By Jude Fernando –
“One of the great attractions of patriotism – it fulfills our worst wishes. In the person of our nation, we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat. Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling that we are profoundly virtuous.” — Aldous Huxley
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” — Antonio Gramsci
The “vistas of prosperity and splendor” Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s (GR) regime promised are dead. Sri Lankans at home and abroad want members of the current regime to resign, return stolen wealth, and receive jail sentences as reparations for the harms caused to society so that people can regain control over their lives and their land. Despite Rajapaksa’s “empathetic” speech to the nation on April 11th, 2022, protestors remained firm in their demands. They scoffed and were indignant at his statement that he is pleased to see people carrying the national flag and his reminder that his government fought and granted the right for everyone to carry the national flag as they wish. Protesters were also quick to grasp the sinister warning of suppression implicit in his statement that that if protestors undemocratically remove 225 parliamentarians, there would be violence in the country.
GR’s regime has fallen into disarray and isolation as its attempts to seize the invaluable gift it gave to the nation has backfired, provoking protests in every country where Sri Lankans reside. The priceless gift? Creating conditions for unbearable shortages and exorbitant prices of necessities, has caused an unprecedented popular movement to emerge. The movement, targeting the regime and the political culture it represents, is a response to the ethnonationalist bubble that emerged following the defeat of the Tamil Militants, and the subsequent bolstering of it by the 20 0h Amendment to the Constitution which gave unprecedented powers to the president. This bubble provided ideological legitimacy for pitting majority Sinhala against Tamil and Muslim minorities and for the claim that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s role during the civil war qualifies him as an effective leader capable of guiding the nation to prosperity without compromising the interest of ethnoreligious nationalism.
The dominant ethnonationalist ideology derives its basis from racist interpretations of religion, history, archeology, and land and culture of different communities inhabit it. This, together with the regime’s questionable alliances with foreign lenders, investors, governments, and media, as well as their control over the justice system and the state apparatus, was bolstered by the lies and coercion of voodoo prophets. Religious forces fueled the ethnonationalist bubble and sanctified it. Rather than changing the pre-war nationalism that portrayed select minorities as enemies of the nation, the regime became more complicit with the ethnonationalist forces that continued to racialize the nation’s collective identity. This resulted in ‘Jathiwayaday’ racist nationalism) rather than ‘Jathiikathyawa’ (inclusive nationalism), which has become a powerful force in the country’s political affairs.
Sri Lankan society bestowed exclusive rights on the Rajapaksa regime as the guardians and heirs of the ethnoreligious nationalist bubble, leading the regime to believe it was omnipotent and would be protected in power forever. The regime’s supporters up until now have been living in this bubble, projecting their fears, insecurities, and anxieties on to their imagined enemies withwould safeguarded them from them. People trusted the lies that underpinned the bubble. Those imprisoned by ethnoreligious nationalism exchanged the truth for lies, did not speak truth to power, and failed to empathize with the racialized victims of the narratives. Living in the bubble, they failed to recognize the harsh realities that threatened them. They either believed in the eternal power of the bubble out of fear or refused to accept a society not colonized by ethnoreligious nationalism. The shortage of food and gas, two essentials of everyday life, triggered the unthinkable: all forces that held the bubble together and branded it as holy have begun to unravel and become profane. People across the ethnic divide are “compelled to face with sober senses the real determinants of their lives and their relations with one another.”
The failure of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s (GR) regime illustrates the absurdity of ethnoreligious nationalism and demystifies its influence, which has affected power-swapping between various political parties since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948. Ethnoreligious nationalism is an evolving ideology, and its roots date back to the Anagarika Dharmapala reforms. It enabled the ruling elites to indigenize their identity and leadership by racially dividing and conquering the nation. The freedom and prosperity that elites promised to the masses resulted in the disenfranchisement of the masses and the deprivation of their right to live in freedom and dignity. Following independence, and particularly after the introduction of open market policies in 1977, ethnoreligious nationalism’s role in “accumulation by dispossession” became more aggressive, expansive, and militant. Reaching an anticlimactic maturity under GR’s regime, ethnoreligious nationalism demonstrated its own internal contradictions and the limits of its influence on politics.
