By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya has many similarities with protests in other countries over the last decade in what is being described, both by the political Left and the Right, as the age of mass protests. According to one assessment the size and frequency of protests since 2009 are eclipsing the protest waves of the last century in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. According to another, a majority of the of the protests in different countries are triggered by the failure of representational democracy and the outrage over systemic corruption and lack of accountability. The latter study (World Protests: A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century. 2022. Global Social Justice, Initiative for Policy Dialogue, New York), identifies “mass middle-class involvement in protests” as a “new dynamic” that has ruptured “a pre-existing solidarity of the middle classes with elites,” mainly as a result of economic failures.
Even so, the Aragalaya in Sri Lanka cannot be understood or discussed in isolation from the economic calamity that the country is facing. The collapsing economy is virtually the be all and end all of Aragalaya. There would be several contributing ‘determinants’, but in the absence of anything like the current economic crisis, it is safe to say, there would not have been an Aragalaya in Sri Lanka, and the one that took the country by storm for well over a month. What is so deterministic about the economic condition? In my view, it is what Professor Mick Moore of the University of Sussex described (to the BBC’s Today programme) as “the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis of which I know.” And public outrage has simply targeted the men who made it.
Mick Moore has been a consultant on Sri Lanka for the Asian Development and he knows something about the island’s economy and its decision making compulsions. His description that it is “the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis”, is the most accurate assessment and explanation of our situation among all the assessments and explanations that are flying around. Moore rejected the lately canvassed idea that Sri Lanka’s difficulties are due to global economic problems, and asserted that the Sri Lankan crisis is “emphatically not that”.
His criticism would seem to include both the Mahinda and the Gota regimes. The former borrowed money for infrastructure projects and the latter “insisted in this very macho fashion” on repaying the massive debt instead of restructuring it. The government, Prof. Moore said, “went along in this way until about six months ago and basically they had given away virtually all the foreign exchange they could command”. “This is egregious incompetence,” he concluded.
Prof. Moore’s assertions were resoundingly validated by the Central Bank Governor Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe, when he appeared before the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) on Wednesday, May 25. As reported in The Island (Thursday, May 26), the current Governor confirmed that his two predecessors (Lakshman and Cabraal), then Minister of Finance (and Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Treasury Secretary S. R. Attygalle – all of them criminally failed to act on the dire warning given by the IMF as far back as March-April 2020, of an impending financial crisis and Sri Lanka’s debt unsustainability. Without debt restructuring, IMF has warned, that Sri Lanka will not be able to procure new loans.
The Committee was also informed how three members of the then Monetary Board (Governor W.D. Lakshman, Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle and nominated member Samantha Kumarasinghe) disregarded the written objections of the two minority members (Ranee Jayamaha and Sanjiva Jayawardena) and decided to maintain a fixed exchange rate at Rs. 203 by using the Bank’s reserves ($ 5.5 billion in reserves between June 2021 and March 2022), in order to hide the extent of the debt crisis.
Here we are a year later, with forex reserves depleted to daily subsistence levels and the country going from pillar to post in search of fuel, gas, medicine and food to meet its daily needs. What Prof. Moore called “egregious incompetence, was described at the COPE hearing as “a crime” by committee Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath. The Chairman went on to call for a Special Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate those whose negligence has brought the country to its current plight.
As Prof. Moore has observed, Sri Lanka’s current crisis cannot be blamed on global economic problems. No other Asian country is in the same perilous plight as Sri Lanka. Countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam, which were far behind Sri Lanka in the starting lineup for economic take-off, have now surged far ahead of Sri Lanka and they are not having any of the problems that Sri Lankans are now facing, Covid or no Covid. The current problems are not only man-made but they were also made in the last two years. There is much to be said about Sri Lanka’s economic trajectory after 1948, but none of it can be used to mitigate the misdoings of the last two years. Blaming 74 years of independence is simply lamebrained.
It is not 74 years, but only the last two years of egregious incompetence that are to blame. People caught it instinctively and it was their outrage that became Aragalaya. Corruption and incompetence are not unknown to Sri Lankans, but never before have they seen the two fusing in a single ruling family, to such a large extent and in so short a time. That made Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa the bullseye targets of public outrage. For the first time ever, Sri Lankans targeted a political figure and his family for expulsion by resignation. And the target slogans Gota-Go-Home and Myna-Go-Home were given territorial grounding in Gota-Go-Gama and Myna-Go-Gama, respectively.
Put another way, it is the ‘egregious incompetence’ of the Gotabaya-government and the hardships it has caused for all Sri Lankans regardless of their social and spatial locations, which is at the root of the ‘Aragalaya’ movement and offers some insight into both its anatomy and its anticipations. Aragalaya is still a ‘real time’ phenomenon, and it is too early for broadly acceptable analysis and interpretations of the movement. So, it has become a dart board for others to throw their favourite missiles, often making their own projections rather than attempting reasonable insights. In the absence plausible explanations, there is no harm in accurately describing what one can see about Aragalaya, and it would be sufficient to say for now, “this is how things area,” as a great 20th century philosopher used to say.
Aragalaya activists have been described, on the one hand, as the westernised children of 1977, with the implication that they are undermining the achievements of the children of 1956. They are also being seen as English-speaking, lion-flag waving Sinhala supremacists who are among the 6.9 million who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but who are now disenchanted with him after seeing him in action as President. And there might be many shades in between.
Another litmus test applied to Aragalaya is how inclusive and reflective it is of Sri Lanka’s ethnic plurality. Aragalaya has shown no overt ethnic exclusion or symptoms of chauvinism. That in itself could be seen as a positive development in the twilight of Sri Lanka’s political past. In addition, the current economic hardships are so pervasive that there is hardly any opportunity for feelings of ‘relative discrimination’ between groups. Everyone is in the same bind, just like as it was after the 2004 tsunami. It was political leadership that failed then, and it is political leadership that is failing now even though the circumstances are vastly different.
May 9 Aftermaths
Although the May 9 Temple Trees ‘coup’ ended disastrously for its orchestrators, the coup’s purpose may have been fulfilled indirectly, even if only partially. Aragalaya, though still alive, has been deflated enough to encourage twisted reactionary politics creep back to life after going dormant for over a month. The perverse twist is being manifested in blaming Aragalaya for its allegedly infeasible demands, deriding its apparent inability to provide an alternative leadership, calling Galle Face protesters middle class kids and telling them they have had their fun and they can go home now, and asking Gotabaya Rajapaksa, even if tongue-in-cheek, to stay on and tidy up his mess.
I call this perverse and twisted partly because such insults and instructions were never flung at the Rajapaksa regime which has been on the run since the end of March, and more importantly because the mushrooming criticisms of Aragalaya totally miss the economic elephant in the room. Until May 9 and its violent Temple Trees teledrama, criticisms of the Aragalaya have been generally from the Left. They were mostly supportive and friendly criticisms. After May 9, the reactionaries seem emboldened to assume they have got their license back. Hence the flurry of criticisms ranging from a rather bizarre comparison to the utterly abominable trucker-protest in Ottawa, Canada, to the patronizing advice that Aragalaya kids have had their fun at Galle Face, have eaten their free biriyani lunch, and now they can go home.
Aragalaya may have been deflated by the violence of May 9, but it certainly is not dead. Aragalaya is not limited to what goes on at Galle Face. It is manifested in every protest that is going on in any and every part of the country. It is manifested in the long and never ending queues for scarce supplies. Aragalaya may not have achieved its most publicized objective, the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Not yet. But it has achieved the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, which would have been impossible if people had not come out in protest starting in Mirihana. It has achieved, as well, the very public pursuit of wrongdoers which is supported by lawyers acting pro bono. It has forced the Attorney General’s Department to suddenly become responsive, and it has given the courts the sociocultural context to resonate positively to what the people are looking for. These achievements are not insignificant by any standard.
