If you keep yourself up to date with local news, you are also likely to be bombarded with an overdose of negativity, which might make an inquisitive tourist ponder whether he or she is in a different country.
That dichotomy may partly be due to the differential exposure to the local life, but that is also because, as I have written here previously, Sri Lankans have done a better job than anyone else to run their country down before the world and at home- and they relish at it.
If you dig deeper into this discourse, you meet a motley group of activists who have self-anointed themselves as heirs to Aragayala, the people’s struggle that ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The Aragalaya was an unpartisan mass struggle. The folks who now claim to be the heir to the Aragalaya are partisan accessories of the disgruntled political fringe
They are not the heir to, but the imposters of Aragayala. Their Aragalaya-coated groups are fronts to the Peratugamis and JVP. Most other civil society groups of the same flavour can have their entire contingent travelling in one or two three-wheeler taxis.
But, they enjoy a disproportionate media space, not befitting to their sparsely attended protests, for most television stations in this country are driven not so much by news but agendas.
So you hear them loud, though, if you are discerning enough, you might find them as confusing and opportunistic.
They tell you Sri Lanka at present is worse than it was one-and-a-half years ago when people were forced to queue up for endless hours for elusive gas cylinders and suffered hours of power cuts.
If that is pointed out, they shrug it off and add that the price of utilities is several times higher now. Never mind, the difference lies in the cost-reflective prices, which was overlooked by the previous administration and was the catalyst of the shortage.
They say that the IMF’s bailout package has unleashed mass suffering. Never mind, the straw that broke the camel’s back under Gotabaya was his refusal to seek IMF relief until the foreign reserves were emptied and the economy crumbled.
But, now, with the public gradually forgetting the suffering in those not-so-distant days, such rambling can have a political utility.
But these folk are also good at playing both sides. When the IMF withheld the second tranche of its bailout package due to the shortage in revenue collection, the same folks blamed the government while deriving a sinister satisfaction from the momentary setback.
To have a nuanced understanding of these self-anointed Aragalaya heirs, one should probe Aragalaya, the real one.
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans from all walks of life and of all communities trekked to Colombo, and others held localized protests to oust Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
They subscribed to no particular political ideology or were not members of any political party. In fact, they detested most politicians, but their anger was directed primarily against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the familial regime of the Rajapaksa brothers, whose idiotic handling of the economy has created unprecedented hardship for the masses.
They wanted him and the family out, and they stormed the Presidential Palace, forcing him to exile and resign from office. When their objective was achieved, they went home.
But, there was another smaller and more determined group, the party cadre of the JVP and Peratugamis, who had far-reaching objectives.
All that time, they hid behind the teeming masses. They knew all too well that any effort to take over the mass struggle would result in its running out of steam, for the majority of the protestors held no affinity to either of these groups.
However, when the masses vacated the protest at the ouster of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the latter sensed the revolution had stopped prematurely. Their objective was not just the ouster of Gotabaya but the regime capture by exploiting the political vacuum.
This strategy was often adopted by revisionist groups from the Arab Spring in Egypt to the Iranian revolution in 1979.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood waited on the sideline of anti-Mubarak protests led by secular liberals, only to pounce back and monopolize the political space after the strongman was deposed.
In Iran, it was a twin revolution until Reza Shah Pahlavi’s ouster, when the Islamists hijacked the revolution, purged the secular socialists and built the theocratic nightmare of Iran today.
The Sri Lankan fringe of the JVP and Peratugamis proceeded to lay siege to Parliament, but they were beaten back in the absence of mass support. Their sour grape is about that missed opportunity and, worse still, that Ranil Wickremesinghe had reaped the harvest of what they think is their labour.
What do they offer?
To be fair, these groups provide a degree of public scrutiny for government excesses, such as the proposed two bills on Internet Safety and Anti -Terrorism and alleged incidents of corruption. However, many of their allegations lack facts and are designed for sound bites in television news.
If that is their agenda, that is all right. But it is not. Those are only a side hustle for a grander strategy. i.e. to keep public anger alive, hoping a wider disgruntlement would see another Aragayalaya, which this time would bring them to power.
Until then, it is petty sabotage of whatever is possible, mobilizing the public against economic reforms. Considering that Sri Lankans have a historical distaste for economic reforms, which explains the current pitiful state of the country’s economy, this could still be a winning strategy. But that is also reeking of opportunism.
Prisoners of dogma
It does not sound like they offer anything other than criticism and unattainable pie-in-the-sky promises. Assuming they are mere accessories doing their party bosses’ whim, let’s hear what JVP leadership offers if they come to power.
In a recent rally, Anura Kumara Dissanayake said corruption would be eradicated under a JVP government. That is fine, but every political party promises the same.
Though the Rajapaksa brothers personified corruption due to their concentration of power, corruption in Sri Lanka is entrenched in the system, in the ad-hoc procurement procedures of the State institutions and SOEs, ad-hoc tax concessions and monopolies and cartels promoted by anti-business legislations.
For instance, the higher electricity tariffs are a result of CEB’s refusal to link domestic solar energy providers to the grid and promote investment in renewable energy, preferring the purchase of electricity from expensive diesel-powered private sector generators.
To combat corruption, SoEs must be reformed, monopolies should be quashed, and free competition should be promoted.
But, the same folks oppose these reforms, terming them as the sale of national assets.
Similarly, everyone says they would convert the Sri Lankan economy into an export-driven economy. However, antiquated anti-business laws and red tape are holding back Sri Lankans from becoming one. Any attempt to reform them draws protests from the same camps.
Consider another example: the quasi-state monopoly of higher education, which deprives 80 per cent of deserving students a shot at university education. The greatest handicap for Sri Lanka to emerge as a modern technological society is this cruel injustice of its children.
However, any attempt to create quality higher education opportunities with the participation of the private sector is opposed by many of the same folks and the Peratugami’s front group of the Inter-University Students Federation.
The bottom line is these groups and their political masters offer no solutions to Sri Lanka’s burning problems. Nor are they intellectually equipped or inclined to provide practical solutions other than trying to run everything by the government and then ruining it. They are no less charlatans than the Rajapaksas and their caveman economists were.
Sooner the Sri Lankans realize that, better for the collective sanity