In the period under GR, ethnoreligious nationalist forces expanded their political role, giving the regime, and more particularly GR’s family, enormous power. The public became increasingly convinced that the regime is incompetent and unreliable in fulfilling its promises and discharging its duties while contributing to a widening inequality gap between those few who have built up their wealth and power by dispossessing the masses of the basic means and rights to survive. A demonstration of interethnic unity in the ongoing protests are a response to the existential threats that have disproportionately afflicted minorities for decades and are now threatening all, bringing to light that a political culture free of racism is a prerequisite for socially responsible governance. Demonstrators’ recognition of how ethnonationalist forces racially divided the masses and distracted them from their common experiences of deprivation over the course of a century will also open opportunities for dialogue about the relationship between racism and neoliberalism. Indeed, whichever political party a nation turns to for government, an inclusive political culture must flourish no matter who is elected to power.
The moral and spiritual foundations of collective being in a multicultural society were racialized by ethnoreligious nationalism. These foundations are based on distortions of religious teachings and forged in conjunction with equally distorted interpretations of culture and history dating back to pre-colonial times. The proponents of revisionist national histories misrepresent precolonial society as self-sufficient and self-reliant and attribute its decline exclusively to Europeans. This allows the nationalist elites to claim responsibility for revitalizing the past. The occasional political interventions to counteract and prevent the debilitating effects of ethnonationalism on the country were short-lived. It was impossible to resist the opportunistic power that ethnoreligious nationalism wields over society’s political consciousness. The country’s religious establishments, educational system, and mass media (for the most part), contributed mostly to consolidating rather than dismantling ethnoreligious nationalisms’ ideological hold over society. Moreover, ethnoreligious nationalism suppressed the inherent goodness of all religions and encouraged their most destructive manifestations thus denying the power of religion to positively influence the country’s political consciousness.
Ethnoreligious nationalism robs society of the ability to evaluate a country’s economic, political, and historical affairs objectively and ethically. It also robs society of the ability to empathize with racially marginalized groups when policies disproportionately affect them. More importantly, politicians use racialized consciousness to divert attention from the role of neoliberal economic policies in the country’s issues, and people simply get accustomed to being complicit with the politicians who blame the issues on racialized enemies. Ethnoreligious nationalism’s malignant spread sharply divided the country into those who embraced ethnonationalist ideals as patriots and those who opposed it as traitors. People imbued with ethnonationalist aspirations would ignore character, qualifications, and experience when electing their leaders if they agreed with ethnoreligious nationalist’s goals. It has influenced society to accept dishonesty, murder, violence, erosion of its sovereignty, control over natural resources, and even nepotism as a virtue, if these do not compromise expectations of ethnoreligious nationalism. The slogans of the “Go-Gota” campaign demonstrate that malignancy of ethnonationalism is not simply a mentality, and it must be surgically removed from politics along with those who nurture and exploit it.
The influence of ethnonationalist forces in the country’s economic and political affairs expanded after independence, particularly after the introduction of neoliberal policies. In ethnoreligious nationalist discourse, nation-building and neoliberal development became synonymous. Most post-1977 regimes have aggressively institutionalized the idea that selected ethnic minorities are colonizers and are obstacles to freedom and prosperity for the majority community. Different ethnicities were elevated as enemies of the nation under ethnoreligious nationalism based on the political advantages that an enemy could bring at the time. The frequency of anti-minority violence increased after 1977. Aside from the 30 years of civil war, episodes of conflict were short-lived, as people tended to live together in harmony. After the war ended, ethnoreligious nationalism began to influence the political system more aggressively, increasing insecurity and vulnerability for minorities. For political parties competing for state power, the ideology of ethnoreligious nationalism became the only potent and reliable ideology in mobilizing votes. Politicians who challenged ethnoreligious nationalisms’ divisive role risked their careers.
