Learning from public protests to face the future – The Island.lk

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By Jehan Perera
Across the world there were spontaneous demonstrations in support of the people in Sri Lanka undergoing immense suffering, declaration of Emergency and a 36-hour curfew. The diaspora was united; Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, in their expressions of solidarity for the suffering communities and condemnation of the government. Spontaneity was also the hallmark of the small groups of people who converged in their neighbourhoods in defiance of the curfew declared by the government under a State of Emergency. This was visible in the handwritten slogans they carried with them on sheets of paper and cardboard file covers. I witnessed the formation of one such spontaneous protest group in my neighbourhood. First, there was a family that walked from a side road to the junction on the main road. As if by telepathy others emerged from the empty streets.
The process of mobilisation started a little after 3 pm, the time that had been set earlier in the week by groups operating through social media urging people onto the streets, which may have catalysed the government’s decision to declare the curfew. There was no mastermind, no hidden hand, behind those who came to the road in my neigbourhood. The handwritten placards they brought had diverse slogans. The common elements in them were a distaste for the ruling family, corruption and economic hardship. Soon enough the police came by to ensure that the people obey the curfew. They did not come for a confrontation. They knew they had to do their job. The demonstrators were old and young, with children joining. A compromise solution was found in which the breach of curfew was minimised and the people’s right to associate and to express themselves were both accommodated.
Later in the evening another group came walking on the main road to stand on the opposite side of the junction. They were more in numbers. They carried Sri Lanka flags in addition to their placards. The slogans they had written, and which they voiced, were more pointed and harsh. Soon they started to shout the names of leaders of the government to whom they appended the title of “rogues.” Both groups were united in their sentiments that the country had fallen to a low place and the rulers and coteries around them had to go. The initial indications on the part of the government suggest that this is not going to be the case. The choice of some of the new ministers, after the resignation of the Cabinet, suggests that there is no remorse and a counter strike is imminent.
The rapid fall from grace of the government and ruling members could not have been anticipated. Less than three years ago they were elected on a tide of popular sentiment with a massive majority. The decisive factor in the pendulum swing of public opinion has been the severe economic hardships of the past two or three months. The collapse of the Sri Lankan rupee in relation to foreign currencies, the steep escalation in prices of essential commodities, together with their severe shortage, and finally the long hours of electricity power cuts have been decisive in the mind shift of the people. There appears to be a consensus amongst the people of all walks of life that the country is facing this plight due to mass scale robbery of government funds.
There are various levels of sophistication with regard to the causes of the current economic hardships. But the bottom line in the belief of people seems to be that the foreign exchange being brought into the country is being siphoned away for private purposes which includes large scale theft. One of the sophisticated analyses has been made by Dr Nishan de Mel, a Harvard and Oxford trained economist who heads Verite Research. He pointed out an economic reality much before the present scarcity of dollars and essential commodities made themselves felt in the present manner. This economic reality is that the country would be better off if the government should renegotiate the repayment of the several billion dollar sovereign bonds on the commercial market. Instead the government has been repaying those bonds even at the cost of impoverishing the masses of people.
Dr de Mel has made the point that simply by repaying the sovereign bonds, the government would not be able to boost the credit worthiness of the country. Any future creditor would know, as do the bond rating agencies, that Sri Lanka is scraping the bottom of the barrel, when it pays its existing debt. Therefore, they would not wish to invest in any more Sri Lankan bonds on the commercial market regardless of whether the government repays its present bonds or not. It is important that the government should follow Dr de Mel’s advice and negotiate with its creditors to repay the bonds at a later time. In particular, the government needs to dispel the suspicion that they are more sympathetic to the international bondholders than to the Sri Lankan people which itself arouses reasonable suspicions about the motivations.
After the resignation of the Cabinet of Ministers the question is what next in the context of the loss of confidence in the government. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has invited all political parties to join hands in governing the country. However, the opposition political parties would be wary of accepting this offer, which they may see as a poisoned chalice. So long as the powers of the presidency are intact, they may see themselves being made into catspaws in legitimising the government. As the opposition is a minority in parliament, the government can continue to ignore them on issues if it chooses to, and get them to share in the blame for future mistakes, too.
One possible way for the government to bring the Opposition into the process of governance, even if not directly, would be to repeal the 20th Amendment that re-concentrated power in the presidency. The passage of the 20th Amendment was one of the first actions of the government and it has enabled the President to make unilateral appointments to high positions of state, such as at the Central Bank, and also with regard to secretaries of ministries. Along with the repeal of the 20th Amendment, the government needs to take steps to strengthen the independence of institutions, and give the Opposition a real role in the appointment of persons to those bodies. The independence that the Human Rights Commission has been showing with regard to objecting to the declaration of the State of Emergency and the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, including protecting the rights of those who have been arrested during the recent protests, is commendable and highlights the value of making the right appointments.
There is an urgent need for the government to accept moral and political responsibility for the plight of the people and ameliorate their suffering and present a credible plan that the people can have confidence in. So far the government has failed to meet these minimum standards of accountability. The irrational decisions leading to reduction in corporate and personal income taxes, the ban on chemical fertilisers, and refusal to get IMF support, are ones for which the government alone needs to take responsibility. The failure of the government to present a rational analysis of the crisis to the people, alleviate the hardships being experienced by the people and present a credible plan to deal with the crisis is counterproductive and lead to further chaos that will harm the economy and the people even more.

Reboot of govt., its policies and institutions must start now
‘Get up, stand up – don’t give up the fight’

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by Jehan Perera

The past week was devoted to the hosting of human rights events by a number of organisations with interest in that particular subject.  Human rights have become a matter of controversy, especially after the suppression of the protest movement.  There was and is tension between the interests of those who prioritise the claim of national security and stability and those who prioritise justice. The issue of justice has come to the fore in the context of the debilitation of the economy, which is seriously affecting the great majority of the population even if it does not or may not impact so heavily on aome others.  What is being seen is a continuing plunge of the economy with those who are most responsible for the economic calamity still in power and bringing in more of their numbers to the seats of power ignoring the impacts of their actions in the past and present on the people at large.
The release of economic information that the economy had shrunk by 11.8 percent in the last quarter ending in September is ominous news.  It indicates that the calamitous though revolutionary events of the second quarter of the year, which ended in July with the assumption of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to the presidency has not been reversed by the state repression that took place thereafter.  It is evident that the political repression of the protest movement has not yielded positive results in terms of coaxing more economic investments that would reboot the economy.  This was reflected in three events I attended last week as part of the marking of International Human Rights Day.  Two were by civil society organisations, Right to Life Collective and Association of War Affected Women.  The third was by the National Human Rights Commission, which is a state institution.
The latter event was particularly impressive as it brought together the diversity and pluralism of Sri Lankan society in a manner that is seldom seen or publicly acknowledged. The Human Rights Commission has attracted considerable attention in recent times for different reasons.  The present members of the commission were selected in terms of the 20th Amendment to the constitution that gave the sitting president the discretion to appoint whomever he wanted.  The 20th Amendment sought to concentrate power in the hands of the president and was introduced during the early period of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s period.


The 20th Amendment and the weakening of independent institutions earned the opprobrium of civil society groups and the international community that was focused on human rights issues. One of the unfortunate consequences of this was the downgrading of the Human Rights Commission from having “A status” to “B status” by the international accreditation agency.  This meant that the observations and opinions of the human rights commission were viewed with more circumspection and with less weight than would otherwise have been.  It would also impact on the level of economic and institutional support that would be made available by international agencies whose mandate is to promote good governance in the world.
The downgrading of the Human Rights Commission has indirectly affected the national economy by reducing the inflow of dollars it might have obtained through international partnerships.  It has also contributed to the poor image that the international community had about the situation of human rights in the country.  One of the consequences would be the European Union’s decision to warn about the possibility of withdrawal of the GSP Plus tax concession to Sri Lanka until a whole host of human rights protections were implemented including the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.  The weakening of the credibility of the justice mechanisms in Sri Lanka due to the 20th Amendment would also have contributed to the harsher resolution passed against the country at the last session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in October.
The passage of the 21st Amendment by the government has been generally appreciated even though the repeal of the 20th Amendment through it has been incomplete.  For instance, the president retains his institutional grip over parliament by having the right to dissolve it at his discretion in two and half years and his ability to keep multiple ministries under his control.  Also, the president has the discretion to appoint whomever he wants to ministerial positions.  However, with regard to the appointment of members to the independent commissions, the 20th Amendment ensures that the arbitrary power of the president to make such appointments is taken away from him.  This gives a greater likelihood of persons of integrity being appointed to be members of the independent commissions.


 The 21st Amendment also contains provisions for the re-constituting of the members of the independent commissions, including the Human Rights Commission and Elections Commission.  Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has expressed his concern that the government is planning to appoint new members to the Human Rights Commission and Elections Commission as those two commissions, in particular, have taken up independent positions that are not in keeping with government policy at the present time.  This would be unfortunate as many in civil society have been appreciative of the positions that these two commissions have taken up on matters of controversy.
 Indeed, my participation at the International Human Rights Day event organised by the Human Rights Commission was motivated by the desire to show solidarity with a state institution that was championing the cause of democracy and human rights even at the potential risk of earning governmental displeasure.  The event organised by the Human Rights Commission was exemplary as it took a deeper and more profound approach to the problems of human rights that are besetting the country.  At the present time, the focus of attention is on the rights to protest against the government that are contained in basic human rights covenants.
The right of freedom of association and of the right to free expression are fundamental to a functioning democracy.  The suppression of the protest movement has seen these rights being limited and constricted by the government.  The justification given by the government and by business associations is that the need of the hour is political stability in which the economy might be revived.  These arguments ignore the importance of inclusion, and the failure of inclusion, that have brought the country to this sorry pass. The dismal economic performance of the last quarter suggests that this is the missing dimension that needs to be included into government policy. The false stability they seek from restriction of the people’s rights does not provide any advantage to the country.


