26 September, 2023


People Power & The Fourth Column: Where Can It Come From?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

In a recent article on Separation of powers – the fourth pillar of State – namely people power (PP) under the Trump administration, Kumar David states that ‘Trump’s America is an example of how mass demonstrations, social media, town-hall meetings, local councils, court action by rights groups and mass pressure can make Congress, courts, media, the White House and security agencies bow to public concerns’ (Colombo Telegraph (16.04.2017). He points to the lack of such PP in Sri Lanka  (by implication) as the government brought to power with PP in 2015 has disappointed many who supported it. In any country, when people power gets systematically organized against ineffective and corrupt governments, such events inspire others facing similar situations. Analysing the situation in Sri Lanka in relation to people power configurations in the future is important in order to identify the conditions, players, strategies including communication strategy and necessary discourses. Such analysis is important especially when some political propagandists argue that the choice is between Basil or Gotabaya, Ranil or Dinesh, Sirisena or Ranil or whoever depending on the day of the week in order to confuse the audience and prevent PP from emerging from unexpected quarters. Such propagandists seem to subscribe to the view that the choices people in Sri Lanka have are limited to rotate power within the existing power group or the ruling class periodically. They theorise and project future scenarios led by certain personalities in order to create a self-fulfilling prophecy serving the interests of the ruling class/ power group or its factions.

This article analyses as to whether conditions for PP to emerge outside the ruling class or power group exists in Sri Lanka, in what form, who can lead it, and associated matters. The analysis in this article is based on the assumption that social and political change do not have to come necessarily from the existing ruling class or power group but outside it with the active strategizing by civil society organisations and their leaders coming out of their safety zones and treating politics as part of their struggles for justice for the deprived segments of society.  Trade unions, academic unions, student associations, clergy, human rights organisations, temple associations, farmer organisations, cooperative societies and other grass roots organisations not affiliated with the mainstream political parties can be part of this trajectory.

The disaffected groups and communities due to globalization, so-called free trade (not fair trade) and do nothing governments brought Trump into power. Being a popular television personality and an unconventional politician, some segments of the population disenfranchised by the existing political system and exercise of power usually for the big end of the town, voted him into power thinking that he will implement America First policies including in immigration, economic development, manufacturing, health care and foreign policy. When his actions in the immigration field do not match with the core values and norms of a decent society, activist organisations use the judiciary and other bodies to challenge them. Large protests on the streets by activists including those complaining about gender discrimination reflected the frustrations of those who felt the election of Trump hindered their interests.

In Sri Lanka also there are many who are not happy about the way the political and economic systems operate. This has been the case for many decades but the situation today has become severe due to the ineffectual and top heavy governance that goes without checking corruption by politicians in a credible sense, increasing gap between the rich and the poor, stagnant quality of life, foreign aid dependent development policy and the increasing foreign debt levels. Instead of small government, the country is endowed with big and expensive government layered between national and provincial levels. Maintaining such a big government and the ruling class with their lavish lifestyles is not an easy task for the population. Along with the grant of power to rule, voters are also giving a license to elected representatives to legitimize their upper class lifestyles and legitimize the very dominance of the ruling class/power group.  If they make policies in favor of the many who are deprived and act in the national interest there is some justification for their lavish lifestyles and dominant behaviour. When this is not so, the spotlight should be on policy failures as well as lifestyles of those who fail the nation.  A single event like the recent Meetotamulla disaster has shown the ugly side of this conundrum between the powerful and the powerless.

Anti systemic movements –though based on the frustrations of sections of the community- failed at several critical points in Sri Lanka’s post independent history due to the lack of strategy, people oriented politics or sound organizational capacity. Securing power from the people has to be a stage-wise and inclusionary process rooted in the culture of the society and communicated via culturally specific language and discourse. In 2015 people fed up with the ruling style and the effects on day to day life relied on the then opposition and a few vocal politicians to change the Rajapakse government which they thought was showing signs of a semi dictatorship with concentrated power in the family.  Those who voted to change government believed that the previous government used anti people, anti democratic measures to rule the country with an iron fist and personality worship amply demonstrated by large cut outs of the dear leader in all corners and streets of the island. These are not distant events. The question is where and how the next people power movement can emerge if people are frustrated with the national government established by the ruling class to control the country’s half empty coffers?

