By Ameer Ali –
Aragalaya, a historic event that started at Galle Face Green in March 2022 and continued peacefully for more than three months until it was brought to a violent end, is not dead but waiting to complete its mission. The violence that aborted it ultimately brought in a new President, a new Prime Minister, and a new cabinet, all without fresh mandate from the people. One of the first acts of the new President, Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) was to send in the police to clear the occupied premise and arrest a few of its vocal leaders who were later accused of setting fire to RW’s private residence. One of those arrested also claimed that there was a conspiracy to kill him while in prison. This allegation is yet to be investigated.
However, the aragalaya episode was unique, although some from the old leftist groups may contest this claim, because it was the first time since independence that a new generation of young men and women, mostly from the majority Sinhalese community and not belonging to any political party or faction, were awakened to the fact that there was something radically amiss in the way the country is being run by the elected leaders. It was that awakening and realization which made them to raise the historic demand for “System Change” with a complementary slogan, “No 225”, which was in essence a virtual motion of no confidence on the entire political leadership.
RW, who tactfully sympathized with the aragalaya cause until he captured the plum job as President eventually showed his true colours and turned out to be another paragon of the prevailing system and accusing the youngsters as anarchists and militants. After arresting a few and sending the rest back to their homes with a stern warning that he would not tolerate any disturbance to his economic recovery plan, RW offered the youth an olive branch and invited them to join his twenty-five years economic marathon and promising them even official positions to prove their competence and help him to win the race. But there are clear signs that aragalaya youth are not to be hoodwinked with these gestures and that they are regrouping to complete their mission. The fact that there is a new wave of slanders, accusations and condemnations of aragalaya, particularly by politicians on the government side and their apparatchiks, and even harming certain identified youth physically is evidence of an official fear about aragalaya renewal. The most recent arrest of IUSF leader Wasantha Mudalige and seven others for allegedly preventing the police from carrying out their duty is an index to this alarm.
Aragalaya & System Change
Be that as it may, what is the system that aragalaya wants to change and what is the system that it is purporting to replace with? There is no specific document or a blueprint from which one could search for answers to these questions. Nor, the movement had articulated its demands in a more concrete form in any of the public utterances. But there are certainly some behavioural indicators from which one could glean some ideas about the yearnings of the youth.
During the early days of aragalaya there was one little incident of great significance that explains at least one aspect of what the movement meant by system change. In one of its protest gatherings held at Battaramulla a Buddhist monk went to join them, but the protestors politely requested the monk to keep way. This little incident caried a strong message to the world outside that aragalaya did not want their mission to be tainted with any religious colour, and particularly wanted to avoid being identified with political Buddhism. This did not mean that aragalaya was anti-Buddhist or antireligious. It included everyone who supported its cause, irrespective of caste, sex, religion, language or ethnicity. Aa a result, Galle Face Green turned into a theatre for New Year celebrations to Buddhists and Hindus in April that year and a venue for breaking the Ramadhan fast for Muslims. Unlike political Buddhism that excludes the ethnic and religious minorities and advocates discrimination against them aragalaya yearns for a Sri Lankan polity that is inclusive of all its citizens in an effort to build a democratic, free and peaceful society with a vibrant economy. That is why it is demanding system change.
An Intergenerational Divide
Before going further into the issue of system change, it is necessary to clear certain misconceptions and prejudices against this mission. There is widespread ignorance or misunderstanding among senior members of Sri Lankan society regarding the aspirations, philosophy and actions of their junior partner. What one witnesses currently is indeed a universal phenomenon of an intergenerational divide in which the younger half is aspiring to create a new world in which humanity could live in peace, freedom and prosperity without destroying the environment. Aragalaya represents its Sri Lankan chapter. These agitators are not, as some tend to think, a bunch of adolescents from urban elite families looking to spend their leisure hours in romantic politics. On the contrary, they are a serious, knowledgeable and dedicated generation of articulate, intelligent and informed men and women trained in the art of networking who feel free to challenge the very axiom on which the country’s governance and economy rest and operate. It is this challenge that underlines their demand for “System Change”.
Aragalaya missionaries are aware how systematically Sri Lanka had been politically misgoverned, economically mismanaged and socially and culturally misled and misrepresented by leaders schooled in the sectarian philosophy of political Buddhism. This philosophy, unlike its counterpart political Islam, which is aspiring to create Islamic states to be governed by the so-called sharia laws, is one devoid of the subliminal teachings of Buddhism and driven by the singular desire of transforming the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Sri Lanka into a monocultural if not monoethnic political and economic entity. This ideology with a false sense of irridentism based more on mythical stories than solid evidence from history and archaeology, was born in the late 19th century as a reaction to 450 years of colonial rule, but blossomed in the 20th after independence and continued to flourish with a resolve to dictate terms to every government that came to power for achieving the ultimate target of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism. In short, political Buddhism committed itself to keep Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony as the permanent feature of political governance, while granting the governors a free hand to devise their own modus operandi. What this meant in practice was the simple formula that so long as political leaders remain loyal to the ideals of political Buddhism there would be no accountability for their actions. Politics thus became the breeding ground for corruption.
This system flourished with corruption and became uncompromisingly autocratic during the Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) presidency. The election of GR in 2019 and that of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP Government which followed soon were both victories for political Buddhism. GR’s decision to take his oath of allegiance not in the parliament as was traditionally done, but in the Buddhist precincts of Ruvanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, his regular audience solely with Buddhist clergy to receive advice on virtuous governance, his appointment of a Special Task Force manned more by Buddhist monks than archaeologists to excavate Buddhist ruins in Tamil and Muslim concentrated north and east of the country, another Task Force also appointed under the chairmanship of a controversial Buddhist monk to explore the possibilities for implementing the so called One Country One Law, and as a reward for all this the crowning of GR as Sri Lankadheeshwara Padma Vibushana by the Sangha, indicate how the presidency, the government and Buddhist clergy were working in tandem to translate the ideals of political Buddhism into practice. It is therefore no exaggeration to claim that GR became the epitome of political Buddhism.
While that image was being successfully built corruption which has been endemic seems to have reached its acme during that regime. The fact that CBSL, which is constitutionally empowered to monitor and direct the financial sector of the economy and advice governments on devising fiscal policies to go hand in hand with CBSL’s monetary policy, was subverted by GR and ordered instead to assist implementing his own economic policies based on the advice of the so-called Viyathmaga experts, spelt a mortal blow to the entire economy. Policies such as tariff concessions to GR’s favoured importers and his ban on chemical fertilizer imports, and unlimited borrowing from private creditors meant budget deficits, negative trade balances, and financial bankruptcy. What happened next is history.
Eyewitnesses to Ruination
What was important in all this development is the fact that the aragalaya youth were eyewitnesses to this bankruptcy and ruination. They had seen the pathetic plight of seven decades old history of once a flourishing economy that fell victim to a regime buried in corruption while championing the cause of political Buddhism. They have also witnessed although from a distance how political Islam had destroyed a glorious civilization and economy in parts of the Muslim world. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, Iran and the list goes on, are victims of this menace. Several of these countries are blessed with petroleum and natural gas, the lifeblood of industrial economies. Why then are their people starving, homeless and emigrating? It was that reality which finally awakened the aragalaya youth to cry for system change. Are they idealistic or realistic? There is no question therefore, that system change should start with a disconnection between religion and politics. Either religion should be depoliticized or politics should be dereligionized. The country therefore needs a new system based on a new constitution. There must be accountability for people in power and the corrupt must be eliminated. That in essence is the meaning of system change. The aragalaya youth has no confidence that this could be achieved with the current 225.
Economic Recovery & Ranilocracy
None of the political parties or coalitions vying for power at the next election, and none of the presidential aspirants including RW, is prepared to annul the marriage between politics and religion. In fact, they are already getting ready to use the Buddhist card in the battlefield. Even NPP, which is at least talking about system change has so far not declared in public the disconnection between religion and politics. Rejecting political Buddhism is not rejection of Buddhism just as rejecting political Islam does not mean rejection of Islam. Any system change in Sri Lanka should take this first step.
RW is not going to embark on any system change. Instead, he is anxiously waiting for the IMF miracle to work. If it works, which is doubtful given the obstacles in front such as debt restructuring, global economic slowdown, supply constraints and inflation, at least RW and his coalition partners could go before the voters and claim credit. But what happens when it fails? Is there a trump card other than religious nationalism to win an election?
RW knows very well that restructuring domestic and foreign debt is going to put additional burden on the people. In Argentina for example, where IMF is intervening heavily, the country’s vice-President Christina Fernandez-Kirchner insists on keeping debt payments subordinate to trade balance situation in order to avoid additional burden on the budget. Will RW and his regime adopt a similar position for Sri Lanka? One has to wait and see the outcome of negotiations. Economic slowdown abroad, high inflation caused by supply constraints and tight monetary measures to counter inflation at home would add more to difficulties to households. That would stimulate aragalaya and renew its demand for system change.
This is why Ranilocracy is preparing to defend itself with ATA, which has been temporarily shelved. IMF would not want any disturbance to thwart its recovery plan. Therefore, ATA would have IMF blessing as well as that of its shareholders. Gotacracy failed because it did not have such support. Will Ranilocracy succeed?
Aragalaya obviously has no confidence in the success of IMF recovery plan without system change. NPP, among all other parties, seems to agree with that position. So far there is no alliance between the two. Ranilocracy is cognizant of this fact and wants to prolong its reign. If an election is declared once again political Buddhism would become the last resort to the Ranilocracy.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia