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Change in class alignments and decimation of Aragalaya

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Protesters who came under attack. (File photo courtesy Twitter)

The net result was the recalibration of capitalist rule in Sri Lanka, which was threatened with anarchism. The new class alignment was consummated with departure of the former president and the election of the new president by the parliament. As one could expect, bourgeois support for Aragalaya rapidly faded away in sync with the new class alignment. The fragmented and weakened Aragalaya found itself to be no match to the combined force of the capitalist class, strongly backed by western imperialist interests. Aragalaya was checkmated. It was decimated without a fight. It disappeared into thin air, so to speak.

by Satyajith Andradi

The fact that post – colonial Sri Lanka has been a country deeply divided on racial, religious, class, caste, and political lines is no secret. Further, it is well known that these divisions have from time to time resulted in violent convulsions, claiming countless lives. However, last year, for the first time in our recent history, a protest movement which seemly defied all such animosities, came into being. It arose at the time when the country was facing its severest economic and political crisis since independence. Soon the movement gained great prominence. However, after flourishing for about five months, it suddenly vanished into thin air. This protest movement is widely known as Aragalaya.

In spite of its unprecedented nature, it is not difficult to identify the factors which gave birth to the Aragalaya. Needless to say, the root causes which brought this notable movement into existence were the ever – growing economic hardships, which affected the day-to-day lives of citizens belonging to every strata of society, and the widespread perception amongst the citizenry that rabid corruption and gross incompetence of the political establishment were responsible for dire situation. However, while there isn’t much debate in regard to the genesis of Aragalaya, there seems to be less clarity in regard to its abrupt disappearance from the scene. In fact, extremely divergent views have been expressed in this regard. Some argue that the Aragalaya ended because it achieved its object of ousting the then President, while some assert that it ended due to repression. This brief article attempts to understand the main reasons which led to its abrupt end.

Aragalaya defined

In Sinhala ‘Aragalaya’ means struggle. The Aragalaya was in every sense a struggle. But, then, everyone knows that there have been numerous other struggles in Sri Lanka before Aragalaya, during the Aragalaya, and after its abrupt end. Hence, it is important for the present discussion to define the Aragalaya in terms of its distinguishing characteristics.

The Aragalaya was born on the ninth of April 2022 with the continuous occupation of a wide area of the Galle Face Green in front of the Presidential Secretariat by protestors. It ended with vacation of the area in mid – August, after a period of more than five months. In this regard, it is reminiscent of previous protest movements such as the Occupy Wall Street and the protests in Cairo during the Arab Spring. The Aragalaya was distinctly non-violent and peaceful. In this respect, it showed some affinity to non-violent protest movements such as Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha Movement and the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King Jr., and even Father Gapon’s peaceful, albeit ill-fated, mass petitioning of the Tsar in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905. However, more importantly, it brought together people from all social classes – workers, peasant farmers, middle class professionals, and even sections of the bourgeoisie affected by the economic troubles. Further, almost all ethnicities and religions were fairly and visibly represented. Interestingly, the Aragalaya received the endorsement of high profile religious dignitaries, intellectuals, artistes, academics, and sports personalities, with their frequent visit to its Galle Face location. The area exuded a festive atmosphere with plenty of free food, drink, music, and other cultural and religious activity, especially in the late evenings.

An important feature of Aragalaya was its distinctly apolitical character, as far as the country’s numerous political parties are concerned. This prompted some political parties to assert that Aragalaya required political leadership. Some parties even volunteered to provide political direction. However, the Aragalaya continued to reject such unsolicited offers. All in all it projected an anarchist tendency opposed to the existing political establishment of the country in its entirety. It had a plethora of key demands and aspirations such as the call for the resignation of the then president, a system change, anti- corruption, relief from economic hardships, and the recovery of stolen state assets.

Decimation of Aragalaya

As already mentioned, it is often stated that the Aragalaya came to an abrupt end due the repression by the government which came to power after the resignation of the former president in mid – July last year. If so, one may question how Aragalaya managed to withstand a violent attack on May 9th, when it was just a mere month old, and grow from strength to strength. Could such a movement so easily succumb to mere external repression? A counter argument put forward is that the Aragalaya wound up because it achieved its demands with the resignation of the former President in mid- July. If so, what happened to the call for system change, recovery of stolen assets, and relief from economic hardships? Further, why didn’t the Aragalaya wind up in mid – July, immediately exit of the former president, without prolonging its existence till mid – August? Lack of plausible answers to these questions indicate that we should search for more profound reasons for the decimation of the Aragalaya. The answer lies in class dynamics – the radical change in class alignments from the months preceding the birth of the Aragalaya right up to its abrupt end in mid – August last year.

In a piece titled ‘Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism – trump card or junk bond of the national bourgeoisie’ by the present writer published in these columns on 1st December 2021, the government which was voted into power in November 2019 was described as a government of the national bourgeoisie – the indigenous capitalist class, in alliance with vast sections of Sinhala Buddhist peasantry, petty bourgeoisie and working class. It was further mentioned, that the government had greatly alienated its voters amongst the peasant farmers, workers, and petty- bourgeois due to a plethora of reasons such as the ban of chemical fertiliser, chronic shortages and unaffordability of essential food, medicine and fuel, and the attempt to sell state assets to foreign companies. These changes in class alignments were reflected by the departure of populist and left –oriented parties from the government. The popular support for the government of the national bourgeoisie had reached its nadir at the time of the birth of Aragalaya. Needless to say, the traditional class alignments of the national bourgeoisie with the peasantry, working class and petty bourgeoisie were torn asunder, to say the least. Aragalaya flourished in these circumstances. Meanwhile, the government of the national bourgeoisie, in desperation, looked for new class allies. Intriguingly, it forged an alliance with its traditional electoral rival, the United National Party – the party of the comprador capitalist class – the capitalist class subservient to the interest of western imperialists. This unprecedented alliance immensely strengthened and united the country’s capitalist class, and opened a secure access road to western finance capital. The net result was the recalibration of capitalist rule in Sri Lanka, which was threatened with anarchism. The new class alignment was consummated with departure of the former president and the election of the new president by the parliament. As one could expect, bourgeois support for Aragalaya rapidly faded away in sync with the new class alignment. The fragmented and weakened Aragalaya found itself to be no match to the combined force of the capitalist class, strongly backed by western imperialist interests. Aragalaya was checkmated. It was decimated without a fight. It disappeared into thin air, so to speak.

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