By Jude Fernando –
“Misery acquaints a man with strange (yet familiar) bedfellows.”— Shakespeare, The Tempest
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” —John F. Kennedy
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
The success of the People’s Movement in the removal of Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) is simply the first step towards a greater victory; a more solemn, yet surely not final victory; it is an essential step toward the movement’s broader objective of paving the way for a just and accountable political culture. A larger victory would be the exit of RW from politics, ironically facilitated by his autocratic and unconscionable takeover of the premiership on terms antithetical to the aspirations of the Movement. RW’s return to the post of Prime Minister provides justification for the Movement to stay focused and provide clarity to challenges and obstacles that stand in their way.
The Movement triggered the conditions that RW exploited to cement his position as Prime Minister, and he is destined to betray the goals of the Movement. In shaping his current administration, RW is continuing the legacy of economic and political crises that inspired the Movement. His narcissistic politics of deception have significantly contributed to entrenching the barriers and political culture he claims to have altered during his tenure as a member of the ruling party and while in opposition. In his five-time rise and fall as prime minister, RW has overseen a cycle that has contributed to crises, broken promises to help the country out of crises, and erected barriers to prevent resolutions. Now in his sixth term, RW’s policies are enabling the Movement to identify politicians who are working against Sri Lanka’s citizens and aiding preparations in case the economic and political crises become unbearable.
Politicians who once refused to cooperate unless President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) resigned are now finding excuses to join the RW-GR regime, based on their assertion of ‘helping the nation rebuild’, in the hope that their excuse might help them escape accountability for their past conduct, yet again. Now the focus has shifted to RW, who has declared “…I am accepting this challenge for our nation. My goals and dedication are not to save an individual, a family, a party. My objective is to save all the people of this country and the future of our younger generation”. The Rajapaksa supporters could seize the current moment as an opportunity to regroup and to escape the Peoples Movement’s demand for accountability. Previously, RW has supported them as a Prime Minister elected by the people. He may be on the verge of repeating this favor as an appointee of the GR regime without the support of the legislature and without regard to democratic norms. In a display of shamelessness and disrespect for the movement, on 18th May 18, 2022, MR came out of hiding and made his first appearance in Parliament since he was forced to resign. MR and his son, Namal Rajapaksa, sat behind RW, who is now on the side of the ruling party.
The indications are that Sri Lanka is going to be jointly governed by an authoritarian and incompetent president, who is likely to follow anyone who makes him, and his supporters feel safe, and an equally autocratic prime minister known to pay lip service to democratic governance and surround himself with an exclusive circle of friends. Neoliberal institutions and the minority of the society most likely to benefit will welcome RW-GR leadership combination. Despite worsening economic hardship due to austerity measures linked to neoliberal economic policies, the RW-GR nexus are committed to more stringently continue policies underpinned by the same political culture that the Movement aims to dismantle. As RW-GR, inevitably take on the responsibility of suppressing dissent against inequalities in the name of fostering political stability to boost economic recovery, those who disagree with them and dissent against inequalities are likely to suffer the consequences of suppression.
Against this backdrop, Sri Lankan society will hold the RW-GR regime responsible if the political and economic consequences of their leadership become unbearable. Today, the most formidable challenge to the RW-GR regime comes, not from political parties, but from a citizens-based movement that is well informed, politically savvy, and unique in terms of its demographic make-up, political beliefs, aspirations, its non-conventional methods of organizing and sustaining protests, and its use of technology to achieve its goals. The Movement’s success has shown that the tactics political regimes typically employ to co-opt and assimilate dissidents are ineffective. We must not forget it was the People’s Movement and not the opposition political parties that forced MR out of power and made the removal from politics of the entire Rajapaksa regime an attainable goal. The Movement is in a well-positioned position to take on a leadership role in guiding society toward a change if the RW-GR regime becomes intolerable. For this purpose, the Movement must stay focused on the original goals of the “Gota Go Home” movement, find ways to make ongoing economic hardship and the character of the RW-GR regime a central focus, and avoid falling into the traps set by RW-GR regime and the pitfalls of conventional intellectual frames typically used to understand citizens movements like the one in Sri Lanka.
After Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in for the sixth time as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on April 12th, 2022, he was immediately congratulated by his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa. This transfer of power is a major setback for the Movement and a betrayal of those experiencing severe mental pressure and economic hardships. During his 42-years as a politician, RW’s career has been one of complicity with economic and political crises. This includes losing elections and bringing the Rajapaksa clan to power, proposing institutions to prosecute the clan’s misdeeds but permitting them to escape justice and return to power, and betraying the Movement’s demand for the clan’s removal by supporting the Movement and then accepting the prime-ministerial appointment. By accepting the position of prime minister without the resignation of the president, RW has demonstrated his contempt for and complicity in the deprivation of citizens’ interests.
Nothing seems to deter RW from repeatedly demonstrating self-serving methods of governance, and this extends to mobilizing support from the Rajapaksa clan and its close allies (fake dissidents of the previous government who are futureless, power-hungry, and opportunistic politicians), by promising ministerial posts and bribes. RW has again shown his willingness to align with anyone to secure power before immediately surrounding himself with an inner circle of close friends. However, the Movement remains steadfast in its demands: to see the Rajapaksa family depart from politics, establish a political culture of accountability, and foster leaders with impeccable credentials (something RW lacks).
Considering RW’s arrogance, his unfounded and self-cultivated image as an intelligent and capable politician, and his belief that he, like the Rajapaksa’s, is the sole savior of the country, he is unlikely to listen to the wishes of the Movement. In a BBC interview where he was asked how he can run a government as a one-man party, RW’s arrogance was clearly illustrated when in his response, he compared himself to former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill. While RW may be as arrogant as Churchill’s, he is in no way comparable to and in the same league as Churchill. But RW appears to have learned two things from Churchill. First, repeating his legacy even if it makes him unpopular, mimicking Churchill’s view that “if you are destined for hell, keep trying.” Second, following Churchill’s advice that “diplomacy [is] the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions,” in his dealings with the Rajapaksa clan when they were desperate to escape public wrath. Be that as it may.
By creating a persistent storm, the People’s Movement -, not the opposition political parties – that led the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa and gave hope of removing the entire Rajapaksa regime from politics an attainable goal. At present, the Rajapaksa clan is unable to find another trustworthy source of shelter and continues to hide under RW’s gabardine to survive the current storm, even if it means cohabiting with RW—a strange yet familiar bedfellow. This reinforces the Movement’s view that RW is complicit in entrenching a corrupt and unaccountable political culture that has persisted among governments over decades, a vicious cycle the Movement aims to disrupt. The following is an abbreviated chronology of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa nexus in Sri Lankan politics.
In 2004, RW is replaced by MR. In 2015, RW is appointed. In October 2018, RW is replaced by MR, who is then dismissed in December, and RW is restored. In 2019, RW is again replaced by MR. In 2022, MR resigns and RW is appointed not through an election but by Mahinda’s brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
RW as the Prime Minister is an elected member of the parliament, a leader/member of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Bala Vegaya (SJB), or as a member of any political party or coalition. He is yet to prove he has majority support in the parliament. However, the RW–Rajapaksa nexus role in politics at the current moment is different and its contradictions and vulnerabilities more noticeable, and the methods they will use to respond to the crises will be more tightly aligned neoliberal institutions that will guide country’s economic policies and the regional powers with competing economic and geopolitical interests in Sri Lanka.
The Movement has debunked the taken-for-granted political cultures MR and RW both represent. The MR supporters project their party’s identity as native, anti-western, inclusive, aligned with China and the eastern-bloc axis, and people-oriented. While the present the identity of the UNP and SJB as foreign, westernized, elitist, exclusive, and aligned with the India-USA axis. However, the Movement describes both partis are hostile to Sri Lanka’s interests.
