagogama, that the classroom is a convenient construct, and that the struggle has always been against political elites, may have had his reading of the situation wrong, but it testifies to how middle class perceptions of politics and left-wing activism have changed. This is not to say that the Galle Face Protests are revolutionary in the classic Marxist sense: led mainly by a middle class, they have more or less adopted peaceful tactics rather than more violent strategies. But there is a definite leftist veneer to the protests. Whether the SJB and the UNP like it or not, the protests will therefore continue to be dominated by groups identifying with the left.
Admittedly, this does not protect the protests and left-wing groups and parties themselves from criticism. On the one hand, with regard to the JVP-NPP and the FSP, a criticism often made is that these parties nourish our collective animosity against politicians: this is what explains the “225 Ma Epa! slogans of the new left. The anti-corruption narrative of the JVP-NPP and the FSP is that all politicians are equally bad and if there is to be any change, they must all go. To say the least, this line is impractical and counterproductive. It can only be promoted by parties that do not have a significant parliamentary presence: the much-derided three percent of the JVP, for example. Ditto for the student groups: they too praise the “225 Ma Epa!” line, persistently advocating so-called “system change”.
On the other hand, SJB MPs and UNP supporters may complain that the Galle Face protests are backfiring, but they are right. Engagement with all political parties, regardless of their ideology, is essential to any genuine uprising. The JVP-NPP has always, since time immemorial, or at least since leaving the government of Chandrika Bandaranaike, been bound not to engage with other parties. This holier-than-thou attitude, which has also infected left-wing student groups, has distracted supporters and activists from the very idea of politics. What parties advocating this line forget is that no mass uprising will last long unless it engages productively with other political alliances.
At the same time, the demonstrators must put forward a program that is both reformist and radical. The UNP and the SJB have always been associated with right-wing politics and policies: they are for the IMF, for example. It would be a mistake to assume that entities like the IUSF, JVP-NPP and FSP will extend their support for IMF austerity over the longer term. Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine today an alternative to IMF reforms, but it is possible to negotiate the level of austerity that we will have to impose on ourselves.
Now, the UNP and the SJB can be categorical and orthodox neoliberals when it comes to these reforms. But they should realize that the crisis we are going through today goes beyond Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit from politics. This is why the left must engage in these concerns, while interacting in a spirit of goodwill and constructive criticism with other parties.
The lesson to be learned from the protests that unfolded in Lebanon and in Tahrir Square in Egypt is that unless all the social elements of a mass uprising come together, an aragalaya will gradually run the risk of dying out. Lebanese protests were split between a social democratic wing and a radical left, although the two often joined forces. The same was true for the protests in Tahrir Square. The fact that these protests were aimed at and against unpopular and authoritarian governments did not necessarily blind the protesters to the need for a radical social program that goes beyond the overthrow of such governments. Yet, without a clear sense of direction and focus, they quickly ran out of steam.
The problem with the Galle Face protests is that they, too, seem to lack direction and focus. The underlying message of the protests is simple: Gotabaya Rajapaksa must go. But protesters must also engage practically on other issues, steering the aragalaya in a more progressive direction. One of the ways the protests have turned progressive is through the intervention of left-wing groups. Right-wing opposition parties, particularly the UNP, may feel threatened by left-wing intervention in an anti-government uprising. Yet these parties must realize that at present only a radical program can and will put things right. These parties should therefore look in the mirror and adapt accordingly.
The author is an international relations analyst who can be contacted at [email protected]