President Wickremesinghe has pledged to fast track the national reconciliation process that focuses on the failure of inclusion of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities which led to decades of discrimination, alienation and eventually to terrorism and war.  However, to be truly inclusive is to go beyond the limits of ethnic and religious diversity.  It is to also take into account the other aspects of diversity and pluralism in Sri Lankan society which extend beyond the ethnic and religious cleavage.  There are also issues of caste, region, gender, sexuality, disability and occupation that cause large segments of the population to be excluded from enjoying their human rights and from participating in the mainstream of social and economic life.
The Human Rights Commission event gave an indication of the wide range of its services to marginalised sections of the national community.  Those given an opportunity to speak on behalf of the groups they represented included women in politics, torture victims, physically.  There were at least twenty such groups who spoke at the event, disadvantaged, sex workers, sexual minorities, free trade zone workers, and AIDS patients which was very moving as when a dwarf mother spoke of the way her son who was also born a dwarf had been treated without kindness or dignity when he went to the bank and stood in front of the teller counter which was taller than him.
One of the grievances highlighted by the speakers was that they could speak and protest, but they would not be heeded. There were promises given, but no action or follow up thereafter.  A respect for pluralism would mean that all voices are heard and heeded regardless of their numbers or position in society.  The inclusion of unseen and unrecognized minorities in the care and protective embrace of the state will build confidence in the Sri Lankan state of the visible and recognized minorities of whom President Wickremesinghe is talking about when he promises national reconciliation next year by Independence Day.