Except for a small minority who will not lose their privileges under any government, informed citizens could no longer fooled by RW’s acquired western identity and intellectual capabilities. Moreover, his foreign connections do not convince most Sri Lankan citizens that he can resolve the issues facing the country. The differences between the government under MR and under RW are insignificant in terms of how they patronize corruption and allow culprits to escape justice.
Unlike in 2014, Wickremesinghe failed or did not attempt to convince Rajapaksa to leave office peacefully, and instead asked the regime to listen to the voices of protesting youth. RW’s political legacy prevents him from convincing the public that he has an agenda that could save the country and he is not electable through an election. Similarly, Rajapaksa clan cannot afford to lose power as they risk losing their accumulated wealth and the hope of keeping their children in politics. Against this backdrop, in a final desperate attempt to remain in power or to exact revenge after being forced to resign by the Movement, Rajapaksa’s supporters set the country ablaze, causing the deaths of ten people and injuring two hundred others. After those violent parting acts, MR took refuge at a naval base in Trincomalee, about three hundred miles from Colombo. So far, all attempts by the Rajapaksa regime to disperse the Movement through emergency measures, infiltrations by regime supporters, and the use of force have failed.
MR’s departure is only a partial victory for the Movement and there remains the very real possibility of losing all its gains and being unable to meet future expectations. The potential social and economic consequences of the RW-GR government highlight that the Movement still has a long way to go in creating a political culture of accountability, therefore, it must outlast its initial objective of removing the president.
The assumption that RW is a leader who is friendly with foreign countries and can bring in investment to ease economic hardship is absurd. His economic expertise is untrustworthy; had he led the country to economic success in the past he would not have suffered so many electoral defeats or paved the way for greater economic issues. It is likely that RW will pursue pro-IMF and World Bank policies that will only intensify austerity measures, with grave consequences for most of the population. RW-GR’s alleged bias towards the West, particularly India, if it impinges on the countries’ resources and livelihoods, could antagonize Sri Lankans.
RW-GR will not hesitate to suppress or will have no option but to suppress dissent to implement its economic policies. RW will employ deceptive strategies that make use of the language and practices of the dissenters to subvert their agenda through confusion and disorientation. It will also increase surveillance under the guise of helping to protect the protestors. Such an approach may be why on May 14th, 2022, RW appointed a committee led by former Minister Ruwan Wijewardene to investigate the security, health, and other needs of “Gota Go Gama” at Galle Face and has shown his willingness to dialogue with the protestors while ignoring their key demands. RW might also rely on others to distract or suppress dissent leading to a situation where RW and GR, respectively divide the responsibility for the economy and security.
In this context, the survival of the Movement is a necessity as people will rely on it rather than a political party to address their grievances and defend themselves against the regime. However, if the Movement deviates from its unique origins, characteristics, and central purpose, and fails to critically evaluate its achievements and failures, it may provide an opportunity for the RW-GR regime to disrupt the current narrative of the Movement and create an alternative aimed at making the Movement unpopular and subverting its current agenda.
A Watershed Moment in the People’s Uprising
Metaphorically, the suffix gama, meaning village, used in the name of sites occupied by the Peoples Movement (such as Gota Gama, Horu Gama, Myna Gama, Ranila Gama, and Deal Gama), conveys the notion of home or place of dwelling. The identity of these sites invokes the nostalgia of self-sufficiency and freedom found in villages, that the protestors desperately want to reclaim from the Rajapaksa regime. Anyone can join the Movement without invitation or prior screening, and dwell in the protest sites, regardless of their ethnic, religious, or other identities and affiliations. Sites provide ways for everyone to contribute to the struggle and feel a sense of belonging to a common cause. The idea of Gama implies that the geographical coverage of the movement extends beyond the protests sites in Colombo to encompasses the collective aspirations of Sri Lankans living everywhere in the country. Furthermore, gamma in the present context evolved dialectically from citizen experiences with the political parties in the country.
The internal democracy of these protest sites shows the power of diverse methods of organizing by ordinary citizens to challenge power more effectively than centralized political parties. Occupying sites in front of high-security zones, undertaking activities in front of the official residences, and holding protests in front of the President’s House in Mirihana, have debunked the myth that it would be impossible to organize average citizens to protest under the GR regime. The unique characteristics of the Movement explain why the violent actions of the state against the protestors failed.
On May 9, 2022, sites reached their thirtieth day of protest seeking to overthrow the Rajapaksa regime, in conjunction with actions around the world. After an evening meeting with Prime Minister Rajapaksa, an armed mob departed his well-fortified residence of Temple Trees and made a surprise attack on unarmed and peaceful protesters, assaulting them and destroying their protest materials. After news of the ambush spread, private properties belonging to stalwarts of the ruling regime were set on fire, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned.
Sri Lanka is not a stranger to violent incidents and looting on the scale witnessed on May 19, 2022. Except for the 1989 JVP insurrection, past attacks mostly targeted Tamil and other minority civilians to bolster the legitimacy of popular Sinhala politicians among the majority population. Following statement by the late President J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ), whose government RW was a member of, responded to the anti-Tamil violence in 1983.
Majority of the population at that time was complicit with politicians’ racist responses to violence against the minorities. An anti-minority claims provided ideological legitimacy for the neoliberal project. Unlike in the present context, there is no evidence of the majority Sinhalese population protesting the earlier state-sponsored anti minority-violence. Those brave individuals who stood up against violence were condemned as unpatriotic, faced life-threatening situations, and forced into exile. RW has a reputation for being an inconsistent and ineffective voice of reason during the regimes responsible for the violence that disproportionately impacted ethnic minorities and the brutal suppression of politically dissenting Sinhalese youth in the Batalanda torture houses and elsewhere during the 1989 JVP uprising.
In contrast, the reaction of MR-GR and the public reaction to the violence on the 9th May was radically different from the past episodes of violence. Because the regime confronts a movement is a non-violent, multiethnic, citizen-led initiative that stands up to the state when it commits wrongdoings while claiming to protect the interests of the majority Sinhala Buddhist population. It has demanded the resignation of leaders, violently targeted politicians who came to power on platforms of racist nationalism and denounced the use of racist nationalism for political ends. Being an organic, inclusive, and diverse movement enables greater openness to serious conversations about racist nationalism and its political exploits. This denies the state its most powerful weapon, to suppress and distract popular dissent against it. The Movement has shown an ability to translate inter-ethnic solidarity swiftly and successfully into action to counter emerging communalist instigations and framing of violence. For example, in Negombo, the local people prevented the spread of false news that alleged Muslim looters attacked Sinhalese leaders with swords. So far Movement has not been swayed by false and misleading conspiracy theories spread via social media that claim minority groups are extending solidarity to the majority Sinhalese to expel the elected Sinhala Buddhist leaders from the country.
The movement demonstrated that racial identity politics have their limits in distracting people’s attention from economic difficulties and dividing their dissent along racial lines. The economic hardships that all ethnic groups are currently experiencing are a primary source of unity in the Movement. Racist nationalism is no longer can distract the masses from economic crisis and racially divide dissent. One’s identity is always linked to an economic base, and dissent fueled by the cracks in that base provides an effective starting point for conversations regarding racism and nationalism. Human beings are unique in that they possess the capacity to think beyond the material realities that are a condition of their existence. Even though racism cannot be entirely addressed through the economy, the Movement’s interethnic solidarity aims to hold elected officials accountable for the way in which they acquire wealth and power as well as their efforts to provide people with the means to survive. As such, the Movement must continue to advocate and remain vigilant against racist framings of its actions by the state and attempts to undermine inter-ethnic solidarity.