In 2014, however, ethnonationalist ideological framing of the civil war victory was not sufficient to prevent the Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s defeat. After the defeat, ethnonationalist forces resorted to even more aggressive tactics in influencing electoral politics, targeting Muslim extremists as their newfound foe, replacing Tamil separatists as enemies of the state. Following the anti-Muslim riots in Degana, the political role of ethnoreligious nationalist forces expanded.
The Yahapalanaya government was incompetent and inconsistent in the application of the laws they had introduced. It failed to address human rights and corruption, promises that enabled their defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. The opposition argued that punishing those who violate human rights and commit corruption is unpatriotic and any desire for international accountability is a betrayal of the country’s sovereignty. During this period, Rajapaksa-led forces either mobilized or became complicit with ethnonationalist forces to propagate the idea that the newly elected Yahaplanaya government was incapable of eliminating threats to national security posed by Islamic extremists. People propagating Islamophobia enjoyed greater impunity than ever before and pressing legal charges against their actions provided more ammunition for the opposition campaign against the government.
Furthermore, in addition to its own incompetence and inconsistency, the opposition, backed by ethnoreligious nationalist forces, continued to undermine the efforts of the Yahapalanaya government to eliminate corruption and human rights abuses and bring those responsible to justice. The ethnonationalist forces have not only saved those who were charged with corruption in the opposition, but also in the Yahapalanaya government. Furthermore, the insecurity of all communities coupled with Islamophobia framed and bolstered the ethnonationalists’ narrative of Easter Sunday bombings, making it more difficult to distinguish between terrorism and its political exploits, and bring those responsible to justice. The election campaign that followed ensured Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in 2019, during which he had promised to eradicate terror and punish those responsible for it.
GR’s entry into the Presidential election represents a pivotal moment in the evolution of ethnoreligious nationalism, one which elevated and extended this movement to its most anticlimactic position by exposing its contradictions as well as its role in the dispossession and enslavement of the masses. GR’s supporters described him as the reincarnation of Anagarika Dharmapala, the first president of Sri Lanka elected without the votes of minorities, thus making him the purest Sinhala Buddhist leader since its independence. Additionally, he earned society’s praise as Prince Diyansen, the mythical king people prayed to when their well-being was threatened. GR’s supporters have even cited Adolf Hitler as an example of the leadership they expect from him.
The construction of new religious monuments and the renaming of archeological sites in areas populated by native Tamil speakers helped facilitate their cultural dispossession and disrupted their sense of belonging to the land. After the war, tourists flooded into these areas and celebrated manufactured and superficial meanings of land. Neither mass media nor the educational system took measures to dismantle the political exploits and consequences of such celebrations, which reinforced the ethnonationalist narrative that stood in the way of meaningful reconciliation.
Oftentimes, war commemorations serve to strengthen the ethnonationalist credentials of the regime rather than honor those from all communities who sacrificed during the conflict and laid the foundation for meaningful reconciliation and peacebuilding. Despite its humanitarian nature and significance for healing and reconciliation, Tamils were not permitted to commemorate those they lost during the war, while the same restrictions did not apply to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was permitted to commemorate its lost members, the majority of whom were Sinhalese. The cultural redefinition of the northeastern landscape through elaborate Buddhist structures and rituals parallels the subjugation of its natural resources and productivity by external economic forces, taking away the material basis of the Tamil community’s cultural identity and aspirations. Moreover, for those who did not harbor any animosity toward the military and enjoyed freedom of movement after the war ended, the presence of solely Sinhala memorials in the northeastern landscape served as a constant reminder of the ethnonationalist origins of the conflict and the continuation of the majority’s dominance over the minority.
