Photo courtesy of The New Indian Express

“Actually time itself is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively.” Martin Luther King (Letter from Birmingham Jail)

In November 2019, 6.9 million Sri Lankans overestimated the intelligence, capacity and compassion of the Rajapaksa brothers. That mistaken assessment was the root cause of the tragedy we are living through today as individuals and as a nation.

Should we now compound that error by fatally underestimating their will to power?

The Rajapaksas are not supermen as 6.9 million (mostly Sinhala-Buddhist) Sri Lankans believed, naively, against reason, experience and critical intelligence. But they aren’t paper tigers either. They will fight with everything they possess to stay in power at least until the next national election. And that everything-they-possess includes not just all the might of the state but also the legality of the constitution.

The only asset those who choose to oppose them on the streets own is the moral highground. And that can be maintained only if protests stay nonviolent, even in the face of provocative state violence.

To think that a president can be ousted by surrounding his office or his home, to believe that the Rajapaksa regime is a house of cards that will collapse at a touch, would be as unintelligent as believing in the myth of “Our Hero who Labours”.

The Rajapaksas will fight back first with tear gas and water cannon, then with rubber bullets and finally with live ammunition. They have a history of doing so against protestors, including in the south. They did so during the FTZ protest, the Rathupaswala protest and the fishermen’s protest, all this under the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency.

This time too, shots could be fired and lives lost. As is almost always the case, the dead will be ordinary people. They will be lionised for a day, a week, hailed as martyrs, then forgotten by all except their loved ones who will bear the scars of those violent losses for life.

This is not an argument against protests. This is an argument against violent protests. Violence once unleashed by either side is hard to contain. And its primary victims will be Sri Lanka and her poorer citizens. It might even work in Rajapaksa favour by giving them a reason to unleash a wave of repression.

Protests are hardly uncommon in today’s Sri Lanka. Protests happen outside petrol stations when angry customers block roads. Citizens stand on roadsides holding candles night after night. This week, protestors blocked roads in Bandarawela, reportedly preventing the advent of Minister Namal Rajapaksa. Last month, a group of women engaged in a sit-in protest outside the president’s Mirihana residence.

Most of these protests are by ordinary Sri Lankans with little or no political involvements. And they stay peaceful. The protests are not turned into do-or-die kind of zero sum game. The protestors engage with the police and both sides compromise to maintain peace. A protest blocking a road, for instance, will allow one lane to be opened for traffic. These protestors don’t want to die on the road or end up in hospitals. That sort of “heroism” is a luxury beyond their economic means. They want to, need to, have to return to their waiting families in one piece.

These protestors perhaps intuitively understand a key political truth. When the balance of power is totally asymmetrical, when your opponent owns all the might of a functioning state (which is armed to the teeth), non-violence is not just morally right; it is also politically smart.

The day after

Imagine that a kind fate, a generous magician banishes the entire Rajapaksa clan in one fell swoop to another universe. What will that day after look like? Will we have sane minded people working together to haul the country out of the abyss she is in? Or will we have various opposition parties and personalities squabbling for the biggest share of the political pie? Who and what will creep into the corridors of power through the resulting cracks?

Imagine the protests succeed in ousting the Rajapaksas. A key role in such a scenario will belong to the military. That role could be passive (the military disobeys orders to put down protests and stays in barracks) or active (the military actively assists the protestors). Either way, the men in uniforms will be seen as heroes by the larger public, giving them outsized influence in post Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.

That, for example, was what happened in Egypt. The military turned against the Mubarak regime and was hailed as heroes and saviours by the protestors. Now General el-Sisi is President el-Sisi and the military runs the state.

One of the most worrying findings of the Centre for Policy Alternatives’ latest survey is that 36.3% of Sinhalese are agreeable (strongly or somewhat) to governance by military. The combined vote of the SJB, the JVP and the UNP at the last parliamentary election was a much lower 29.89%. 60.5% of Sinhalese also think that the military is more suitable to handle public affairs at a time of crisis. And 89.9% of Sinhalese are either very or somewhat satisfied about the ongoing militarisation of civil spaces. All of this point to a potential danger that can become actualised if anti-Rajapaksa protests don’t stay peaceful.

If on the day after the Rajapaksas are thrown out, the opposition is at loggerheads about who should be what, giving rise to public discontent and disgust, will the military step in to restore order, a kind of an honest broker? If they do, won’t these same protestors hail them as their new saviours, Diyasen kumarayas in uniform? Won’t this be a paradise regained for the hardest of the hard Sinhala-Buddhist racist right, the ones who think that the problem with Gotabaya is that he is not being enough of a Hitler?

The public was rightly outraged when a club (obviously with top political connections) organised a motor vehicle rally under the guise of philanthropy. A Buddhist monk was hailed as a hero for stepping on to the road and stopping the vehicle procession.

There is a revealing postscript to this story. Dan Priyasad, a notorious anti-minority incendiary, called the monk to object to the monk’s conduct. He began his telephone conversation by reminding the monk of their common past. The monk had sought help from Dan Priyasad against a Christian church in the area over the matter of loudspeaker usage. What kind of help anyone would want from the likes of Dan Priyasad is all too easy to guess.

The anti-minority hard right that was once solidly behind the Rajapaksas is now split. Some are with the regime while others are gravitating towards oppositional space. If Sri Lanka descends into a spiral of violence and counter violence, if streets become the locus of oppositional politics, these extremists (especially the ones in robes) will be able to play a star role. One can easily imagine a scenario where some former Rajapaksa Ape Hamuduruwo approaches a group of Our (uniformed) Boys asking them to use their guns to save the motherlands again.

And the Rajapaksas will be replaced by former Rajapaksa acolytes who are as racist, intolerant, and anti-democratic as their erstwhile masters, if not more.

In her error-ridden history, modern Lanka avoided making two mistakes – military rule and extra-constitutional governmental change.

Will we compound the fatal errors of 2019 (and 2020) by crossing those red lines?

Beware of anarchy

Anger is probably the predominant national emotion today, just ahead of despair. Normal life is disrupted in multiple ways (I’m writing this in the brief interlude between two power cuts). We are caught in a spiralling crisis with no end in sight.

The Rajapaksas are clueless about the depth and the extent of the crisis and about potential solutions (even a few band aids seem beyond their meagre mental capacities). The opposition’s heart might be in the right place; the same cannot be said about its brain. Its common inability to come up with a political and policy alternative is what makes the crisis hermitic and pushes people into despairing fury.

But so far we have managed to avoid an outbreak of violence, a general breakdown in law and order, a descent into anarchy.

That is an achievement worth of retaining.

I don’t know who is organising the Sunday’s planned protest. For me, that mystery is a serious problem. This is not a Hollywood movie, a Sri Lankan version of V for Vendetta. This is real life, where violence has actual consequences, the burnt stay burnt and the dead stay dead. Whoever the organisers are, I hope they will learn something from the way ordinary Sri Lankans express their anger against the Rajapaksas.

The people waiting for days outside petrol sheds are justly furious. They curse the government openly. Yet when they block a road in protest, they are peaceful and disciplined. They don’t chant slogans, let alone throw rocks. They sit on their receptacles with Atlas-like patience and strength. These protests are not showy like the Mirihana drama. But they are more consequential.

If the proposed march happens on Sunday, I hope it will be silent, orderly and peaceful. I hope the marchers will converge in peace and disperse in peace. I hope they understand that ousting a government is a serious business that cannot be done in one day or one week, especially when that government happens to be an elected one. I hope there will not be a repeat of Mirihana on a larger canvas. Yesterday no lives were lost. Next time, the outcome might be different.

(Incidentally, why don’t these organisers use their passion and their talents to build a movement that can be a true alternative not just to the Rajapaksas but to the opposition as well? Why not go the Chile way? After all, unlike in the case of Arab Spring countries and like in Chile, we can get rid of the family through the ballot box.)

If violence breaks out, mobs may not be far away. Order will breakdown. The door might open to anarchy.

That would not resolve the national plight but take it down to a new and deadly low.

The prairie is tinder dry. If anyone, even for the noblest reason, throws a lighted match onto it, the resulting conflagration will consume what little has survived the Rajapaksa brothers’ two and a half years of criminal misrule.