A year ago, on July 9th, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, dispossessed by the economic destruction unleashed by a government they elected not long ago, descended on the Capital, Colombo. They stormed the President’s House while President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was hurriedly evacuated to a waiting naval ship. Three days later, Rajapaksa resigned, leading to the appointment of his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the stopgap president. Later Wickremesinghe won a parliamentary vote to hold the office for the remainder of Mr Rajapakaksa’s vacated term– with the help of the MPs from Rajapaksa’s Pohottuwa. This week marks the first year of his presidency as well.
The ouster of Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the culmination of mass protests which began barely months ago. In February, as the consequences of economic mismanagement were gradually evident, people in modest numbers gathered in Colombo suburbs, holding night vigils. These silent protests grew in numbers and spread across the country as the economic meltdown hastened. In April, people heeded social media calls to occupy the Galle Face Green, which became the centre of protests and a carnival of social and cultural diversity. On May 9th, Pohottuwa apparatchiks returning from a meeting at the Temple Trees, the official residence of then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, attacked the protestors in the Galle Face green, causing an outpouring of mass anger. In the ensuing violence, the Houses of ruling party MPs were torched; Rajapaksa’s ancestral house was attacked; a ruling party MP was killed. Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign, and, Gotabaya appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as the prime minister after Sajith Premadasa hesitated. If throwing his elder brother and his cabinet under the bus was to save his skin, the ploy did not work for Gotabaya. July 9th sealed his fate.
The Aragalaya was unique in the protest history of this country. It was the first large-scale spontaneous, decentralised mass activism that brought together a disparate number of public groups. They held no special political or ideological affinity and were not guided by any political party, yet they brought down the government in a show of people’s power. That makes them by far the most successful protest in Sri Lankan history and is a precedent for others across the world.
Did Aragalaya achieve its goals? It indeed did. For the average public in the protest ground, the goal was the ouster of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was both stupid and arrogant and refused to amend his destructive policies until it was too late.
Since then, the gradual but steady turnaround of the Sri Lankan economy vindicates that conviction. Without the momentous changes unleashed by Aragalaya, the usual charlatans like Ajith Nivard Cabral would be at the helm of the Central Bank; Sri Lanka might as well have descended into economic annihilation similar to Zimbabwe or Venezuela, where the kleptocratic regime leaders and their incompetent pet poodles have unleashed economic destruction that is humanely impossible.
A sweeping anti-corruption law has now passed the second reading and will become law sooner though I would contend that the bigger problem of Sri Lanka is not corruption (Sri Lanka has a larger corruption perception than real corruption) but the self-interested lethargy for economic reforms, which in turn has created a low productive captive market. That element of prolonged state failure is also under scrutiny as the government is unbundling loss-making state-owned enterprises. It plans to end state monopolies and crippling fuel and electricity subsidies, and other destructive political doll-outs extended at the cost of the collective economic future of the nation.
In the second half of this year, the economy would begin to rebound modestly and may recoup some of the losses of the first half of the year. Gotabaya Rajapaksa could have avoided much of the pain if he had an iota of commonsense. However, his successor deserves credit for avoiding the crash to the nadir, managing the crisis, and lifting up, gradually.
The other sinister revolution
None of these positive developments is registered in the assessment of your usual jokers who give daily press conferences. During the weekend, some of the Aragalaya holdouts held protests in Colombo. Many will follow this week. They decried the IMF, fuel price reforms and restructuring of the SOEs. What makes these fellows different from Gotabaya Rajapaksa in their ideology?
They sobbed at the failure of the Aragalaya for system change. What regime change they mean cannot be understood without insight into their political affiliations to front groups of fringe Peratugamis, JVP, and other usual culprits of the far left who have even limited public support or prospect at electoral representation in competitive elections.
For the uninitiated to Sri Lankan politics, their outbursts imply a lost Aragalaya. Some folks, then, go on to dutifully regurgitate these claims.
What their rhetorical grievances represent cannot be understood without understanding the very nature of the Aragalaya.
Within the disparate groups that throned Aragalaya, there were many revolutions and many struggles, but the common thread was the opposition to the Rajapaksa regime. Within these myriad revolutions, two stood out: one guided by that common goal, another held by a few politically cohesive groups, who were apparatchiks of the Peratugamis, the JVPs and other small-time homemade revolutionaries, who viewed this as an opportunity for a power grab. Reaching their eventual aim also required them to lay low, mingle with the popular campaign, capitalise on the popular grievance and strike at the opportune moment, hijacking the campaign and turning it into one of their own to advance an expansive set of political agenda.
There is a common historical thread of this strategy across the world.
Incidentally, the watershed of the mass uprising was the burning of the Cinema Rex, allegedly by the Shah’s intelligence agents. Islamists also loathe cinemas. Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France only after Shah fled the country. Islamists who filled the political vacuum crushed their secular opponents with ruthless efficiency that made Shah look like a convent nun. Theocratic Iran today is a global pariah that kills women who refuse to wear the headscarf.
Recently during the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt put into action the same ploy.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) officially shunned involvement in the mass protests against President Mubarak. Protests were led by secular liberals, left and trade unions. When Mubarak was finally ousted, the MB even promised not to field a presidential candidate, only to walk back on the word. Muslim Brotherhood, a secretive but well-oiled quasi-religious political organization, capitalized on the power vacuum, won both Parliament and the presidency and amended the constitution, only to be put back in the box by the military. Morsi, the president, died in prison, and thousands of Muslim brothers are rotting in jail.
Aragalaya’s clashing twin agendas were between the ouster of the Rajapaksa as campaigned by the majority of average folks, and an ambitious secret ploy at a power grab by exploiting the resultant vacuum as plotted by the JVP, Peratugami types. For most protestors, Gotabaya’s ouster meant the thread hold for compromise. They did not throne to Colombo to tear down the State or parliamentary representation. They did not subscribe to nonsense articulated by the Peratugami types for people’s committees, which have sinister echoes of State-sanctioned token representation of other ideologies in arrangements such as China’s Political Consultative Conference. After the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, most of the public considered the mission accomplished, took a few selfies and headed home.
The other group, in contrast, saw the political vacuum created by the resignation of Rajapaksa as the opportune moment to strike. Crowds were mobilised to lay siege to Parliament. The private residence of Ranil Wickremesinghe was torched. But, with the average protestors having no interest in further protests, they were left unguarded. Their political project failed, and you keep hearing sour grapes every time they open mouth.
Aragalaya won, but these folks, who had a far more expansive and sinister agenda, lost. They may continue to be a distraction, though, at times, they might even provide much-needed scrutiny for the government’s excesses. But, the history of protests would tell those groups are wolves in sheep’s clothing. We are fortunate that they failed, as much as Aragalaya won.
Disclaimer: A year ago, twin revolutions within Aragalaya. Thank God, one lost! - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view