Heading for ‘Arab Spring’ or Anarchy?

Heading for ‘Arab Spring’ or Anarchy?

B N Sathiya Moorthy

The ‘stray incident’ (?) involving rioting and arson outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Mirihana house should be an eye-opener for all stake-holders, starting and ending with the Nation. The situation can worsen with the sporadic protests across the nation that have been planned, supposedly as people’s protests, on Monday, 3 April, and may get extended by will and/or wisdom, can have consequences that could become hard to revert for a political class, including most in the Opposition, who have lost touch with the ground very long ago.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has since proclaimed emergency, under the Public Security Ordinance. This is the second time ‘emergency’ of some kind is being proclaimed over the continuing economic crisis, caused mainly by an unprecedentedly crippling forex shortage. The last time it was mostly a ‘food emergency’, when early signs of food shortage began emerging, to become what it is today. The ‘food emergency’ reportedly helped the government target hoarders and black-marketers. It was withdrawn when the situation eased relatively – but never to the original levels.

The President’s Media Division has since attributed the Mirihana incident, in which angry protestors broke the thin police barricades and set fire to an empty bus parked to deny them access to Gota’s house, to ‘extremist groups’. Details would be known when the government provides them to the courts, Parliament or the courts.

Rumour-mills at work

That the rumour mill was working overtime, with the additional intent of besmirching the fair name of the Indian neighbour became clear when the social media was full of reports about India rushing armed forces to help the Gota regime to quell the riots, anticipated even more in the coming days. It implied that the government had lost the faith of the uniformed services in the country – and vice versa. The script on which the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ‘Orange Revolution’ were based, elsewhere in the past.

The Indian High Commission lost no time in denying any such intent, and also all the content of the mischievous campaign. Clearly, it was a mischievous effort to link India to the Rajapaksas, little realising that in this social media era, such bluff could be called out early just as they can be spread around.

However, this was not the first time a pro-Rajapaksas tilt of India has been floated around. On the eve of the post-war presidential polls of 2010, in the absence of the social media like today, a whisper campaign gained ground in ‘news-hungry’ capital Colombo, that all the Rajapaksas except incumbent President Mahinda R had ‘escaped’ to the Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Thiruvananthapuram, anticipating defeat at the hands of the common Opposition candidate and war-victor of a general in Sarath Fonseka.

There were even claims that someone’s cousin or brother who was working in the Ratmalana airport or the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) had actually seen it happen the previous night, or had actually facilitated the travel. As the day wore on, every Rajapaksa was found to be in the country, mostly in Colombo. As it turned out, Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidential poll with a high score, but not as high a score as predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga’s record from 1995.

Already, reports indicate that small groups of people are collecting and protesting impromptu in different parts of the country. It’s understandable, given their economic plight and consequent social tensions. There is also said to be a hashtag ‘EnoughisEnough’ against the government leadership, and is trending.

Thankfully, the Opposition is divided on identifying with these protests. The main Opposition SJB Leader of the Opposition, has extended support to the party, and has also named the party’s district organisers to coordinate support for what they want the nation to believe are people’s protests, at their respective levels. T

here seems to be reservations and opposition to the move from within the SJB as sections are unhappy with the mood and method of the leadership. Two left-leaning parties that in the normal course would have been expected to back such protests, or organise similar rallies themselves, have decided to stay away. The JVP and the breakaway Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) are acting responsibly.

Aiming for an ‘Arab Spring’?

The protest is bad news, support from a section of the mainline Opposition is worse – possibly as bad as the economic crisis. It is worse than all that the nation has been feeling and touching through the past months of economic-cum-forex crises. And the worst hit would still be the poor, who are supposed to form the vanguard of any people-centric revolution, where the present political leaderships of every kind could also be thrown by the way side.

Sri Lanka is not new to insurgency (JVP), terrorism (LTTE) or forgotten coup-attempts, (in the early sixties).  If the nation came out of it all in a single piece it owed to a strong and central leadership that could take decisions and have them executed. An anarchy is a situation where the State and the government leadership lose that very authority. It is not necessary that there should be blood-letting.

An ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Orange Revolution’ kind of situation too was anarchist, whether or not Sri Lankan blood flows – more than already, since Independence. It was attempted during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term but did not take off. This time, the situation may be different – and for known and different reasons.

Anarchy is not going to set right the economic mess. But hunger knows no bounds. So do pent-up frustrations. The current generation had moved faraway from the economic trials and tribulations of their forefathers, both before and after Independence. For them, Covid lockdown was hard. The forex mess that they don’t know anything about and in the creation of which they did not have any role, was incomprehensible to begin with, and intolerable since. They react in the only way they know – as there are no solutions, no hint of solutions, and no promises of solutions, now or later.

