By Ranga Jayasuriya (Daily Mirror)
Next day, life went on as usual, the protests at best were relegated to some inside pages of newspapers. There were two concerted protest campaigns then, one was against a glove maker in Rathupaswala, which ended with terrible consequences when the army fired at the protesters. The other was to ask 6% of the GDP for education, which ended half way after the university dons received a salary hike.
Those days, government doctors did not blackmail the government. Private bus owners knew well enough as to where to draw the line, failing which one could have hitched a hike in a white van. Even most contentious measures, which no other previous government dared to implement such as slum relocation were carried out rather smoothly, save minor on site protests that you would see anywhere.
However, protests that are taking place at present are not exactly the type of the recent past. They appear more like the usual quasi militant, quasi Marxist organized pushback, which takes place when a reformist government tries to implement its reform policy in a society that has relative political freedom. We have seen this happen again and again since the independence and forcing successive governments to fold up their reform agenda. That was mainly why Sri Lanka could not register any meaningful economic growth for the first three decades of the independence; the next three decades were robbed by the war.
Two weeks back, over 100 SLTB buses that were deployed during a strike by the private bus operators were damaged by stone-throwing protesters. The government did precious little to bring the perpetrators to justice. Last week, striking port workers at the Hambantota port seized two foreign-owned ships during a trade union stoppage. The Navy was deployed to take control of the ships, however, the operation ended in a public relation debacle for the government. (The Navy Commander who was at the scene reportedly commanding the operation in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, is accused of assaulting a journalist. The State media czars as usual blamed the victim for getting thrashed).
“The government would face more concerted and organized protests if it forged ahead, so does it claim, to implement its development programmes”
However, this new wave of protests would do no good to the country, and to the groups that the protestors claim to represent. Nor would a government that reacted to them erratically solve the problem. If the perpetrators of attacks on buses were arrested and produced before the court, it could have set a precedent and could have discouraged others crossing the line of legitimate protest. Instead, the government, initially gave into protestors, with the President Sirisena promising that there would be no hike in traffic fines (though now the government has gone back on that assurance as evident in contradictory statements).
Then the port workers seized two foreign cargo ships and the Navy had to be deployed. The use of the Navy may have averted more trouble or could well have created trouble. However, while the government claims that damage was done to property and that the seizure of ships were illegal and near piracy, no legal action has been taken against the saboteurs. The problem in this country is most problems are addressed by some kind of knee jerk reaction. Then the government feigns that everything is under control and that everyone is happy. However, protests are an integral part of a free society and are not going to disappear. What the government should do is establish that borderline of legitimate protest vs wanton sabotage, and while addressing legitimate grievances, also hold accountable those who cross the boundary of legitimate expression of discontent.
“The government should try to enhance its autonomy through civilized means. It can make use of the available legal system.”
The government would face more concerted and organized protests if it forged ahead, so does it claim, to implement its development programmes. The success of projects like Western Region Megapolis and Hambantota Export Zone would depend on the government’s ability to negotiate a bargain with many thousands of people who would be affected in the short term. The problem in this country, and indeed many in our part of world is that our social structures and ethos are not conducive for fast track development.
They loath the change and prefer to wallow in the rot. The root of this problem lies in the fact that masses in our countries were prematurely politically empowered, partly by the colonial British themselves, before they reached the minimum threshold of economic empowerment and before our state institutions were strong enough to withstand the popular impulses of the vast swathes of poor and often backward population.
Successive governments were compelled to indulge in bread and butter politics in order to ensure their electability. Those social factors seriously compromised the government autonomy from social pressure. Though that was a necessary trade off in representative democracy, it severely hampered the state power, which is the government’s ability to extract and mobilize its resources to achieve its policy ends. That may also explain why only Asian and Latin American states that managed to achieve sustainable long term growth — ranging from South Korea, Taiwan to Singapore in the past and China and Vietnam recently (plus Mahathir’s Malaysia) to Pinochet’s Chile — were pro-growth authoritarian states, where the government could implement the policy and tell the protestors go and hang.
That luxury is not available for the leaders of this country, nor would our society tolerate that degree of latitude given to a government. Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to offset limited government autonomy through extra-judiciary means and he was voted out. Though in retrospect it would appear as callous, there were celebratory firecrackers when former president R. Premadasa was killed by LTTE terrorists.
The government should try to enhance its autonomy through civilized means. It can make use of the available legal system. And also it can make the public know that a short term pain, if any would be in long term benefit. People themselves have had enough of this long term stagnation, and would probably listen.