How We Came To This Pass – The Aragalaya Challenge
Rise of the Sinhala Nation
When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) won the presidency a Sinhalese journalist and author of Gota’s War captured the spirit of the celebrations in November 2019. “What we saw”, he rejoiced, “was the reaction of a down trodden, persecuted, humiliated majority community to all the suffering and indignities they had undergone for the past five [Yahapalanaya] years”, 2015 to 2019; and, he explained, this is what happens “when the majority community of a nation is used as a doormat by the minority communities.”
His claims appear farfetched. Members of the Sinhalese elite controlled political power through their parties (UNP and SLFP) from February 1948 and they have had and still hold an unassailable absolute majority in parliament; they virtually monopolised State power – the armed forces and civil bureaucracy – since the mid -1970s; and they reserved for themselves the lion’s share of national resources (land, employment and, after 1972, education and so on). It’s a great mystery how “the minority communities” could have used “the majority community… as a doormat” up to 2019. On the contrary, the Sinhalese elite collectively wiped their feet on the vast majority of their own masses who are now revolting, led by Aragalaya (the Struggle), against the elite and demanding a systemic change.
Arguably, the journalist inferred from Anagarika Dharmapala’s opinions about Sinhalese victimhood expressed more than a century ago that, in all likelihood, resonates with him and the 6.9 million Sinhalese who voted GR into power. It is said the Anagarika, the Buddhist revivalist, developed an intellectual interest in Sinhala-Buddhism after “a mob of Sri Lankan Catholics attacked a Buddhist procession in 1883”.
The journalist and nationalist Sinhalese compatriots do not explain how “minorities” could have walked all over the “majority community” under the rule of Sinhala-Buddhist president and prime minister during the Yahapalanaya (Good Governance) years. The “majority community” underwent more pain and ignominies between 2019 and 2021 under the next Sinhala-Buddhist President GR and his nationalist (SLPP) administration. The cost of living sky rocketed; prices of necessities (wage goods) rose beyond the reach of the average consumer; fuel was first unavailable and, later, tightly rationed; foreign exchange reserves all but dried up; and normal life ground to a virtual standstill. Perhaps the nationalist Sinhalese believe that the multiple crises, well documented in the public domain, are conspiracies by the “minorities”.
However, the crises galvanised critical sections overwhelmingly within the Sinhalese middle and upper-middle classes, mostly from urban areas; and Aragalaya burst forth like a butterfly from its decaying chrysalis in early March 2022. They activists demanded the Sinhalese-dominated government takes urgent action to resolve the crises but soon they moved beyond seeking symptomatic relief to the realisation, dimly at first, that the emasculation of legal and political institutions, procedures and traditions over several decades is at the root of the country’s problems. Their demand escalated to a system change on the run, so to speak.
The Aragalaya activists launched, with unprecedented bravery, the “Gota-Go-Home” campaign on the Galle Face Green to eject GR from the presidency and shed the Sinhalese old guard as the first step to systemic change. They exhorted the “minority communities” – Tamils and Muslims, and Christians – to join them in their drive to “save our motherland” from GR and his siblings. The activists’ patriotism, commitment and spirit of martyrdom stand in stark contrast to their kleptocratic political class.
Nevertheless, the irony of “inviting” the assistance of Tamil and Muslim “minorities”, demoted by nationalist Sinhalese to “recent arrivals” from South India and Arabia respectively but seemingly upgraded by Aragalaya to temporary “boomiputhra” status, was largely lost on the activists. A few die-hard nationalists desperately goaded “minorities” to lend support with a breath-taking sense of entitlement, while dismissing as a “Tigers’ plot” the Tamils’ Poraattam (the Struggle) that has been going on for several years in the north and east protesting human rights violations and demanding accountability for the Disappeared. The Sinhalese by and large had offered little support for or solidarity with the Poraattam.
To be fair, some Aragalaya members expressed regret but insisted Tamils and Muslims participate with hardly a semblance of an apology for the violence – physical, emotional and cultural – let loose against them over the past seven decades. The “minorities” also know the headlong military campaign to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-led resistance over four decades (1979 – 2009) has wrought far-reaching structural changes to State and society, buttressed by a virulent hegemonic ideology, that are very likely irremediable in the foreseeable future. So, they are understandably wary of the sudden benevolent shift, no doubt quite sincere, from Sinhala-Buddhist motherland to our motherland and logically wonder how soon attitudes would revert to normal.
The Aragalaya activists may be aware of Tamil parliamentarians’ Satyagraha on the same Galle Face Green more than six decades ago, in 1956, when nationalist Sinhalese welcomed the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna’s (MEP) policy of declaring Sinhala the sole official language (“Sinhala Only”) and acclaimed the Rise of their Nation – a Sinhalese renaissance – and violently dispersed the non-violent Satyagrahis who symbolised the opposition to the policy. The Rise had already begun with stripping citizenship rights of Malayaha Tamils in 1948 and continued for about seven decades: “Sinhala Only”; the Buddhist calendar delineating Poya and Pre-Poya days; the Sinhala alphabet “Sri” adorning vehicle registration plates; anointing Buddhism as the virtual State religion; and ethnic cleansing of southern Tamils through a series of Pogroms from 1958 to 1983, reducing them to an ethnic rump in and around Colombo are but a few of the bench marks of the Rise.
Most nationalist Sinhalese who believe the “majority community” was “used as a doormat by the minority communities” suffer from a staggering amnesia of the recent events. Unsurprisingly they view the twin events of the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 and political victory of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) seven months later in the 2010 presidential election as the zenith of the Sihala-Buddhist hegemonic project, claimed to have originated by the legendary King Duttugemunu more than two millennia ago. The resulting ethnic animosities between communities obviously cannot be reversed by a few weeks or months of well-meaning Aragalaya declarations about “united we stand, divided we fall”.
Please don’t get us wrong. We are not disputing the right of nationalist Sinhalese to do any or all of the above and more in what they consider their motherland; of course, they do and they did, lubricated by majoritarianism. At the same time, they should not recoil at the devastating consequences of their actions, taken consciously with unimpaired mental faculties; nor should they scapegoat Tamils and Muslims for their self-inflicted miseries.
The heady reverberations of exploding fireworks and hypnotic clicking of cocktail glasses in May 2009 perhaps made the nationalists forget that King Duttugemunu did not have to contend with Geneva Conventions, International Humanitarian Law and the UNHRC. In contrast the allegations of war crimes documented, for example by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) and the BBC film No Fire Zone, are swirling around MR, his then Defence Secretary GR and their senior military commanders. The government, armed forces and sections of the Sinhalese intelligentsia have strongly rejected the allegations.
The nationalists also slurred over the country’s steady descent into the “non-rule of law system” and entrenched impunity. For instance, an anonymous account of the proceedings of the 2013 Marga Institute Seminar recorded the participants endorsing the findings of the report, “The Numbers Game: politics of retributive justice” by unspecified author(s) from an “Independent Diaspora Analysis Group”, which in effect demonised the LTTE. The participants, however, formally concluded violations of the rule of law by both sides in the war should be impartially investigated by an independent body and resolved one way or another. That was ten years ago; and pervasive impunity has made mincemeat of the pious hopes for accountability – the foundation of justice.
It is only natural that nationalist Sinhalese and the mainstream section of their intelligentsia would justify the war they championed and strive to protect their “war heroes”. We have no quarrel with that; they may do so and both MR and GR during their presidential election campaigns and after vowed to shield the “war heroes” from prosecution. A few minions were convicted but were soon granted a presidential pardon in 2020 and let loose into society; the following year 16 LTTE convicts, whom Tamils firmly believe are political prisoners, were also pardoned perhaps to maintain apparent even handedness. However, a consequence of not systematically investigating allegations of war crimes to weed out guilty ones, if any, including those with command responsibility, is that the alleged perpetrators are allowed to continue to hold office in the government, armed forces, bureaucracy and the foreign service. They invariably resist the re-establishment of rule of law, under which citizens may hold them accountable.
Meanwhile economic crimes, known colloquially as “corruption”, flourished within the larger context of widespread impunity. But nationalist Sinhalese turned a blind eye to blatant crimes of all hues asserting “they won the war”; some protested only half-heartedly against the 18th Amendment and barely against the 20th, confident that “the oldest democracy in Asia” will soon spring back to its feet. The Aragalaya’s seminal contribution is the assessment that a systemic change is the precondition to the renewal.
Two important Sinhalese perspectives bubbled to the surface during the Aragalaya. A decidedly marginal one held that the country’s tragic turn is the result of the mistreatment of Tamils and Muslims. The other mainstream opinion believed the government was compelled to militarily repress Tamil “communalism”, crush its LTTE and bring to heel the Wahabi-inspired Muslims prone to violence, witnessed on the 2019 Easter Sunday. The former view was louder in March and April when Aragalaya grew from strength to strength; the latter became more dominant when the protests faltered and began to fade after the allegedly State-sponsored attacks and counter attacks from the 9th of May onwards. Murmurs in Colombo expressed a variation of the second theme, steeped in the usual anti-Tamil kneejerk reaction: the county’s multiple crises and near bankruptcy are “all” largely, if not exclusively, due to the war the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran started to satiate his greed for power.
Either way the Struggle forced the more perceptive among the majority’s intelligentsia to review the country’s “downfall” since Independence in 1948. A few apparently reflected deeply on the political mirages conjured up by Sinhalese politicians: S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike’s Apae [Sinhala] Aanduwa, JR Jayewardene’s Dharmishta Aanduwa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Mahinda Chinthanaya, President Maithripala Sirisena & Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s Yahapalanaya and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sahubaggeye Dhakma; President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s vision is awaited.
The Aragalaya activists have taken on the unenviable task of rescuing the country. Their sincere efforts are timely and welcome but are unfortunately hobbled by a fundamental misconception.
Aragalaya: an apolitical struggle?
At its inception activists declared their agitation is “apolitical”, an approach widely welcomed by Sinhalese both within and outside the country as the “Beauty of Protest”. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) weighed in, cautioning government the non-violent “lawful” protesters are protected by the Constitution and should not be arrested. Perhaps the BASL overlooked that lawful could be turned unlawful virtually by the stroke of a pen by the elementary expedient, for example, of having a court issue an order against protesters for the conveniently vague infraction of “causing inconvenience to public”, which empowered police to disperse them, forcibly if necessary; and lawfully tear gas and water cannon and, where necessary, arrest the disobeying protesters.
The Aragalaya activists claimed they are apolitical whilst attempting the quintessentially political task of a systemic change, of expelling the President and the 225 parliamentarians. What could be more political than that?
The confused claim reeks of US Political Science 101’s naïve view of politics as party politics, instead of politics as power relations that determine the side of the city one lives in, what type of school one attends, which profession one enters and whom one marries. The alleged involvement of the political Left (JVP and FSP) could not correct the apolitical-ness of the overwhelmingly middle and upper-middle class Aragalaya activists; the same political handicap also evidently prevented them from making common cause with powerful working class trade unions that had initially showed interest in backing the protests. Perhaps the activists were reluctant to share leadership with the unions. As a result, they were caught flatfooted by RW’s power play.
The apolitical approach also limited the Aragalaya’s ability to convincingly explain the sources of funds to build the GotaGoGama on Galle Face Green, except to respond to our enquiries that “well-wishers” provided the apparently abundant financial and material resources. That may well be true but such altruism does raise eyebrows in the political arena. We observed the flying visit to Colombo by US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland who is said to have masterminded the February 2014 regime change in Ukraine that drove out the country’s elected pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and brought in the pro-US President Volodymyr Zelensky. Her visit coincided ominously with the launch of the Aragalaya in late March, 2022.
The activists achieved a degree of success. They compelled MR to resign the Prime Ministership but not his parliamentary seat; he’s back in the House. The Aragalaya claimed credit for forcing his brother GR to flee the country and quit the presidency. On the other hand, credible rumours in Colombo insinuate he fled because the military refused to back him, for instance, by not firmly preventing protesters from invading GR’s official residence, and paving the way for RW to take over as President, whom the military has so far supported fully. Predictably there is speculation about a foreign hand’s involvement in a “regime change” that included the resignation of Ministers. However, GR has returned as Former President to the country and a majority of ministers are back in the “new” Cabinet.
Their apolitical-ness has so far blocked the Aragalaya maturing into a political movement that could win power and carry out the much sought after systemic change; it also prevented the activists from anticipating the 9th of May mayhem and led them, within four days, to appeal to the entrenched Members of Parliament (MPs) to change the system that the same MPs control and benefit from. The Sinhalese political class correctly interpreted the Aragalaya are on the back foot; it smelled blood.
In August the BASL flagged extra-judicial killings and corpses that washed up on the beach in the vicinity of GotaGoGama; they carried their own message, a throwback to darker times. The Aragalaya activists vacated Galle Face Green on 9 August and the police have reportedly arrested about 3,000 activists, in part guided by MPs’ lists.
Many in the South expect the Aragalaya to rise from the ashes. We wish the activists well.
*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who received the Ph.D. degree from the University of Cambridge. He was Assistant Director, International Studies in the Marga Institute, Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and has taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: email@example.com
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