The general tendency is for the disaffected to go to the opposition parties as voters or political activists (in some cases as propagandists). This method is called as Kotta Maruwa or changing pillows. This has been the trend in post independent Sri Lanka but the cross over politics and coalition governments change this style somewhat though they were justified during the war as a necessity. There is a core group of party supporters in the two main parties, the UNP and SLFP at the grass roots level who keep their party allegiances no matter what. However, during the Rajapakse era many of those who were supporters of the UNP did not show their allegiance publicly particularly in rural areas due to potential reprisals. The core group of JVP supporters remained intact in the last elections with the party but it was not able to garner higher voter support as expected even though it’s political discourse was more articulate and forward looking.

During periods in between national elections, people tend to work with existing structures, institutions and procedures in society (Institution building is a favorite pastime of politicians as it reinforces ruling class authority and governance style). This is particularly the case by those who benefit from the existing power centres, parties, personalities as well as the economic system in place including the private sector. More than politics or public welfare, for these people, it is a matter of ‘how can I gain benefits from the existing system to advance my and my family’s interests’ e.g. how to get a bank loan to buy a tractor, a vehicle, establish or expand a business, improve trade, buy land, build house, send children for education abroad. At all levels of the spectrum from the small, petty bourgeoisie trader to middle class businessman to large scale company owner, this sentiment prevails motivating them to enter into ‘transactional politics’ and ‘economically significant deals’ with the elected politicians and their operatives including family members at provincial and national levels. As there is a national government of the two main parties, many hundreds and thousands of voters who supported the present government must be busy today with this kind of politico-economic transactions, offering and receiving favors. They are not necessarily bothered by political ideologies. Added to this are those hundreds and thousands of those who have been appointed to the government bureaucracy including the Foreign Service enjoying their perks such as a car with a driver, telephones, official residences, receptions, foreign travel for official purposes (in first or business class), and the very official status. They have no reason to join any people power when they can taste a bit of official power this way. Instead their worry can be the emergence of real people power outside the political sphere.

Professional class/Group

Another powerful group or class in society is the professional class. This class includes doctors, lawyers, engineers, Judges and other law enforcement officials, academics, journalists, architects, Directors, surveyors and accountants, bureaucrats (not those with clerical jobs), high military and police officers, those holding high posts in customs, airports, and the like, Company CEOs managers and supervisors.   Given their high-income levels and access to modern facilities to support a middle class lifestyle, their willingness to support or even initiate people power against the existing political or economic system is non-existent. At most, some may get involved in trade union activities associated with their professions. A few with small beginnings may listen to the need for PP but not actively engage. Some with close links to established parties and their leaders or active members in parliament or in government bureaucracy due to family or college links may even support these parties and politicians with material and non material contributions at election times.  It is naïve to expect any PP to come from this group though some are renowned for launching campaigns to seek professional benefits such as high wages or other entitlements from time to time.

There is another group of Sri Lankans who have found sources of income and better living conditions outside the country. Some have close links with the governing and opposition parties but many don’t. The latter simply go on with their busy lives even while being critical of the home country ruling class and governance style. A core group affiliated with governing parties enjoys some benefits from the existing political system but the large majority is not tuned into day-to-day politics except at social discourse level e.g. in parties, weddings, funerals. Support for people power can come only from a small number of people from this group, as they are mainly concerned about how to make life better for themselves and their children in the countries of domicile.  In this small group of political enthusiasts are those who have migrated out from Sri Lanka but associated themselves in Sri Lankan politics in some form or have had close relations with politicians before doing so.  Many academics and professionals who have migrated this way do not actively engage in home country politics. The few with close links to current politicians in power prefer to remain anonymous while enjoying the benefits.