Public behaviour

Yet, this kind of ‘public behaviour’ can only worsen the situation for the protestors, to begin with. They cannot hope to revive the economy and forex position, which alone can help solve their problems, which have lost the number-count, by the day and now, by the hour. The nation needs a huge injection of forex. That alone can solve the food crisis, the power-crisis, the pharma crisis, the transport crisis – and whatever you want to and need to add. But anarchist national behaviour can put off those investors, whether they are overseas private sector or international institutions.

The IMF falls in the second category. IMF does not invest in the traditional sense of the term, which creates jobs. Instead, IMF investments can save jobs. It too can shore up the forex reserves and give a fresh lease of life to the nation’s economy. Reports that some nation or other could put in big money on big-ticket investment sound reasonably credible as a possible solution. But is it going to happen, and if so when? — is the question.

In such a scenario, the prediction is that there will be a re-enactment of the Hambantota Port kind of a deal, but without China’s participation. No, no one is talking about the Indian neighbour, either. But if it were to happen, and if that nation is not identified with the existing blocs identified with the US and China, then and then alone would the nation be safe, in geo-political and geo-strategic terms. Else, the hoped-for economic recovery can lead to more complex situations, though the rulers may still not be unhappy to leave behind legacy issues for successors, just as they too have inherited now.

Debatable issue

Granting that the Rajapaksas’ days in office are numbered – say, even if it’s only with the next round of parliamentary or presidential elections that are not due in the near future — political parties that are clinging onto such nation-wide protests with this end in mind would have to think twice. It makes a political message for them now. The strategy provides for the logistics or the lack of it, in transporting people from rural areas to urban centres for massive protests of the kind with the main Opposition SJB and the left-leaning JVP organised in capital Colombo not very long ago.

But unless political parties are ready to lend leadership and direction to such protests, which otherwise is a democratic right of parties and people, could lead to situations where the future-day political masters, as they see themselves, too can lost control. The nation may witness leadership-change one way or the other, the economy too may begin showing signs of revival, but those that have taken to the streets without leadership and direction, may not return home.

Instead, some / many of them may decide to take to the jungles. But there is no Rohana Wijeweera or Velupillai Prabhakaran, at least as yet, to give them leadership and direction. Which of the two is worse – militant insurgent movements with leaderships or without it, is a debate that has found no sure-fire answers.

The precedents

There are precedents. Sections within the ruling party under then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa created conditions through their silent encouragement for protests against the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Premadasa could not stop the Second JVP Insurgency through peaceful means after becoming President. According to independent assessments, not acknowledged by any government since, not less than 60,000 Sinhala youth, both men and women, lost their lives in the savage retribution handed down by the armed forces.

While in power, Premadasa also encouraged the LTTE, and reportedly armed and funded the terror-outfit, to force the exit of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF), called in by his predecessor and one-time boss, President J R Jayawardena. In the end, Premadasa, Sr, fell to his own tactics, and was slain by an LTTE suicide-bomber, who was working in his kitchen, after all.

From among the Tamil polity, the late S J V Chelvanayagam got the Vaddukottai Resolution on ‘self-determination’ passed when he was already ageing and ailing, with the pious hope that it would redirect the mis-guided energies of the Tamil youth who were already frustrated with his pious, Gandhian ways. He passed away, the spirit of the VAddukottai resolution remained, and the LTTE obliterated other Tamil militant youth organisations, to claim ‘sole representative’ status for the self, but at gun-point.

Message of 2015

If it’s not anarchy, is the nation expecting an ‘Orange Revolution’ like situation? Yes and No. Even if it is an organised protest or protests with pious contents and peaceful intent, there is nothing to suggest that mis-guided youth generation with their hands eternally on their social media knowledge-seeking would follow suit. It happened a decade after SWRD became the Prime Minister of a left-leaning government. The JVP was born as the youth found the SWRD kind of sops for the nation’s poor and down-trodden woefully inadequate against expectations, needs and promises.

Either way, it’s not the way for the region’s oldest elected democracy. In the past, the nation got rid of elected leaders whose ways they did not approve of. The great Mahinda Rajapaksa, who as President had vanquished the unwinnable LTTE, did bite dust in Elections-2015. People had no use for leaders who could not adopt and re-adopt themselves to changing socio-political situations. That was the message.

If earlier, it was only the economy, now it’s also the exploding social situation. It is here more than possibly the other where ‘now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the nation’. Social and political responsibility is the name of the game just as economic prudence is on the other track. Neither can wait either, and have to move forwards at the same time and in fast-tracked and regulated pace. Nothing more, nothing less!

(The writer is Policy Analyst & Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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