The post-13 July trajectory of GotaGoGama


The withdrawal of a number of groups from the Galle Face protests has put a damper on what was, admittedly, a vibrant and promising movement a month ago. All three groups – they include the Sarvapakshika Aragalakaruwo, Liberal Fellowship, and Black Cap Movement – contend that since their primary objective has been achieved, they see no reason why the protests should continue. The Liberal Fellowship, in particular, argues for a post-protest campaign based on the Constitution, while the Sarvapakshika Aragalakaruwo has cautioned against attempts by certain MPs to incite mass demonstrations.

None of these organisations can be considered a leading voice of the protests, something that can be said for left-wing groups and associates, who allege that they have betrayed the uprising, as well. The latter, concentrated within student left outfits such as the IUSF, claim the protests should go ahead until the President steps down. The Liberal Fellowship has sounded the alarm on such calls, stating that it has withdrawn from the protests owing to the intrusion of “individuals and groups using the protest movement to spread their political ideologies.” The latter obviously includes the IUSF.

Even Victor Ivan, one of the most trenchant critics of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government and the Rajapaksas, has critiqued these aspects of the Galle Face protests. Quoting the English, American, and French Revolutions, he asserts that uprisings should conform to a constitutional framework, and faults those within the GotaGoGama protests who seem to prefer a violent seizure of power. He also criticises the movement for lacking a cohesive leadership and “a clear common objective.” The Aragalaya, he concludes, “has a method to oust the leaders, but it has no methodology to appoint suitable new rulers.”

Such critiques underlie two assumptions. First, that with the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 13 July, the underlying thrust of the protests fragmented into legalist and extra-parliamentary wings, the latter preferring, as Ivan puts it, a violent seizure of power. This was demonstrated very clearly, for some, by the JVP’s involvement in the Occupy Parliament protest at Polduwa Junction, and Kumar Gunaratnam’s unilateral declaration about the present Parliament’s mandate, or lack thereof. Second, that radical elements have hijacked the protests, and are using their popularity to advocate extra-parliamentary tactics which go beyond a constitutional and thus legal framework.

I think the post-13 July trajectory of GotaGoGama taught us some important lessons about what the movement had evolved into from early May. The withdrawal of liberal elements was bound to happen sooner or later. Colombo-based NGO and civil society circuits had, for a long time, associated the country’s descent into authoritarianism with the Rajapaksas: a justifiable assertion, given that politics in Sri Lanka since 2005 has been linked to and in a way determined by the Rajapaksas. With Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit they were bound to go: partly because their Enemy Number One had left, but also because, while critiquing people and parties, they had no real critique of the political system.

To be sure, liberals have long been advocates of constitutional reforms. But the reforms that left groups have called for goes beyond a constitutional framework. This does not mean, as some seem to believe, that the New Left, specifically the JVP and the FSP, are advocating a “violent seizure of power.” On the contrary, the New Left’s attitude to constitutions, and to laws, is that they have been authored by elected representatives and that voters who elect them have a right to call for reforms and amendments. Exerting pressure on politicians to enact these changes is not, as certain liberal pundits think, unconstitutional. If that were the case, the Civil Rights Movement would have achieved nothing in the US.

While liberals have among their most fervent followers Colombo-based NGOs, civil society circuits, and youth movements, most of them made up of Westernised and English-speaking elites, the New Left has found a new friend among an impoverished petty bourgeoisie. As I have mentioned in last week’s column, the latter by no means endorse “liberal-progressive” causes: one only needs to talk to young protesters who spewed homophobic rhetoric at GotaGoGama to realise this. Due to IMF-inspired reforms, the middle class has more or less been obliterated. They are desperate. This has brought them closer to groups they opposed some time back, and pushed them to endorse the latter’s conception of politics.

I am not sure what to make of these developments, and I am not sure which side one should take. The liberal pundits advocating a constitutional solution to the crisis seem not to have considered that many people see the Parliament as unpopular and illegitimate. They base their critique of the protests on legal niceties and constitutional technicalities: in itself, not invalid. The newly radicalised middle class, on the other hand, have let go of their faith in individual saviours and are baying for blood from all parliamentarians. They have not turned into liberal-progressive archetypes, as some may imagine: they still retain their conservative and regressive roots, while opposing political corruption. As they feel that the Left speaks their language, they have grown sympathetic towards groups like the IUSF.

It’s easy to assume that this is a welcoming prospect for the Left. I wish it were so, but I see no reason why it should be so. As Newton Gunasinghe implied in his critique of the anti-UNP movement in the aftermath of the 1983 Riots, not every group opposed to an authoritarian regime can be considered progressive. The truth is that those advocating a system change in Sri Lanka still think of politics in terms of personalities and parties: the same mistake liberals make. By allying themselves with such elements, the New Left has failed to examine, assess, and critique the wider, structural causes for the crisis we are in.

The entry of the middle class to the protests has hence achieved two things: it has disrupted the protests from within, while simultaneously radicalising an element within it. Rather unfortunately, this has deprived the Left of a cohesive programme through which it could, while forcing Parliament to become more accountable, see through and enact radical changes, to make this country a more equitable and fair society.

About the writer:

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

By Uditha Devapriya