When the JVP packed the 12-acre Galle Face green with People under the banner of their front organisation the National People’s Power (NPP), to announce Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) as presidential candidate, it did lift the spirits of most Sinhala urbans who weren’t there.
The JVP leadership gambled in going to Galle Face and they won. Though some say it is an “historic event that for the first time packed the Galle Face Green”, just two years ago in 2017, crowds for the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s May Day rally spilled over to adjoining roads too, 12 acres being too small for the crowd that came (or was rather brought).
The Leftist politics have more historically grand events when People came on their own commitment. Colombo district then was geographically much larger in size till Gampaha district was carved out in 1978, but had a smaller population. It was in that Colombo the Left led by the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) filled a much larger Galle Face Green in 1953 to announce the hartal for 12 August. Colombo district then had 1.6 million as against 2.4 million people now.
Again in 1964, trade union front popularly called the 21 Demands Movement led by the United Left Front held their historic May Day rally in Galle Face green, packed and spilling over to adjoining areas as well.
Yet, for the JVP, it was certainly an achievement that needs no exaggerations. That crowd was not a mere gathering of regimented “red shirted” youth usually seen in JVP rallies.
It was no “social media” magic of the new generation. It had men and women of all ages, from most parts of rural Sri Lanka and from many walks of life who wouldn’t know what social media is. It was impressive beyond numbers. Broadness in representation itself was significant though a new Sinhala Southern emergence. It showed there is in the Sinhala society too, a fatigue from and a rejection of politics of the “mega corrupt”.
That Galle Face rally is only the beginning for AKD, the JVP and its NPP. Their stage reflected the dissatisfaction and disgust within anti Rajapaksa forces that came together for the 2015 January presidential polls. NPP represented part of the Sinhala urban middle class that backed “common candidate” Sirisena to defeat Rajapaksa.
They dreamt of a neat and a clean future after defeating Rajapaksa. That dream was shattered beyond belief and before long, by the UNP leadership. Before that they were co-travellers from the time the funded Colombo civil society, the UNP and the Western power bloc came together against Rajapaksa in early post war period. Including the JVP, these urban representations were on stage with the previous “common candidate” Sarath Fonseka too.
They rallied against Rajapaksa raising issues like mega corruption, democracy and freedom. By 2014 the call for a corruption free country without “white vans” became the major slogan in the South. Tamil People from North and East and Muslim People across the country became a solid prop against Rajapaksa, with their own issues. Ouster of Rajapaksa was everything and the rest was expected by default.
What came by default in just three months was one of Sri Lanka’s biggest scams ever; the Central Bank Bond scam. Shouting their voices hoarse yet again against mega corruption everywhere, demanding transparency and accountability, they came to realise, the “rainbow revolution” that ushered in “yahapalanaya” is but another hoax.
The Galle Face rally therefore is a direct fallout of “anti-Rajapaksa” politics. One that lived on rhetoric and with no vision and programme. A fallout that now pins hope on the JVP in forging a “democratic alternative” in the mainstream.
Though with limitations, there are discussions now for “alternatives”. Will AKD and JVP live up to what the NPP is proposed for? The JVP leadership too seems to have felt the need to change for the new Change in demand. They have gone to the extent of giving up their JVP label that has a chequered political history with Sinhala racism and two brutal and violent extremist interventions.
They had even given up their “red shirts”, synonymous with bitter sectarianism. But the important issue is, have they changed their politics to provide the “alternative” the country needs and the Galle Face rally reflected?
They also have good competition. The self-proclaimed UNP presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa, is addressing social groupings that want something more than mere anti Rajapaksa rhetoric. His campaign is also quite broad based.
His speech in Dimbulagala on 20 August to the rural poor and his interactive session a week later with the Colombo rich middle class at the Lakshman Kadiragamar Institute with Eran Wickramaratne and Harsha de Silva on either side, was very much about creating an “alternate model” for economic growth and social development.
