Whiplash and Contradiction in Sri Lanka’s aragalaya
VOL. 2 ISSUE 1
The aragalaya is an exceptional expression of democratic activism—but it contained contradictions that force us to reckon with its true limits and potential.
HOW DO we begin to make sense of the events of the past several months in Sri Lanka? A country that was ranked as a “middle-income” nation and had one of the highest standards of living in South Asia, now faces economic oblivion. What is truly stunning is the rapidity with which this national tragedy unfolded. Of course, this all says a great deal about the social and economic precarity that neoliberal policies force upon entire populations, who become unwilling victims of an insidious nexus between the instrumental interests of political and corporate elite.
And all this has indeed been said frequently. But amidst its dizzying journey to national catastrophe, Sri Lanka also bore witness to a spectacular people’s movement—the aragalaya (“protest” in Sinhala)—which unseated a cabinet of ministers, a prime minister, and ultimately the all-powerful executive president of the country. However, almost equally swiftly the ‘democratic’ gains of the aragalaya have been rapidly undermined and the discredited political culture which the people’s uprising has begun to reconsolidate.
The aragayala was a historic first for many reasons. It succeeded in breaking the vicious cycle of patron-client politics which often distorts electoral democracy in the country— with impoverished populations being mobilized on the promise of political largesse. It transcended—if temporarily—ethnic and religious divisions that have fueled conflict in Sri Lanka. It provided a space for youth activism rarely visible in the political mainstream. And it also provided a rare space for alternative cultural expression, including a visibly active LGBTQ community. One could cautiously argue that the aragalaya represented the emergence of a sense of democratic citizenship that has been rarely visible in Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, despite Sri Lanka’s long tradition of electorally sanctioned democratic transitions of power at regular intervals.
But since July 9th when the aragalaya peaked, forcing the executive president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and subsequently resign, the historic gains of the struggle have been rapidly reversed. A parliament, dominated by the ousted president’s party, the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), supported the election of Ranil Wickremasinghe—a deeply unpopular six-time prime minister—as executive president, resulting in a situation where the very political forces that were rejected by the aragalaya and had seemingly lost their legitimacy rapidly reasserted themselves.
Wickremasinghe, a canny and expedient politician, moved swiftly to undermine the aragalaya through two strategies. One was to unleash a wave of state repression with arbitrary arrests and abductions, severely undermining the “liberal democratic” image Wickremasinghe has been careful to cultivate throughout his career. The other strategy has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the people’s movement by characterizing it as a form of anarchy: a deeply conservative and reactionary discourse which has unfortunately found some resonance in society, particularly among segments that have an instrumental motive for backing Wickremasinghe, who they believe will bring economic stability.
Democracy, or something like that
All of which begs the question: how can the rapid reversal of the aragalaya gains be explained? Given the seeming rapidity with which the aragalaya arose and its apparently equally swift decline, the nature of the aragalya and what it represents in terms of Sri Lanka’s democratic history requires closer scrutiny. The characterization of the aragalaya as a form of anarchy can be traced to a conservative political culture where mass politics, despite regular elections, has had an ambiguous status.
Sri Lanka received universal franchise in 1931, ahead of all of its colonial peers. But from the very outset Sri Lanka’s political elite argued against universal franchise, worried about its implications for their authority. They instead argued for a restricted franchise and expressed deep reservations about the ability of the “people” to act with political responsibility. But when the Doughnomore Commission recommended universal franchise in 1931, despite elite objections, the political elite scrambled to work around it by building ethnically and religiously partisan voter bases rather than work towards a more democratically enlightened citizenry. This effectively resulted in the beginnings of a system of patronage politics, and at the same time laid the foundations for an ethnically polarized political culture that has bedeviled the country since independence. Unlike in neighboring India where the political elite were able to mobilize people through an anti-colonial agenda and develop a sense of pan-Indian identity (despite its Hindu-centric nature), Sri Lanka’s elite politics in the period leading up to independence in 1948 failed to articulate such a Sri Lankan identity. In post-independence Sri Lanka, therefore democratic politics easily translated into majority rule, which some commentators have dubbed a form of “ethnocracy”.
Although transitions of political power in Sri Lanka have taken place through regular electoral cycles, the minimalist operation of democracy masked a deeply illiberal political culture. One dimension of this illiberality is in how the entrenched culture of Sinhala majoritarianism in the country has marginalized minorities—initially the ethnic Tamil community, and more recently the Muslim community. Sri Lanka’s thirty-year militant conflict where a faction of the Tamil minority fought for an independent state was a direct outcome of this illiberal democracy where the electoral domination of the Sinhala numerical majority led to a distorted rationalization and normalization of majority rule. At the same time, the post-independence Sri Lankan state was unable to establish a system of social and economic justice, an inability which perhaps explains the two armed insurrections among the Sinhala youth in the 1970s and 1980s. Both uprisings were brutally suppressed, and the state’s violent response to the Sinhala youth mirrored how it dealt with Tamil militancy, even if the ethnically biased nature of the state resulted in a more insidious form of state violence against Tamil militancy.
In post-independence Sri Lanka, democratic politics easily translated into majority rule, which some commentators have dubbed a form of “ethnocracy”.
In Sri Lankan political history the two Sinhala youth uprisings and the Tamil secessionist movement stand as the three most significant people’s uprisings against the state. All three were violent in nature, advocated the use of militant force to overthrow and challenge the state, and were also ethnically marked and geographically confined to a particular territory of the country.
While all three uprisings emerged from what might be called a “democratic deficit” in the country’s political mainstream, their ambition could not be termed as truly democratic because of the militant and authoritarian nature of the politics they represented. It is against this history of armed insurrection as well as a warped and majoritarian, albeit seemingly smooth system of electoral politics, system of democracy, that one has to read the aragalaya— both its potentials and limitations.
Gotabhaya’s Many Sudden Turns of Fortune
The broader context to the emergence of the aragalaya lies in the historic mandate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa received in 2019, winning six point nine million votes—the largest presidential electoral margin in Sri Lankan history. Islamophobia in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019 and nakedly racist political campaigning shored up a narrative of existential fear in the Sinhala majority and drove them in their millions to vote for Rajapaksa. But these developments were also accompanied by a non-ethnically marked discourse about a need for substantive political change.
While Gotabhaya is a member of the Rajapaksa dynasty, headed by his charismatic two-time president and elder brother Mahinda, he was marketed as the “non-political” Rajapaksa option: the technocrat who successfully guided the war effort in 2009 as Defense Secretary and therefore an efficient apolitical candidate. Gotabhaya was seen perhaps as the Sri Lankan incarnation of a fusion between Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamed and Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yu—an efficient, nationally committed, benign authoritarian figure who would herald tough and efficient governance.
It's easy to forget that in 2019, Gotabhaya’s overwhelming victory was hailed as a historic harbinger of change. Sinhala youth embraced his win enthusiastically. Days after his election a spontaneous nation-wide graffiti campaign (with the exception of the North) transformed wayside walls into colorful, if cheesy, murals themed variously on Sri Lanka’s past grandeur as well as visions for a future of prosperity. And yet, just two years from this moment of hope, it was arguably the same youth who gathered in their hundreds of thousands to oust Gotabhaya— disillusioned by consistently failing governance and holding him accountable for robbing them of their future, a disillusionment that resonated in the slogan “ Gota Go Home”.
In this context, both Gotabhaya’s election within the recognized democratic system, and his ousting outside the electoral process, need to be seen as democratic. From a liberal perspective, the election of Gotabhaya—an heir to the dark and poisonous racist legacy of the Rajapaksa dynasty— was an illiberal outcome. But it was nonetheless an expression of the people’s will. Similarly, the ousting of Gotabhaya through a popular uprising, when no constitutionally sanctioned alternative was forthcoming is also democratic in its broadest sense.
Undoubtedly, extreme economic precarity fueled the aragalaya. However, amidst the solidarity forged by precarity, less instrumental political desires also found a space of expression. This was facilitated by the formlessness of the aragalaya which had no distinct political leadership, no distinct political ideology, and no singular authorship, thus making it possible for diverse forces to coalesce under its banner. Set against the history of Sri Lanka’s armed insurrections sketched above, it is also easy to see why the aragalaya is an exceptional moment of democratic activism. But the very diversity of the aragalaya also meant that many contradictory forces operated within it and these contradictions in turn speak to the limits of what the aragalaya represented.
This formless nature of the aragalya can be attributed to its beginnings. The most immediate precursors of the aragalaya were two protest movements that emerged during the early phase of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s presidency. One was a nation-wide teachers’ struggle for better wages which morphed into a national movement questioning the legitimacy of the government and its inability to be receptive to just demands by important segments of society. This was closely followed by a disastrous overnight attempt to switch to one hundred percent organic farming, resulting in farmers across the country protesting as yields plummeted and the entire agricultural sector was plunged into crisis. These two protest movements shook the seemingly solid foundation of the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa government. The rising public dissatisfaction swiftly accelerated as the economic crisis worsened and daily essentials such as fuel, cooking gas and increasingly medicines became scarce. Soon enough, the burden of economic mismanagement was laid squarely on the doorstep of the Rajapaksa presidency.