Against this backdrop, GR’s campaign promises of prosperity bolstered by ethnoreligious nationalisms’ hold over politicized narratives of the war victory and Easter Sunday bombings allowed GR to solidify his credentials and promise of unification under “one country, one law.” His credentials as the guardian of the ethnoreligious narrative as well as the racialized narratives regarding the Easter Sunday bombings prevented his supporters from evaluating his loyalty to the country, even though he had fled the country during the war and had lived in the United States for twenty years and held citizenship that required a pledged allegiance to protect United States’ interests, including bearing arms. However, the issue is not dual citizenship, but the opportunistic and misplaced anti-American narrative that Rajapaksa regimes used to win the election and contradictions in the way it was applied to social policies of the country.
The GR campaign bolstered its promises of creating economic prosperity without relying on aid from western nations. It promoted the idea that China, being a close friend of Rajapaksa, would compensate Sri Lanka for losses incurred by hostile countries without attaching human rights or governance conditions to aid, which the campaign viewed as interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. According to ethnonationalists propaganda campaigns, non-Western development funding would enable the country to counter Western interferences without compromising its interests in national security or development.
While defending him, GR’s supporters ignored the human rights and corruption charges against him, as well as the disappearance, murder, and torture of journalists that occurred while he served as secretary of defense. Without any objective assessment, the voters assumed that his role in the war and his military credentials would automatically make him a qualified civilian administrator.
While GR himself did not explicitly promote ethnoreligious nationalism the campaign that elected him did so on a scale that has never been seen before in the country’s history. Yet he did not condemn the exploits of ethnoreligious nationalism or distance himself from them. In fact, Rajapaksa’s regime has granted ministerial portfolios to ex-Tamil militants responsible for mass murder and maintains close alliances with them. Rajapaksa has even been accused of bribing the LTTE to stop Tamils voting for the UNP, thus enabling him to win the election 2004. He promised to serve the interests of all Sri Lankans by governing the country based on advice from intellectuals and experts and to shield policy decision-making from opportunistic political interference. His policies, however, sharply contradicted his promises of efficiency and fairness. In the fertilizer ban, the management of COVID, and the financial crisis, for instance, his regime disregarded and even ridiculed the advice of experts. As a result of his continual appointment of unqualified and questionable individuals charged with corruption to important positions, he frustrated the professionals who supported his campaign. Despite the obvious failures of his policies, the hardships they caused, and public discontent, the regime expressed no remorse or willingness to change its direction because of its culture of arrogance and lack of shame. When the government changed its policies, the damage was irreversible.
This misguided reasoning led to the adoption of social policies that produced tragic results unsurpassed in history. The regime justified its use of military-style reasoning and governance in public affairs by pointing to its military success against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. For example, the regime, disregarding the agriculture experts and farmer advice, thought that the abrupt imposition of the ban on chemical fertilizer would have no effect on productivity or food security because the land would quickly turn into organic fertilizer after soldiers faithfully obeyed their commanding officers. The dramatic drop in production reduced famers’ income and increased food prices may be the core reason for the current protests.
Regime members seem completely unaware that society and ecology function differently from the military. They even failed to use military discipline efficiently when it could have improved policy outcome by combining military officers with civilian authorities. Supplanting military officers without experience required in managing civilian affairs could easily undermine democratic processes of decision-making and disenfranchise civilian rank and file. When military rationality extends to civilian spheres, it normalizes “militarized masculinity” that we have seen in the erratic behavior of politicians and in society that have inflicted deadly injuries on women and children during and after the civil war and have inspired the “Go-Gota” movement.
In making government appointments, loyalty to the regime has trumped professional qualifications, honesty, and integrity. Nepotism emboldened by ethnoreligious nationalism became a virtue and a contested determinant of budgetary allocations and policy decisions. The level of power accumulated by a single family is unprecedented in the history of this country. Policy decisions rarely escaped the alleged power struggle within the Rajapaksa family. Likewise, the rapid dismissal of court cases against regime loyalists accused of corruption and murder eroded the confidence of the public in the justice system.