Those Not Benefiting from the System

There are those who are not benefitting from the existing political or the economic system. They do not include those in the Joint Opposition, particularly in its higher echelons. This group includes all levels of the class spectrum and possibly half of the voting public or slightly more. Included are teachers, clerks, small businessmen, farmers, unemployed graduates, journalists, police and army officers, nurses and other allied health professions, technicians, village level petty officers such as Samurdhi officers, plantation workers, those in civil society organisations, retired government employees and the clergy. Some of these people vote for the JVP and other minor parties. Some are involved in trade union activities. Others may in fact be members or supporters of the main political parties.   Members of this group come from Lower Middle Class and the working class but also those under the poverty line.  Elements of the Upper middle class can be in this group but they are the exception.   In a country where democratic and good government is the proclaimed mode of governance but underpinned by ‘transactional politics’ (though not peculiar to Sri Lanka), the excluded groups of people can possess the crucial ingredients for a PP provided that someone within this group or outside it shows them the path to liberation.

Large majority of those not benefitting from the existing political and economic system are disorganised and have no voice. These include average folk, the poor, those in subsistence level and eking out a living by selling labour or cultivating a small piece of land, some with spouses working in the Middle East or children employed in cities. They are not only non vocal but also politically inactive in comparison to the upper middle class political activists from politically known families who work on a full time basis. Most live in the countryside in difficult conditions subject to vagaries of climate, environment, law enforcement, thuggary, and the heavy-handed bureaucrats, local politicians, village level political operatives including some village level officers, monks etc. Their life is governed by the existing system including by the Grama Sevaka and governing party officials to such an extent that they are not able to or willing to act in any way that can harm their or children’s existence.

This is the group that mainstream politicians target in their daily theatrics. Mainstream politicians with upper or upper middle class backgrounds tend to speak on behalf of this group in and outside the parliament while some academics theorise about the predicament of the group and possible solutions. This is the group politicians try to win over at election time by minor donations like sil redi. This is the group that the JVP relies heavily in their political work. This is also the group who receives or not receive Samurdhi and frequent temples and kovils with their middle class brothers to complain to Gods about the injustices of the system.  This is also the group that can be swayed one way or another by political advertising, personality projections and the talk of dividing the country by Tamils, as they are not in a position to critically comprehend the intricacies of the political and economic issues.  However, their main guidance comes from the respective clergy and local level leaders plus a variety of Gods they worship.

The crucial question is how do these people not benefitting from the existing political and economic systems respond to the situation we are talking about? Many do go to temples and kovils to complain to Gods about the evils of the system and injustices. (The system operates by including few and excluding many, as it can’t fulfill the needs and aspirations of all with the limited resources available, especially borrowed money from abroad.  There is no social democracy). The frustrations generated in the minds of those not benefitting tend to direct their criticisms through various outlets mostly verbal. Active opposition comes from a few individuals, trade unions and civil society organisations. (I don’t count Joint Opposition in this group, as its members are also part of the politico-economic establishment being only one step away from actual power). The people in this group rely on the community leaders, academics, journalists, clergy, national-local political leaders, and their own relatives or educated children for guidance.  Whether such guidance is received at a distance or nearby depends on the nature of sophistication in their communication modes.

So, where and how should the people power emerge?  How should this group be salvaged from the grip of corrupt politicians who change colour depending on the direction the wind is blowing? How could a different message attuned to their needs and aspirations of the deprived group be disseminated? Could this be achieved outside the established political parties? Can this happen without proper leadership? Who can and will provide such leadership? There are two levels or dimensions to this discussion: 1) Ideological, 2) practical. Ideas are provided by the leaders including intellectuals, theoreticians, politicians (national and local), journalists, propagandists, clergy, teachers, academics, and civil society leaders. Late Rev. Sobhita and his organization provided ideas to the nation prior to the last Presidential election (What happened in 2015 was that the people power generated by civil society organisations was transferred to political hands through the election process and the political hands that took charge of the mission compromised once in power to the extent of stalling implementing actions). But ideas alone cannot generate people power. There has to be activists, organisational structures and networks to implement the ideas peacefully and under difficult circumstances. Otherwise, such actions can end up being non-events that cannot be sustained. Established parties, their members and leaders, activists are not going to sit idle if and when such people power movement starts ta take traction outside the political realm. Thus, the leadership and organisation are very important factors. 

