As Karl Marx insisted, ideas first emerge in the form of activity. Such activities may be theorized later on. When a new form of activism becomes the self-consciousness of a society, it could create social movements. We can consider this Marxist idea for examining how social movements emerge in capitalist societies. A broader social movement can arise through a larger concentration of people around a certain activity.
In Sri Lanka we have very recent examples of how social movements for democracy and justice emerged and became broad movements of people, and finally resulted in toppling an authoritarian regime. When our democratic system was crumbling under the Rajapaksha regime, it was first the ordinary people of Sri Lanka who rose against the tyranny and created mass movements to defeat the authoritarian system. This mobilization included industrial workers, professionals, literary personnel, artists, university academics, peasant farmers, fisher folk, human rights activists, university students and even villagers who were deprived of the right to have pure water (Rathupaswala). All such mass movements contributed hugely to re-establish democracy under a new political leadership.
Finally, the victory of the common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena has brought new hopes for the struggle for democracy, and the civil society is closely watching the developments under his rule. It was clearly evident through Sirisena’s victory that a society could not be controlled by a coercive hegemony for long if the civil society decisively rises up against authoritarianism.
The sense of injustice which stimulates people for struggle is a manifestation of the contradiction between exiting social norms and actual relations resulting from such norms. The exploitative and coercive mode maintained by the Rajapaksa regime first started to crumble within itself as it was unacceptable to the civil society. The major weakness of that regime was its inability to grasp the reality that without the acceptance and active support of civil society, it could not for long reproduce its hegemonic rule only with coercive means. The culture of abductions using ‘white vans’, creating fear in media, suppression of freedom of expression in academia and the civil society, rampant corruption and impunity under that regime were the means of its stiff coercion unleashed on civil society.
Today, after the defeat of Rajapaksa we are now in a transitional period of democracy. At a glance, we see there is some freedom in media; and the rule of law being restored. On the other hand, ordinary people and workers have been guaranteed of some measures to reduce the cost of living. Yet, all these measures have to be properly implemented in order to achieve the real objectives of democracy and social justice.
With all these developments in the political system, today we have arrived at a new historical juncture. After defeating a regime which was obsessed with propagating racism and religious fanaticism, demolishing democratic institutions and finally leading the country towards a fascist system, we could breath freely now. Yet, as the civil society we have no time left to rejoice; since we will not have achieved anything until we make sure that democratic system is reformed and the politicians adopt democracy as their daily philosophy. Therefore it is essential that we keep vigilant that the civil society struggle remains active and it further guides the current regime towards necessary reforms.
The civil society wanted an enlightened leadership to take control of the system after the defeat of the previous regime of despotism. However, there seems to be a huge gulf between the ruling elite and the civil society’s expectations. Can the ruling elite who represent the people through a Parliamentary system show that their thinking and activity match what the civil society expected from them? Or will those who hold power be only true to the maxims of power politics only? This is the dilemma currently facing the civil society; yet, it could be still hopeful of the reforms and has got to strive further.
The promise of ‘yahapalanaya’ or good governance which the civil society wants to see getting materialized soon is something the current political leadership cannot easily backtrack. Yet, the historical fate of political promises in Sri Lanka is well known to us. Those who promised to change the society and political system had ended up becoming the most hated ones at the end of their tenures. Ultimately, the politicos who promised reforms in democracy etc., have themselves diluted social progress and suppressed social struggles for change. We can bring in many more examples in this regard. One thing is very clear to us that the existing political structure serves the interests of those corrupt elites in Parliament. We ask for change and do not want to keep this same system going further.
The majority members of Parliament do not seem to understand the expectations of the absolute majority of people. They may want to perpetrate a corrupt system and now seem to bring back those forces of racism and religious fanaticism to safeguard their interests. The people need to awake to this reality today. People should also decide whether they want to have a set of leaders who can realize their expectations, or a bunch of corrupt politicians who really want to maintain the existing structures of power which are repressive, exploitative and unable to deliver justice.
Today, however, the rule of Maithri is facing a dilemma. The President’s executive powers seem to be balanced by a corrupt parliamentary majority. Even if the current parliament is dissolved and a fresh one is elected, no party would secure a clear majority. And on the other hand the ‘yahapalanaya’ dream has to be pushed through since it proponents are watching carefully its progress. It is our belief that the exiting corrupt elite in parliament would not allow the system to be reformed if their power in society is challenged by those reforms. They may be waiting till the moment comes to further strangle the neck of ‘yahapalanya’ as the majority of them are not used to such democratic mode of thoughts; as they were privileged under a coercive rule of a despotic leader for the last one decade or so. The rise of civil society has put all those corrupt leaders into a huge dilemma, and that is why they have wanted to silence the progressive civil society movement through racist slogans. The strategy of some racists and backward thinking politicos to bring back Mahinda is a clear example to show the way they are puzzled today in the absence of power in their hands. They still think that people’s sensitiveness toward race and religion could be used to stop the rise of democratic forces and could still use their parliament power for that evil purpose.
In this context, we need to examine why it is necessary for President Sirisena to act swiftly without delay in order to stop the movements for hijacking the power of SLFP from his hands. Also the idea of national government has to be realistically thought of and needs to be used to bring reforms instantly. However, as parties like the JVP argues, the national government should not be permitted to deviate from the 100 day program. Already there is national or bi-partisan rule in the centre, but its understanding about the necessary changes seem to remain at a very low.
It is only through another broader people’s movement that the society will be able to get rid of the exiting corrupt elements in the power elite. It won’t be easy to create such a huge people’s movement in the current context; because, it will become a bloodletting battle with the racist forces and the religious fanatics and power hungry corrupt elite. Therefore, all those organic elements in the strata of intellectuals have to shoulder this gigantic task of reawakening the passive masses for democracy while at the same time fighting the forces of social fragmentation and disunity. The UNP and SLFP should realize that their historical political strategy to use the civil society and mass movements to get into power and then just forget the promises and carry on with their own agenda will not work for long.
Unless we all first establish true democracy through necessary reforms, no longer we all will be able to enjoy this temporary freedom. The counter revolution in the South seems to be taking place backed by some media controlled by underworld forces, and led by some corrupt leaders whose agenda is to keep the chaos and violence ever reigning, so that an enlightened era of democracy will never become a reality.
We would like to suggest the new leadership that it has to manage the current political movement wisely and act swiftly too. If it lets this political moment pass, it will end up creating more anarchic tendencies. All state apparatuses and all progressive forces and progressive media and people’s movements in society must be called for their assistance to hold back the evil forces and sustain the democratic transition for long. The struggle for local power among local elites needs to be reinterpreted and redirected as a struggle for strengthening the democratic system; and the civil society forces cannot just let the politicians alone to lead, but they must take to streets soon and strengthen the struggle to exorcise the racist specter from society.
*Note: This article is partly an English version of a Sinhala article titled “Prajathanthrawadi Aragalaya Theewra kalayuthuya” published in ‘ Colombo Telegraph’ (Sinhala) )