The ethnonationalist cultural and economic intrusions into the Northeast stand in the way of meaningful reconciliation. This has sharpened ethnic divisions by blinding society to how not only the material/economic bases of Tamil community, but also all ethnic groups are being brought under neoliberal economic policies funded by transnational capitalism and subject to cultural and economic dispossession.
While celebrating the victory of the war, an ethnonationalist neoliberal ideology continues to colonize the northeastern area of the country with the help of external capital. This is exactly what is happening in the rest of the country. Tamils perceive the proliferation of development projects as depriving them of resources and disrupting their subjective sense of belonging to the land and one another. The presence of the military in the northeastern part of the country was not merely about national security, but also an important ideological means for the regime to maintain its popular legitimacy in the entire country. After the war, Tamils lost confidence in the government to address their grievances as their vulnerabilities and insecurities increased and became more normalized while the majority Sinhala community, under the influence of ethnoreligious nationalist forces, lost sight of the deprivations they must endure because of the government’s post-war policies.
The racialized post-war peace narratives reached beyond the Tamil community and negatively affected everyone. Dispossession and vulnerability experienced by the Tamil community during this period occurred on a large scale in areas inhabited by Sinhalese and plantation Tamils. Having the backing of the ruling regime, investors paid little attention to the social and environmental implications of their investments. By racially dividing the nation, ethnoreligious nationalism prevented ethnic groups from building solidarity against the deprivations they all experienced because of neoliberalism.
In addition, ethnoreligious nationalists’ propaganda negatively affected society’s views and responses toward nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) when they were the only means through which victims could express their grievances, empathize with one another, and forge interethnic solidarity. Ethnoreligious nationalism elevated anti-NGOism to the level of political ideology, making it extremely difficult to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable NGO activities. We became complicit in the perpetrators’ escape from accountability by succumbing uncritically to anti-NGO rhetoric.
The government used the international forums concerned with domestic human rights abuses to bolster its ethnonationalist credentials and to wage political battles at home. For example, the regime relied on misconstrued and misplaced anti-Western ethnoreligious nationalist narratives to avoid engaging objectively with United Nations (UN) resolutions on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Often, the government delegations used the UN’s human rights forums as a platform to reach out to Sri Lankans at home to bolster the ethnonationalist credentials of the regime. Because of its ineptitude, the government not only lost an opportunity to lessen the economic impact of international isolation, but also to empathizing with Sri Lankan citizens for human rights violations that would have helped the post war reconciliation process.
The government erroneously confused legitimate international concerns about human rights abuses with the claim that international communities may weaponize human rights to serve their own selfish interests. By doing so, the regime created ample opportunities for undesirable external forces to intervene in the internal affairs of the country and missed opportunities for meaningful reconciliation. The government was able to avoid effective engagement with international concerns about domestic human rights by colluding with countries that were willing to offer support at UN forums and lend financial assistance without any human rights requirements.
Sensational and misplaced anti-Western rhetoric served as a front to cover up the government’s foreign economic relations that led to an unprecedented subjugation of the country to external interests. Such rhetoric blinded the nation to the extensive and blatant colonization of land by non-Western powers. The government avoided public scrutiny, democratic processes, and accountability mechanisms when it sold or mortgaged land and properties of importance to economic and national security to non-Westerners, amidst allegations of kickbacks to regime loyalists. During this period, a US-based company visited the country and signed an agreement with the government on an already controversial investment before leaving the same day. The government also signed three agreements with India over oceanic and atmospheric space that could affect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty without informing Parliament or following due procedure.
The GR regime continued to employ misplaced anti-Western rhetoric during and after election campaign to oppose assistance from the Millennium Development Cooperation (MDC) in the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The government’s objections were not based on an objective analysis of the social and economic consequences of such foreign assistance. They were based on serving narrow domestic ethnonationalist political interests, which was not possible given the terms of MDC and IMF assistance, because that assistance requires elaborate feasibility studies and environmental assessments and demands more transparency and accountability regarding the utilization of funds.
