By Siri Gamage –
Sri Lankans and those watching from outside are observing a crisis situation in Sri Lanka due to the instability caused by government’s failure to effectively manage the economic crisis facing the country since the beginning of this year. Popular protests called aragalaya (Struggle) involving diverse layers of society emerged as a result. Aragalaya driven by youth leaders and backed by civil society organisations, religious leaders, professional associations artists and indeed the trade union organisations is ‘a transformational force’ seeking change in the political, bureaucratic, law enforcement and justice, institutional and economic system. It has been developed out of the adverse experiences over the last decades in the country with governments that have not been responsive to the people’s needs and aspirations at the bottom of status hierarchies. Its leaders have developed a grounded and analytical reading about the particular causes and consequences of the country’s governance and management culture, style, process, leadership, parties over the previous 70 odd years as well as what needs to happen for a better Sri Lanka in the short and long term. Gall Face Gota Go Gama provided a symbolic venue and a focal point to gather diverse forces and activists.
Since President Gotabaya left the country a few days ago much has been written and commented on who will be the next President and Prime Minister. An acting President is to be formally appointed today (15 July 2022) by the Speaker. Moves are ahead to appoint a Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in the parliament. In a matter of a week or so, it appears that a President will be chosen by the parliament in place of the acting President who is Ranil Wickramasinghe. He has been the Prime Minister during the current crisis appointed by the departed President. All this relates to the transfer of formal power according to the country’s constitution. There are numerous political manoeuvrings behind the scene to bring about a result that each party or group desire. Two main interests in this game for power seem to be those who support Podu Jana Peramuna (PJM), the party led by Rajapaksas enjoying a majority in parliament and the opposition parties. Whether the new president will be one of these two camps or a different combination is yet to be seen. In the meantime, a more fundamental question being raised by activists Is whether the composition of current parliament reflects the true mood and aspirations of people as the ground situation has changed dramatically since the pandemic and recent economic crisis? This raises further questions from a legal and moral sense about the legitimacy of formal power and corresponding ‘political culture’ in a changed situation.
While such moves are taking place to identify and nominate suitable and acceptable individuals for the top positions in governance hierarchy, the people involved in aragalaya or at least some sections are talking about another concept i.e. people power. It is a concept born out of struggle or argalaya based on concrete action by way of resisting a system on the ground by a diverse population who are suffering from the economic crisis as well as the failure of governance in recent decades. It is a collective power pooled together by a range of activists, parties and religious figures who felt that the existing system of governance is not suitable to solve the issues facing the country and its people and a new way has to be found after an interim arrangement is found by all party leaders to address the more immediate vacuum in governance arrangements. Primary aim of people power is to change the existing government -not overthrow it- and provide space and a roadmap designed to create a new or substantially reformed system including a new constitution, removal of executive presidency, more responsive administration, cooperation rather than division. Such power is a combination of efforts by not only the youthful leaders of aragalaya but also the professional organisations such as lawyers, doctors, artists, journalists, actors, academics, and trade unions.
What we are passing through, especially during this and next week is a transitional period in terms of both these powers. Action taken by formal power have repercussions on people power. By the same token, action taken by people power initiators have repercussions on formal power. For example, the recent departure of the former president Gotabaya from the country can be considered as a result of the actions taken by people power. Similarly, actions taken by formal power can have consequences on those exercising people power. E.g. declaration of emergency and curfew. However, such movements need to be understood in terms of the competing social and political forces and their respective strengths and weaknesses. While the actual hardships faced by people contribute to the ability of aragalaya to be strengthened and organise collective action, organisational power and means used for such organisation are also important. For example, aragalaya activists use social media such as mobile phones, face book, internet for spreading their views and demands. Those occupying seats of formal power utilise formal declarations such as gazettes, media releases to convey their views and decisions. News hungry general population inside and outside the country turn to u tube, face book, internet-based news outlets and even TV and radio stations to find out the latest happenings. Where this contest between formal and people power end will be determined by the events yet to unfold in the coming weeks-organised by various actors and circumstantial.
Aragalaya reflecting people power is not a movement limited to realms such as parliamentary consensus, constitutionality or majority power. Its arena of activity has mainly been outside the existing parliament, government and other power structures. Garnering popular support for its platform and galvanising the same for pushing the rulers to change course has been its hallmark. It has achieved some successes by now and increasingly establishing itself as a credible and non-violent people’s struggle for socio-economic, cultural and political change with a humanitarian and non-violent platform. Historians, humanities scholars and social scientists will articulate the way aragalaya was born and expanded to face a dire situation that people in all walks of life were facing prior to its mass activism appealing to vital sectors of the economy, working life, religiosity, community and more. Given the way that the state responded to antigovernment protests in the past with lethal force, aragalaya has designed a creative approach to handle such eventuality with love, compassion, tolerance of difference, non-violence etc.
Whether a new politically significant movement will emerge out of aragalaya is uncertain at this time. The energies, criticisms and constructive ideas unleashed through aragalaya as well as the organisation of diverse interests and groups for a collective objective on a society-wide basis has the power to change the existing system and the nature of formal power if those involved could sustain the momentum in the face of various actions taken and to be taken by those holding formal power. If the crisis and the chaotic situation continues, aragalaya leaders including political parties and religious leaders may step into the task of ad hoc governance through ‘a leadership council’ formed for the very purpose to fill the gap. On the other hand, if those holding positions in the formal power structure are able to bring the crisis situation under some control with credible actions taken to satisfy aragalaya, a temporary calm can be the result. Such actions involve who will become the next President and PM, whether an all-party interim government is to be appointed to run the country until next elections, when will the election be held, and importantly whether the essential goods for living will arrive and distributed fairly? Establishing trust with the people who are suffering is an essential task for the current formal leadership.
Current changes are not driven by ideology alone. They are the result of material conditions in the country including the nature of economic and power structure. Activists are not driven by idealism but they are driven by powerful ideas.
In essence, what we have to understand is that there are those elements in the country who like the system to continue. This includes not only politicians and their families but others from the economic sphere, security forces, media, professions, and so on. On the other hand, there are those who desire a change in the system. They include farmers, fishermen, workers, students, religious leaders, media personnel, academics, artists and more. As I outlined in a previous article, these are competing forces for a share of country’s resources -natural and man-made for sustaining life. With or without an open struggle such as the one we are witnessing today, competition for a share of rewards from the system will continue. At this time this competition has sharpened due to the extreme and unequal distribution of rewards or indeed their shortages. If those holding formal power believe that the popular uprising that emerged from the material conditions in society can be suppressed by gazette notifications and acquiring more formal power, there can emerge a situation when the people at large may not follow the orders issued by formal power holders. Social disorganisation and human suffering can come to such a level that those holding formal power can lose control of the fast-changing situation. This is called revolutionary change. What is necessary is cool heads to prevail and open dialogue with the long-term national interest in mind. Sri Lanka cannot afford short term fixes that do not yield long term benefits or heavy handed unitary/military steps by the formal establishment to suppress popular dissent on the pretext of unsubstantiated grounds such as violence by the suffering and protesting people at a time when the international attention is firmly focused on the Island nation and its predicament.