9 May and after

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What really happened on 9 May is anybody’s guess. The popular view is that it was all staged by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters. Going through the latter’s speech at Temple Trees, it’s clear that the man wasn’t thinking of retirement: at least one former Minister has admitted as much. The boisterous crescendos, the daring parting shots, the resonant finale: all these evoked the Mahinda from an earlier, gentler time. Times, however, had changed, and irrevocably for the worse. So, when his supporters took their protests and calls for him to stay as Prime Minister outside, the powder keg could only burn to its end.

Since then a more nuanced picture of what followed has surfaced. Ramesh Pathirana’s revelations in Parliament are the closest we have to unravelling what really happened and who was responsible. Ashu Marasinghe, who was reportedly on the top floor of a hotel adjoining GotaGoGama that day, has corroborated Pathirana’s claims, observing that if it wasn’t for Pathirana’s intervention, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would never have known about his brother’s supporters rampaging across Kollupitiya and Galle Face.

The New York Times report on the 9 May fiasco, perhaps the most succinct, quotes Nalaka Godahewa as having witnessed Gotabaya Rajapaksa call and castigate the IGP. Godahewa remembers him asking the IGP as to who allowed “them” – his brother’s supporters – entry to the Prime Minister’s official residence. “But by then,” Godahewa continues, “the people had entered, so he ordered him to use water cannons, rubber bullets, whatever force to chase them away.” The President’s fury, we are told, very quickly turned to despair: he had to defuse the situation while helping to evacuate the man responsible for it.

Inevitable

The violence that followed was unfortunate, but inevitable. The tragedy of it was that not everyone who congregated that day in support of a man once hailed as a hero, but now dismissed as someone past his prime, so to speak, took up arms against protesters. Yet, in the chaos that followed, it was hard to make such distinctions. Rajapaksa supporters were, naturally, seen as instigators of violence. And if they had arrived by the dozen in Colombo through Expressways and Highways, by bus, people were angry enough to wait for them at intersections and transit points, brandishing arms and hoping for revenge.

The behaviour of the Police at Galle Face on 9 May is even more intriguing. The President is reported to have contacted Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon and ordered him to bring the situation under control. Whether the Police tried to follow up on that order remains to be seen, but as of the writing of this article, the Attorney-General has recommended that Tennakoon be transferred. Certainly, since the attacks, the country’s police force has earned the opprobrium of the people, with their biggest scorn for those at the top.

No template for the protests

Given all this, what can we conclude from the protests? More than anything else, that they are unprecedented. This country has seen through one major hartal and two insurrections, the second of which cost around 100,000 lives over three years. But the nature of the crisis we are in is such that we don’t have a template for the protests and the anti-government sentiments rising so inexorably today. How does one explain GotaGoGama, and what point of reference does one have to rationalise the many memes and anti-Rajapaksa caricatures and effigies being bandied about on the streets today?

In the 1980s, the JVP-DJV advocated an insurrection against the State. Nanda Malini, who participated and sang at GotaGoGama, provided a platform for such sentiments in Pavana. The situation is considerably more complex today. Take the 1953 hartal. It had very specific aims that went beyond targeting political leaders: it actually centred on the Finance Minister rather than the Prime Minister. It was also linked to a specific policy: that Minister’s decision to enforce welfare cuts and raise the price of essential commodities.

The first JVP insurrection was, as one of its top minds implies today, a “stupid” attempt at a revolution. The second insurrection was more serious: it was instigated, as with the 1953 hartal, by specific circumstances: the government’s mishandling of the ethnic crisis and its capitulation to India. Yet, by then the logic of Opposition politics had changed. Even among opponents of the government, no consensus prevailed over what had to be done, while the JVP advocated a mass uprising against the State, the Old Left called for a more constructive plan, and the nationalist right advocated a programme which combined nationalist polemics with what it considered, rather vaguely, as anti-imperialist and socialist policies.

From then on, the nationalist right mobilised opposition to whatever government ruled the day. Often they linked the government’s “anti-nationalist” credentials with its economic policies. A good example of this would be the Jathika Hela Urumaya’s campaign against the Kumaratunga-Wickremesinghe administration: it linked their negotiations with the LTTE and plans for devolution to their plans for privatisation and deregulation. In other words, by now nationalist polemics had determined the course of Oppositional politics.

For a while, and a long while, the Rajapaksas monopolised this nationalist debate. Yet, with the fall of the Sinhala middle-class and peasantry, as well as the defection of key allies, they have lost that card. If the focus of Opposition politics since 1995 had been the nationalist credentials of the prevailing government, hence, that focus has now been lost. The focus of anti-government resistance today is on other priorities: mainly, getting the guys at the top out, regardless of ideological differences between those making that call.

What this means is that with each period of unrest in Sri Lanka – 1953, 1971, and 1988 – anti-government resistance has become more diffused between different groups, resulting in a lack of focus and direction. The present bout of protests is leaderless not because there is no one to lead them, but because their very composition prevents any one party, group, or even alliance from taking over. The JVP and FSP have become assertive over the last few weeks because Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as Prime Minister undressed a lot of GotaGoGama folk who claimed to be neutral, but were in reality rooting for their man. The protesters, as they stand now, are hence united by their opposition to the men at the top. But on other points – especially economics – there are several divergences, disagreements, and debates. A lot of them, in fact. This is regrettable. Yet it cannot be helped.

The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya