By Ameer Ali –
When aragalaya burst into the political scene, its spontaneity, non-violence and a-political stand caught everyone by surprise. It was a leaderless entity, inclusive in composition but determined in its objective to effect systemic change. It drew its strength from the nobility of its cause and uniqueness of its expression. Neither the government nor the opposition and not even the left parties had any clue as to how to handle this intruder who started stealing their show. There was indeed a close resemblance between what happened in Cairo in 2011 and what was happening in Colombo eleven years later in March 2022. In both instances, it was the combination of an oppressive political system with an economy in deep trouble and causing unbearable pain to the masses, which provoked the young and educated to come the street. Authorities in Colombo initially thought that aragalaya would lose its momentum and fizzle out once the New Year holidays were over, workers returned to their jobs and students to universities and colleges; but it didn’t. As it gathered momentum, infiltration from militant elements began, as happened in Iran and Egypt. But unlike in those countries, these infiltrators do not seem to have a strategy or plan either to take aragalaya to another level or introduce their own agenda. However, as “Gota-Go-Gama” and “No 225” campaigns became louder and more forceful, the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa panicked and decided to employ his own ruffians to counter the protestors, like what Mubarak did in Cairo. Mayhem followed and what followed thereafter is common knowledge.
The man who watched all this gleefully from the sideline was Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW). Whether he had a premonition or not, fortune knocked on his door twice, offering him first with a premiership and then with the presidency. He was sympathetic to the youth initially and even asked the police not to intervene and disturb the peaceful atmosphere at Galle Face Green. But no sooner he became president he turned his ire on aragalaya, invoked the dreadful PTA and silently instructed the police to arrest its leaders and activists. According to one source, around 3,000 had been had been arrested so far.
Does this mean that aragalaya has ended and that RW could take credit for restoring political stability after the mayhem? Does this also mean that with IMF’s conditional assistance and more funds from WB, which are actually funds allocated already for other projects but repurposed to meet the emergency, he would be able to achieve some measure of economic recovery before his term ends in 2024? Without being overly pessimistic, a realistic diagnosis of the emerging scenario would show that the road ahead, like his predecessor’s alternative path may collapse in a sinkhole.
To take the future of aragalaya first, its core demand for systemic change remains unmet and rejected or ignored by all major parties, except perhaps NPP and FSP. Even they, while agreeing on principle do not seem to have a policy framework or road map to show how to achieve it. If they have one it has not been made public yet. In fact, the call for systemic change is nothing new in Sri Lankan politics. Leftist groups of a bygone era promoted that idea, but it was couched in such a welter of ideological and theoretical arguments and counterarguments, hardly anyone except the leaders of organized labour and the intelligentsia understood them. Moreover, the economy at that time was resilient enough to warrant any new experiment; and, when an experiment was tried in the 1970s it ended in disaster. In contrast, today’s authoritarian and oppressive political environment in the face of a historic economic disaster and widening social cleavages, in combination with successive foreign policy debacles causing indignance in the international arena, convinced a new generation of educated young men and women that there is something fundamentally wrong with the architecture of the country’s socio-political structure and that it should be replaced. It was that conviction which prompted aragalaya to come out with the demand for systemic change. Its slogan, “No 225” sent a clear message to all ruling politicians that they are incapable of effecting that change. RW’s repeated attempts to forge a unity government even by suborning members of the different parties with positions in the cabinet and regional ministries is further indication of his determination to carry on with the old system under its old guards.
If aragalaya represents a pothole on RW’s road, the post-IMF designed economic landscape could create a sinkhole. IMF’s staggered loan of $2.9 billion with a package of strict conditions relating to debt restructuring, budget deficit reduction through tough fiscal measures and tightened monetary policy, cutting the size of public service, restructuring or privatizing loss making SOEs, introducing more flexibility in foreign exchange market, ending corruption and so on would eventually result, at least in the short-run, in increased unemployment, fall in imports leading to a corresponding fall in exports, rising domestic prices, fall in real income of households and increasing the incidence of poverty. Although a limited amount of relief measures to help the poor and the deserving had been introduced in the 2022 budget, a lack of proper data to identify such groups and the perennial corruption in administering such handouts would certainly deprive many a poor from benefiting. In addition to this, spillover effects from global economic downturn caused by supply shortages due to war in Europe, rising inflation and higher interest rates would add further to difficulties already caused by IMF agenda.
Finally, with the latest hard-hitting report of UNHRC on Sri Lanka’s failure to improve its human rights record, RW’s fall back on draconian PTA to arrest aragalaya activists and protestors and his predilection towards authoritarianism may compel Western powers and their allies to tie future economic assistance including EU’s GSP+ with demonstrable progress in these areas. All this would make life unbearably painful for the majority. Thus, post-IMF reforms and post-UNHRC effects on the economy may provide a recipe for another wave of protests, which, according to the Governor of CBSL could turn bloody. That would be the sinkhole on RW’s road to stability and recovery. Although this would provide an impetus for aragalaya to reemerge one is not sure whether that reemergence would be a repetition of its original format.
Even its critics must admit that aragalaya represents the local voice of an enlightened community of young men and women who are globally connected and committed to the welfare and progress of humanity at large. Their generation is having an impact on the politics and policies in many countries, both developed and developing. This is unavoidable given the bulging middle age cohort in world’s population pyramid. Sri Lanka is no exception to this phenomenon. RW’s attempt to arrest its leaders and end their protest would force them enter organized politics. Having lost confidence in the 225, aragalaya activists are showing an inclination to enter formal politics and strive for systemic change through a transgenerational parliament. The built-in instability in RW’s fissiparous and oversized cabinet and regional ministries, whose members are already grumbling about his austerity strictures, would mean that he may be compelled or encouraged to go for a general election before 2024. One prominent Buddhist prelate wants that to happen within the next six months or risk another showdown. It is encouraging to note that the Sangha is prepared to speak out openly to politicians and telling them without mincing words how they had collectively contributed to the parlous state of the country’s economy. Aragalaya’s “No 225” captured these sentiment quite aptly.
Unfortunately, the progressive thinktanks including NPP theoreticians seem to be ill equipped without an alternative agenda. If there is one, it should be made public.Criticism of status quo is hardly enough unless backed by a comprehensive and workable substitute. Aragalaya’s systemic change should go beyond its sloganeering stage.