Instead of being comfortable with the most common and simple answer that Sri Lankans live under a repressive regime, which I think as unhelpful, misleading and even counterproductive, we could think about three broad reasons for the wide pessimism of any radical change in the status quo. First, is the growing disjuncture between the comparatively high literacy rates, access to information, and formal democratic freedoms with countries and the apparent decline in people’s participation in political dissent? Second, the political parties and civil society groups that give voice and leadership to dissent seems to be far removed from the aspirations of the people. Third, these leaders seem to take granted of the people’s awareness of critical issues, frustrations with the ruling regime and enthusiasm for radical change of the status quo. Many of these leaders seem to be less interested in self-criticism of their political ideologies and tactics, and lack the will to accommodate change.
The crisis of the Arab world was precipitated by the global economic crises and the severity of the austerity measures imposed by governments to address the crises. The people of the Middle East lost their faith in and tolerance of the authoritarian and dictatorial governments that used national security, progress, religion, xenophobia, nepotism, patronage, economic and military force to control them. At the same time, in the more developed countries, the citizenry began to tire of their governments’ endless jockeying for strategic position in the world of geopolitics, and of their own conspicuous consumption.
The glories of past military victories no longer served to maintain the power and popular legitimacy of the state. When the population turned against the state, and state leaders were helpless, they too were abandoned by the external forces that once supported them. These external forces are now busy rebranding their credentials among the population as champions of human rights and democracy and taking control of the economic opportunities these countries offer.
The protestors come from diverse backgrounds and are focused on a wide range of rights. They once thought it would be impossible to achieve them without a radical change in the ruling regime of their respective countries. Although there were a few prominent personalities who gave leadership to these movements, none of them supports one clear aspirant who is seeking to take power. The protests clearly targeted the economic policies and the political agenda of regime change, but no movement has clearly voiced a specific economic or political program to realize its demands.
The notion of Arab Spring originates from the term “springtime of nations” used to describe revolutionary upheavals in Europe during mid-1800s, is somewhat misleading because it makes us think that task of the protest movements is complete. It was the promise of rebirth of a new society that made the term Arab Spring. It took decades for France to enjoy spring Louise Napoleon won free elections in 1848 following the overthrow of monarchy, and it took 32 years for democracy after ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. (Many Sri Lankas have been waiting for Spring since 1977 elections!)
The current chaos in the Arab world has to do with the fact that despite the fall of their leaders, many fundamental questions remain unanswered: Is there a clear road map for the future? Is there easy ways out the current financial crisis and austerity measures? Citizens do not like experimentation, but clarity. It seems the Arab world is now on its way to a very long winter, which could turn out to be a long spring for neoliberal institutions, the super powers, the wealthy and the extremists who generally prey on the miseries other others. These forces could easily remake the Arab world according to the very image that the protesters despised. Yet, the Arab protesters demonstrated the courage and persistence until they realized their immediate objectives.‘Sri Lanka Spring’ is not a grass-roots movement. Rather, it seems to be imposed from above, under the leadership of the United National Party, which remains largely disconnected from the masses and has, for many years, failed to put its own house in order. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s refusal to relinquish leadership of the party, despite losing nearly 20 elections and facing rejection by his own party members, makes the public even more fearful of the consequences of yet another UNP government than they are of the ruling regime. The general public doubts Mr. Wickremesinghe’s commitment to justice for Fonseka because of the party’s ambivalent relationship with the general, the UNP’s failure to maintain the momentum of the movement to secure Fonseka’s release.
The UNP cannot build a broad coalition because it is selective of the issues that it is interested in and its allies. For example, it is silent about the privatization of university system, and has consistently demanded an immediate political settlement to the ethnic crisis. Nor it has clear alternatives solutions to these issues. UNPs take on Fonseka’s heroism against the LTTE is not nuanced enough to mobilize people across different ethnic divide. Placing Fonseka as the central focus of protests is insufficient convince all ethnic groups to equally revolt against the government.
The lesson we are learning from UNP politics today is that authoritarianism cannot be fought with authoritarianism. Politics of protest are in vain unless they immediately translate into politics of hope.
The Arab Spring involves the work of hundreds of civil society organizations both domestic and international. In Sri Lanka, however, the civil society organizations are not a part of the anti-government protests organized by the political parties not only because they are suppressed by the state, but are urban based entities without a mass following. Civil society organizations are silent about Fonseka. The fragmentation and territorial battles between these organizations do not allow them to coalesce around a ‘national purpose or agenda.’