Local Leadership

A parallel question that needs to be raised is why no local leaders who are not affiliated with mainstream political parties emerge particularly from the deprived communities and social segments in Sri Lanka? Or to put it differently whether such leaders emerge and what happen to them as they confront the (brutal) political process at the grass roots level mediated by money, power, intimidation, vote rigging, threats etc? Firstly, it is my view that the lack of an effective, resourceful local government system free from the influence of national and provincial political families of the ruling class prevents such leaders from emerging. During the era if Village Councils, we all know how such leaders emerged and even entered national politics. Secondly, deprived segments of society such as castes, women, tradesmen, artisans, labouring class, landless farmers, minor employees of government and semi government institutions, free trade zone workers, textile factory workers, the poor are compelled by the existing economic and political system to rely on leaders from the political families or political elites (constructed by the party system, donations, accumulation of wealth, inheritance of specific districts and electorates from father to son, husband to wife,etc)to provide leadership at grass roots level. This goes hand in hand with the concept of welfare government where the belief is that we are powerless, poor, impotent therefore the government will look after us.

Thirdly, there is out migration of the best and brightest as well as others e.g. a woman to go overseas for domestic work, from the rural and isolated areas depriving these from local leadership. Those with potential for leadership locally thus are subjected to cultural, political and geographical uprooting from their own locale and become residents of another locale for employment often under the existing entities. A depoliticisation process also occurs in the sense that these youths from far-flung regions hesitate to enter politics due to its brutal nature and culture of nurturing established political families that allow no space for talented newcomers. Even in the university, a view exists that politics is not for us. We need to find employment that allows us to lead an independent life without relying on politicians. Partly this is part of the ‘modernist education’ received in humanities and social sciences. Fourthly, even when a party like the JVP is trying to provide leadership to deprived segments of society at the grass roots level, the very people who should be supporting it look the other way due to reasons explained earlier. The case of North and East is different and should be analysed in a somewhat different way even though some of the factors mentioned here must be at play there too. Radicalisation of Sinhala and Tamil youths at different points in the country’s history, itself an anti systemic political phenomenon should be viewed in this light. The efforts by established political families from certain parties to prevent Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil youths to unite in a free Lanka should also be viewed in the same context of needing to maintain ruling class, elite power constructed post independence. The ethnic discourse where the hegemony of one ethnicity over others maintained by a fraction of the power group citing Tamil separatism and division of the country serves the interests of the power group. The article I published decades ago on the radicalisation of Tamil Middle class can be useful in this regard (see Research Gate or Academic.edu).

Sociologists and political scientists studying Sri Lanka ought to examine these factors that prevent local leadership from emerging outside the political families and fir that matter even from political families. However, they are busy studying other subjects funded by foreign NGOs that are marginal to the deprived segments of society by the existing economic and political system. I have analysed this subject about the academic dependence of social scientists and irrelevance of their research and teaching to local context elsewhere (see Social Affairs Journal, Colombo. Also a forthcoming chapter in a book edited by Sasanka Perera et al, New Delhi). The argument or the hypothesis to be tested here is that the leadership for deprived segments of society are provided by those from the upper and upper middle classes rather than the working or deprived classes themselves due to the very nature of how politics, democracy, party system, family entitlements, and the very nature of leadership have been constructed. Critical and radical leadership, whenever it emerges and develops up to a point, is stifled by these leaders from political families of the ruling class on various grounds while using the state law enforcement machinery and clandestine methods.

This allows for the Colombo centric national political leadership with elite backgrounds to continue with Western or Euro American centric and dependent (development) policies and borrow more in the name of that and this. The accumulated foreign debt by all rulers thus far and the dire status of the country today speaks volumes about failed policies and programs but the deprived classes and segments keep voting for the same mainstream parties and leaders over and over only to realise their interests are not served by the governance styles of the ruling class or the power group. There has to be fresh thinking in this arena and a collective or network of civil society leaders can do much to establish vertical and horizontal links with the deprived segments and classes with a clear strategy and a political project and a vision for a truly free Lanka where equality, social justice, non discrimination, Sri Lanka identity, human rights and rule of law prevail.

Conditions for People Power

In my view, conditions prevail in Sri Lanka as in other developed countries such as USA for people power to emerge again and find a new and reinvigorated political expression without the main political party involvement but what is lacking is an overarching ideology, corresponding discourse, a vehicle, strategy and leadership for achieving the unfulfilled goals of the middle and lower classes including the many living in the countryside  (those living on the margins are also connected to the cities and the world in this era more than before but subjected to national media presentations of political and economic reality constructed by the ruling class). The material conditions that create sufferings, frustrations, injustices, deprivations abound due to the top down, hierarchical nature of the central political and governance system from which some gain substantial benefits unduly and many others get excluded. The realisation by many who are thus excluded believes that the answer lies outside mainstream political parties and the ruling class rooted in the material culture, privileged lifestyles and transitional politics. However, there is a large gap between this realisation on one hand and a credible political leadership, message or discourse plus strategy that can attract mass appeal. Such leadership and activism cannot emerge from the disenfranchised segments alone.  It cannot emerge from the current political class either as their positions are compromised due to the immense privileges of office, material benefits received, the honor and status of the positions that render their real roles invisible to the deprived masses, and the fact that their activities in office are in large part at variance with the aspirations and needs of the deprived classes  (If late Rev. Sobitha lived a few more years the situation would have been different as he would have continued with his organization and its activities for a better Lanka irrespective of the Yahapalana governance).

In this context, leadership has to be provided by literate, dynamic, visionary and capable individuals with organisational capabilities plus an understanding about the way our political and economic systems plus political operatives work and the unfulfilled aspirations of the deprived segments of society. Ideally, civil society organisations active in the country are best suited to provide leadership, build networks, and develop a discourse and a strategy for gaining power in the long run by democratic means by devising a political strategy. This could be in line with democratic revolutions occurred in other countries when the people were deprived of their due by their leaders some under dictatorships. Yet civil society organisations seem to be contending with criticising the existing regime for its failure to fulfill promises made during the last election campaigns. Such critics are scattered and lack a cohesive effort to bring together diverse elements that can be the drivers of change. If not for these civil society organisations that campaign on single issues in their routine work, a new political party has to emerge to meet the need, as the JVPs appeal to the masses seems to have waned.

It is possible that new parties can emerge from the privileged classes themselves to misguide the public due to disagreements within the ruling class itself and its key members. However, they end up supporting the main parties in the end as what happened to the party led by Sarath Fonseka. Another alternative source of such leadership is a non-political, traditional authority figure such as the late Rev. Sobhita who has special qualities and skills as well as a long cultivated national audience. People tend to listen to the messages coming from someone who is familiar to them through decades of committed religious, welfare, community, or national service rather than an academic, journalist, artist or activist who sprouts possibilities for PP within the realms of existing political class or power group only. Social justice to the deprived many can only come if the resources obtained on behalf of the nation are distributed evenly and if those in power do not divert such resources for their personal gain before such distribution can happen.  Given the nature of the system in place, and the lack of accountability mechanisms that actually work, it is highly unlikely that aspirations of deprived classes can come true with the existing kind of vehicle and the strategies followed by borrowing more from abroad and inviting foreign companies and other entities to establish various ventures.

One may argue that the apparent failure of the democratic revolution of 2015 to yield required economic and accountability results –other than in the human rights and public security arena-is the very nature of middle class based democratic revolutions. Therefore, one may also argue that the leadership for a social democratic revolution based on people power has to come from the working class. This sort of argument goes back to Marxist and neo Marxist theorisations on one hand and the failure of the Lanka Sama Samaja party and the Communist party in Sri Lanka and to justifications for the formation of JVP and even the Frontline (Peratugamee) Party plus other variations that claim to represent the working class. The problem with the working class leading a social revolution in Sri Lanka is made difficult as there are various entities led by established political parties and ethnic organisations such as the ones representing plantation workers bargaining for minor wage increases, housing, and other material benefits only. Whether a party or organization seeking worker benefits in a narrow sense but without a vision for the country and its future while based on ethnicity, nature of work or a trade can lead a social democratic revolution that can embrace other layers and classes of society is a profound question to examine? To add to its woes, working class –as other classes- in Sri Lanka is fragmented on various grounds and it does not possess a working class conscience suitable for political action as stipulated for PP.  Members of this class are motivated to achieve material benefits of one sort or another rather than to organize and launch a sustainable national political struggle for drastic social change.  However, this does not preclude some working class leaders from participating in a social democratic revolution in partnership with other leaders from civil society organisations.

Thus, people power cannot emerge overnight as if a wonder magic.   It cannot emerge from the joker actors on political stage. It has to emerge from people’s frustrations and deprivations when a dynamic leader or leaders can show them a credible way forward for a change in the political culture, style of governance, and there is organizational backing (Sarath Fonseka argued for a change of political culture until he joined the UNP). Such leaders are not yet visible in Sri Lanka. However, emergence of such leaders is a future possibility provided that civil society leaders, non partisan traditional leaders, awakened literati, journalists, artists, people friendly professionals and para professionals, and many layers of community leaders etc. open their eyes to the predicament of the country, deprived people and take collaborative steps to form a national organization for People Power with appropriate leadership, discourse and strategy.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I often wonder whether or not Mr Siri Gamage is the most knowledgable and most Economist that Sri Lanka has ever produced

  • 0

    People Power can and will emerge with the neglected and continued deprivation of economic, social and personal wish lists by the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary. Now it is heartening to note that the “Hand Outs” system adopted by the Executive is somewhat fading, though yet in operation to a certain degree. That was very visible and proved to a certain extent during the Presidential and General elections of 2015. The distribution of “GOODIES” did not fetch the desired results to the then existing Executive. The people received and accepted those “GOODIES” with outstretched arms, but decided to go in the opposite way. That was a GOOD SIGN and proves a certain degree of AWAKENING. Next, scenario will be the loss of CONFIDENCE and CREDIBILITY of the present Executives’ and of the Judiciary’s FAILURE to deliver the PROMISES and meet the EXPECTATIONS. That TREND is developing slowly and steadily. That TREND is visible mostly among the YOUNG who in large proportions either REFUSED or IGNORED to be registered as voters. This is the ENVIRONMENT conducive for that PP to emerge, provided a NEW and a FRESH leadership is taking roots that would cater to the People Empowerment in seeking solutions for “Neglected” and “Deprived” wish lists are to be achieved. It is definitely the “SHAPE” of things to happen.

  • 0

    Trump coming into power did not work. Trump said “first america”. but, he is a changed man. Deep state is working. Evidence is he bombed an abandoned airforce camp and the chemical attack is a set up. Now american media shows how they set up many things. this i snot just writing but videos. Even the kid who pulled out from rubble with bloody head is a set up. Even the MOAB dropped in Afghanisthan is crimes against humanity to kill suspected terrorists. What are the number of dead. All those INGOs are silent. How about they are pissed with North Korea. Even Sri lanka -born NGOS come and bash North Korea. But, the truth is different.

    Sri lanka is also the same. We need desperately another team of a president, prime minister or parliamentarians. Even if the peoples’ power comes forward, finally it will be the same old rats. Because, other countries are active in our country. Some Pro-indian, Pro western rats will be in the team.

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