One of the least examined aspects to the crisis in Sri Lanka is the rising disconnect between the young and the old. By the young, I am referring specifically to those born after 1998; by the old, to their parents and grandparents, their elders and seniors.
Why these generations? The young who were born before 1998 are not young anymore: they are past their prime. For a long time, politics in Sri Lanka was dominated by one event, the war. The millennials, that is the pre-1998 generation, lived through a not inconsiderable period of the war, specifically its last phase. As such they attuned themselves more easily to the political developments that came about in its aftermath.
After 2009, and even before, political and ideological divisions seemed clearcut in Sri Lanka. You were caught up in either of two waves: the nationalist and the liberal. Advocates of the former supported a military solution to the war and those of the latter a political solution to it. The young found themselves siding with one of these camps. Not a few of them evolved and changed: from a military solution they found themselves advocating a political solution after the war’s end. In a big way, I was a part of this crowd too.
As one of Sri Lanka’s most loved and most flawed presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa summed up the zeitgeist of these times better than any other political figure from his time: you either loved this country or you did not. If you did not, you were by all accounts a peace-loving, peace-selling agent of Western interests and agendas, probably linked to one of Colombo’s many ubiquitous NGOs and thinktanks. The Rajapaksas had begun their ascent in 2005 with Mahinda’s presidency. Loving the country, for almost every generation until then, therefore meant supporting the clan; criticising the country’s politics, conversely, meant criticising the clan. The young, naturally enough, went along with these dichotomies.
The situation has changed, considerably, with the emergence of the post-1998 Generation Z bunch. This generation did not live through the war in the way that others before them did and have. As such, they did not attune themselves to the big political divisions which defined the war and the period immediately following its end. They were only mildly concerned with politics, and if they were, it was because of their parents’ obsession with it.
The post-war generation in the US tried to escape the cultural and political divisions which defined the Second World War. The resulting backlash led to the counterculture movement. Yet, this was also the peak of capitalism, a long period of optimism not just for radicals and revolutionaries, but also conformists and corporate types. The post-war period in Sri Lanka was not, in any sense, a golden era. But for the post-1998 generation the rigours and the traumas of the war had ended. They could side with anyone, or they could choose to side with no one. Politically speaking, they were neither here nor there. They wanted to be left alone, to follow their dreams, their hopes, their conception of the future.
Paradoxically, their estrangement from these concerns made them conceive politics as a luxury to be indulged in, rather than a priority to be reflected on and acted upon. While they never saw politics in the same light my generation did, they found the dichotomies we had limited ourselves to – liberal/nationalist or Rajapaksist/anti-Rajapaksist – amusing, almost a pastime. For a brief moment, specifically when this generation came of age between 2015 and 2019, they hence threw themselves into the rigours of national politics. Yet, they did not do so on the basis of the logic their elders did: they did view politics as a serious occupation, but they viewed it through the prism of their hopes, fears, and dislikes, which were myriad and were significantly different from those of my generation and our elders.
It was this overpouring of the youth that made possible two election victories: that of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 and that of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. In both cases, it was the youth who came up in droves and chased away the establishment: the Rajapaksas in favour of the yahapalanists and the yahapalanists in favour of the Rajapaksas, or to put it in a language familiar to my generation, the war-sellers in favour of the peace-mongers, and the peace-mongers in favour of the war-sellers. These categories did not mean much for the new generation, but for a brief moment back then, they accepted them.
For a generation that simply cannot be constrained in their desires and their hopes, the fallout of the Sirisena government became too much. Yet, back then they had an alternative, or thought they had one: Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The latter’s fallout, in 2021, has turned this generation not merely away from politics, but from the categories which one associated with politics in Sri Lanka for such a long time. The economic crisis has purged the Rajapaksas of one of their most powerful electorates, second only to the Sinhalese peasantry. This is a fallout fromwhich they and their associates cannot recover any time soon.
It is not easy to chart the ideological tendencies and preferences of this new generation. They are committed to their future, or what little of it is left, but this does not mean they are not concerned about the material and economic conditions in Sri Lanka. Nor does it mean they have completely cut themselves off from politics, though a significant number among them have. At the same time, they are suspicious of ideologies they cannot easily identify with: hence why this particular generation, particularly from outside Colombo’s middle-class circles, hold somewhat regressive views on issues like women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and much else besides. Yet, they are passionate about politics, even in their spurning of it. They are passionate about making statements, about holding placards.
This, then, is the new generation. Social scientists and anthropologists are yet to assess them properly. They should do so immediately, since it is the mood and tenor of this new bunch who will determine the course of
Sri Lankan politics for the next few years.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected]
By Uditha Devapriya