Rejecting Neoliberalism, he sounds close to the Scandinavian economic model. He speaks on inclusivity both economically and socially. He said he believes in devolution and would go for 13 Plus within a Unitary State. He is nevertheless a Sinhala Buddhist leader as he proudly told the Dimbulagala people.
Where does AKD come within this scenario?
AKD’s speech at Galle Face was also on the same page with economic and social inclusivity stressed. Continuing with his usually very articulate criticism of the Rajapaksas and this Yahapalana Government he and the JVP is very much responsible for, AKD promised clean, corrupt free governance that treats all as equals without any form of discrimination, an economy that would lift the quality of life of the labour force and rural people, racial and religious harmony that would not allow any form of extremism and an environment free from destruction. Everything the Yahapalanaya failed on.
There is hardly any difference or deviation of note in what AKD and Sajith promise. Their stark similarity is their lingo that is very much “Sinhala South”. Both have totally forgotten this country bled for almost 30 years with a brutal and a savage war fought to a bloody end. Sajith certainly is stuck with a Unitary State and devolution with 13 Plus he believes can be sold to the Sinhala South.
AKD does not speak about devolution, about the 13 Amendment and about power sharing but promises a “great human society” with no divisions in this “motherland”.
The new look JVP will have to make certain they are clearly understood and as an “alternative” to Sajith Premadasa as well. That needs honest clarifications on many issues left ambiguous.
Most importantly on the national question, as AKD stressed on racial and religious harmony for “national security”. I wrote to AKD on 26 August requesting such clarifications on few important issues. “Your appeal for the People to ‘change’ when making a very serious decision” I wrote, adding “would not be decided on a mere ‘invitation’.”
In my letter I was quite explicit. “What you had nevertheless forgotten is, for 70 years in this country, Sinhala Buddhist dominance was consciously cultivated leading to racial polarisation that led to an almost 30-year long war leaving thousands of lives lost, thousands of young women as widows, thousands of children orphaned and many hundreds of youth disabled”.
Thereafter I said, “Use of words like “motherland, national security, national unity, equality, freedom” used in your speech, in my view were meant to be understood in terms of Sinhala politics. With such “Sinhala protectionism” your speech excluded words like “war, the displaced, the disappeared, rehabilitation, militarisation, land dispossession, reconciliation”, words relevant to the North and the East.” (Full letter here – kusalperera.blogspot.com).
This country cannot go on with such ambiguous politics that in effect is used to keep hard line Sinhala Buddhists unruffled.
The “alternate” needed is not just for the South, but for the North and East too. AKD should therefore project himself as a “national” candidate with a “national programme” and drop this stupid Sinhalised “common candidate” claim.
The NPP should open up for effective Northern and Eastern representation in its leadership, that should not be mere Tamil and Muslim names as tokens. AKD with NPP should be open and clear on issues clarifying his position on Chapter II Article 09 that assures the “Sangha” (not Buddhism) State privilege and patronage, if he is serious about racial and religious harmony. Should also clear himself on the “Unitary State” that extreme Sinhala Buddhists stubbornly stand for without any compromise. Where would AKD stand on power devolution? Will he too go beyond 13A? Devolution needs to be within a single, undivided and a “United” country the Tamil People demand for effective power sharing, but will AKD go that far needs to be clear.
If those who lead the NPP wants to be different to the anti-Rajapaksa “collective” of 2015 January, AKD with NPP should present a well defined and a complete “alternate” remedy for all the mess there is in a country that bled for 30 years, in a filthy rich urban centred free market economy. An alternate policy that should answer economic issues as well as political issues. If AKD and his NPP fails in that, they would remain with Sajith Premadasa on the same Sinhala Buddhist platform, talking of prosperity for South and not as any worthy alternative in Sri Lankan politics. Galle face thus is not be the “alternate platform” politically, but one that cries for an alternate leadership, this presidential election too.