Narratives of Violence, Nonviolence, and Looting
Oppressors can weaponize violence and non-violence against the oppressed. The term violence is often employed discriminatorily to justify repressing those who resist oppression rather than those who perpetrate it. States often abuse their privilege of using law and force to protect the rights and safety of dissenters and use that to monitor and punish them. These acts criminalize the strategies used by the weak as a last resort, which constitutes violence against them. However, protestors have proved the power of non-violence to overcome obstacles to dissent by adhering to Mahatma Gandhi’s principle that “non-violence is a weapon of the strong,” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that non-violence can build effective solidarity because “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”
So far, we find no unambiguous evidence of who is responsible for the destruction of property that occurred at an unprecedented scale in Sri Lanka in 2022. There are no justifiable reasons for violence either. However, the political meanings of violence-looting points to society’s anger against the failure of the justice system and systemic inequalities in the country. For come properties destroyed as symbolic as living examples of public theft and the unjust acquisition of wealth, and they are confident that government will never bring the culprits to justice. The depth of community anger was evident in the desecration of memorials (allegedly built with illegally acquired funds) to the parents of the Rajapaksa family at a burial site, something that had never occurred in Sri Lanka before.
Violence-Looting is also symbolic politicians by passing the laws of the country to accumulate wealth. For example, People took four hundreds of kilograms of fertilizer from a farm in Bandangala, Dimbulagala, government MP Mahipala Hertah had illegally acquired, at time Sri Lanka are starving due to the government’s ban on fertilizers. After destroying the farm, the protestors distributed the fertilizer to surrounding villages and remined the people of the legendary Sura Saradial who stole from the rich to provide for the needy. Furthermore, the burning of buildings belonging to Chief Whip Johnston Fernando was justified by some people as condemnation of his immoral practice of producing alcohol and providing alcohol as bribe to mobilize support the regime. Even those who condemn violence have pointed out numerous examples in which the law has unfairly penalized the poor for minor thefts while protecting the privileged, despite their large-scale thefts and illegal activities. In addition to the ineffective and discriminatory application of laws, private property rights receive privilege protection in law because they are considered a foundation for successful capitalism, which often allow the people to escape from illegal acquisition of property.
Marx, in his Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood (1842), referred to the theft of wood on private property in Germany as an example of how laws under capitalism primarily protect the privileged with the patronage of the state:
Law on the thefts of wood is merely an instantiation of the more fundamental privatization of the State…the wood thief has robbed the forest owner of the wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself.
The implication here is that private owners make use of universal principles to own the State. The wood thief has robbed the forest owner of the wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself. Consequently:
The forest owner has suffered by the theft of wood only as far as the wood has suffered, but not as far as the law has been violated. Only the sensuously perceptible aspect of the crime affects him, but the criminal nature of the act does not consist in the attack on the wood as a material object, but in the attack on the wood as part of the state system, an attack on the right to property as such, the realization of a wrongful frame of mind.
In this context, Marx did not see the theft as an aberration from the process of the few depriving most of the equal access to resources.
Armed with bourgeois laws, the state is in a more privileged position to frame non-violent action as violent, or to guide non-violent actions towards violence. The violence recently witnessed in Sri Lanka is a response to systemic crises arising out of political decisions regarding neoliberal economic policies and bias in legal interpretations.
While competing narratives of the current violence and looting cannot be compared based on the same criteria, such acts are undesirable and counterproductive in the current context. Violence robs the Movement of its strength and divert support towards the narrative provided by its opponents. If the Movement fails to function as a watchdog against violence and looting or to actively counter false attributions of those acts, it will discourage individuals from joining. Violence also provides an excuse for military rule and for the government to draw on foreign powers with hidden economic and geopolitical interests to provide security. If racism continues to fuel incidents of violence and looting, then the inter-ethnic unity of the Movement may be lost and racist forces awakened, undermining the Movement’s efforts to remove the current President from office.
