by Uditha Devapriya
What happens to a mass uprising when it loses its radical potential? He loses direction, focus and the will to continue. The protests unfolding in the country have crossed ethnic and social divides, unifying disparate classes and groups that once waged war on each other. A middle-class protester, studying at a private university, celebrates IUSF’s entry into the protests and claims that class is a fictional construct that doesn’t matter, that the common enemy is the State and that the Rajapaksas are their enemies. Yet when a prominent state university professor notes the irony of the public university disparaging upper-middle-class protesters joining IUSF, she is reprimanded for encouraging class divisions.
In a thoughtful post on social media, Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana acknowledges the (mostly young) protesters’ urge to downplay ethnic and class distinctions, but notes that it does not credit the protests for erasing those distinctions. Celebrating a Sri Lankan identity based on common opposition to political elites, notes Dr. Weerawardhana, does not weaken these demarcations but actually reinforces them. Historically marginalized groups, to give the most obvious example, have been challenged by state power over the past five decades, rendering any comparison between them and other more privileged groups and communities rather meaningless, even downright silly.
At the ethnic level, there have been many debates over whether the protests should incorporate demands for demilitarization in the northeast, recognition of war crimes and opposition to the continued harassment of minorities across the country. . Galle Face’s protests soured a bit when a choir brought in to sing the national anthem, apparently as a sign of unity against the Rajapaksas, failed to include the Tamil version. Several tweets and social media posts later, amid much debate and discussion, the event was re-enacted, this time with the Tamil version intact. However, this did not prevent the debates.
Two lines of opinion seem to have been drawn on this controversy and on others like it. On the one hand, the protesters blame the activists for sowing division in the protests, and for highlighting a very fine line that the Rajapaksas and their cronies can use to point to a lack of unity among the protesters. On the other hand, activists argue that there has never been, and never will be, a better time to acknowledge that the laws of the land do not apply equally to all people. communities, and that opposition to the Rajapaksas should take note of the systemic flaws that predated the arrival of the first family. While an overwhelming majority of Sinhalese speakers take the first view, I am strongly in favor of the second.
Without a leader, but not without a rudder, the Galle Face Green protests demonstrated a strong commitment to overturning the status quo. Yet caught up in a movement targeting personalities, even the most ostensibly radical protests can turn a blind eye to crucial systemic flaws. I firmly believe that it would be a betrayal of Galle Face’s mandate, such as it is, to ignore legitimate concerns, such as minority rights, on the grounds that they tend to dilute what the protesters are aiming for, namely the elimination of the Rajapaksas. The greater tragedy would be to view these two goals as contradictory, when they are not, and to ignore that these protests have co-opted multiple elements and shades of opinion.
Indeed, the fact that Galle Face Green has been visited by those who have opposed the burial of COVID-19 victims, a policy that has unnecessarily afflicted the Muslim community, should alert us to the dangers of leaving everyone world and anyone to be part of these protests. As Rathindra Kuruwita points out in a recent article on The diplomat (“Sri Lanka’s Leaderless Protests”), the absence of a political direction on the Occupy Galle Face movement, while being in tune with an anarchist attitude towards politics, can in the long term expose this movement to the risk not only of infiltration, but also of diversion, by insidious and regressive elements.
It’s the same story at the level of social class. Suddenly, the neoliberal commentators who were preaching revolution against the Rajapaksas are praising the status quo, on the grounds that the government is implementing what they see as necessary economic reforms and that should not be left behind. oppose. Admittedly, their true colors were evident from the outset: When the Rajapaksa regime abandoned price controls late last year, a prominent spokesperson for that mob tweeted that while unpopular, it was the right decision. Yet, due to massive uprisings against rising prices and currency devaluation, not to mention the prospect of a recession in the near future, the contradiction between popular demands for relief and neoliberal prescriptions for austerity has become more pronounced than ever.
Past experience should tell us that the economic reforms recommended by the IMF do not and will not bring relief to the masses. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government in Egypt negotiated a whopping $12 billion package with Washington in return for austerity measures. Far from reducing poverty, these measures have, among other things, contributed to an increase in the rate of extreme poverty from 5.3% of the population in 2015 to 6.2% in 2017/2018. The results of a semi-annual report on household finances, published in 2019, clearly belie the claim that IMF reforms benefit the poorer classes on two counts: that cash transfers will compensate for social cuts and that subsidies benefit the middle class.
Far from relieving the poor and eliminating “unnecessary” subsidies for the middle class, these measures have crushed the former more and pushed the latter to the brink of poverty. As Heba al-Laithy, an adviser at the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), which authored and published the report, clearly notes,
“It is often said that energy subsidies are wasteful or that the rich benefit the most. It’s wrong. The poor don’t have cars but they bear the burden of soaring public transport costs and other indirect impacts of rising energy prices…. What happened was that the savings made from the reduction in subsidies were not used in spending on health and education, for example… [T]The tax savings achieved through the reduction of subsidies were used to reduce the budget deficit when at least 50% should have been allocated to compensate the population.
More worryingly, all of these reforms have been and are overseen by a manifestly authoritarian government. Now the hypocrisy of neoliberal commentators is that they would place the authoritarian label on regimes that attempt to control and regulate the economy, but not on those that actually use state power to liberalize and deregulate it. . It is the paradox that explains why right-wing economic commentators in Sri Lanka demonize the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s attempts to control prices or restrict imports, while looking back wistfully to the JR Jayewardene years.
It’s not that there aren’t alternatives. There are. Howard Nicholas has been touting an alternative for years: an export-led industrialization strategy. Yet decried by neoliberal commentators and fellow travelers, such strategies never really saw the light of day. Commentators identifying with the right, with the IMF reforms, note that they are not only unworkable, but require authoritarian political structures, of the type that Southeast Asian countries had during the war. cold. According to this view of things, the industrialization experience of South East Asia does not correspond to Sri Lanka because, unlike the Tigris economies, we are a full-fledged democracy which cannot afford to follow this way.
While broadly accurate, the neoliberal justification for non-industrialization is not a bit hypocritical. On the one hand, whether industrialization requires authoritarianism from the center or not, IMF austerity certainly does: an inconvenient truth that commentators tend to sidestep. On the other hand, these commentators are now warning against comparing this country with the Southeast Asian experience, arguing that what happened there suited those economies and will not suit the ours: a fairly thin assertion, except for years, even decades, that Sri Lankan economists and neoliberal commentators have advocated Southeast Asian-style free-market policies and reforms without questioning whether, to paraphrase their own shibboleths, what happened there will suit our situation.
As ironic as it may sound, this only puts the finger on the neoliberal tendency towards waste sorting. While decrying political authoritarianism of the type associated with central economic planning, they see no problem with the political authoritarianism that accompanies economic liberalization vis-à-vis the IMF. This is why the same political elites who condemn the Rambukkana incident may romanticize the Jayewardene years, failing to note the link between neoliberal reforms and worker-peasant resistance that was the hallmark of those so-called good old days. I believe this should be denounced for what it is: rank hypocrisy.
So the burden is essentially on us: do we protest against the Rajapaksas while renouncing these concerns, or do we see both in the same way? It is ridiculous to expect radical movement against the status quo if we downplay other concerns. Yet that is exactly what a complacent majority tendency and an equally complacent neoliberal tendency among the protesters are leading us to. We must correct our course, immediately.
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