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Sri Lanka’s Leaderless Protests

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Sri Lanka’s Leaderless Protests

The leaderless nature of the protests was part of the attraction for many Sri Lankans. But leaders need to emerge if the movement is going to succeed in bringing about political change.

Sri Lanka’s Leaderless Protests

Sri Lankans protest outside the president’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

In mid-March 2022, a social media campaign calling for a mass rally demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa started gaining traction among a sizable population of youth. The protest was initially to be held on April 3.

However, on the night of March 31, a protest that had started as a peaceful demonstration against shortages of essential items, extended electricity cuts, and soaring costs of living, morphed into a massive rally that shook the mighty Rajapaksa administration to its core.

As the crowds chanted slogans expressing their anger against the government, a suggestion was made to walk to the President’s House, which was a short distance from the protest site. As the crowds made their way to the entrance of heavily guarded lane where the President’s House is located and started protesting, many others, who had heard of the protest via television and social media, joined the demonstration, swelling the crowds to thousands.

The security personnel were overwhelmed but held, and after gathering adequate reinforcements they tear-gassed and water-cannoned the remaining protesters. The news of the protests and of the police brutality spread via social media. Now, across the island, scattered, uncoordinated, and leaderless protests are taking place every day, demanding the resignation of the president.

The strength and the spread of the protest movement was such that the entire cabinet of ministers have resigned, 42 government MPs have decided to turn independent, and some members of the Rajapaksa family and their close associates have left the country.

Leaderless Protests

The most attractive feature of the protests for many Sri Lankans, jaded by years of professional politicians, was the leaderless and spontaneous nature of these events. The usual suspects in organizing protests, left-wing unions and student groups, have hitherto played a minuscule role. In fact, when the initial protest for April 3 was being organized, these groups had distanced themselves from the protests fearing that this was a state sponsored psyop. The grassroots protests in Sri Lanka have been compared to the Arab Spring protests, the Yellow Vests protests in France, and the 2019 Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in Hong Kong.

These developments correspond with transformations in the dynamics of movement organizing since the introduction of digital technologies. Increasingly, organizational entities like political parties no longer lead the mobilization, and often the driving forces behind these protests are grassroots activists and incidental participants who have leveraged a wide variety of digital technologies. Thus, digitally driven activism is often characterized by organizing beyond formal organizations.

Almost 10 days after the mass protests commenced, the government has taken several steps to placate the people. Given that most people view the politicization of the economic decision-making process – for example the appointment of Ajith Nivard Cabraal, a close political associate of the Rajapaksa family, as the governor of the Central Bank – as a driver of economic calamities faced by the country, the president has appointed an Advisory Group on Multilateral Engagement and Debt Sustainability composed of economic and financial experts. As part of the Cabinet reshuffle, Rajapaksa also appointed a career Central Banker, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe as the governor of the Central Bank and senior bureaucrat K.M. Mahinda Siriwardena as treasury secretary.

Simultaneously, buoyed by the success of the protests, the opposition parties are demanding in Parliament that President Rajapaksa must resign. Although the opposition has threatened the president and the government with a no-confidence motion, it is unlikely that such a motion would pass in Parliament given its composition. Thus, a lot depends on the success of the protests if the objective, the resignation of the president, is to be achieved.

However, just like social media-driven and leaderless protests in other countries, the lack of legitimate representatives for conflict-deescalating negotiations, a rise in legitimacy-sapping violence, and the lack of policy coherence have started to become a problem as the protests approach their second full week.

Lack of Legitimate Representatives

Commenting on Hong Kong’s 2019 Water Movement, Rowena He said that the two distinctive features of the movement, expressed in Cantonese as “no main stage” (leaderless) and “no mat-cutting” (do not split), discouraged individuals who possess experience, knowledge, and skills from contributing to the movement. “In the name of avoiding ‘main stage,’ the more radical populist voices that do not necessarily represent the majority of protesters became, in effect, the ‘main stage,’ and made uncompromising decisions that would further limit political space,” she wrote.

Similarly, there are no stable and legitimate leaders in the mass protests in Sri Lanka. While opposition political parties are involved in the protests, recent examples have shown that most of the protesters turned up of their own volition and are not interested in following the cues of political party members. In fact, a significant number of protest-goers seem to be hostile to the participation of politicians in their protests.

Thus, already the protests in Sri Lanka are marked by both political parties and unions organizing traditional rallies and many anonymous activists actively crafting ingeniously diverse tactics to mobilize citizens to join in the multitude of protests.

This poses a problem for the government. First, given the impossibility for the government to identify representatives from a leaderless protest movement, it is difficult for it to understand what concessions or overtures would satisfy or pacify the protesters. Will the recent moves in the economic front be adequate to placate the protesters? Or do they see these moves as an eyewash, aimed at sending them back home? Thus, there is a possibility of the protests morphing into a stalemate or an uncompromising, all-out confrontation. With dialogue not an option, the government may also be more motivated to engage in either a strategy of attrition or an all-out attempt to crush the protests.

Legitimacy-sapping Violence

From the very beginning there were fears that these protests would be infiltrated by agent provocateurs, and in fact there are reasons to believe that agent provocateurs have caused property damage to discredit the protest. In addition, the protests at times have been used by elements to settle personal scores and there are fears that violence will escalate if members of political parties join in the protests.

If instances of violence increase, there is a possibility of alienating the pivotal mass support needed to sustain the protest against the president.

Lack of Policy Coherence

There is a lack of coordination among protesters and a lack of clear policy goals. Most anti-Gotabaya protests seem to be a patchwork of people with different and even contradictory policy objectives. While many protesters have been demanding that the government work with the IMF on a bail-out, the unions that are increasingly playing a significant role in the protests are skeptical about IMF interventions.

Given these variations in goals, inadequate political communication within the movement can lead to tactical pitfalls and unintended costs. If the government decides to take a more confrontational approach, organized groups, such as political parties and unions, will play a more central role and the personal cost for participants and the odds of fracturing the movement increase.

On an immediate tactical level, the lack of leadership also takes a toll. On the March 31 protest that sparked the movement, the uncoordinated dispersal of protesters allowed the security forces to gain numerical superiority by the early hours of April 1, which resulted in mass arrests. This illustrates the risks of a lack of organized and well-strategized leadership. There were similar incidents in many leaderless protest movements across the world, for example the hurried withdrawal from the Hong Kong airport in 2019.

The Road Ahead

Organizing social movements, with clear leadership, used to take a long time. It took the U.S. civil-rights movement a decade to march on Washington. In Sri Lanka, the Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP), at the zenith of its organizational skills, took close to five years to organize a movement against the unpopular UNP government in the 1980s. Sri Lankan teachers spend almost a decade to organize the union action that got them a salary hike.

On the other hand, social media is quite effective in creating social movements, without leaders or concrete policies, in a short time. However, translating the power of spontaneous protests into actual policy change is very different, especially when faced with protracted resistance by those in power.

President Rajapaksa has insisted that he will not go, and those demanding his resignation, without structures and leaders to keep bringing people on to the road day after day, and lacking the underlying resilience created over time, can easily lose focus, direction, and the potential to effect change.

Thus, if the protests are to achieve their objective, the spontaneous protesters must understand the importance of working with opposition political parties, who must provide some leadership for these protests to ensure that these lead to positive change and are not used by certain powerful elements of the society for their own good. Ultimately leaders will have to emerge from the protests to turn the myriad passions of citizens into productive change.