The Movement’s Weaknesses are its Strengths
The nature of the Movement, including its weaknesses and limitations, has been consciously and/or unconsciously shaped by conceptual frameworks used to explain movements organized by traditional political parties. These fail to recognize how the Movement has evolved historically in relation to other political movements in society. Such perspectives often interpret the Movement’s strengths as its shortcomings and advocate for changes through conventional means that may negate the Movement’s strengths.
The Movement evolved in response to the failures of mainstream political parties to address the needs of the people, and it continues to pursue its non-negotiable goal of removing the regime from power. In addition, it does not channel its political interests through political parties or invite politicians to participate in its activities. Despite mounting harassment and hardships, the Movement adheres to nonviolent and peaceful methods of operation. Many victims of brutal attacks by state-sponsored gangs have appealed to others in the Movement to refrain from meting out physical harm to their attackers. In the case of Aunty Hadapangoda and Kahadagama (infamous protest busters), instead of assaulting them, the people employed tactics like public shaming and reminding the two attackers what the Movement stands for. Government supporters unleashed violence, whereas the Movement showed restraint and a remarkable degree of kindness toward the attackers. Non-violent practices have enhanced the public credibility of the Movement and contributed to dispelling claims about Movement’s involvement in burning property in locations far from where the thugs attacked the protesters.
There is solidarity within the Movement due to dedicated support from ethnic groups. The government has failed to realize that it is dealing with a young generation committed to securing justice and equality for all Sri Lankans and determined to reclaim the country for its people. Economic hardships are the driving force behind the Movement which calls for unity and openly disavows racist nationalism. All ethnic groups in the Movement call for the resignation of the government because they are all enduring the impacts of regime policies that promote economic hardship. As a result, it is extremely difficult for the state to disperse the protestors.
It has taken considerable time for the government to realize the influence of the Movement extends beyond protest sites in urban areas. With the Movement’s worldwide reach and its efforts to exert international pressure, the government’s localized efforts to suppress it have failed. The use of violence against the Movement, for example in public places in Colombo, has only enhanced the credibility of the Movement and led to more countrywide protests, thus making it difficult for members of the regime to find safe places to escape the public’s wrath.
Awe-inspiring mutual assistance has helped to meet needs in the public protest sites, at a time when people are facing severe shortages and unaffordable prices for essential items. As a result, there are no typical needs assessments or centrally coordinated plans for the purchasing, distributing, and disposing of foodstuffs. Groups and individuals act according to their instincts and take the initiative to divide the responsibilities of meeting needs. Lawyers swiftly provide legal assistance and even make human barriers to prevent and deter unlawful police actions, including unlawful arrests and injury to protesters. Media professionals create an environment where the public make sure to the public informed about creative countermeasures to disinformation campaigns and stay connected to the world. Medical personnel at makeshift treatment centers help as needed. Furthermore, the poor laboring classes disproportionately affected by the economic crisis, drawn from all over Colombo, have found space and a sense of belonging as equals with the rest of the Movement by providing services, setting up makeshift facilities, and performing arduous work. In addition, religious leaders not only provide moral support to the protesters but also set up human barriers to protect protest premises from violent intruders, and protesters from arbitrary arrests. Professional provided their services where the action is.
In his book, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (1902), anarchist Kropotkin provides an account of the social power of mutual aid, an important characteristic of the Movement in Sri Lanka:
In short, neither the cursing powers of the centralized State nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came, adorned with attributes of science, from obliging philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of human solidarity, deeply logged in (humans) understanding and heart, because it has been nurtured by all preceding evolution… Such solidarity is not simply a means for existence, but it struggles against all conditions unfavorable to people. (142)
He went on to suggest that “mutual aid breaks down the rigid and iron laws of the state and instead seeks to rebuild society with an infinite number of associations which embrace all aspects of life to take possession of all that is required by humans for life.” (149)
In contrast to conventional political movements that mobilize people through centralized, pre-programmed, tightly regulated events, the Movement derives psychological support from sources of cultural capital that are unique, spontaneous, and voluntarily mobilized yet focused on the shared goal. The protest sites occupied by the Movement do not display political party colors and slogans, and protest marches do not feature leaders giving speeches across a single platform. The Movement is an open, non-hierarchical space intentionally created for people to express their concerns, anger, anxiety, or aspirations using a range of mediums, such as music, art, cultural rituals, or humor. Despite the chaotic appearance of this dynamic space, it performs an important function by allowing everyone to find their place and feel a sense of belonging in fighting for a common cause. Historian Howard Zinn illustrates the power of the Movement’s non-violent cultural capital; “They have the guns; we have the poets. Therefore, we will win.” The variety of opinions and expressions fostered has enabled the Movement to subvert and take advantage of oppressive government tactics.
The Movement appears amorphous only to those who view social movements through a conventional lens. The Movement has form, coherence, and mechanisms for vigilantly identifying and countering undesirable elements and influences within and outside the protest sites. This has enabled the Movement to survive despite racist nationalist theories suggesting that it seeks to undermine the interests of Sinhala Buddhists and expel its leaders from the country. The inherent solidarity of the Movement enabled the rebuild of “Gota Go Gama” and Mynagama after thugs destroyed them.
The Locus of Social Media Power
Social media has been a major contributing factor to the movement’s success. It enabled creative and rapid communication of events and enabled people from around the world to instantly respond to the needs of the Movement. With the creation and publication of content that reaches a global audience via social media, the government has effectively failed to undermine the Movement’s progress.
Scholars of the Arab Spring, and this author’s own observations of the recent uprising in Sri Lanka, caution against exclusively relying on the specific technical capabilities of social media platforms to maximize the impact of social movements. It is important to be circumspect about the sources of power influencing and providing social media platforms. There is a history of ideologues using state-sponsored online platforms to promote extreme beliefs and conspiracy theories and to recruit sympathizers to a cause. The result is further tribalizing of political discourse, incitement of racial violence, and the fueling of regressive politics. Social media platforms continue to play a significant role in disinformation campaigns, censorship, and the incitement of violence against political dissent; and many governments view them as dangerous political tools.
In Sri Lanka, the Movement has managed to subvert the government and utilize social media for more than its technical power. The counter-hegemonic political consciousness that has spread throughout the country has grown from economic hardship, and the power of social media in this context lies in its capacity to unify members of the Movement around shared experiences of economic hardship and political engagement, rather than the technical capabilities of social media.
The danger remains that social media owners will exploit users who are part of the Movement through increased monitoring and greater regulation of political dissent. This is especially concerning as social media platforms still lack effective application of non-discriminatory ethics in supervising content. As Jürgen Habermas points out, social media does not automatically enable people within political movements to overcome ideological differences and subjective preferences that may influence their choice of political leadership. To overcome such limitations, social media must draw its power from culturally appropriate education and decolonize its use from neoliberal and corporate assumptions and interests.
The successes of the Movement in Sri Lanka are a direct result of the mobilization of people primarily around the issue of economic hardship. Social media was instrumental, but not a determining factor in the Movement’s success. The capacity for a country like Sri Lanka to achieve long-term success rests on its ability to elect leaders who work towards delivering an inclusive, just, and egalitarian economic system instead of making empty and superficial promises of good governance and national unity. The power of social media to serve the greater good of the nation’s population is founded on the fundamental principles and goals by which the country organizes its economic activities and the material foundations of society. The political culture that RW represents is anathema to the type of progressive economic reform the Movement expects from political leaders.
