Putting the protests in perspective

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Most analyses approach the crisis in Sri Lanka through the lens of human rights, democratic governance, and accountability. Many of them pin the blame on personalities and parties. Not surprisingly, the narrative has shifted over the last few months. From demonising the Rajapaksas, commentators and analysts now fault President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the country’s problems. More than anything else, they allege that he is attempting to harness or tame protesters, citing the raid on Gotagogama in the early hours of 22 July.

Internationally, these allegations have found a ‘ready audience’. Colombo’s civil society circuits have been given ample time and space on Indian and Western media outlets. The latter have been only too willing to amplify their concerns. In most cases, their narrative follows a set pattern: the government is oppressing protesters, it is using legal and extra-judiciary methods to tame them, and it is resorting to militarisation to harness dissent. Such narratives reinforce Sri Lanka’s image as a militaristic State, more or less, in line with what was churned about the country at the peak of the separatist conflict.

There is nothing inherently or fundamentally misleading about these claims. Sri Lankans are clamouring for democratic change and they perceive the State and its organs, which include the military, as an affront to their dignity. Yet Colombo’s civil society narratives tend to miss more than a few important points. For instance, they fail to note that while the Army has been deployed against protesters, a sizeable proportion of the latter criticise the Army, not for militarising the country, but for acting as a servant of the State. The People vs Army line, in that sense, does not really hold when considering how individual soldiers have also joined the protests, to be gleefully welcomed by anti-regime demonstrators.

As far as these analyses go, the military is just the tip of the iceberg. Other narratives include the view that anti-regime protesters all unified under a slogan – #GoHomeGota – because they all had the same demands. These demands supposedly included increasing access to political power and representation for Sri Lanka’s deprived minorities, not just its ethnic but also sexual minorities. According to this reading, opposition to Rajapaksa brought together different groups, classes, and interests: a welcoming development that can be used to push forward important liberal-democratic political and constitutional reforms.

There is no doubt that, viewed from a certain perspective, and as far as opposition to the State went, the anti-Rajapaksa movement was progressive and liberal. Yet to contend that, this alone made the protests progressive would be taking things too far. The truth of the matter is that Gotagogama, out of necessity, lacked a cohesive leadership. This enabled it to play host to different interest groups, not all of whom shared liberal progressive concerns about constitutional rights. Perhaps the most important point to take from the protests at Galle Face was that former supporters of the outgoing President formed a significant section there: not really a crowd you would count on as advocates of liberal politics.

I realised this myself when I paid a visit on 12 July, the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa vacated his office. Towards the evening, when crowds began swarming into Galle Face and emotions were running high, the rhetoric from the centre of the protest zone escalated rather wildly. The centre stood a few feet from a campsite set up for members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ community. It was more than a little ironic, then, when an anti-Rajapaksa heckler began shouting slogans which were rather homophobic, throwing words like ‘butterfly’ on the country’s leadership. It was hardly what you would expect from a protest that was, in every respect, supposedly aligned with civil society visions of liberal progressive dissent.

In an intriguing essay on the Gotagogama protests (‘Sri Lanka’s Next Test’, Project Syndicate), Priyanka Krishnamoorthy raises a rather important question: was, and is, the Aragalaya “a mere marriage of convenience”? In 2019 more than a third of the country gave a whopping majority to Rajapaksa and his party, essentially ‘endorsing the Rajapaksas’ brand of majoritarian politics’. It goes without saying that the fuel and gas shortages and power cuts have brought them into the streets. But will that by itself be enough to ensure their unity with groups, such as minority rights activists, whom they have traditionally viewed with suspicion and tarred as agents for NGO and Western agendas?

In depicting the Aragalaya as a swelling of progressive anti-State sentiment, liberals make the same mistake that their nationalist counterparts do; portray the protests as a monolith movement, which, it is not. The truth of the matter is that the Aragalaya has hosted gay rights and pro-democracy activists as much as it has homophobes and ultra-nationalists. Liberal outfits may be shy of admitting this, but it’s important to make such a point because, the way I see it, the Aragalaya needs to be recognised for what it is: a diverse array of political, social, and cultural views and perspectives which do not necessarily cohere with each other, but which came together to oust an unpopular regime.

The same goes for the ‘22 July’ raid. By all accounts, the raid was unexpected and, from a certain standpoint, reprehensible. Yet as the President made it clear: it was his way of demonstrating the State’s commitment to law and order. One may disagree with his use of force, and one can validly concur that it tilted popular opinion against Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. But one can also make the point, as Wickremesinghe did, that in no country has peaceful protests extended to the occupation of public property. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was aimed not so much against government overreach as against neoliberal austerity: concerns that the Aragalaya, despite its radical veneer, have barely raised at all.

Civil society and international, particularly Western, media have given the protests the spotlight they deserve. Yet they have also twisted the Aragalaya into something it is not. If opposition to the Rajapaksas can be considered liberal, the Aragalaya should definitively be lauded for its persistent stand against the Rajapaksas. Yet to deny its multifaceted character and the complex nature of the situation in the country would be going too far. One must be nuanced in everything. Even when lauding criticism of the State.

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

By Uditha Devapriya