As well, to take Aragalaya for dead is to forget the economic elephant that is still in the room. Everyone wishes Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe well to succeed on the economic front. But can he look after the economy without minding political housekeeping? That is the question and the difficulties he is facing are quite significant and they are not easily scalable. As some of us have been arguing, the manner in which Mr. Wickremesinghe was inducted as PM is also contributing to the difficulties he is facing. This is not something seen in hindsight, but should and could have been anticipated earlier. That is to say, Mr. Wickremesinghe should have had the discussions he has been having with political party leaders before accepting the President’s invitation to become PM rather than as a consequence to it.
And instead of proceeding to implement an agreed-upon agenda, the Prime Minister has to waste and time resources to deal with Basil Rajapaksa’s machinations involving SLPP MPs in parliament. It is now known that the latest vote in parliament to elect its Deputy Speaker was not parliamentary cretinism, but Basil Rajapaksa’s highhandedness to show that he alone is the SLPP boss, and not the President. Call it separation of powers, the Rajapaksa way!
It is not only reactionary politics and Basil Rajapaksa’s antics that have been resurrected by the deflation of Aragalaya. There is also the ministerial resurrection of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who has been entrusted with the drafting of the 21A Bill. Given his chequered past, no one should be surprised that the draft Bill that he is currently circulating is unacceptable to almost all genuine stakeholders for constitutional reform. In addition, quite a few SLPP MPs and former Ministers are now ganging up against substantive constitutional changes and abolishing the executive presidency.
PMD’s Monkey Business
Above all, the President, either on his own bad advice or that of others, would appear to be keen on consolidating his political position with no apparent interest in addressing the burning issues of scarcity the people are facing. While others are talking about separating the Head of State from holding ministerial portfolios, the President is gazetting himself authority over 42 institutions by bringing them under the Defence Ministry. Why should the President be directly bossing over institutions like The Board of Investment, Sri Lanka Telecom and the Port City Economic Commission, and why should such institutions come under the Ministry of Defence?
And why is the President extending the duration of the ‘One Country One Law’ Presidential Task Force headed by the controversial Gnanasara Thero even after the Attorney General has instructed that charges by filed against the monk for using hate speech against religious minorities? Is the Task Force going to be helpful in getting bridge financing from the IMF? Or is there a new credit line from Saudi Arabia that Gnanasara Thero recently visited apparently for enlightenment on religious cohabitation?
If the President seems earnest about consolidating his positions and murky bases, he is also showing himself to be deceptive and manipulative in spreading misinformation about Aragalaya protesters. At least, the President’s Media Division (PMD) is. Last week, the PMD put out a press release that has since been exposed and dismissed as false information. The PMD statement alluded to an organization called “The Confederation of Professionals for a National Policy” and described it as “a group of professionals and youth involved in ‘Aragalaya’ (struggle).” The statement went on to say that this ‘group’ met with the President on Wednesday (June 1), that the meeting was held under the patronage of Ven. Prof. Pathegama Gnanissara Thera and Shastrapathi Ven. Vitiyala Kavidhaja Thera, and that the meeting was attended by Dr. Asoka Jayasena and Mr. Nelum Weragoda representing the “group of professionals and youth involved in Aragalaya.”
The PMD’s statement is a lie. No one from Aragalaya, or representing Aragalaya, attended any meeting with the President. The protesters who have been out for over fifty days demanding the resignation of the President have flatly denied meeting with the President as (falsely) claimed by the President’s Media Division. Aragalaya protesters have been quite categorical in denouncing the PMD’s falsehoods: “We don’t want to have any sort of discussion with the President. We just want him to be sent home. That’s the name of our movement “Gota Go Gama” (GGG), meaning for Gota to go.” Aragalaya is not going away, because the economic elephant His Excellency created is not going to wither away any time soon.