The Movement is Systemic
Attempts to portray the Movement as an aberration from the general trajectory of change are misleading. The Movement is the result of decades of systemic crises and people’s experiences and struggles in dealing with these. It is unconventional, racially diverse, and has grown out of years of capitalist and racist nationalism that sought to suppress critical thinking, interracial unity, and freedom of speech. The severe economic conditions people are experiencing has prompted them to be more critical of the past and to acquire a sense of freedom to organize dissent on their own terms. Humans always have the capacity and will to think beyond and transcend the conditions that shape their existence, especially when their material existence is threatened. This indicates that “human nature, or essence, is not permanent. It emerges in social existence; it is the result of the interaction of men in society.”
The attempt to disentangle consciousness from material realities is a direct consequence of bourgeois cultural ideals fueled by the commodification and alienation of culture from the material world. The argument that human consciousness and actions are forever constrained by material conditions that shape their existence is a misleading argument. Marx (1845) noted:
Man is, moreover, a creative, productive being. Productivity is in a sense his defining feature: men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or by anything one likes. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.
Thus, the “corollary to the preceding premise is that man is a history-making being. They are not a blank sheet on which nature writes its script. They are self-creative beings and in creating himself, they create history.”
In this context, the Movement is potentially a moment of epochal systemic transition in Sri Lanka. The Movement’s task mimics what Marx (1845) expected from revolutionaries who aspire for systemic change, “If man is formed by circumstances, then we must humanize the circumstances. If man is social by nature, then man develops his true nature in society only, and we must not measure the power of his nature by the power of a single individual, by the power of society.”
Political Nature of Apolitical Movements
The notion that the Movement is apolitical is false. Its conception is profoundly political, arising from political discourse within the society and the political system; and it has evolved in interaction with other historical and contemporary societal movements. The fact that the Movement derives its power from society rather than from political parties, enable it to withstand government attempts to dismantle it through violence and intimidation. The Movement also resists the idea that any political party can use it as a platform to advance its own interests.
Drawing its power from such non-traditional sources does not make the Movement apolitical, as wherever there is power there is also politics; power is political, and politics is power. Power can be positive or negative, the former creates possibilities for transformative action, while the latter opposes change. Both are interwoven with politics and become connected with political parties. The Movement’s demand for political change and alternate policies is a response to the economic policies of the established political regimes.
Being apolitical can itself become a political ideology when a political party attempts to exploit it for selfish interests. RW has contributed to the rise and fall of oppressive political regimes that depended on the opportunistic manipulation of both positive and negative power. He demonstrated his capacity to weaponize both positive and negative power by way he accepted the President’s nomination of him as Prime Minister, even after he requested that the government consider the demands of the youth.
Even if the Movement succeeds in removing the entire Rajapaksa regime from power, the possibility of continuity with the same political culture that the Movement seeks to dismantle remains very much alive. If the Movement disregards this possibility, then will fail in its effort to create a culture of accountability. In a democracy, accountability is only possible by ballot, with citizens voting to elect leaders according to their political ideologies. The Movement’s immediate demand for regime change does not automatically make these diverse political beliefs fall in line with the Movement’s long-term goals. However, the Movement can have an impact by leveraging its occupation of property to cultivate education that helps citizens make informed political decisions.
The public must vote for groups and individuals who can bring an end to the vicious cycle of unjust politics in Sri Lanka. As Prime Minister, RW may try to ensnare the political regime change that the Movement is attempting to create and stall its aspirations. Consequently, it is imperative that the Movement mobilizes social resistance against politicians who justify their eligibility for public office by claiming adherence to technological efficiency and impeccable credentials, but who in fact align themselves with corrupt political cultures. Such politicians are destined to revive the political culture that the Movement aims to dismantle. The Movement is well-positioned to carry out this task by providing moral guidance to facilitate a just, equitable, and accountable political culture.
For this purpose, the Peoples Movement must invest in Ranila Gama—a space for mobilizing public opinion. This will help counteract the immediate threat RW poses to the gains the Movement has made so far and avert future sabotage of its long-term objective to be a watchdog for democratic politics. However, the focus on Rajapaksa will only serve the interests of the RW-GR regime if it distracts the Movement from the main goals of “Gota Go Gama.”