Supported by ethnonationalist forces, the anti-Western rhetoric provides justification for the government’s preference to obtain other foreign financial assistance, often with higher interest rates and undesirable conditions. These transactions avoided public debate or disclosures to the Sri Lankan people of the conditions attached to them, as well as their associated transparency and accountability mechanisms. The failure of bilateral donors to assist in saving the country from its fiscal crisis forced the government to request IMF assistance from a weak bargaining position. The IMF today is therefore in a better position to imprison the country in neoliberal economic policies. Defending an anti-Western narrative prevented the country from engaging in a constructive dialogue on the IMF’s design of the global financial architecture, which, in part, contributed to the global financial and economic crisis that disproportionately impacts poorer nations.
Compared to its predecessors, the multimillion-dollar investments made during the GR regime lacked sound feasibility analysis of the country’s ability to pay back the loans that supported investments. Borrowings were simply financial transactions riddled with allegations of corruption and they hardly contributed to improving productivity and economic growth. In fact, the regimes policy caused de-industrialization in the country and loss of international markets for its products. During this period, extractive industries (e.g., mining and forestry) easily avoided the established environmental regulations and caused unprecedented damage to the country’s ecosystem.
To repay its unproductive loans, the government continued to borrow while selling and mortgaging the nation’s assets without sufficient regard for the long-term consequences. Additionally, the government refused multilateral aid on the grounds that such aid would enable western powers to weaponize aid to extend imperialistic control over and division of the country to serve the interests of the Tamll diaspora. The Rajapaksa regime used the term “imperialism” exclusively in reference to Western countries opposing Sri Lanka’s human rights violations, avoiding meaningful public discourse on imperialism as a transnational capitalist project and preventing effective responses to its impacts. The misplaced anti-Western ideologies enabled the government to avoid responsibility for human rights abuses and transferred national resources to undesirable foreign investors. Thus, in an unprecedented act of treason and betrayal, a paradox of anti-imperialism was used to subjugate the country to the interests of the imperialists the government claimed to protect against.
Misplaced anti-Westernism rhetoric blinded society to the fundamental differences in the ways in which superpowers intervened in geopolitics and the internal affairs of the country during and after the Cold War. Today, economies are horizontally integrated, and profits are vertically distributed. Transnational class alliances control today’s production systems functions through commodity chains, thus minimizing the benefits of production to primary producers. The neoliberal state is responsible for diverting its investments from social sectors and managing society in a manner that facilitates transnational investments, reducing the state’s fiscal capacity and its ability to address economic inequalities. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s regime was unique because its anti-Western nationalism opened more opportunities and provided safeguards for foreign corporations and governments to colonize the country far more than any other government. The country thus became an open playground for anyone who could make short-term loans in return for access to land and resources. Dissent from the public about the inequalities and deprivations resulting from neoliberal capitalism began to act against the continuation of neoliberalism and the stability of the regime itself.
The regime has ended Sri Lanka’s outstanding record of servicing its external debt obligations since independence, including during 30 years of war, and is now one step away from declaring bankruptcy. Even when faced with society’s dissent against the dire economic hardship, and evidence-based warnings of a collapse of the economy, the regime failed to reverse its policy, by ignoring and politicizing independent policy advice. The President continues to lose the confidence of the public after he admitted (18/04/2022) to his unprecedented disastrous policy decisions regarding the IMF and the fertilizer ban as a mistake and appointed a new cabinet that is largely unqualified and inexperienced, insulting the protestors’ concerns. The regime is disintegrating and has lost the simple majority in the parliament. As a result of these bankrupt and unconscionable political conditions, as well as the likelihood of an escalation of violent reactions against the protesters after the police killed one protester in Rambukkena (18/04/2022), the regime cannot meet the demands of the protesters by simply injecting borrowed funds into the economy.
