By Uditha Devapriya –
A friend of mine, having seen through last month’s spate of strikes rather cynically, had an interesting point to make: “The protests work for the protestors and their backers, whether they win or lose. On the other hand, even if they win, the protests rarely work for the people. Those behind them win whatever the outcome, while the people lose even if they are supposed to win.” Such an observation is of course crass when considering that not all protests have reneged on the public and that most if not many of them, if history is a good indicator, have served that same public. But then you do get his point: protests are political, and protestors, particularly today’s protestors, have become ineffectual.
September and October were bewildering. To say the least. First, the weather: abnormal, destructive, ruthless. Then the strikes, touching on almost everything from electricity to the railway. The demands were all the same: rectify salary anomalies or face the consequences. There were areas outside Colombo which suffered power outages for over five days. Yes, five days. And there were people, whose daily routine consists of going to work at nine in the morning and coming back home at nine in the night, who found themselves stuck when the trains they were on stopped over a sudden strike, forcing them to either walk the rest of the way home or wait until the SLTB sorted the mess.
In all these instances the strikers had one thing to say: “If the people find it difficult to get about their work, then it is the government’s fault.” But then a man in Polonnaruwa died because of a power outage (the nearest hospital didn’t have a generator; by the time he was despatched to the city hospital, he was dead). He was 55. The government’s fault? Hardly. Which brings me to my point: part of the reason why strikes never really work today, unless enough effort is put into them, is that the people are tired. They are tired of looking for scapegoats to censure and criticise. They know the government isn’t any better, but they also know that this is arguably the worst time since the war years for strikes to take place. When times are tough, when protests are by default the order of the day, they look at those they can blame the quickest. Not the State, but the Striker.
It’s a well known fact that in Sri Lanka, antipathy towards trade unionism is informed less by political inclinations than by personal prejudices. It’s interesting to note that whether one supports this government or its predecessor, one continues to view these protests as an inconvenience. Those for the government wish it to use the power it has (but rarely uses) against them, even hinting at violence before a crisis imposes it as a necessity. Those for the predecessor curse the government based on what they feel their preferred political candidates would have done were they elected: again, use power and violence to quell these strikes. And that’s just what members of the unofficial opposition want: get the incumbent regime to commit hara-kiri by resorting to force and then diminish their sense of moral superiority. For the record, they haven’t resorted to it yet.
Voters here identify with and idealise a man of force in power. Even those who advertise democracy and individual rights, from a legal or humanistic perspective, tend to wallow before preferred political outcomes that give rise to such men of force. It is this fascination with contemporary supermen (in a disturbingly Nietzschean, neo-fascist sense) which has divided our polity into two intertwined political movements that don’t differ from one another. By this I am not really disparaging one particular movement and taking sides with another, rather just pointing out that the so-called divide between the progressives and the reactionaries has never been sustained in Sri Lanka: our progressives become reactionaries once they reach parliament, and even our bitterest and most conservative reactionaries become liberals once they are swept over to the opposition.
My point is that despite Sri Lanka being a former bastion of radicalism and trade unionism, protests and strikes will not and cannot work in a context where the people opt for one of those two aforementioned political movements. That this government has not resorted to cracking down forcefully on dissidents is good (I can’t imagine a former government, from living memory, tolerating a week-long strike at the Electricity Board without doing something about it), but then from various comments I got down from people – everyday, ordinary, mostly middle class though not consumerist, the sort who commute to Colombo from Galle and Beruwala on the train – I have realised that they are taking the people they have elected, or are opposing, as powerless, irresolute. They may not know much about political history of other countries but from those conversations one name and one country crop up frequently. Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore.
The obsession of Sri Lanka’s anti-trade union bourgeoisie with the politics and politicians of East Asia is both fascinating and silly. To start things off, no two regions could have been structurally more different, in terms of economics or pretty much everything else. In an intriguing but relevant article written on the pre-1977 economy (which was when trade unionism thrived, even under the political right), Vinod Moonesinghe contends that three factors differentiated us from the Asian Tigers: that compared to them we didn’t implement wide ranging land reforms, that we ran out of foreign exchange because of the rice ration and the culture of democracy we implemented successfully after 1948 and 1956, and that we did not enjoy the benefit of friendship with the Atlantic powers, especially the USA, which East Asia did. Given this, the attempts we made to become an industrial hub, during the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, were at most half-hearted and abortive, and would quickly be dismantled in the name of robber baron capitalism.
This curious contradiction – between who we want to be and who we are – explains why our bourgeoisie are rather stunted, hybridised, never really in one place for a long time, reactionary when in power and liberal when out of power, and irresolute. They try to be modernists, political or cultural, and they have a whole horde of artists, intellectuals, professors, and civil society activists who are, I daresay, sincere in their intentions, but then when the moment of reckoning comes they find their inability to think beyond sustaining their milieu a good enough reason to abscond the ideals those intellectuals and activists stand for. The anti-trade unionism this country has been swept with in recent years is, I believe, something we inherited because of the empowerment of that bourgeoisie, who tend to fill and inherit the corridors of power whatever the government and political party they are backing. They idealise Singapore but find themselves poorly equipped for the task of transforming their ideals into a breathing, living reality.
So if we take the electorate, or ourselves, as a reflection of who we elect, it’s only natural that our fondness for men of force over men of integrity runs concurrently with our political bourgeoisie’s inability to formulate a proper vision for the country and its people. Whatever the political movement, it’s almost always intertwined with the political movement it opposes, through that bourgeoisie. What happens in the end is that we are all tired, of our leaders and those who oppose them. Naturally then, trade unionism and student movements here, in recent years, have been lost on our people. The reason for that, more than anything else, is the fact that we have conditioned ourselves to accept the political moment, whether or not we are content with it, and let our private lives go on undisturbed. The moment it’s disturbed, and not just disturbed but downright distracted, we denounce those who protest in favour of the men and women they protest against. Even if those being protested against happen to be those we want out of power.