By Ajita Kadirgamar -
There is an American expression “sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees” (used of someone who is too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole). That’s somewhat how I felt today viewing all the photos and videos of the Rally for Unity held in Colombo on Sunday, April 28, 2013.
I was there, I walked with the crowd of an estimated 400 – 500, I can be seen lurking in the background of several published photos. But because I was there, living the moment, apprehensive about “exposing” myself at such an event, fearful of the outcome, I did not see or appreciate the bigger picture till now. The sheer diversity of those who gathered was mind blowing —
There was a grand assortment of professionals, social and political activists, students, enlightened politicians and parliamentarians, born again Christians, Muslims of all factions (based on colorful head gear witnessed) Colombo socialites, GLBT pioneers, old grey haired men and women who probably remember and yearn for the Ceylon of days gone by, kids and youth, bloggers, journalists and advertising agency members; oh yes, and BBC reporter Charles Havilland accompanying the procession and filming his news story which has proved impossible to view online. It could just be my internet connection…or not.
There was a group of nuns and sisters at the rally, (were these the same ones that braved pelting rain and wind at the Nugegoda Women’s Day Rally back in March?) Is there a faction of activist nuns and sisters who attend such events? Are they on Facebook? How do they find out about these events? Who instructs them to participate? Or is it an inner call of conscience, sorely lacking in so many of us. Whatever their agenda and wherever they hail from, I love and respect their quiet, dignified aura. More power to them!
However, when I saw a single robed monk in the throng I must admit my spirits sank a tad. Was this a lone rebel, a rabble rouser, and were there more skulking in the bushes of Vihara Maha Devi? I asked a key civil activist standing close by, what “kind” of monk he was. I was told he was one of the ‘good’ ones. It was the Ven. Samitha Thero who in fact make a short speech in praise of the rally and its goals, which was received with applause.
If you were afraid of being photographed, then you were right to stay away. Cell phones were snapping, and clicking photos left, right and center and tweeting them together with live updates. Everyone was recording everything. Each of us was a witness, come what may. Photographers and video cameramen were hustling and jostling for the best positions and the scoop of the day. Was this event history in the making? Would it be headline news? Would there be drama and confrontation? Would they get a prize-winning photo out of it? No doubt there were less artistically inclined undercover photographers in the crowd too, snapping away headshots for THE database and future nefarious use. Enough said…
Thankfully there were no vulgar, obtrusive loud speakers or megaphones shrieking maniacally at the crowd as so often happens at such public events. There was a dignified quietness about the event that fit the mood and intent so well. Apart from welcome speeches in all three languages and video clips of well known personalities extending their support, it was a low key demonstration of unity, indeed, silent strength from individuals, who amassed as a group, demonstrated that there is an existing moral conscience after all, perhaps one to be reckoned with in due course.
It must be noted that the police presence was well managed and orchestrated. Obviously lessons have been learnt from a similar recent event. The organisers of this rally, who we assume were mainly young citizens of the Facebook generation, had sought prior permission to hold the rally, and as a result police ‘protection’ was part of the show. The procession was flanked on both sides by a line of outward facing policemen as it proceeded past the National Art Gallery. In fact earlier the police swiftly disposed of “anti rally” elements distributing “rogue” Sinhala pamphlets. I was handed one, but sadly had no idea what it said, till it was translated for me several hours later. What a pathetic waste of paper.
In a pervasive national atmosphere of suspicion, fear and uncertainty, kudos to the organisers and all those who attended for forging ahead with this concept and indeed for using social media as its main channel. While mingling with the crowd several people asked me who the organisers were. Beyond the common knowledge that the event was organized through Facebook (thumbs up for Social Media) my answer was “does it really matter? do we need to know?” I believe part of the success of the event was the very fact that there was no main sponsor, no vested interests, no political affiliations. This was a gathering by the people for the people, with promises of more to come. More publicity, larger crowds, more slogans and placards, more widespread locations, more feedback. Just more please…
The nagging thought at the back of mind however was, why weren’t more people at the rally? Was it too hot? Was there too much to do on a Sunday morning? Was everyone at church praying for peace and unity rather than taking to the street to make it happen? Are people all talk and no action? Has everyone given up on the notion of strength in numbers and the belief that one person can make a difference in a crowd? Whatever the reasons and excuses for those who did not turn up, one believer can make a difference. I did.
Power to the people!
*Photo by Ajita Kadirgamar