By Sanjayan Rajasingham
(The writer is a visiting researcher at Thammasat University, Thailand and a doctoral student at Yale Law School. He was formerly a lecturer in law at the University of Jaffna)
We’ve never seen protests like these, and they make you wonder: could this be our moment, a turning point, where we start to think differently about what it means to be citizens, and what it means for MPs, prime ministers and presidents to be public servants? Maybe.
But even as the protests grow, a new idea has surfaced. What began with #GoHomeGota shifted to #GoHomeRajapaksas and is now, in some places, #GoHome225. All three come from a deep sense of disappointment and the worst economic pain Sri Lankans have suffered in recent years. But the third is very different from the first two.
#GoHome225 could just be a call for new elections, or for new political parties. Yet there is something deeper here – an outpouring of frustration against a political class that keeps failing us. For some of us, this realisation only came with 12-hour power cuts. For others among us, we have known this about governance in Sri Lanka for a long, long time. No matter. We’ve all started to see it at last. But as the overwhelming anger against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family spills over into anger against all politicians and political parties, we need to ask – where might this lead?
History does not move in a straight line. No one who has lived through October 2014 and then January 2015, or November 2019 and now March 2022 can believe that it does. Instead, history zigs and zags. Mirihana was the end of the Rajapaksa brand. But if the call for Gotabaya to go home succeeds, and a rejection of the entire political class follows – whether the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the National People’s Power (NPP), whoever – we will have a vacuum. And that space will be filled.
A key aspect of Gotabaya’s rule has been bringing the military into everyday life. This is not something that will disappear once he leaves. Of course, among the Sri Lankan armed forces there are many hard-working, committed men and women who joined to serve. They know their role and their training – national security; national defence; and emergency relief. They would be horrified at the thought of military rule.
But Gotabaya does not think this way. To fulfil his promise of a disciplined society, he made sure that serving or ex-military officers became ministry secretaries and presidential task force members. There was a mission creep.
In January this year, the Office of the Chief of Defence Staff held a symposium on ‘Military Leadership in the Contemporary World: Evolving from a Warrior to a Friend in Need’; the Army Commander spoke of equipping military leaders to execute tasks “beyond their primary role”; one of the subthemes was ‘Ideal Military Leadership Model desired by Sri Lankan Society’.
And the military’s role certainly has evolved. In the north and the east the forces police the public, cultivate land and operate hotels. There are plans for this to come to the south: after the fertiliser fiasco, Gotabaya promised that the Army would ‘help’ farmers implement his destructive policy.
Even once Gotabaya goes, the project of making the military appear “the institution for the job” will not. And if we reject all politicians, the next question will be who is competent, capable, efficient and effective enough to steer us through this crisis?
The supporters of the Rajapaksa militarisation project, who will still be around after he leaves, will give us an answer. Gotabaya has made the military a part of everyday life; it is a short step from there to military rule.
If this seems far-fetched, just take a look at countries that have gone down this road before. Thailand and Myanmar, both of which share our Theravada Buddhist heritage and experience with colonialism – directly in Myanmar and indirectly in Thailand – offer us some lessons.
Thailand is not known for its constitutional law among Sri Lankans. Maybe this is just as well, since Thailand has had 20 constitutions and 13 successful coups since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. It has had hardly any experience of full representative democracy – only a few years in the ’40s, ’70s and 2000s. There are plenty of reasons it is essentially under military rule today, but here is one: the idea of ‘good people politics’.
This way of thinking about governance in Thailand has made the military appear the best institution for the job. The idea here is that good people, rather than bad people, should rule. The bad people are politicians – corrupt, greedy, ignorant, selfish. And the good people? The military, which is disinterested in elections and wealth and has the nation’s best interests at heart. Unelected civil servants and judges, who are not swayed by popular pressure.
Behind this is the idea that the people don’t make the best decisions about government – after all, they may elect bad politicians! So, the less power to the people the better. Of course, military rule, once in place, is hard to displace. Thais have been trying, and failing, to get to a functional democracy for the past 80 years.
A discourse that discredits all politicians, leaves a vacuum – one that will be filled by whoever our society has been trained to think is good, capable, efficient and competent.
That is what happened in Myanmar. Security threats and a breakdown in law and order in 1958 led Prime Minister U Nu to ask the Army to take over and restore order. It did this, organised the 1960 elections and gave power back to an elected Government. But this Government was widely seen as corrupt and ineffective. The army on the other hand, had established itself as much better equipped to deal with the country’s problems. Predictably, in 1962, the Army executed a coup. And 50 years later, Myanmar is fighting a civil war to get back to civilian rule.
None of this is to excuse our political class. Even now, a 12-year-old who wanted an ice cream could come up with better strategy and more consistent messaging. The SJB and the NPP can disagree on the IMF. Can they at least get together to tell us – how will they pressurise Gotabaya to go? Whom would they like as an interim president? What immediate constitutional reforms do they want before a new election? After that, they can duke it out on how to salvage our economy.
But for all their failings, there are some things to thank them for. Yahapalanaya disappointed us all, but it gave us space to protest and, sometimes, it listened. That space is one reason why the Rajapaksa machine could not shut us down all from day one. And even after today’s Rajapaksa juggernaut captured power in November 2019 and August 2020, Opposition politicians kept the space for critique open, whether on corruption, militarisation, or the Easter Sunday attacks.
Many Sri Lankans know enough to not expect a saviour from political parties, but this is what some of us would like. We want ‘our’ Mandela, or Gandhi or Lee Kwan Yew – even if some of them, like Lee, are a mixed bag (Lee Kwan Yew’s actions against universities, trade unions, newspaper companies and his infamous Operation Spectrum show you the dark underside of the man). We want a saviour because once we get him (and it is usually a him), we can stop worrying about all this ‘political stuff’.
But maybe this can be our moment. For once, as citizens, across every line that divides us, we are awake. Can the things that unite us right now become links in a lifelong commitment to conversation and action for a new Sri Lanka? Can they lead us to make ‘foolish’ career decisions – maybe a shift to public service or political activism, because we might make a difference? Can they introduce us to the worlds of those unlike us and help us see things differently? Can we decide that rather than waiting for a hero, we ought to take back Sri Lanka? If they can, then maybe this will turn out to be our finest hour.
History does not move in a straight line. It zigs and zags. And today, we can be part of a movement that decides which way it will go.