By Mohamed Harees –
In a ‘dog-eat-dog’ society where ‘the market’ is idolized as the ‘supreme natural law,’ greed, and not collective happiness, makes people cooperate, especially the politicians, businessmen and vested interests who amass wealth at the expense of the common good. As opportunities for larger numbers of people to participate in deciding their ‘collective wellbeing,’ falls into the hands of a few, a nation obviously falls into a catastrophic phase, to a great extent due to the cumulative result of lack of a participatory political culture and widening social inequities. Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, described the horror of the authoritarian regime of Gilead. In this theocracy, self-preservation was the best people could hope for, being powerless to kick against the system. But her sequel, The Testaments, raises the possibility that individuals, with suitable luck, bravery and cleverness, can fight back.
The rulers’ notion of ‘the common good’ and that of the majority of the populace always happened to be is in constant conflict ever since Sri Lanka gained Independence; however people mostly adopted a slavish attitude to politics and blind loyalty to party politics. However, for the first time in its Post-Independence history, an awakened electorate realized the folly of seven decades of their slumber and apathy to the doings and un-doings of their elected representatives, and Sri Lanka witnessed a historic turning point. The youth in particular and people in general rose up with a rallying cry via an Aragalaya, calling for a total revamp of politics and seeking to create a cleaner political culture responsible to their electorate. The hypocrisy of the concept of democratic process being the ultimate panacea for all political and social issues was exposed, when people realised that their elected representatives were exploiting it for personal gains. The sovereignty of the people became a mere mockery. Reference to ‘Rajapaksas’ became a synonym of such mockery and corrupt politics in recent history.
If there is one clear victory of the Aragalaya to highlight , it is the emergence of an awakened electorate calling for real change, shunning all racial or religious divides the cunning rulers have imposed to gain or stay in power. There is more sense coming out from the streets, than from the aimless debates in parliament. Both the elected Executive and the Legislature have failed their mandate a thousand times. Those in the Aragalaya better represent the interest of the people of this country than the rulers who have brought the nation down to its knees. One beautiful country being known for the wrong reasons in the modern context, has been burning in one form or another since the British left its shores. Thus, a real awakening is rising in Sri Lanka, and there are evidence to that effect now, two years after a power hungry, ethno-religious majoritarianism group acquired power at the total expense of the others, with the people realizing the futility of the ‘otherness’. The pendulum has well and truly swung from ‘Rajapaksas, who like an octopus, held on to every aspect of public life in Sri Lanka, once seen as saviours; to ‘Rajapaksas now seen as traitors who ruined this country’! What a historic irony!
Popular uprisings are as old as history. In classical Greece, “revolutions” were considered a normal way of assuming power by differing regimes. They occurred whenever democratic, oligarchic, and monarchic regimes alternated in assuming power, and such alternation of political power often came through violence. Revolutionary situations seem to occur when massive and rapid social, economic, and political factors reshape the people’s socio-political value systems and affect their economic welfare. It would need one or more of the main conditions such as economic development, regime type, and state ineffectiveness, to produce the onset of popular uprisings or revolution. These are variables that tend to occur suddenly and unexpectedly. The triggering factors in Sri Lanka was the ignition of a long resentment that have been boiling in the heads of the people, including chronic corruption, economic/ fiscal crisis, acute social injustice and rising prices. Both the classes of human rights scheduled in the Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) namely political/civil as well as social/economic rights have been grossly violated by the Rajapakse led ruling class in Sri Lanka.
In some ways this is a dark time for human rights. Unaccountable governments that autocratic leaders lead become prone to repression, corruption, and mismanagement. Yet while the autocrats and rights abusers may capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are also gaining strength. The same populists who are spreading hatred and intolerance are spawning a resistance that keeps winning its share of battles. Victory in any given case is never assured, but it has occurred often enough in the past year to suggest that the excesses of autocratic rule are fuelling a powerful counterattack. The non-partisan Aragalaya initiated by a victimised electorate should be viewed in this light. Unlike traditional dictators, today’s would-be autocrats typically emerge from democratic settings. Rajapaksas pursued a two-step strategy for undermining democracy: first, scapegoat and demonize vulnerable minorities to build popular support; then, weaken the checks and balances on government power needed to preserve human rights and the rule of law, such as an independent judiciary, a free media, and vigorous civic groups. Even the world’s established democracies have shown themselves vulnerable to this demagoguery and manipulation. Sri Lanka is a live example.
This is not a predicament exclusive to our time. Global history can point us in the direction of those who felt exactly the same. Ordinary people who, constrained by injustice, took action to challenge those who held the power. People who are being duped by their leaders should consider that it is their right, and moral obligation, to protest over unjust political, economic or social conditions. Many of the rights people take for granted came about as a result of protest—human rights, women’s rights, the rights of workers. It has always been a struggle to bring about change, but it can be achieved.
Resistance and non-violent disobedience to the dictates of a Government that has stopped listening to the people are the most important tools that peaceful protestors have in their arsenal. Civil disobedience is one such way to protest by the active, non-violent refusal to accept the unreasonable dictates of governments. It informs them that unjust actions will be opposed and the people will act illegally if pushed to do so. Civil disobedience causes disruption and focuses attention, while forcing debate with the aim of bringing about fundamental and progressive changes within our societies and our world. Acts of civil disobedience do not have to be extreme. People at all levels of society can all be activists. Small actions can lead to larger ones, and can provide inspiration to individuals who may be unsure where to funnel their concerns. This in turn can help lay the pathway to further understanding and global change.