In this context, both Gotabhaya’s election within the recognized democratic system, and his ousting outside the electoral process, need to be seen as democratic.
On March 31st a series of small-scale protests and candle-light vigils— a largely urban middleclass phenomenon—that had emerged throughout Colombo and its suburbs turned into a more confrontational mode. Thousands congregated in the vicinity of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s private home in the suburbs of Colombo. In the ensuing confrontation with the police scuffles broke out, a bus was torched, and teargas was used. The government attempted a swift crackdown with mass arrests, but the legal community ensured that the protestors were provided protection. Mobilization for this protest happened mainly through social-media—which became the default medium for protest mobilization as well as dissemination of aragalaya news.
While the earlier teachers and farmers protests had provided the political backdrop it was this urban activism that created the immediate conditions for the emergence of the aragalaya in a more visible and concrete form. Soon after the events of March 31st, “Gota Go Gama” (Gota go home village) became established as a group of youth began occupying the area in front of the Presidential Secretariat at Galle Face in the heart of the downtown business district in Colombo.
As protests continued throughout the country, Gota Go Gama (or GGG) became their focal point. From its outset some organized groups with connections to political parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the leftist party which launched the two insurrections against the state in the 1970s and 80s, and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), a breakaway group from the JVP were present at GGG. In addition, the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) which is connected to the FSP and has a large following among undergraduates at state universities along with other trade unions and activist groups were also present.
However, none of these groups could claim ownership over the aragalaya. Instead, a group of youth with no distinct political affiliations essentially managed the GGG site. This politically non-partisan nature of the GGG site allowed it to flourish with a library, an IT facility, a kitchen and even a cinema hall.
At the height of its existence GGG resembled a mini-township.
The cultural dynamics of GGG are immensely significant. GGG allowed a rare mainstream space for alternative cultural expression. The musician Ajith Kumarasiri, a man with a strong presence in the avant-garde musical scene in Sri Lanka but long shunned by the musical establishment, played a prominent role with regular musical performances. Alongside the music, installation and performance art that were both thematically and formally daring found expression at GGG. This cultural dynamic of the aragalya challenged the hegemonic Sinhala national cultural form—a form that is deeply conservative and has little space for marginal identities like the LGBTQ community.
The “alternative” cultural identity of GGG also facilitated two significant events. One was the Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day which falls on May 18th and marks the deaths of hundreds of Tamil civilians in the closing stages of the war in 2009. This commemoration, effectively banned by the Sri Lankan state due to its human rights implications, and an uncomfortable truth that the Sinhala community had long ignored, was marked at GGG. What made the event all the more significant was the participation of Buddhist priests—often seen as guardians of Sinhala nationalist ideology—in addition to clergy from other faiths such as the iconic Catholic priest Father Jeevantha Peiris who was closely identified with the aragalaya. The other significant event was a Pride March at GGG on 25th June—a mass celebration of sexual identities that was an unprecedentedly public challenge to the traditional political and cultural mainstream of the country.
Still, even while the “alternative” cultural vibe of GGG and the aragalaya forcefully flagged a progressive movement, this aspect of aragalaya culture also jostled for power alongside more established undercurrents. For instance, GGG had a hut for disabled soldiers that promoted the narrative of the ranaviruwa (or war hero), a trope that was weaponized by the Rajapaksas to delegitimize minority political demands and shore up their patriotic Sinhala credentials. Supporters of the controversial war-winning miliary officer-turned-politician Sarath Fonseka were also present in the space of GGG, as was the Buddhist priest Omalpe Sobitha who has a history as a hardline Sinhala nationalist. Their presence could be read in multiple ways. It could mean they strategically maintained a presence within the aragalaya to ensure that its political power remained within the ambit of Sinhala nationalist interests. At the same time, it could also be read as a softening of Sinhala nationalist ideology, potentially creating more space for alternative political and cultural imaginaries.
These competing interests and ideologies that were united under the common aragalaya banner of “Gota go Home” became more starkly visible in the aftermath of the July 9th “victory” when protestors stormed several key state buildings including the Presidential Secretariat resulting in Gotabhaya Rajapaksa fleeing the country and eventually resigning from the presidency. With the common enemy gone, the competing interests of the various groups represented within the aragalaya began to emerge more explicitly. The FSP began promoting a narrative that the entire parliamentary system in Sri Lanka had been delegitimized by the aragalaya and that a radical restructuring of the state was necessary. This was also accompanied by a strategic insertion of the notion of a “people’s council”, a seemingly progressive proposal that empowers more direct citizen’s engagement with governance but was also an obviously strategically motivated bid for the FSP to become relevant in mainstream politics.
