There are some acquainted and drained tropes which have lengthy characterised South Asian politics. A few of these are the rise of populist demagogues, authoritarian rule, the breakdown of the rule of regulation, militarisation, and ethnonationalist and spiritual conflicts.
A lot of this has been true of Sri Lanka’s seven-plus many years of post-independence historical past. The nation has seen a 30-year militant battle fuelled by majoritarian ethnonationalism, two bloodily suppressed Maoist youth uprisings, and growing non secular tensions.
Certainly, the final decade after the conclusion of the struggle in 2009 has been one among rising ethnic and spiritual polarisation alongside a rising hole between an prosperous city minority, used to a tradition of conspicuous consumption, and a big majority of the inhabitants struggling to keep up a good customary of life.
It was over this extremely iniquitous society that the prolonged Rajapaksa household – led by the charismatic demagogue Mahinda Rajapaksa – constructed what seemed to be an unshakable political dynasty. However on Saturday, July 9, the Rajapaksa mission got here to a staggering halt amidst a spectacular individuals’s rebellion, never-before witnessed in Sri Lanka and wherever in South Asia.
Financial deprivation and cry for political change
The individuals’s rebellion had a singular purpose of forcing the incumbent president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (or Gota), Mahinda’s youthful sibling, to resign alongside together with his authorities.
Gotabaya, elected to energy in 2019 with an amazing majority, additional consolidated by a sweeping electoral win by his celebration the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna) in 2020, did not ship on the vistas of prosperity that his election manifesto promised.
As a substitute, with faltering revenue from tourism because of the 2019 Easter Sunday assaults – which these campaigning for Gotabhya weaponised into an anti-Islamic discourse that shored up majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist sentiment and projected Gota as a nationwide saviour – and mismanagement of the economic system together with drastic tax cuts benefiting the rich and a disastrous in a single day try to change to natural farming, Gotabhaya’s political inventory had all however expired.
By July 9 there was just about no gasoline within the nation, public transport had floor to a standstill and on the night earlier than, the chief of police declared an unlawful ‘police curfew’ in a determined try to discourage protestors.
Regardless of these many obstacles, from early Saturday morning, individuals started streaming into the capital Colombo from all elements of the nation. 1000’s thronged railway stations and compelled officers to function trains. Others walked, cycled, rode on lorries, or scrambled aboard vehicles normally used to move sand. By mid-day a whole bunch of hundreds had gathered within the neighborhood of the Presidential Secretariat within the coronary heart of Colombo’s enterprise district – a web site which had seen a three-month lengthy ‘occupy’ motion and an encampment named the ‘Gota Go Gama’ (Gota go residence village).
Following pitched road battles between the protesters and the police and armed forces, by which protesters have been overwhelmed up and a number of rounds of teargas fired, the Presidential Secretariat, the President’s official residence and the Prime Minister’s workplace and residence have been actually and symbolically ‘taken’ over by the individuals.
It appeared that the safety forces realising the overwhelming energy of the protesters merely gave up. There have been ecstatic scenes as individuals swarmed the Presidential Palace and workplace with some even leaping into the swimming pool and pictures and video footage of the triumph circulating extensively on social media – a medium that performed a significant function in mobilising and sustaining the protest motion known as aragalaya (wrestle) in Sinhala.
All through the ‘occupy’ motion the Rajapaksa regime and its nationwide safety equipment underestimated the need of the individuals repeatedly. All of it started on March 31 when hundreds thronged the President’s private residence within the suburbs of Colombo demanding options to energy cuts that prolonged as much as 10 hours a day, shortages of gasoline and cooking fuel, and skyrocketing meals costs attributable to runaway inflation.
Jolted by this sudden rebellion the regime responded with overwhelming power – beating up protesters and excessively utilizing teargas adopted by mass arrests. However this repression resulted within the institution of ‘Gota go Gama’ and a nation-wide protest marketing campaign with mini protest websites mushrooming in lots of cities throughout the nation.
The same situation occurred on Might 9 when government-backed ‘thugs’ attacked the Gota go Gama web site however have been unprepared for the immediate nationwide backlash with homes of presidency politicians being torched – in the end ensuing within the resignation of premier Mahinda Rajapaksa.
From this level onwards it appeared that the aragalaya was petering out, with the appointment of Ranil Wickramasinghe as prime minister – a person with lengthy political expertise – who moved swiftly to undermine the protesters by making an attempt to revive gasoline and different provides.
Nonetheless, the ‘financial rationality’ of the political elite failed as was evident on July 9. Whereas it was undoubtedly excessive financial deprivation that introduced individuals to the streets, there was and is a transparent demand for political change.
A real democratic motion
Whereas some commentators have mischaracterised July 9 as a type of “mob motion”, there’s a distinct democratic core to the individuals’s wrestle.
Political change in Sri Lanka since 1948 has been via elections the place patron-client relationships established by the political elite have typically performed a key function. Politicians have lengthy wielded a stranglehold on entry to key assets. Whether or not you’re a businessman searching for authorities contracts or a poor farmer in search of sponsored fertiliser, the political class managed entry. The Rajapaksa regime expanded and entrenched this patron-client system as by no means earlier than and used a poisonous glue of racism and spiritual enmity to bind the Sinhala majority to their political will.
Following the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), the violent militant group that claimed to signify minority Tamil pursuits, the Rajapaksa’s positioned themselves as saviours of the nation and aligned with a crony-capitalist class and a extremely militarised type of governance swiftly moved to construct an ethnocratic nationwide safety state – cheered on by a triumphalist Sinhala majority excessive on the army victory and an unsustainable post-war financial growth propelled by heavy authorities borrowing in worldwide monetary markets.
There was a brief respite when Mahinda was ousted from 2015 to 2019. However with the election of Gotabhaya in 2019, it appeared the Rajapaksas had regained management till the occasions described above.
The aragalaya might be recognized as a democratic motion attributable to quite a few causes. It broke the vicious cycle of patron-client politics. Folks marched to Colombo not due to the promise of a financial handout, some liquor and meals – the standard bundle doled out by political events to draw supporters to rallies. It was largely a youth-led motion which was in a position to communicate throughout ethnic, racial and sophistication divides. It additionally utilised artwork and tradition in inventive methods not witnessed in Sri Lankan politics earlier than.
The aragalaya additionally spoke to problems with financial and social justice, together with Sri Lanka’s lengthy historical past of human rights abuses and impunity, which have lengthy been pushed to the margins. Nonetheless, the aragalaya motion was not homogenous, unified and nor did it have a definite core management. It’s this very formlessness of the motion that allowed so many teams – starting from scholar unions, political celebration affiliated teams, commerce unions, civil society activists, artists and youth – to assemble underneath the aragalaya banner.
However this additionally meant that many unresolved contradictions remained all through the wrestle and the specter of a typical enemy unified this various group.
Now that the enemy is gone, or very near going, a few of these divisions are re-emerging. Some teams related to the aragalaya are celebrating Subject Marshall Sarath Fonseka, a extremely divisive determine accused of struggle crimes through the 2009 conclusion of the struggle and different teams are calling for a whole overhaul of the state with out contemplating the constitutional implications of such a radical and democratically unsanctioned restructuring of the state.
The present second in Sri Lanka is what Antonio Gramsci would possibly name an “interregnum” the place the “outdated is dying and the brand new is but to be born”. It’s a risky and fluid state of affairs and the way forward for Sri Lanka’s politics and society are under no circumstances assured.
However the aragalaya did set up one highly effective thought – that regardless of seemingly overwhelming odds the individuals’s will can prevail. On the very fundamental stage, that is democracy in motion. There’s a elementary distinction to be made between the mob that invaded Capitol Hill in 2021 searching for to protect the Trump presidency and the nationwide mobilisation that led to the ousting of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. One sought to undermine democracy whereas the opposite sought to regain the promise of democratic politics.
Harshana Rambukwella is a professor at Open College of Sri Lanka.