By Uditha Devapriya –
The world will not help Sri Lanka unless the Sri Lankan government restores some measure of stability. The world does not care who is at the helm. The IMF and the World Bank don’t want personalities; they want plans. Whether it’s a Wickremesinghe or a Rajapaksa calling the shots, they will not think beyond plans. The World Bank was very clear and sounded the alarm twice on this: unless they get a proper plan, they will not provide any bridging finance for us. Reports of Japanese assistance seem to have faded out as well, though at the recent Quad meeting, Tokyo and Delhi agreed to help the country escape the crisis.
What does this mean for the aragalaya? Some would suggest that it recalibrate and rethink its strategies. Though in its first few weeks it enjoyed a massive following, because of other concerns many of its flagbearers have left. This doesn’t mean they have stopped supporting the protests, merely that they are too occupied with work to keep up the momentum they kept up throughout April and May. That momentum, of course, will be decided at the outset by how the government handles the crisis. If Ranil Wickremesinghe fails to deliver the goods those who left Galle Face will return. If he delivers things may turn out differently.
It must be noted here that the Galle Face protests was never a monolithic movement. It was and is composed of different interests and interest groups. Not all of them share the same aims, barring of course the exit of the Rajapaksas. Thus when gay rights activists made their way in, a perfectly typical young man, just out of school, who had joined the protests early on, asked why. “This is neither the time nor the place,” he pointed out to me, holding back his barely concealed homophobia. When the IUSF organised a walk-in at Galle Face, he and his friends were thrilled. Yet when the IUSF publicised its objectives, including its opposition to private education, they immediately went back on their support: “This is why we’ll never support them outside these protests,” they told me.
The problem here is that no two protesters are thinking along the same lines. We saw this quite clearly on May 18. While a significant section of the aragalaya celebrated Victory Day, framing the Rajapaksas’ betrayal of the country as a betrayal of the military victory over the LTTE, an equally significant section, comprising radical activists and artists, commemorated what they called Remembrance Day. Both groups were united by their rejection of war, but there was a clear difference between the two: the one saw the event as a celebration of the end of a war, the other a memorial to its victims, particularly in the North. While no disputes or disagreements broke up between these two groups, the contrast at Galle Face was, to say the least, striking, if not reflective of wider differences within the protests.
Leaderless as they are, it’s nevertheless admirable how these protests have held on. Yet united only by their opposition to the Rajapaksas, the protesters have not freed themselves from various other affiliations. This explains why a significant section of the protests left after Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment, and why Sajith Premadasa being rebuffed if not assaulted by protesters on May 9 caused SJB activists to allege the protests had been taken over or hijacked by the JVP-NPP and FSP. That younger protesters have been calling for “all 225 out”, though they harbour sympathies for the JVP-NPP and FSP, have not helped dispel these perceptions. The result has been a fragmentation of an entire uprising.
The contradiction between getting the Rajapaksas out and getting all 225 out is intriguing. In the first few days a number of young protesters combined the two demands. Then, after a while, these same young protesters began rejecting the latter slogan, insinuating that the Rajapaksas had incorporated it in a bid to co-opt the protests. This was a strange accusation to make, considering that a sizeable number of anti-Rajapaksa demonstrators, even those outside Colombo, held up banners in support of such slogans. The inability of protesters to admit to such mistakes, instead of ascribing them to a conspiracy by the Rajapaksas or their supporters or some “Deep State”, is in that sense a major weakness.
The same can be said of the violence which followed the vandalization of the protests by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s goons and supporters on May 9. Quite a number of young protesters, especially on social media, shared details of MPs and their addresses, in effect condoning the violence. They may well have been gleeful at MPs getting what they thought to be just deserts. Yet in the early hours of May 10, most of them had turned back, warning against inflicting further violence and, incredibly, accusing those burning houses as being allied with the Rajapaksas. As Dayan Jayatilleka has observed, their refusal to issue a formal apology for these acts, including the assault on Kumara Welgama, is utterly damning.
Given all this, I note two contradictions embedded in the Galle Face protests: between the protesters’ opposition to the Rajapaksas and their rejection of the 225, and between their opposition to politics and their affiliation with certain ideologies. It’s convenient to blame politicians for this, but it’s more complex than that; one can’t blame Ranil Wickremesinghe for dampening the protests, for instance, if his supporters joined the aragalaya only because they did not have their favourite politician at the top.
At the peak of the protests, somebody commented, “Nirpakshikayo kiyala jathiyak naha putha” (“Son, no one is of the non-partisan kind”). I think this came out well with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment. Yet it would be futile to blame politicians alone.
In any case, trying to get all 225 out defeats the purpose of Gotagogama. I can’t understand why anyone, while emphasising #GoHomeGota, would in the same breath call for all 225 to leave parliament, and then, only a few days later, insinuate that the “225 Ma Epa!” line is a Rajapaksist ploy. Such contradictions in the aragalaya must be sorted out by the organisers of the aragalaya. And yet, instead of resolving them, the protesters have managed to divide if not fragment themselves. Whose purpose would that serve, I wonder.
*The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org