In Retrospect: The Protests That Were
Photo courtesy of Dhananjaya Samarakoon
When I look back at 2022, what strikes me more than anything else is how agonisingly slowly it passed. The early days of COVID-19 had been slow enough. But 2022 broke that record. From day one, we were hurtled into one crisis and shortage after another from which there seemed to be no end. We wished for a way out but there seemed to be no way out. Left with no options and faced with the prospect of the country going further down, we developed our coping mechanisms. Some of us stood back. Others went out. Eventually many of us who stood back joined the others who went out.
I admit that in their early days I had some doubts about the protests. I failed to appreciate their unique, distinctive character perhaps because I was sceptical of their intentions and more importantly their objectives. I had long felt that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was more inept than authoritarian, that he had been let down by his own policy advisors, that he was ceding more and more ground to fundamentalists and heterodox ideologues whose theories did not seem to deliver. I knew he had to go. The constitutional argument that he could not be deposed without an election seemed at best hollow: the president had violated the trust placed on him by the people and the people had the right to call for his exit.
That I remained wary of the demonstrations against Gotabaya Rajapaksa had less to do with the protesters than with the direction they wanted to go. Their primary objective was to get rid of the president. What, however, would they do after that? I threw this question at many demonstrators, only to get the same answer: they would look at that after getting Rajapaksa out. A perfectly valid answer but also an inadequate one.
Of course I appreciated the immense diversity of the protests and protesters themselves. The GotaGoGama campaign included practically every demographic from the north to the south, from the old to the young. Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, gay, straight, non-binary; it took in everyone and anyone who felt their hopes had been betrayed by a man who the country had elected to power three years ago on a massive, almost unprecedented mandate – what C. A. Chandraprema called “the mother of all landslides.” There was little the man could not do. Yet in the face of the biggest crisis in our post-independence history, he had chosen to do nothing. This could only invite dissent and defiance from every corner.
There were bound to be divisions in the protests. Northern civil society was initially not enthusiastic about throwing in their lot with their southern counterparts, not least because the latter had, in their view, failed to stand up for them when they were being targeted and marginalised by the state. Sri Lankans, regardless of their political beliefs, are more often than not misogynistic, homophobic and bigoted. Thus, when the LGBTQ community came out in Colombo, many protesters I knew threatened to eject them from the crowd, calling them a nuisance and a distraction. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister – perhaps the shrewdest thing he ever did – not a few protesters moved out claiming that he would, despite the Rajapaksas, deliver the goods.
But all in all the protesters remained a fitting demonstration of a grassroots spontaneous order, a gathering that had no higher hand, that depended more than anything else on the will and the defiance of the people. Of course, it would be a little far-fetched to claim the protests weren’t funded or organised. Expats, financiers and merchants, not to mention NGOs, they all had a hand in bringing people together. There is no denying this. And yet the grassroots, the young in particular, were moved by altruistic reasons; they felt their future was wasting away and needed to do something to ensure a better future for us all. Their intentions were genuine even if their tactics may have been vague.
But genuine intentions do not make up for vague tactics. I think the fundamental mistake made by the protesters, which serves as a lesson for movements of this sort in general, is that at its inception they wanted it to be free of politics. Parading themselves as apolitical, they paradoxically permitted certain political elements to enter their movement. Most of these elements were drawn from a left and left-liberal civil society, not just NGOs but also trade unions and women’s collectives. Arguably the most popular of these groups was the Inter Universities Students’ Federation (IUSF), the student collective, that demonstrated that it is those who seize the moment who win the people’s respect. And the IUSF won that respect, quickly.
The IUSF has never been a darling of Colombo middle class people. Their positions and stances, particularly on private education, have always been opposed by the middle classes. Yet in the face of an insurmountable crisis, the middle classes felt they had nothing to lose and so they threw their support behind these groups. Moreover, the middle classes in Sri Lanka have always had an anarchist strain. Once a particular social order deteriorates, they tend to gravitate to groups and parties which promise immediate action. It was this which mobilised them to vote for Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. Once Rajapaksa fell from grace, they searched for an alternative. They found one in not just the IUSF but also anti-establishment parties like the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP).
Underlying all these developments, however, was a contradiction between the political anarchism and the conservative social and economic beliefs of the middle classes. One of the more ubiquitous placards the demonstrators held in the run up to GotaGoGama in April was a plea to “Go to the IMF.” The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government had experimented in heterodox economic theory – tax cuts, money printing and currency swaps. These policies had worked elsewhere but only with the right conditions in place. In Sri Lanka these conditions, in particular, an efficient and responsive bureaucracy, were missing. The ruling party, moreover, tilted to the right and were deeply corrupt and nepotistic. In such a context, it was only natural that their policies would fail and the middle classes would be swayed by Colombo-based think tanks advocating IMF reforms as a solution.
Ahilan Kadirgamar has pointed out that economic discourses in Sri Lanka, which once revolved around food security, production and poverty, have now centred on neoliberal paradigms of privatisation, deregulation and tax and welfare reform. Sri Lanka’s middle classes, however, have traditionally been amenable to these paradigms because the think tanks advocating them present them in an optimistic light so several protesters I talked to believed that the IMF would clamp down on government waste and then press for political reforms. It took time for most of them to realise that the IMF’s programme involved crushing austerity, tax hikes and welfare cuts. Thus, while not too long ago people could claim that the IMF would urge political reforms as a prerequisite for economic relief, now they view such institutions with scepticism, even disfavour.
None of this was evident in the protesters’ calls for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit in the early days. Back then their concern was to get the president out; what followed came second. Thus, paradoxically, while supporting what they thought to be the IMF’s programme, they also supported left groups that were on the other side of the economic debate, such as the IUSF. The IUSF itself did not bother to articulate a clear economic programme nor, for that matter, did the parties associated with it, in particular the FSP. This is not to say that these groups lacked vision; they did propose policies. But at the peak of the protests, when the aim was to get the president out, these organisations failed to establish themselves at the centre of the movement. Instead, they inadvertently allowed IMF discourses to prevail, thereby strengthening the neoliberal tendencies of a right wing government, culminating in the grand and not altogether inapt alliance of the UNP and the SLPP.
Today, for all intents and purposes, the middle class protesters who manned the docks at GotaGoGama are enduring austerity without seriously questioning it. For them and for many others, there seems to be no alternative. The government too – a Frankenstein’s monster, the spawn of neoliberal and right wing nationalist parties – has emphasised the lack of an alternative. Left activists, meanwhile, are constantly hounded and arrested. While not too long ago people would have come up to their defence by filling up the streets, today they are nowhere to be found. While left student activists used to be lauded and celebrated months ago, today they have become the target of attacks from the very people who championed and teamed up with them. This is only to be expected. Once the peak of a movement passes, it can only divide and subside. This is a lesson the left groups that manned the protests have realised only now – a lesson in strategies and above all of practical politics.