Post-aragalaya, SL at crossroads

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Almost one month on from the tumultuous events of 9 July,Sri Lanka is once again faced with some critical choices. A President has been elected–not by the people, but by a group of discredited, largely vilified lawmakers. This same President was rejected by his constituent at the last election, yet managed to enter Parliament on the one National List seat allocated to his party (a party that failed to secure any other seat)and now occupies the position of Executive President. He has reached this position with the support of the party who won the presidential election in 2019 and obtained a thumping majority at the parliamentary election in 2020, based largely on an election campaign that set itself up against the policies and politics of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rather than acknowledging the perversion of democracy that this represents, Ranil Wickremesinghe and the SLPP are now self-righteously presenting themselves as the force that represents stability,law and order, democracy, and economic reforms to get us out of our current crisis. While piously talking about respecting the democratic right to dissent and protest,they are busily constructing the categories of evil, violent, lawless protestors(who must be hunted down) versus law abiding, peaceful protestors (who will be tolerated). The hypocrisy of Prasanna Ranatunga, Chief Government Whip,found guilty of threatening a businessman and demanding money,holding forth about lawlessness and violence, of Sanath Nishantha, MP for Puttalam District,presently on bail for attacking peaceful protestors on 9 May describing protestors as ‘terrorists,’ and Ranil Wickremesinghe himself who throughout his political career bent the rules to favour his friends,now claiming to represent the rule of law and democratic principles seems to not matter a whit. The above are just 3 examples of the blatant subversion of truth, principles, and ethics in the interests of power.  

What is worrying is the degree to which this perversion, seems to be acceptable to certain segments of society. Those who cheered young protestors when they marched in their thousands to Colombo (even cheering on the hitherto despised members of the IUSF),protestors who occupied Galle Face as a protest site, egged on protestors who captured the presidential secretariat building, presidential residence, Temple Trees etc. are now holding their noses and looking away when these same protestors are being hunted down and arrested arbitrarily. Give Ranil a chance, why can’t you join the All-Party Government and ‘work for the country’ we are asked. Stability, apparently is the thing. 

Stability for whom? Let us remind ourselves of the conditions that brought people to the streets. It started with farmers, who were deprived of fertilisers overnight, ruining their livelihood and food production of the country. It started when the middle class, urban neighbourhoods had to endure 13-hour power cuts. It started when the cost of living soared and people had to cut back on food and on essential medicines. It started when schools closed, workplaces started shutting down, when factories, and businesses started collapsing,when transport systems collapsed, when imports necessary for production started drying up. While for many, the instability and the stress that they were experiencing was new, for the majority of people in the country, it was adding further misery to already unstable, precarious, and difficult lives. For the three-wheeler driver, the housewife supplying shor teats and stringhoppers to local kades, the small grocery store running mainly on goodwill, the daily wage worker,life has been far from stable for a long time. For the emerging middle class, many who were engaged in small or medium enterprises, building houses, buying cars and educating children in international schools,managing on credit and ‘rolling’ finances,this crisis came as a wake-up call about unsustainable lifestyles. This crisis pushed many over the edge from living a life of precarity and delusions of stability to one where even basic survival has become a struggle.

What the last several months has done is to generate a discussion on the causes of the economic crisis–this is why the aragalaya or certainly sections of the Aragalaya started talking about ‘system change.’This included holding lawmakers accountable, ‘give our stolen money back’ they chanted, when members of the Rajapaksa family and their cartel tried to leave the country,the pushback from people was because of the feeling that they had to be held accountable for their crimes which had brought this country to the brink of disaster. Constitutional reforms, abolishing of Executive Presidency, reconciliation, war crimes, ethno-religious nationalisms–everything was up for discussion. Of course, there wasn’t consensus, but the fact that people felt they were able to discuss these issues–not just in workshops and classrooms–but as citizens demanding social, economic,and political reforms,was in itself, hugely significant and radical. The hope for meaningful transformation lay in those conversations, the willingness to take on difficult issues. It was never going to be easy, but there was a hope and energy among people despite the desperation of the economic crisis that was making their lives so difficult.

The pushback today is on that flickering hope–the hope that kept people going. This is the establishment fighting back, to preserve their power and their privileges. Make no mistake. And the establishment includes segments of society,who want to remain in their comfort zones and yet talk of reform and transformation. Those who are unwilling to reflect on their own complicity in maintaining systems that have created this crisis. Yes, today, we talk about the loss of government revenue and the budget deficit. We are happy to blame corruption in state-owned enterprises and a bloated public sector for this–yet, are we willing to discuss the woeful state of our tax system? There is plenty of research which shows that in terms of a middle-income country, our public expenditure is not excessive, but that our tax system is completely inadequate. Yet, any talk of tax reform is apparently ‘radical communist nonsense.’We talk disparagingly about the privileges of lawmakers (and well we should),but how many of us are willing to reflect on our own informal networks of privilege based on old school networks, family and class that we use for our benefit? Networks that a vast majority of people in this country are excluded from? The hysterical social media messages that were recently circulated warning about what life under the JVP/FSP/NPP (of course according to these messages, there is no difference between these different groups and they are all one and the same!!), revealed the extent to which a certain privileged segment of our society felt threatened by the possibility of system change. The most significant characteristic of this segment is their belief that they know what is best for everybody else.

Think about what it is we are confronted with at this moment in time. When we disparage three-wheeler drivers for maintaining a black market in fuel supplies–remember that there are those who are willing and able to buy from that black market. Remember, that for many, those annoying three-wheelers are a source of livelihood–keeping families alive, providing transport services where nothing else is available. Remember when people stormed those public buildings, they were seeing such luxury for the first time–they were not wrong in claiming those resources for the people of this country. Try to think what they felt when they saw with their own eyes the vast gap between their lives and the lives of their representatives. To reduce that to envy and petty feelings of jealousy,acts of vandalism and uncouth behaviour is to ignore the immorality of the huge inequalities that this current system maintains and reproduces.  

This is a moment in our history, when we are being provided an opportunity to step outside our comfort zones,to look at our fellow citizens not simply as objects of our charity and benevolence, but as equal citizens. To honestly reflect on the networks of privileges that have maintained not just our lawmakers, but a small segment of society, while the majority toil for generations to eke out an existence that is not simply about survival. Let us not settle for what is easy or comfortable–but let us continue to engage in the search for something better–something that will lead to a more just, equal, empathetic, and compassionate society.  

By Harini Amarasuriya