Disruptive and violent populist movements have undoubtedly registered successes, ending oppressive regimes and giving the dumb millions a voice to express dissent forcefully. But in the long run, these movements have delivered only partially and that too, briefly, literature on the subject shows.
The question that is in the minds of observers of the Sri Lankan Aragalaya movement is: Will it go the way of similar movements in other countries in the past or will it have a lasting salutary effect?
The Fate of Other Movements
An examination of the “Arab Spring” movement and the French Revolution will show that the chaotic conditions created by such movements have eventually, if not immediately, led to the establishment of dictatorships either of individuals or groups. They have also aroused primordial sentiments of ethnicity and religion. Despite loud claims about their efficacy, violent populist movements have not been a panacea for the ills of society.
The Arab Spring, which was a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and 2011, toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, inspiring similar movements in other Arab countries. Yemen saw an uprising in 2011–12, and Libya had a revolt in 2011.
But the Arab Spring proved to be a failure eventually and that too, fairly quickly. In his work Democracy and Governance: The Arab Spring and a Democratic Winter, Robert O’Neill quotes Tarek Masoud, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, to say that outside of Tunisia, “Arab democracy seems further away today than it was at any point in the last 25 years.” Masoud further says that in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Yemen, “the aftermath of the Arab Spring ranged from a bloody civil war to a return of the old regime. The season of optimism had proved stunningly unwarranted.”
Popular uprisings are unlikely to sweep away old dictators and usher in democracy, Masoud warns. “The autocrats crackdown (as in Syria or Bahrain) or bide their time (as in Egypt), but they never disappear,” he points out.
Masoud attributes the Arab countries’ backing away from democracy to deep-rooted attachments of the people to their traditional culture and political system, Islam and nationalism. People’s movements like the Arab Spring could end up reawakening feelings for the local culture, traditional norms and religion. And, due to the instability created by an anarchic mass movement, there could be a people’s yearning for order, which, in turn, could lead to the rise to power of the military or the Islamic clergy.
These could be supported by the socio-economic elite whose power had been snatched away by the popular movement.
On July 14, 1789, in Paris, mobs stormed the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. Jeremy D. Popkin author of A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution recalls that in 1780, a rampaging mob in London had set fire to buildings, causing several hundred deaths. In 1789, French King Louis XVI, facing an unprecedented financial crisis, hiked taxes.
This triggered mass protests. Repression was unleashed. But that only triggered more protests.
Popkin says that the storming of the Bastille was a victory for the idea of representative government.“ It set a precedent: For the first time in modern history, ordinary men and women, through their collective action in the streets, ensured the creation of a constitutional system of democratic government.”
However, “within a few years, the French Revolution would also show that crowds could be dangerous, even to governments that claimed to represent the will of the people.”
Such protests were the order of the day in France for long. On June 20, 1792, thousands of armed demonstrators invaded the French royal palace, where they held the King prisoner in his own home for hours. “Less than two months later, on August 10, 1792, amid rumors that the King and queen were supporting the foreign armies that were invading France, armed battalions of the revolution’s citizen militia, the National Guard, stormed the royal palace of the Tuileries. The elected Assembly thus had no choice except to declare the end of the French monarchy. In the ensuing months, that Assembly itself was replaced by the National Convention, the first legislative body to be chosen by universal male suffrage,” Popkin notes.
“However, even an assembly chosen by the people was not immune to the power of the crowd. From May 31 to June 2, 1793, National Guards and other members of the population laid siege to the meeting hall of the National Convention and forced the deputies to expel some of their members, ensuring the triumph of Maximilien Robespierre’s radical political group,” Popkin adds.
The new democratic constitution the deputies subsequently passed proclaimed that: “When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is, for the people and every portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”
However, Robespierre was overthrown on July 27, 1794. About this, Popkin says: “When economic distress reached a peak in early 1795, massive demonstrations followed. This time, demonstrators wanted to bring back the monarchy. A young army general, Napoleon Bonaparte, played a crucial role in fighting off the assault. Four years later, he would organize the coup d’état that put him in power and signaled the end of the French experiment with democracy.”
Therefore, the French revolution ended up creating a military dictator – Napoleon Bonaparte!
More recently, Sri Lanka saw the storming and occupation of the houses and offices of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the burning of the private residence of the Prime Minister. The uprising, called Aragalaya, forced the President to flee and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign. To that extent, it was a success. But it did not go beyond that to change the system.
This was because the movement lacked two things, says analyst Victor Ivan in his piece in DailyFT. The missing elements were: (1) a cohesive and credible leadership and (2) an alternative plan to govern the country.
The nebulous leadership had given way to radical elements which indulged in violence not favored by a population that had earlier rejected violent social justice movements led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the early 1970s and late 1980s.
Ivan says that the language used by the activists was “vulgar, uncivilized and lumpen which was rather unbecoming of the spirit of non-violence.”
The State under the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe moved to restore law and order. But the forcible ousting of protesters occupying the Presidential Secretariat on Thursday night by Lankan troops, had led to protests by human rights groups, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and Western diplomats.
US Ambassador Julie Chung tweeted to say: “We are deeply concerned about actions taken against protesters at Galle Face in the middle of the night. We urge restraint by the authorities and immediate access to medical attention to those injured.” The Canadian High Commissioner David McKinnon tweeted to say that it is crucial the authorities act with restraint and avoid violence.”
Much depends on how the Aragalaya activists and the government behaves in the coming days. But the most crucial factor is the attitude of the public to the turn of events. That could determine the future of both the government and the Aragalaya