By Uditha Devapriya –
For better or worse, the protesters calling for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation have been engaging with other issues and concerns. These include minority rights, the abduction and assassination of journalists, and the need for a clearer foreign policy. While weeks ago such concerns may have been belittled, even sidelined, now they have been incorporated into the protests. Such a development should be welcomed, even if, in the long run, it can dilute the demonstrations and eventually lose focus and direction.
The point I made in last week’s column still stands, though. Unless and until we turn the protests into a large-scale consciousness raising exercise, a campaign to educate the public, including supporters of the regime, on issues that had never been seriously considered before, we can’t hope to achieve real change, still less radical change. It’s not only because of the Rajapaksas that we are ignorant of these “peripheral” issues, indeed it’s not only because of them that such issues have become peripheralized. But 17 years of Rajapaksist rule, whether in the government or the opposition, have sidelined them.
The main problem with the Colombo protests, the way I see it, is that they lack leadership and remain limited to a largely urban social milieu. This doesn’t de-validate the protesters themselves, but it does open them up to the risk of infiltration from outside. There’s no doubt that these protests are here to stay with us for a long time, possibly even after the Rajapaksas leave. But one critique that’s frequently bandied about them is that, on the one hand, they have incorporated too many ideas and concerns, on the other hand, they have prioritised some ideas and concerns to the exclusion of others.
It’s important to know where these criticisms are coming from. It’s not just supporters of the regime: even critics are painting the protests as unnecessary and counterproductive. While recognising and even lauding the protesters for standing up to the government, they point out that the economic reforms needed at this juncture – which they claim can and will be achieved, thanks to the new leadership at the Central Bank – require stability of the sort that the Galle Face demonstrations are pre-empting. This is basically a neoliberal or right-wing crowd, whose opposition to the government was predicated on their frustration at the ruling party not following their recommendations and prescriptions.
To be sure, the protests that began in Mirihana and led to Galle Face were fuelled by similar frustrations. Not a few protesters equated the regime’s failures with its unwillingness to go to the IMF. What they themselves failed to realise was that, as a populist who could swing both ways, going to the IMF was hardly non-negotiable for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. For the government, despatching a delegation to Washington and securing Basil Rajapaksa’s and Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s resignations was easy, and could be done. Yet to believe that all the country needed then were their resignations would be rather naïve.
Why do I say this? Because while Basil and Cabraal and their policies were universally loathed, their resignations will not end these protests. For neoliberal commentators, the economy seems more important than the political crisis, which is perhaps why they tend to single out the likes of Basil, Cabraal, W. D. Lakshman, and S. R. Attygalle. Yet the situation is too complex to draw up lines between the political and economic aspects of the protests. If the preferred medicine of the neoliberal crowd is going to the IMF, and the government has gone to the IMF, the discussion over sending the regime home could have ended there. But political crises are never that simple, nor should they be considered simple.
If anyone thinks IMF reforms will dampen these protests, they are sadly mistaken. IMF reforms involve austerity, of the severest sort. No one likes austerity: not the middle-classes that try to keep up with the Joneses and not the rural peasantry and working class that just cannot think beyond survival. The combination of IMF austerity and unpopular regime is a powder keg waiting to go off, and all guesses are things will start falling apart, pretty badly, in another month or so. Already there’s talk of public utility tariff hikes to the tune of 100 percent. In enforcing these reforms and marketing them as inevitable, the country will sink deeper. This has happened before, and it will happen again, here.
Pinning all hopes on the IMF, in that sense, will not do. There are two many parties and too many tendencies within parties pitted against IMF austerity. Although the right-wing of the SJB are for these reforms, the populist (Dayan Jayatilleka identifies this as “Premadasist”) wing is not. The LSSP and Communist Party are no longer partners in the government; as the two oldest leftist formations in Sri Lanka, they are vehemently opposed to the IMF line. The Frontline Socialist Party, which controls and organises student groups in our universities, is also against it. The JVP-NPP’s case is interesting and intriguing, in that it believes there is no alternative to the IMF. Yet it too is opposed to austerity for the masses.
Which brings me to my earlier point. Initially clamouring and shouting for the exit of the Rajapaksas, the Galle Face protesters are now addressing other concerns. As far as the IMF goes, most of them are not in favour of a return to Cabraal’s tenure. Yet that does not mean they are for the IMF line either. It’s clear that while many among them preferred going to Washington to Cabraal’s homegrown solutions, since Ali Sabry’s jaunt to the IMF they have been reading and thinking about what that would entail for the country. What this means is that the second wave of protests will be aimed against the IMF, and not even the most blue-eyed of neoliberal commentators will be able to escape the tide.
We are living in interesting times. They are about to get more interesting.
*The writer can be reached at email@example.com