Reflections on a protest

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By Uditha Devapriya

Everything Midas touched, so the story goes, turned into gold. Almost everything this Government has done has backfired, spectacularly. I’m not just talking about the rolling power cuts, the fertiliser imbroglio, or the tax cuts of 2019. I’m talking about the ideals that brought Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power. Those who voted against his Government chose not to embrace those ideals, but those who did are now convinced that he has let them go. For the President of a country, any country, this is a uniquely tight spot: in effect, he’s become a panderer to wayward ideals and a betrayer of those same ideals.

In 2019, the SLPP campaigned on a sweeping mandate that promised national security, prosperity, and dignity. One of the many catchphrases that caught the public’s imagination in the lead-up to that year’s election was ranawiru gaaya, or love for war heroes. When left-liberal ideologues questioned the people’s fixation with the military, SLPP supporters turned ranawiru gaaya into a trend, forcing the Opposition, led by Sajith Premadasa as the UNP’s candidate, to distance itself from those ideologues. This had the effect of turning the latter from Premadasa’s campaign. Subsequently, nationalist mobilisation around the military and war heroes ensured a massive victory margin for Rajapaksa.

Today, all that has changed. At the peak of the Mirihana protests, a man in a helmet stood up to the Army and spoke of the privations the people were enduring. Though dominated by a suburban middle-class, this protest moment was significant, because it signalled a turning point in the public’s engagements with the military. Earlier the latter had been valorised as a cohort of selfless, self-denying, patriotic youths, today not of a few of those who defended it are critiquing it, in effect brushing it aside as an outfit dedicated to toeing the State’s line. This is nothing more than a paradigm shift, a remarkable one at that.

Equally unprecedented has been a shift in mass opinion about nationalism, specifically Sinhala nationalism. No other political family has mobilised nationalist sentiment in Sri Lanka as have the Rajapaksas. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s deft use of these sentiments was what enabled him to wage a total war against the LTTE, holding together an unwieldy Cabinet while pacifying a public that just wanted to see an end to the conflict.

As Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stood to gain from these developments. He consolidated his reputation for beautifying urban landscapes, a reputation that has since been questioned, with an essentially tough guy image. It is this, more than anything else, that endeared him to the country’s middle-class, particularly the nationalist middle-class. Parading himself as a maverick, Gotabaya Rajapaksa propelled himself on to a nationalist consciousness, sidelining not just the Opposition but his own brother.

The halo has since slipped, badly. Today, an entire generation that grew up on the brand of nationalism the Rajapaksas fine-tuned and filtered has given up on it. In effect, the young are giving up on all politics associated with the family. This is a unique turning point in the country’s political history, since nationalist mobilisation has never been rejected, en masse, by middle-class youth, as it has today. To consider how unprecedented the situation is, one only need consider that one-and-a-half years ago when the issue of Covid burials came up, sections of this middle-class youth actually protested against cremations.

The situation is entirely, if not almost entirely, different today. Part of the reason for this, of course, has been the country’s economic situation. Deprivation upon deprivation, from gas to fuel to electricity to water, has brought every collective together. The scenes from Galle Face are so unprecedented because no party-less movement has come together the way the #GotaGoHome gang has. While one must be wary of thinking that this will lead the path to reconciliation or that it is anything other than temporary, the Rajapaksas, through what they have done, and more importantly not done, have brought them all together.

It’s not that people are fed up of nationalist sentiment. They are simply fed up of the way the Rajapaksas have been mobilising it for the last 17 years. If anything, their reaction to Mahinda’s speech on Monday night was remarkably different to how such speeches have been received before. Rajapaksa did use his usual trump card, the 30-year war, but that only compelled opprobrium from his audience. If it’s rare to find someone willing to root for him and his family, it’s because they can’t manipulate nationalist sentiment as they used to once upon a time. Welcome or otherwise, this is a remarkable development.

Comparisons to the Arab Spring notwithstanding, not a few political activists are warning the Rajapaksas of these protests turning into an international humanitarian crisis. Certain JVP ideologues have publicly declared that unless the First Family resigns, they will probably meet Muammar Gaddafi’s or Saddam Hussein’s fate. This is rather far-fetched. Libya and Iraq played out in different circumstances, circumstances removed from the situation in Sri Lanka. The Galle Face protests are an uprising, yes, but as Arundhati Roy wrote of the Anna Hazare protests, it’s difficult to keep much hope for them.

What explains my cynicism? Simply, the fact that all these issues exacerbated by the Rajapaksas will not magically disappear with their exit from politics. Trade unions and other collectives have already come out and critiqued the protests, contending that they lack focus and that some of their claims – like the call to halt the remittance of dollars to the country as long as the Rajapaksas are in charge – would hurt workers and marginalised groups more than they would politicians and middle-class protesters. To go beyond these protests, union conveners point out, we need a programme that recognises that the issues we are contending against predate one family’s rise to power.

Will the protesters listen? I doubt it. They are focused on one thing and one thing only, the Rajapaksas’ withdrawal from politics. Sri Lanka does not have a precedent for middle-class uprisings, at least not since Independence. If the past is anything to go by, it’s clear that the demonstrations, the slogans, the catchphrases, will remain limited to that one objective. In the meantime, the country’s situation will, with or without the IMF, deteriorate further. I predict that this will open dissenting space to other social groups, groups which have been much more traumatised, and marginalised, by the present regime.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]