by Sivamohan Sumathy
“with our bare hands we shape our story”
from, “the dialectic” by sumathy
The year 2022 draws to a close, a year that has been the hardest and the most glorious of the past 10 years. It has been the year of exploding gas cylinders, the fertiliser ban and women rising against micro finance. It has been the year of long queues. It is when Colombo erupted in protest as millions converged in its centres, and the President fled the country: the year of the Aragalaya and the year of the Poraattam and the Struggle. It is a year of victories, big and small.
Growing disenchantment with the Rajapaksa government’s policy, with its combination of rampant nationalism and rampant neo liberalism, galvanized the people against it at a critical moment, worst economic crisis of our postcolonial history. The protests were popular uprisings, and for a brief moment (at least) they cut across the many social faultlines.
Despite its Colombo and Sinhala centric focus, the protests were a truly mobilizational force. They were potentially mobilizing toward a national popular of a democracy movement, what Gramsci would have called, the National Popular – the coming together of large collectives of people – in a historic conjuncture of forces in a birth of a revolutionary moment. This fragile revolutionary moment, the protests, has been popularly dubbed the Aragalaya. Underlining this promise of a coming together, and in a spirit of celebration and anticipation of the truly mobilizational force of a national popular, I rebaptize the moment, the protests, and the democracy movement, Aragalaya-Poraattam-Struggle.
And the new year begins with ill tidings.
The year is quickly closing in on us. As the dust settles on the Aragalaya and the people are faced with the twin burden of economic hardship and increased repression in the aftermath, we can only become aware of how fleeting the moment of protest has been. We are, alas, only too aware of the many defeats. Time and again, in this column and elsewhere, members of the Kuppi Collective outlined the major setbacks the economy is facing today and the progressive depletion of welfare measures. The Ranil Wickremesinghe budget of 2023 is seen by many, including this writer, as both a sop to the IMF and a fairy tale. It proposes widespread cuts to public spending in education, health, and offers little relief to the already suffering people. The proposal to privatise Telecom and CEB is an ominous sign of what to expect in the future. The retreat of the state from the important responsibility of ensuring the well-being of the people underlines the government’s economic policy.
We are at the cusp of change. But we are the fashioners of change, too. As Stuart Hall says the historical conjuncture has to be seized upon. This is the moment for us to create multiple moments of democratic action severally; holding them all together in a political and theoretical analysis; reflect on and refashion the relations between a) state and society b) state and the individual subject c) the state and the economy and d) the economy and the people.
FUTA and the Aragalaya-Porattam-Struggle
The year 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the FUTA’s historic trade union action of a hundred days, on the slogan of “6% GDP” and “Save State Education.” These rallying cries struck a sympathetic chord among the people, who had been long suffering under the deteriorating conditions of secondary and tertiary education. “Our Universities Are Under Attack!” said FUTA and called out to the people to support them. In the dark early post war days, FUTA’s action represented a pro-democracy movement, and became a catalyst for the campaign to oust the Rajapaksa regime in the years after. While one may quarrel over the authenticity of the democratic content of the Yahapalana government, and over whether we fought for change in vain or not, it is my considered view that the years of campaign and the movement for change and good governance not only represented a pro-democracy movement, but also opened up spaces for democratic action in the years to come.
Come 2022, 10 years after the 100–day struggle of FUTA. When the protests broke out in April 2022, it caught many people off guard. The University itself was a little slow to react, but it did seize the moment, and respond. Throwing their weight behind the protests, it joined the people in the streets. On June 12, 2022, it launched its proposals for economic and political recovery. However, unlike that decisive moment in 2012, FUTA was not able to offer any form of leadership to the Aragalaya-Porattam-Struggle. The pro-democracy movement was larger than anything FUTA had envisioned so far, for it embraced the concerns of the general public in its multiplicity and in open revolt in a way that FUTA, or its middle-class academics, never prepared for.
Just this week, FUTA and its “sister” unions observed a one-day token strike against increased taxation on their income, under the newly introduced progressive taxation scheme that the government has proposed. This same week, PAFTA, my own union, at Peradeniya Arts, observed an angry three-day boycott of duties, following student violence perpetrated upon a member of our staff and his family. The Union called on all parties to commit to a violence free campus. One may need to hold both these actions together to ponder the varied paths of action of FUTA and the Academic Community. On the one hand, FUTA’s action to protest the taxation policy may seem a highly conservative one, one that smacks of privilege and self-preservation, indifferent to the suffering of the general public; a far cry from the “one million signature campaign” of 2012, demanding 6% GDP for education, Of course the taxation policy is flawed. It lets the very rich off the hook, by capping progressive taxation at 36%, and making raw income the baseline. It also has to be noted that much of the tax revenue of the state comes from indirect, not direct taxes.
On the other hand, the action taken by PAFTA, to confront student violence on campus, is one of those rare occasions where the academic community has turned the lens of critique upon itself and condemned any incidence of violence on campus unequivocally. Student on student violence is a part of a larger and more general scene of undemocratic practices in the university. PAFTA has to be congratulated on the brave stance it has taken. On the other hand, state repression targets university students mercilessly. The state is on a spree of arresting protesting and non-protesting students and others, at will, clamping down on dissent. The Prevention of Terrorism Act continues to target minorities. The campaign for democracy is multiple and at times faces contrary directions.
The cause of free education, and the cause of Save State Education are lost in the muddle of all these competing claims on our attention and allegiances. FUTA and the academic community can play a significant role in this critical time, if it understands this complexity and works out a programme for democracy within it and against it. Given the relative political autonomy and relative independence from corporate structures the academic community enjoys as a social bloc, FUTA can once again perform a vital role in the pro-democracy movement. It will then remain relevant not just to people’s needs but to its own self.
Toward a Democratic Future
Facing privatization in its many insidious forms, the universities are under attack, again. The budget allocation for education for 2023 is roughly 1% of the GDP. Further, this government is accelerating neo liberalization of public education, commenced by previous governments. Privatisation is happening within the university system and is not just imposed from outside. With allocations hardly sufficient to keep our institutions running, universities are compelled to find their own funds. By default, the academic community becomes complicit in privatizing policies, happening mostly in the name of fee levying study programmes, PPP and Quality Assurance Frameworks. Taking a step back, we should explore our own identities and fraught identifications with the forces battering down on the ramparts of the state system.
In this collective mode of action and reflection, FUTA, and the academic community can join forces with those of the larger movement for democracy, in creating a moment of and for the national popular – the conjuncture. In doing so, we may reset the terms of the relations between state, society, subject on the one hand and the economy, people, and the state on the other. Can we do it again, the Aragalaya-Porattam-Struggle?
(Kuppi is a politics and a pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.)
Sivamohan Sumathy is attached to the Dept. of English, University of Peradeniya

The new-look Mirage outfit that made an impressive debut, at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, Mount Lavinia, on the night of December 2nd (2022), is scheduled to arrive in Oman, today (20).
Their itinerary, in Oman, is made up of two dinner dances and two concerts.
Their opener will be a concert, on December 23rd, followed by a dinner dance, on December 25th. at the Al Falaj Hotel, in Muscat.
The same venue will feature Mirage, on December 31st, to usher in the New Year, at a gala dinner dance.
The other gig, that Mirage is scheduled to do, will be another concert, at a desert hotel, in Oman.
Bassist Benjy said the new lineup is looking forward to this trip with great enthusiasm.
“Yes, we are going to create a happening scene, over there.”
Mirage will be back on 2nd January, 2023.

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