Consequently, continuing debacle of the GR government has brought ethnoreligious nationalism role in politics to an anticlimactic position. On the one hand, the ethnonationalist forces that elected the current government was much more expansive and aggressive than the previous ones. In addition, the regime demonstrated the limits of ethnoreligious nationalism’s role in shielding itself against public criticism of widespread inequalities and injustices. On the other hand, GR leaves a legacy of exposing the limitations, treacherous characteristics, and opportunistic character of racist nationalism, convincingly demonstrating its inability to deliver on its narrow promises even to its ardent supporters.
Compared to all the political regimes since independence, GR regime took a fleeting time to rise to power with countrywide celebrations and face condemnation and demands for resignation. After GR was elected president, young people all over the country filled the streets with wall paintings to symbolize hope and optimism for a better future. These same walls are now covered with messages of despair and demands for his resignation. A growing number of influential individuals have publicly apologized for electing Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. The masses are calling on him and his family to leave politics so that the citizens can reclaim their land, resources, sovereignty, and right to live in dignity. This group also includes individuals whom the regime betrayed by not providing the government positions that they expected in return for support, as well as those who genuinely supported the regime’s promise to include their expertise in social policies but were nevertheless rejected and ignored,
We must appreciate and support those who disavow racism and speak out against it as well as recognize the interracial unity found in ongoing protests. We must also remember that we have experienced similar situations in which spontaneous racial unity emerged in response to national catastrophes (e.g., riots, natural disasters, and corruption) and did not influence their voting decisions for candidates who ran their campaigns on racist ethnonationalist platforms. The ethnonationalist forces that have brought us here are not dead, they have simply taken a back seat due to the mass uprisings led by political parties and the intensity of the issues facing the country. But these forces can easily be incentivized to back into play. In a statement released on April 13th, 2022, Bodu Bala Sena warned the public that ‘Islamic extremists, religious fundamentalists, and terrorists’ opposed to the Buddhist identity of the country are present among the protestors, while condemning those who made unfounded allegations against Rev. Ghanasara Thero, who is now head of GR’s “One Law, One Country” campaign, and has distanced himself from those calling for justice for the Easter Sunday bombings.
As the campaign progresses, the forces working to subvert its primary objective of taking down and punishing the regime are also becoming active. But all these sinister actions continue to backfire and strengthen the inter-ethnic unity among the protests. As the protest progresses, we also see deepening of conversations on role of racist nationalism as a political project and how it has deceived the masses since independence.
Even though the current protests carry anti-racist slogans and aspirations, and the bubble has burst, the multiracial unity evident in the protests does not mean that dismantling racism is their primary concern. While these protests are concerned primarily with hardships experienced in everyday life, an increasing number are conscious of and provide insights into the underlying neoliberal economic/material bases of racist ethnoreligious nationalism. The state, more aggressively under neoliberal conditions, holds the responsibility for creating the conditions necessary for the material base derived from capitalist rationality, that guides nation’s economic growth and prosperity.
From the time of colonialism to the present, capitalism has been inherently racist. Since its beginning, capitalism and its popular legitimacy have been characterized by the enforcement of racial hierarchies that either existed before colonial times or were invented during colonial and postcolonial eras. Racial capitalism provides the economic foundation and legitimacy to the state. The capitalist state is not able to rid itself of ethnoreligious nationalism since it is a product of racial capitalism. Capitalism and racism reproduce each other, and their expansion reveals their limitations to such an extent that their role in society cannot last or free of dissent forever.
The current people’s uprisings against economic hardship are not intended directly against neoliberal economic policies or racism. The security of necessities and freedom from oppressive political culture, the core demands of the protests, are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for diminishing the political role of racist nationalism in the economy. It is not possible to reduce racism’s ideological power to material circumstances alone. One should not be surprised that the current “Go-Gota” campaign includes those dissatisfied with his failure to fulfill ethnonationalist aspirations and those who are waiting to take advantage of the protests to rebuild the neoliberal economy. At the next election, they might elect a leader who they believe could address economic hardships, yet not compromise their ethnonationalist interests and neoliberal economic policies. Having succeeded in creating a regime change, which is the priority now regardless of who the future leader of the nation is, this is precisely the election outcome we should avoid.
I am optimistic about positive results from the current protests because believing in goodness and empathy is inherent in human beings. We have the capacity to be remorseful and change the conditions that define our existence, even if we did not play a part in creating them. It is imperative to recognize that human agency is not permanently shackled by material and economic conditions, and that we retain the capacity to change them, which is the impetus for the people’s revolution underway in Sri Lanka today. Protests that started with famers and workers then extended to urban middle class are not spontaneous. Rather, their slogan “seventy-four years of curse” reflect people’s experiences and a loss of patience with failed, corrupt, and irresponsible governments since independence, which exploited racist nationalism to capture state power. Though protests are not guided by a political party or carrying an explicit political agenda, their aspirations are political as they consider regime change is a prerequisite for creating a cultural of accountability in governance.
There is another factor that is implicit in the protests. Under GR’s neoliberal policies, the few continue to expand power and wealth by dispossessing the majority. Protests that started with famers and workers then extended to the urban middle class, are not random. Rather, as their slogan “seventy-four years of curse” indicates, these protests express longstanding grievances based on people’s experiences and a loss of patience with failed, corrupt, and irresponsible governments since independence, which exploited racist nationalism to capture state power. Though protests are not guided by a political party or carrying an explicit political agenda, their aspirations are political as they consider regime change to be a prerequisite for creating a cultural of accountability in governance.
There is another factor that is implicit in the protests. Under GR’s neoliberal policies, the few continue to expand power and wealth by dispossessing the majority. The current protests view economic issues as political issues that need to be resolved primarily in the domain of politics, and that change in the political regime is a precondition for addressing all other issues. Such preeminence of politics over economic forces is one of the underlying reasons for the country being so sharply divided between the political regime and people who want to overthrow the regime as a precondition to address the issues they face.
The protestors want a new regime to take over the state because the state is widely perceived as an autonomous body that is meant to serve society, and function as the guardian of the public interest. The degree of autonomy of the state, however, is an illusion. Autonomy is always embodied in economic and cultural contradictions and limitations. Regardless of society’s level of awareness of economic realities, the state cannot conceal the economic bases of the social crises forever, because the states’ promise of formal equality for all is always undermined by the substantive inequalities inherent in the neoliberal economy. At present, the people’s movement illustrates how, when given the right conditions, ethnoreligious nationalist ideology fails to suppress the power of the people against a regime that controls state power.
When the state accumulated so much power and created the conditions of the crises, a political revolution became necessary to create economic change. Consequently, the current anti-government protests in Sri Lanka are exclusively directed against GR’s family because it controls enormous amounts of state power and has used its power to mortgage the country and disregard the interests of the people. The bubble of ethnoreligious nationalism that the Rajapaksa family thrived on made the family an autonomous force wielding contested power over the political and economic affairs of the country. Accordingly, removing the family from power, demanding reparations for the losses they have caused, and dismantling the political culture they represent became a necessary precondition for addressing the economic and political crisis the country faces.
The ongoing revolution is promising to open a political space for progressive political leaders with the ability to explore innovative ideas and experiment with innovative approaches, provided that the public is willing to elect new leaders who can transform current political culture, insulate policymaking from opportunistic politics and racism, and bring those who have stolen public resources to justice.
Moreover, regardless of our political affiliation, we the people have the right and the moral obligation to occupy the space for change that the protestors have created, to be part of the struggle to reclaim our land, freedom, and dignity; and redefine our political economy from an inclusive and egalitarian perspective rather than an ethnocentric one. If the country fails to successfully complete its ongoing political revolution, the “interregnum” will fizzle out into another lost opportunity, thus allowing the moribund state to reinvent itself, while reinforcing the cultural hegemony of ethnoreligious nationalism. If the power of ethnoreligious nationalism as an imposture of patriotism cannot save the regime, the country will descend into violent anarchy, militarized authoritarianism, and historic occupation by corporate and geopolitical interests. This, we must avoid at all costs.