“I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. This is a quote coined by Evelyn Hall, often mistakenly attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire. This free-speech tagline emphasises the importance of tolerating diverse individual viewpoints, even if they are contrary to what one believes in. It also signals the need to create space for varying perspectives to flourish and contest with one another. This generates a marketplace of ideas which ideally helps the public make choices based on evidence and sound reasoning. If one attempts to silence differing opinions, not only are we deprived of an assessment which may lead to a paradigm shift in our thinking, but it would also render us incapable of understanding why an individual adheres to an ideological stance. A marketplace of free speech can thereby lead to a freer and healthier society.
Stepping outside the “ideological bubble”
In praxis, however, this is not the norm. We tend to follow groups and political personalities who align with our worldviews and politico-economic position. Social media algorithms amplify these waves of information (at times mis/disinformation), feeding us “facts” and opinions which, more often than not, resonate with our ideological position. The decision to consume news from a specific television network, for instance, minimises interactions with opposing views and alternative vantage points, serving only to reinforce echo chambers.
This is why, during my short stay in Sri Lanka, I sought to engage with several individuals who believe that the continuation of the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa government is in the best interest of the country. In colloquial language, Rajapaksa loyalists are derogatorily called “baiyo”, a term which entered popular discourse in the mid-2010s after Rajapaksa loyalists stridently (and at times, uncritically) defended the policies of the regime. Given the nature and scale of the current crisis in Sri Lanka, one expects their numbers to be diminishing fast. In the context of anti-regime mass protests, it has become increasingly unpopular to advocate for the current government. A Mood of the Nation poll in June 2022 revealed that the public’s government approval rating had dropped from 10% to 3% since the start of the year. In this context, some refrain from bringing up their political opinions for discussion altogether.
Nevertheless, my forays in Sri Lanka – rudely interrupted by the shortage of public transport and fuel – revealed a number which far exceeded my initial estimation. Why do Rajapaksa loyalists remain faithful to the regime even as the country is experiencing its worst economic crisis since independence?
Grounding mass protests in a crisis of governance
A common thread among the Rajapaksa loyalists that I spoke to is their revulsion towards the “aragalaya” taking place at the Galle Face promenade. Some described it as a “hippie party” of youngsters with violent leftist ideologies aiming at bringing about anarchy and chaos. Others argued that this “Tamil diaspora-funded gang intends to destroy Sri Lanka by removing this government”. No one I spoke with voiced a positive impression of the aragalaya or connected the prevailing economic crisis to its emergence.
The hidden undercurrent in many of their narratives appears to be that state repression against these protestors is justifiable. They argue that the anti-regime, mass protests harm the country’s recovery process by deterring tourism and engendering a reluctance among international financial institutions (such as the IMF) and foreign governments from appearing to support an unpopular government, despite the dire need for assistance. Consequently, exposing the flawed nature of such reasoning requires greater effort to ground the aragalaya’s emergence in response to the governance crisis which is arguably at the root of the economic hardships the people are protesting against.
“Development” for whom?
Leaping from correlation to causation is another recurrent feature in my conversations with Rajapaksa loyalists. When faced with evidence of unsustainable debt levels acquired since the start of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure in 2005, coupled with the lack of return on investment from white elephant projects, they maintain that the data is incorrect or that these infrastructure projects were initiated to develop Sri Lanka. When framed in this manner, my criticism of the development projects and the debt incurred to finance them were interpreted by loyalists as a lack of patriotism.
One elderly gentleman claimed: “At least he tried. What did the other governments do? Nothing! Who are you to criticise Mahinda mahattaya? Don’t you know how long it takes for infrastructure projects to become profitable?”. When quizzed on this further, he admitted to not knowing when the project in question (the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport) could break-even. Instead, he repeated typical rebuttals by the ruling party (SLPP) MPs, such as the previous regime’s decision to use the airport’s empty hangars to house paddy and which allegedly damaged the image of the airport among the international community. The nature of his outburst to my counterclaims instilled a nagging fear and wonder in me. Was it possible that, even at this stage of the economic crisis, a citizen of the country had not heard or could not accept prevailing local and global criticisms of these unsustainable development practices and the Rajapaksa dynasty’s role in legitimising them?
“The alternatives are worse”
Almost all the Rajapaksa loyalists I spoke to maintained that the best course of action for Sri Lankans was to support the current regime. They were convinced that the opposition could not do any better. To illustrate, they highlighted cases where opposition political leaders had deceived the public or had been part of a violent past (such as the JVP). Three individuals cited the same example: that the former Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs Dr Harsha de Silva had once said that inflation (during his government’s tenure) was good. If so, how can he now tell us that inflation is bad, they asked?
In their view, the Rajapaksa brothers had played a significant role in defeating the LTTE, which warranted placing complete faith in their “ability to deliver”. When supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa is equated with being patriotic, the only option for any Sri Lankan, according to this logic, was to support the “war winning president”. Attempts to disentangle their misplaced nationalistic pride from their veneration of the Rajapaksas failed miserably. This, in my view, spoke volumes about the efficacy of the Rajapaksa regime’s public relations machine.
Talking across the divide
Countering this narrative requires a sustained, ground up, data-driven media campaign – an endeavor akin to Bongbong Marcos’ disinformation campaign but in the opposite direction. The steps taken by Watchdog to educate the public on how Sri Lanka fell into this economic abyss in the vernacular, Transparency International’s efforts to expose corruption, Verité Research’s attempt to fact-check politicians, and the GotaGoGama People’s University discussions are steps in the right direction.
I do not claim that the small sample I encountered is representative of all or even the majority of the hardcore Rajapaksa supporters. Even so, the possibility exists that many of this group subscribes to the same views their fellow supporters expressed to me. What is the best course of action? If we continue to preach to the choir, refusing to engage with the unwavering loyalists, and rebuking them as ignorant or biased, there is the risk of further political polarisation; potentially leading to greater democratic backsliding and a breakdown of social harmony. In doing so, we also follow their lead, limiting ourselves to echo chambers and demonstrating an unwillingness to understand how those from other political camps make sense of the world around them. Yet, engaging with them may legitimise their worldviews, too. Nevertheless, to share knowledge and exchange worldviews is important – not just with groups who gather at GotaGoGama, but also with those who view the aragalaya as nothing more than a “beach party” comprising politically immature, impressionable youth.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Debas.
Cover Photo: “Independence Day Parade Fly Past : Bell 212 & 412” is copyright (c) 2022 Nazly Ahmed and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license
Shakthi De Silva is a post graduate student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. His main research interests are on small state foreign policy and Indo-Pacific security dynamics.