I was going to continue with the second part of my analysis of the dilemma faced by the people’s struggle (Aragalaya), not simply to drive out the former president, but to establish a more ethical, morally and legally accountable political framework and civil society.
But Wednesday’s protest by the SJB, trade unions, university students and other elements needs a comment. It was a stalemate. The police stopped the march from Maradana to Fort, but the cascade of violence everyone expected did not fortunately happen. Both sides were probing each other, and the question is where to go from here.
A radio news announcement Tuesday evening said six groups of business concerns have called for protest organizers not to go ahead as they could derail the country’s economic recovery.
Tourism is seen as a main contributor to this recovery. According to the news, several airlines have agreed to fly in tourists to Sri Lanka during the winter despite high costs and other difficulties.
I’m afraid this is simply an attempt to give a ‘civil society’ façade to the government’s full-fledged thrust to wipe out the Aragalaya and silence all dissenting voices. From April to May, the same business groups either supported the call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, or remained silent without interfering. Why have they suddenly changed the tune now?
The sudden claim by business groups and lobbies that street protests would hinder vital economic recovery has to be understood in the context of what steps the government has taken so far to that end
Recovery is now a primary goal, but not at the cost of hard-earned democratic freedoms. This is the old right-of-centre, neoliberal hardline view that no progress can be made with too much democracy. J. R. Jayewardene used this argument to break the back of trade unions.
The result was to add an ugly new element to the harsh new reality of huge economic gaps between business owners, workers and consumers created by J. R.’s open economy – the yawning gap it created between those who could strike at will, and those who couldn’t do more than squeak. The gap between those who can protest at will since JR’s time — the private bus service and the GMOA can strike at will, paralyzing the country – and workers in private companies or even state owned enterprises who have no voice is huge.
Joseph Stalin’s teachers’ union clout is a more recent phenomenon, and steps have been taken to mute it with his arrest. A single day’s strike by any of the powerful lobbies mentioned above can cause more damage to the country’s economy and well-being of its people than any peaceful demonstration ever could.
When private bus owners strike, for example, these are not trade union actions but an arbitrary, unanimous decision by an organization with enough clout to force any government to the negotiating table (the CGR or the state-owned railway department with its bewildering array of trade unions is the exception that proves the rule). When the CGR goes on strike, that’s trade union action. When private bus owners do, it’s not. This is a bewildering contradiction which characterizes our chaotic political system of the post-JR era. The latest example is a warning by private bus owners to strike next week — the reason is that they can’t pay leasing due to the crisis and almost 3000 buses are under threat of seizure.
From April to May, the same business groups either supported the call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, or remained silent without interfering. Why have they suddenly changed the tune now?
Granted that bus operators have faced hard time since the pandemic. But so have many other people with leasing payment issues. They do not have a voice. This is the gap I was earlier referring to which makes the whole system unjust.
There is a difference between a strike and a protest. But they have much in common, too. In its early stages, the spontaneous, apolitical people’s protest movement that the Aragalaya was could be defined as a massive nationwide strike against both president and government. It’s the mass protests post April 2022 that gave all voiceless people – as opposed to entrenched business or professional lobbies – a chance to air their grievances. But a massive effort is now underway to deny ordinary people that solitary chance.
Permission must be sought now from the police for using megaphone, amplifiers etc., by demonstrators. Furthermore, any obstruction to traffic caused by demos shall be dealt with ‘as per the police ordinance.’ Any policeman aspiring to please his bosses can now deny permission to demonstrate.
Ranil Wickremesinghe with his pro-Rajapaksa cabinet has vilified the Aragalaya and pushed it to a corner. This is a ruthless plan to drive it underground so that it can be crushed with methods that our governments know only too well.
This is why that call by business interests to avoid further demonstrations is a dangerous new development. Reasoning that demos would derail economic recovery gives it a ‘holier than thou’ façade and a new sense of urgency and strength. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been president now since July. Let’s see what economic progress has been made so far.
It’s the mass protests post April 2022 that gave all voiceless people – as opposed to entrenched business or professional lobbies – a chance to air their grievances. But a massive effort is now underway to deny ordinary people that solitary chance
I’m not going spout statistics here. They are published every day or can be seen at a glance from social media. I’m talking of the ‘street value’ of recovery with my own eyes.
Fuel and gas can now be had without miles-long queues, but it’s still very tricky. Suddenly, there’s no petrol or diesel for a day or two. Since last week, there is no gas to be had in my sector of Colombo. This is not economic recovery, this is simply plugging a great cauldron of chaos.
As for tourism, on which so much hope is pinned, the season starts in September, not in December. There has only been a trickle of tourists so far, though there have no major protests at all for the past two months. This is because Westerners are now feeling the pinch of inflation and China has a strict zero Covid policy which restricts travel.
Even if there is a sudden influx of tourists after November, the thought that this is going to revive the economy, or the tourist industry, is for kindergarten dreamers. Even the relaxation of import restrictions announced recently (the list includes cosmetics) are a sop to the middle class and above, telling them to look after their appearances and stay out of trouble.
The problem is that this year’s economic meltdown has almost wiped out the middle class, leaving us with a simpler class equation – the rich and poor. Many middle class people are now that only by name and wishful thinking.
In reality, business interests have always worked hand in hand with the post-1977 neoliberal ‘open’ economy values. This school of thinking thought of the middle class as a buffer between the rich and the poor. This idea seemed to be true during the JVP rebellion of the late 1980s. But the walls were already breaking down. Today, the JVP, as do all other political parties, has large numbers of middle class supporters. I‘m not a JVP supporter but must say this because so many people are oblivious to the obvious.
What I’m saying that if the president and his backers believe that the old ‘divide and rule’ game is going to work now, they are sadly mistaken.
This is a quote from John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
‘It is, of course, its essentially schizophrenic outlook on society that makes the middle class such a peculiar mixture of yeast and dough. We tend nowadays to forget that it has always been the great revolutionary class; we see much more the doughty aspect, the bourgeoisie as the heartland of reaction, the universal insult, forever selfish and conforming. Now this Janus-like quality derives from the class’s one saving virtue, which is this; that alone of the three great castes of society it sincerely and habitually despises itself.’
This is the view from Europe. The French revolution, The Russian revolution, the Cuban revolution and indeed, England’s industrial revolution were all started and carried through by the middle class. We, as always, have been late to catch up and living under the illusion that revolutions (or insurrections as we call them) are done by the poor or the working class (more or less the same). Hence, they can be crushed ruthlessly with hardly a murmur from the classes above.
But times have changed. Sri Lanka’s April 2022 revolution was started by the middle class, when it realized that it was getting wiped out. The poor now feel a kinship with its remnants without having benefitted in any way from the wreckage above. But they are more equal in their misery, and the only release valve they have is a peaceful street demonstration. Don’t deny them that chance, or the consequences will be terrible once that little space has been hijacked by the radicals.
Therefore, the sudden claim by business groups and lobbies that street protests would hinder vital economic recovery has to be understood in the context of what steps the government has taken so far to that end, and also in the context who’s going to benefit from any recovery, and in what way. Let’s look at that in my next column.
Disclaimer: You pushed the Aragalaya to a corner: Don’t drive it underground - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view