One narrative that has since emerged is that the aragalaya was hijacked by organized political interests: an accusation that was directed towards the FSP and the JVP by middle class and professional groups that backed the aragalaya but are deeply suspicious of revolutionary politics and subscribe to the more conservative “liberal democratic” discourse discussed above. This narrative of hijacking was not entirely new: indeed it dovetailed into the incidents of May 9th—early days of the movement—when politically backed thugs, emerging from a meeting at the Prime Minister’s official residence, Temple Trees unleashed brutal violence on GGG while the police and armed forces did little to intervene. In the aftermath of this unprovoked attack there was a national backlash with over 70 houses and properties belonging to politicians thought to be involved in the attack on GGG being torched. One parliament MP was also killed when a mob attacked his vehicle.
This is an interregnum in which fluid new political forms are emerging. The spectacular democratic mobilization that emerged during the height of the aragalaya and the spirit of active citizenship it unleashed remains—as does the economic precarity that fueled it.
The drivers of the violence of May 9th are unclear. While there was a spontaneous backlash immediately following the attack on GGG, what followed later in the night with systematic burning of politician’s houses had a much more organized dynamic, but it is unclear to this day who drove this wave of attacks. The vigilante violence was of course repudiated by the youth of the aragalaya. But in a deeply conservative political culture where revolutionary political action is viewed with extreme suspicion, May 9th marked a loss of innocence for the aragalaya. Today there is a sustained campaign to discredit the aragalaya by associating it with violence, a pernicious characterization of it as “breakdown of the rule of law”.
It is frustrating to insist on the fact that given Sri Lanka’s violent history, the aragalaya was indeed a peaceful expression of the people’s will, and not a violent, anarchic movement. It was a creatively conceptualized and executed protest movement that maintained non-violence as a cardinal principle. And it is precisely this peaceful nature of the protest that frustrated a national security apparatus used to the mobilization of force and violent confrontation to suppress dissent.
The aragalaya in the form it took since March 31st and lasted more than 100 days appears to be over now. The last of the physical structures that marked the GGG occupy site have been dismantled. As of now, the repression of the Ranil Wickremasinghe government along with its insidious narrative to discredit the aragalaya as a form of anarchy appears to be at least temporarily succeeding.
But if we’ve learned anything over the past few months it is that this moment in Sri Lanka is a moment of significant and unpredictable transition. This is an interregnum in which fluid new political forms are emerging. The spectacular democratic mobilization that emerged during the height of the aragalaya and the spirit of active citizenship it unleashed remains—as does the economic precarity that fueled it. The aragalaya marked a distinct turning point in Sri Lanka’s political history as a population used to exercising their franchise within a system of political patronage, at least briefly, transcended instrumental political motivations to demand democratic accountability. The aragalaya also rattled a complacent political class that imagined it was secure within an entrenched patron-client political system.
Politics in Sri Lanka are unlikely to follow a familiar script in the aftermath of the aragalaya. The traditional political party system of the country has confronted a significant existential challenge due to the aragalaya. A vast majority of the political parties and their representatives in the current parliament have had their legitimacy undermined—they are held accountable for the current state of the country and they are associated with a corrupt political culture. However, what the swift reversal of fortunes in the aftermath of the aragalaya suggests is that Sri Lanka’s long entrenched culture political impunity with deeply institutionalized structures of corruption, nepotism, repression and violence are unlikely to change easily. If the brief hope kindled by the aragalaya is to survive and be fashioned into viable and sustained political change it will take committed and long term engagement by a variety of actors including civil society and progressive political parties as highly contingent socio-economic conditions continue to shape the politics of the moment.
Whether anything of this nature will emerge is anybody’s guess. ▢
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
Mural painted as a Rapid Response by the Fearless Collective during the GotaGoGama protest in Galleface, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Courtesy of the Fearless Collective (June 2022).
Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day
HARSHANA RABUKWELLA is the director of the Postgraduate Institute of English, Open University of Sri Lanka, and the author of Politics and Poetics of Authenticity: A Cultural Genealogy of Sinhala Nationalism (2018). His work has appeared in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, boundary 2, and Journal of Asian Studies, among others. He has been a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Social Studies and Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh.