Kishali Pinto -Jayawardene
There is a stark difference between Sri Lanka’s multifaceted ‘aragalaya’ (the peoples’ struggle) of 2022 and the current unrest in Pakistan, with the deploying of the army throughout the land.
A different trajectory of similar struggles
To be blunt, that difference is the role of the Opposition in both countries. Common to Pakistan and Sri Lanka is the collapse of the respective national economies and disastrous political leadership. Eruptions of public fury on Pakistan’s streets have been somewhat tempered this week by the declaration of the Supreme Court that the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan was ‘illegal,’ an interesting legal point that we will return to later.
But the larger issue is the abrupt contrast that is presented between Pakistan’s burgeoning protests and Sri Lanka’s similar tumult one year ago. The protest movement started in this country as spontaneous citizen-anger against a shamelessly corrupt, stupendously foolish and supremely arrogant dynastic Rajapaksa leadership.
This had precipitated a dangerously growing economic crisis born out of decades of financial, monetary and economic misrule (for which all Governments were responsible) into outright bankruptcy.
That peoples’ struggle soon metamorphosed into a creature of a different and far more complex kind when its unique vigour was rudely co-opted by opposition parties, some more successfully than others. At the time, red comrades of the National Peoples Power party (NPP) led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) declared that the protests needed ‘political leadership’ and infiltrated the ranks, finally becoming so bold as to drop its calm and reasonable facade with top rung leaders calling for the surrounding of Parliament.
Pure opportunistic upmanship
That blatant upmanship by the JVP killed the sincerity of the iconic Galle Face Green protest movement that had captured the hearts and minds of not only Sri Lankans throughout the world but also the global community at large. The infiltration of a determinedly a-political struggle which had as its early hallmark, the rightful castigation of the county’s entire political establishment, was the single most factor in reducing Sri Lanka’s ‘aragalaya’ to just another political game.
The typical feature of these games are when some (the youth) are used as pawns by others (opportunistic political parties). That pattern is perennially present in national politics, corrupting what might otherwise have been transformative struggles for democracy and governance in our nation. Academics, professionals and public servants have now joined the NPP/JVP bandwagon in what has become a hoary Sri Lankan reaction by jumping with truly frightening zest from the frying pan into the fire.
It is a pity that they refuse to acknowledge that truth apart from moralizing about what is wrong with our ‘systems.’ The fact remains that, the politics of the JVP is very much part of that ‘system,’ whether we look at its unabashedly racist past, its glorifying of violence with thousands killed for not ‘obeying’ its dictates, (a punishment also meted out to its detractors by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or its toying with crucial governance reforms in past decades.
A useful reminder of the past
Those with institutional memory, more a curse than a blessing forsooth, will recall the JVP’s rancid about-face over the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, perhaps the one post independence governance reform measure that sincerely tried to restore constitutional balance between the (powerless) citizen and the (brutishly powerful) State. Once a strong backer of that amendment, the JVP soon joined the political mainstream in crippling the 17th Amendment.
This was when its most powerful reform feature, an independent Police Commission began exercising its powers too vigorously for the liking of politicians. Lest we forget, that rot started long before the Rajapaksa regime completed the decimation of constitutional oversight bodies through the 18th and later, the 20th Amendments.
Very early on, it was the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga which refused to appoint the Chair of the Elections Commission who was not perchance of the right political ‘colour.’
It was under that Presidency, aided and abetted by opposition parties, that the Police Commission met its fiercest resistance. That was a test of fire. In the face of that opposition, the will to implement independent commissions withered away. What came after were feeble deceptions masquerading as ‘independent commissions’, from weak bodies to outright political exercises in chicanery. No political party in this country, including the JVP, is free of responsibility thereto.4
The role of the Opposition
To believe otherwise is plain foolishness, just more of that supine idiocy that made the Sri Lankan voter cast their choice for a Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency with its utopian dreams of a Sinhala-Buddhist State, only to finally cast its adoring into abject penury and utter misery.
In sum, that is the context in which the JVP ‘capturing’ of the ‘aragalaya’ put the seal of its own ending on a once unprecedentedly inspiring protest movement.
And to those who might mutter discontentedly, ‘what is the point of protest without it politically going anywhere?,” the answer is short and simple. To energise its voter base, the opposition must perform on its own merit, not capitalise on a-political peoples’ protests.
Take the unfolding events in Pakistan as an example. There, the protests are spurred solely by dynamic events having opposition political parties as their direct foci.
Here, the opposition (from the JVP to the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, SJB) tried to use people’s protests to score brownie points for their own benefit. In this, the SJB failed whereas the JVP rode the protests on the crest of a wave in the disillusioning ‘aragalaya’ aftermath.
That said, the most to benefit short term at least (the ‘long term’ is yet to be reckoned with) from this strange juxtaposition of extraordinary tumult was President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Taking the (military) ‘bull’ by its horns
The President goes beetroot red when questioned as to whether he does not owe the grandeur of his seat to the ‘aragalaya’ youth. Regardless, this is the truth, however unwelcome that may be.
So to reiterate, in contrast to personalities riding to power on the back of peoples’ protests in Sri Lanka, it is the opposition in Pakistan that has literally taken the bull (the Pakistan military establishment) by its dangerous horns.
Ironically, former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s’ voting support has been boosted after he was arrested when presenting himself in court on charges of corruption alleged to be a political ploy.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was that the arrest was ‘unlawful’ and violated the sanctity of court. Key Ministers have declared that they will arrest Khan ‘again and again.’
Dramatic events preceding Khan’s arrest had as its core, the calling for elections that are being postponed, much like in Sri Lanka. Certainly for all his political juggling and onetime flirting with the military that has now turned sour, it cannot be denied that the former Pakistan PM has the courage to squarely face the forces opposed to him.
Sri Lanka’s tired opposition
Can Sri Lanka’s Opposition say the same? The SJB leader and his party men hold forth on, inter alia, the distressed economy, eradicating poverty and ‘going to court’ against the Presidential decision to postpone polls for ‘lack of funds.’ This is eminently unexciting, to say the least.
The courtrooms are not only where public opinion is shaped and formed in the first instance, as the SJB must be told. Then we have Tamil parties saying that they are looking forward to ‘constructive talks’ on the National Question with the President while that old drivel about truth and reconciliation is being hawked again.
Meanwhile excitable JVP sloganeering that the country is being ‘sold down the river’ (which a child already knows), proceeds apace. But where is the fiery energising of the Sri Lankan citizenry, apart from the ‘same old, same old’ rhetoric?
Is that not precisely what an Opposition is supposed to do?