“WORDS DO NOT put rice on the table,” avers Gordon Weiss, a long-time Sri Lanka watcher and author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tigers. He was the UN spokesman in Colombo in the war-ravaged period leading to the fall of the LTTE in 2009. He feels that history is repeating itself like a drumbeat in the island nation. He elaborates on what he sees happening now: “The unresolved tensions between politicians and religious leaders who play the nationalist violin while Sri Lankans burn each other, a political system that feeds off unrestrained corruption and cronyism, and the well-developed sense of natural justice of ordinary Sri Lankans which has finally been sparked into action against the state.”
His views—that muscular nationalism and majoritarianism have expiry dates in the face of acute economic distress—find many takers worldwide and within Sri Lanka, where on May 9 anti-government protestors torched at least 41 homes of top-level leaders of the ruling party led by the Rajapaksa clan. People on this pearl-shaped island have been reeling from a shortage of food, fuel and other essential supplies for months now. Hours after national unrest acquired extremely violent hues, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the head of the clan, resigned as prime minister and fled his official home in Colombo—“Temple Trees”—to the Trincomalee naval base, more than 250 km away. The two-month-long protests that started in March had reached the gates of the Temple Trees and on the night of May 9, people had breached the gates, putting the prime minister’s life in danger before he was rescued.
Interestingly, the relentless protests received the backing of groups with varied political interests—from majoritarian and militant Buddhists to far-left political parties. In the end, the slogans of Sinhalese cultural nationalism and his god-like aura as the man who vanquished the Tamils were too weak to save Mahinda Rajapaksa and his kin from their apparent political demise, in a stark reminder that linguistic, religious and cultural nationalism could only take a leader this far.
The agitators had in the beginning tried to replicate the “Occupy Wall Street” movement at Galle Face, a huge seaside park in Colombo. Picking from the Boney M song title Gotta Go Home, they launched a campaign called ‘Gota Go Home’, asking the Rajapaksas (especially President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of Mahinda) to resign and return the “stolen money”. The slogans kept evolving, acquiring abbreviations and hashtags #GGG and #HGG, apart from others. GGG stood for ‘Gota Go Gama’, which in Sinhala, meant ‘Gota, go to your village’. #HGG stood for ‘Horu Go Gama (Go home to the village, thieves)’.
Protests only grew in strength as days passed although the Rajapaksas were hoping to cling on, expecting the wave of protests to fizzle out. But things took a turn for the worse as soon as pro-Rajapaksa men targeted the protestors for attack. Shortly afterwards, on May 9, protestors hit back. Things soon went completely out of control across various parts of the country.
Weiss adds, “I am not surprised that [even] the Sinhalese are rounding on the demagoguery of the Rajapaksas. Sri Lanka is at the sharp end of a universal phenomenon of convergent global crises which has exposed the fragility and precipitousness of the country’s governance and planning, not to mention the individual mismanagement of Gotabaya and his brothers.”
Meanwhile, economist Sergi Lanau tells Open that the economic situation will now worsen before it can be put on a road to recovery. The economy will easily contract more than 3 per cent in the second quarter, he forecasts. “Even before social unrest picked up, Sri Lanka was headed for a recession due to the impact of devaluation and shortages of electricity. The situation will worsen with instability,” he adds. He, however, expects that there is a clear road to recovery. “With a new IMF programme, Sri Lanka would have some additional dollars to import basic goods and would have more credibility to implement economic policies that improve the outlook and help reach an agreement with creditors,” he hopes.
There are those who expect the short-term economic crisis to be less dangerous than the monstrously divisive politics in the country. Sri Lanka-based influential thinker, artist and archaeologist Jagath Weerasinghe wants to look deeper into the tragedy.
The relentless protests received the backing of groups with varied political interests—from majoritarian and militant Buddhists to far-left political parties. In the end, the slogans of Sinhalese cultural nationalism and his god-like aura as the man who vanquished the Tamils were too weak to save Mahinda Rajapaksa and his kin from their apparent political demise
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He says Mahinda Rajapaksa had planned for an emotional grand exit. “Here comes my speculation: some elements in the [farewell] organising committee had different plans, [and] those elements instigated the attack on the anti-Mahinda protestors,” he says, emphasising that all hell broke loose soon. He sees the turn of events as a lack of foresight on the part of a politician as seasoned as Rajapaksa. There are some other local observers who feel that Rajapaksa miscalculated and, in the process, handed over a golden opportunity to the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), which has played a key role in #GGG protests and in the May 9 attacks. According to them, FSP, formed in 2012 by dissident members of the Marxist-Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), has a large following among the most active protestors.
Weerasinghe, for his part, argues that there are rays of hope as well as concerns from these developments in Sri Lanka. “The formations and voices from the GotaGoGama protests showed, for the first time in decades, a popular political action loudly denouncing populist ethno-nationalist politics. The singing of the national anthem in Tamil was one example of this, which I found so great, so emboldening.”
He goes on, “If I were to summarise my thoughts on the political meaning of GotaGoGama, then it’s a dauntless attack on the processes and workings of the institutionalised “politician privilege”. The entire political culture of Sri Lanka is corrupted by three forms of partisan dynamics. These three forms have one mutually inclusive aim, and that is upping the individualised political power of the politician, and then her/his party. The three forms are a) maintaining poverty by way of subsidies, a support that would be centred on an individual politician; b) maintaining some form of “fear towards a perceived threat” to gain partisan support in elections, and that an individual politician gets himself portrayed as the saviour; and c) maintaining partisan politics through high-level posts in government corporations, departments, banks, universities, etc.”
Like many others Open spoke to, Weerasinghe’s worry is that it is not easy to get rid of the modern ethno-nationalist politics of the Sinhalese and Tamils, which are, in his opinion, a result of the re-codification of cultural differences between the Tamils and Sinhalese as ethnic-representations by colonial rulers, which was further articulated by Sinhalese politicians. “Every politician, since then has exploited this in different degrees and scales and guises.” He is also concerned about how the state and its beneficiaries will respond to losing their hegemony if certain unsaid pacts that are part of the existing system are gone in the ongoing political churn. Yet, he doesn’t downplay the significance of these massive protests. “If we can preserve the momentum created by GotaGoGama, which I believe we can, then we can envision a future that wouldn’t easily get caught on ethno-nationalist traps and unrealistic and groundless fear psychoses.”
The questions that arise are: can that “sense of natural justice” of ordinary Sri Lankans that Weiss also talks about, endure the odds? And can the newly elected, mild-mannered Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe of opposition United National Party be a rainmaker? We will soon know.