Civil disobedience is both a political tactic and the basis of movements that advocate social change. It is a nonviolent action engaged in by an individual who refuses to obey a law for moral or philosophical reasons. The participants in civil disobedience willfully and openly refuse to comply with a law in order to dramatize the issue that they, or the group, find unjust. Civil disobedience differs from other illegal acts because it is engaged in by people who commit the action knowing and accepting the penalties and consequences of breaking the law. Breaking the law is a means toward changing the law, the justice system, government policy, or the culture. Civil disobedience is also often called nonviolent action. The word ‘action’ is significant, as the objective of civil disobedience is to actively seek change through protest or disruption, not through passively waiting for change. Civil Disobedience leaders like Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr broke the law to change the world for the better.
As seen worldwide, today the new generation of activists who face arrest, prosecution and possibly prison for civil disobedience simply feel they have no choice. In his book, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law says: ‘It was hard to process the idea that I was now a criminal. To have broken the law felt so alien to me. While I was prepared to face my sentence, as all activists who confront unjust laws must be, I was nevertheless irritated by the irony of such acts of civil disobedience – that in order to advocate for democracy and justice and safeguard the rule of law, sometimes laws had to be broken.’
Leaderless as they are, it’s nevertheless admirable how these protests have held on. It is laudable that those engaging in Aragalaya at Galle Face and elsewhere are showing their anger and fury against Sri Lanka’s political establishment, irrespective of political personalities; a clear contrast to conventional forms of interventions of ‘civil society’ as we know it, which are coloured and sullied by political bias. A movement that united all sections of Sri Lankan society would not only be better placed to destroy the Rajapaksa family dynasty; it is also precisely the place to raise demands against ethnic oppression and majoritarianism. Masses should however not leave it only to those in Galle Face and progressive political movements to achieve the ends for them.
What must be emphasized is that, while this Aragala Movement began in desperation, it is now defined by hope. People have finally realized their strength in numbers. However, for Sri Lankans, now united by their shared economic interests and collective disapproval for traditional political power centres, this movement may present the last chance and opportunity to break free from post-colonial shackles of communal division and finally contend with the real Struggle to ensure social justice closing the widening economic gaps that long-ignored class struggle has finally brought to the surface. Of course, the contradictions of the Aragalaya must be sorted out by the organisers of the Aragalaya. Some writers refer contradictions such as those between the protesters’ opposition to the Rajapaksas and their opposition to the 225, and between their opposition to politics and their affiliation with political ideologies for example. It is in the interest of the people and their progenies that they should not allow this Aragalaya to fizzle out or fail. Nonviolent and anti-racial stance are the need of the hour in this country and its politics. Besides,this is the last chance for Sri Lanka to make real political change.
As for Sri Lanka , as experts say, other than the adversarial shock of Covid-19, all other concerns swamping Sri Lanka are creations and outcomes of the corrupt successive governments with a flawed approach to governance, economy, favouritism and leadership. To overcome from this precarious predicament, Sri Lanka has to institutionalise democracy, denounce dynastic rules, institute an effective and populist government with accountability, restore beneficial economic policies and ensure a level playing field for all classes. Some broader political and systematic root causes that have perpetrated discrimination, and undermined human rights and these need to be addressed continuously.
As UN says , human rights must be at heart of solution to Sri Lanka crisis. There needs to be a meaningful and inclusive dialogue with all parts of societies, to address the socio-economic challenges faced by the people. Political stability is critical to create an environment for the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which can then set up the way forward for economic recovery. The crisis in Sri Lanka is a prime example of the interdependence and interrelatedness between economic and social rights and civil political rights, and as such, human rights must indeed be at the heart of discussions on Sri Lanka’s economic future. Any decision taken in the present context should not further entrench or further worsen the human rights situation. The Sri Lankan government must ensure that any austerity measures introduced are consistent with human rights standards, and safeguard people’s rights to food, health, education, and social security.
As the Island said in its editorial recently, government is all mouth and no action . The RW led government leaders have been speaking ad nauseam about problems instead of taking necessary action to solve them. It is upto the people to continue this Aragalaya momentum and take this struggle for rule of law, social justice and political accountability to the finish without getting trapped within political party loyalties. This is a common mission the next progeny is asking this generation to cooperate.
Eagle Eye / June 12, 2022
“One beautiful country being known for the wrong reasons in the modern context, has been burning in one form or another since the British left its shores.”
This beautiful country Sinhale, the Land of Sinhalayo and Vedda Eththo which was a Sinhala Buddhist country for thousands of years started to burn after British left because kind-hearted Sinhala Buddhists accommodated foreigners in their country. It is the descendants of those foreigners who resorted to terrorism and ruined this country.
Eagle Eye / June 12, 2022
“…it is also precisely the place to raise demands against ethnic oppression and majoritarianism.”
Ethnic oppression and majoritarianism are like ‘Higannage thuwalaya’ (Beggar’s wound) for minorities who want to tarnish the image of Sinhala Buddhists and get sympathy from international community. They do not see how people belong to different ethnic groups and different religions live in harmony in Colombo. In spite of ethnic oppression and majoritarianism that some guys keep on highlighting, Tamils and Muslims in Colombo keep on increasing pushing Sinhalayo to the third place. The guys who scream about ethnic oppression and majoritarianism feel comfortable to live with their families in Colombo amongst Sinhala Buddhists.
Tamils and Muslims are trying to clean their blood-soaked hands by highlighting ethnic oppression and majoritarianism that do not exist in Sinhale/Sri Lanka.
Eagle Eye / June 12, 2022
“…all other concerns swamping Sri Lanka are creations and outcomes of the corrupt successive governments with a flawed approach to governance, economy, favouritism and leadership.”
Tamils and Muslims who provided oxygen to some of these Governments also should share the responsibility.
srikrish / June 13, 2022
An excellent piece Mr Mohamed Harees, but you have missed on specifying how the new system will bring about necessary changes for an inclusive democratic governance structure.
Further the country since independence was more interested in wealth distribution than on wealth creation.