By Malinda Seneviratne –
The word in the street is that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s is the regime’s best friend. Inept leadership, fuelling division in opposition ranks to prompt defection, refusal to take on the Government in any meaningful manner on crucial issues of public concern, rhetorical slip-ups made to be pounced on for purposes on ridicule and being conspicuously out-of-touch with the sentiments of the masses are often cited as evidence to support this friendship claim.
On the other hand, it must be mentioned in Ranil’s defence that the 1978 Constitution does not grand the opposition any favors. In fact, just as it confers dictatorial powers on the executive president, it also disempowers the opposition. Sarath N Silva’s horrendous crossover ruling that made parliamentary traffic a one-way matter hasn’t helped. These factors helped scuttle the 17th Amendment and worse paved the way for the 18th, further strengthening those in power and conferring further disempowerment on the opposition. Ranil’s detractors might say ‘Still!’, implying that he could do much better.
But is Ranil really the only friend that the regime can count on among those who object to it on matters of policy and policy implementation, and of course corruption, incompetence, inefficiency and overt and covert attacks on democracy?
Mahinda Rajapaksa had few friends when he was running for President in 2005. Today he has few enemies and fewer still have the courage to stand up and object. That’s not unusual. Power corrupts. Power also attracts. There was a time, after all, when there were countless ‘friends’ swarming around his predecessor. That was not the case before she became President and it is not the case now that she is Ex-President. It is about playing the right card. It is about mutual benefit. Important no doubt, but still less critical than friends among the enemy in times of declining popularity.
It’s not just Ranil.
In the past few years there have been ample reason for many to object to the regime. Not just object but to be appalled, in fact. The umbrage however has not translated into mass protests. ‘Fear,’ some explain, but that’s just a part of the story. A small part, one might add. Where does the anger find expression, then? Why, in social media!
Facebook is full of people who have serious problems with the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Among them are the usual sour-grapes types, i.e. those who wanted a different outcome in November 2005, May 2009, January 2010 and April 2010. There is a sizable number though of case-by-case assessors, who would cheer some and critique some. There are also many who have voted for the President and his party but have run out of patience and are convinced that astute political thinking is about burying gratitude along with the LTTE. They have a point. The President and the Government did what they were elected to accomplish. That’s ‘job’ and therefore does not necessitate ‘unlimited bonus’. But what do these objectors do and what do they accomplish?
Many of them rant and rave. Some are more academic with objection. They all call for ‘uprising’ of one kind or another. Some even organize protests, run campaigns to mobilize people and make it out that it is all spontaneous, free of any agenda except expressing objection, and borrow from the extensive material pertaining to rebellion from all parts of the world. They cry, ‘Occupy Colombo’. They say ‘Sri Lanka Spring’ (never mind seasonality ignorance). They put up campaign-related profile pictures. They ‘like’, they ‘share’ and they ‘blog’. Some say ‘wish I was there’ and others pip in, ‘I am there in spirit’.
They seem to be so busy doing all this that they forget to make it to the events they organize, endorse and cheer. Then they wait for the ‘Next Big Moment’. They move from ‘spark’ to ‘spark’ and meanwhile the regime moves from one crisis to the other, not in a crisis-snowballing context but in the classic getting-by of doing it, dealing with it, counting on ‘forget’ if not ‘forgive’.
Facebook and other social media sites are therefore regime-friendly. Of course there is nothing to say that activity therein will not add up and contribute to regime-change at some point, but it is safe to say that impact will be marginal. In the end it boils down to feet on the ground, feet marching together, voices raised in real time and in real space in unison and not in the artificial congregation of feel-good solidarities.
There are other ‘friends’. There are the many ‘news’ sites that are hardly better than gossip rags capable of mild titillation and deflecting and dispersing righteous anger into feel-good laughter. Objectors who laugh at regimes and do nothing else, don’t challenge regimes.
There are of course ‘serious’ web-gatherings. Like Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph. The former is clearly slanted in favor of federalism and federalists, those who have poorly disguised hatred for Sinhalese and Buddhists or feel a compulsion to attack them to be counted among ‘intellectuals’ and those whose communalism, racism, religious fundamentalism is thinly covered by a cloak called ‘neutral’. The latter’s content is more eclectic, more in-your-face. There’s news and views. There’s greater generosity of accommodation. Those who run these objection-forums if one may call them that would probably agree that they are frequented by roughly the same clientele. Both writers and commentators.
Perhaps some of these people actually meet up for chat over coffee or wine, but if gatherings and protests organized by the movers and shakers are anything to go by, they don’t add up to regime-overthrowing-by-mass-uprising. A perusal of commentary reveals untrammeled invective, penchant for abuse and foul language, a privileging of emotion over reason and a conspicuous lack of sobriety. A neutral may be swayed by argument but would think more than twice about joining hands with the cheering squad.
All these ‘sites of resistance’ (let’s be generous here) function as outlet, opportunities to let off steam, and spaces to feel you’ve done your bit (and inflate contribution to oneself). Ironically, in Sri Lanka, the more effective users of this space happen to be those who are ready to walk the talk and not all of them walk in peace.
In the end, therefore, true challenge to regime would probably come from those who for whatever reason don’t use these spaces to vent their anger. They get the bullets, history has shown. Those others, the ‘friends of the regime’ as argued above, will cry foul, weep virtual tears, like, share and blog, but in the end they will not count. Most of them will remain the internet versions of Ranil Wickremesinghe, doing their bit to prop a regime they love to hate.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com