Understanding Gotagogama

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Sri Lanka is still living with the consequences of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency, partly because his Government has not left and partly because resistance to it, though repressed, is still alive. Under Ranil Wickremesinghe, the State has asserted its will and imposed it on those who disagree with it. It has arrested protesters without as much as a blink of an eye from those who walked to GotagoGama. Today their (mostly middle class) supporters have relapsed into silence, seemingly getting on with their lives.

When protests began in early March, I predicted that sooner or later, middle class calls for IMF reforms would sour. While a section of the middle class still bats for those reforms, the lower middle classes have been so battered by price hikes and tariff revisions that they have wavered. Still, even they couch their hatred of such reforms in the rhetoric of resistance to political corruption. Sri Lanka’s middle classes do not appear politically mature enough to take the leap from that sort of resistance to opposition to systemic neoliberal reforms. This is because historically, they have supported, even advocated, the latter.

Sri Lanka’s middle classes tend to sway from one extreme to another: from wholehearted support for the Yahapalana regime, for instance, they shifted to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brand of Bonapartist nationalism. They are also so disenchanted with local institutions, particularly political institutions, that they believe any alternative is better than what we have. This explains their newfound love for the IMF, and their inability to translate their hatred of IMF reforms into a coherent critique of those reforms. Instead, they have directed the brunt of their anger, not on the institution demanding such reforms, but the institutions enforcing them. This is a curious contradiction, and it needs examining.

The protests against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government did not begin in March and April. One of that government’s biggest blunders was its fertiliser policy. As Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out, the policy cost the regime its peasant heartland, a loss it could never hope to regain. The peasantry and the (predominantly Sinhala and Buddhist) middle classes made up the biggest pillars of support for the Government. It was these constituencies that gave the SLPP a two-thirds victory in 2020. The Government had no better strategy for losing its momentum than losing these bases. This is what it began doing in 2021.

The class composition and preferences of these groups have not been seriously examined. The peasantry had been hit hard by the import bans. Yet, what caught the headlines wasn’t farmer protests, but corporate opposition to those bans: in effect, the big estates and farms that would lose the most from the Government’s policy. The outcome of such policies was to bring together a diverse array of class interests, which would otherwise not have united and coalesced into a resistance movement. The anger of the farmers was apparent enough, but it was left to corporate and middle class elements to articulate it fully.

For obvious reasons, attitudes to neoliberal economic reforms differ from social class to social class. While the rupee was artificially pegged, and petrol was still going for less than Rs 200 a litre, the (consumerist and import-dependent) lower middle classes felt no need to oppose such reforms, even as they were being imposed on the peasantry and the urban poor. When IMF reforms finally saw the light of day, they changed their tune. It was this that led to the peak in the protests between June and August. Once petrol prices hiked and shortages ensued in late June, the middle class felt it had nothing to lose.

I have mentioned several times, in this column, that the ideological preferences of the bulk of the demonstrators at GotagoGama did not bear out progressive-liberal perceptions of the protests and the protesters. The UN Human Rights Council’s situation report on Sri Lanka, titled A/HRC/51/5, implies that the bulk of these protesters demanded accountability from the Government. True as this may be, the document does not capture the essence of those demands. The reality is that middle class perceptions of accountability, and transparency, differ considerably from liberal progressive definitions of such concepts. To put it bluntly, the call at Gotagogama was not so much the establishment of institutional mechanisms, as the restoration of fuel and gas supplies and uninterrupted electricity.

I am not suggesting here that the protests were regressive and reactionary, though at times they were exactly that – particularly when their opposition to the political leadership in the country took on homophobic dimensions, as I personally witnessed on 12 July. Yet, again as I have mentioned in this space, the Gotagogama demonstrations never fitted in with liberal progressive narratives that framed them as a mass, courageous, youth-driven and youth-led uprising. The youth themselves, who formed the crux of the protests, hardly ever bore out such stereotypes. Their class composition aside, the racial dimensions of the youth were so evident that one would have to be wilfully blind to ignore the cynical commentaries on the protesters and protesters authored by sections of Tamil civil society.

My point is that these divisions were never appreciated or understood when the protests gained steam. Had we taken stock of them, they would not have fragmented so soon. The middle class’ confused attitude to IMF reforms should inform us that they are, as yet, not mature enough to take on the task of critiquing local and international institutions, including political institutions. Their resistance to power and privilege is couched in populist calls for personality and system changes. The task of the Left, particularly the New Left (the JVP and the FSP), is to transform these popular calls into a larger, broader programme, one that can carry the protests forward and ensure a leftward tilt within the middle class. There are signs that the New Left is doing this. But more needs to be done. Much more.

About the writer:

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

(Pic by Dhananjaya Samarakoon)

By Uditha Devapriya