By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“One family has been allowed to rip-off the whole country!…Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims are all here, as one nation…we are here because when one person steps forward we all have to do so too, in support and solidarity…we know those fellows aren’t in that building but we want to send the message about what can happen if the people rise up!” ~ motorcycle-helmeted young demonstrator addressing Army and Police at Mirihana
“Seems the only solution
Is a new revolution” ~ Fight for You, sung by H.E.R (from Judas and the Black Messiah)
It was from the thick crowd of bilingual middle-class protestors, men and women, including professionals and entrepreneurs, that the most hard-hitting and radical of slogans I have ever heard in Sri Lanka was chanted. It was a one-word description/definition of the ruler, deriving from the irrationality of decisions, and chanted repeatedly, insistently and loudly. Once the word is out—and that word, especially—a ruler is doomed.
If the ruler and the ruling clan think that things will settle down, the economy will pick up and the citizenry will forgive and forget; if the regime thinks it can continue in office even with the induction of the military for the next 2 ½ years, then that is evidence of the diagnostic accuracy of that single-word ‘signature’ slogan descriptive of the ruler’s mentality, that was chanted most frequently and with greatest resonance at Mirihana last night.
How best to characterize Mirihana? My wife’s niece, a lawyer doing her postgraduate studies in the UK, wrote on FB that she wished she was at the protest and that she is proud of being Sri Lankan. Her FB ‘slide’ may have summed up Mirihana best: ‘THE PEOPLE vs. The Family’.
The protest and the slogans resonated widely throughout the nation. It also resonated among Sri Lankans living overseas. It also went global (thanks initially to Al Jazeera).
Sri Lankan society from all parts of the country sat up, admired and applauded the demonstrators. The reactions I got from the visiting domestic help to medical specialists with PhDs and UN officials in retirement, was one of amazed appreciation and enthusiasm.
Can the regime tear-gas and disperse a whole nation as it did the Mirihana protestors around 4 a.m.? Can it disperse an entire people with rubber-bullets and water cannon? Can it shoot the whole citizenry? That is simply an impossibility.
First it was the Presidential Media Division (PMD) which blamed “organized extremists”. Then it was echoed by Minister Sarath Weerasekara. Then came Prasanna Ranatunga Minister of Tourism who engaged in an exposition on “organized extremism”, exhibiting his ignorance of the crucial difference between “militancy” and “organized extremism” and naming the JVP and the SJB.
This is dangerous. The UNP framed the JVP for the July 1983 riots, thereby drove it underground and caused a massive civil war. The Gotabaya administration which is vastly more unpopular than the UNP of 1983 should not try to bite off more than it can chew, namely both the JVP and the SJB—its jaws just aren’t big enough.
The Mirihana protest was organized by middle-class civic networks, an important new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. In the first phase the protest was noticeably of the educated middle-class, with numbers swelling not only because of the power-cut but also because the Mirihana residents had been sorely inconvenienced and alienated by the ‘special arrangements’ since 2020 due to the President’s insistence on continuing to reside there.
The Mirihana middle class mobilization was a microcosm of the island’s middle classes, and the regime does not seem to be aware that in a middle-class society, if you by make their lives impossible, they come at you with all the education and skills at their command. No regime can lose the middle classes and remain in power, certainly not when it has lost the peasantry and the working classes already, as the incumbent regime has.
The mood at Mirihana shifted due entirely to the characteristic action of the regime. The unprovoked, unconscionable use of tear-gas, rubber-bullets and water-cannon caused a segment of the crowd which had previously not been at all violent, to resist by throwing back the rear-gas canisters. The mood of resistance hardened further when a protestor, shot either with a rubber-bullet or live ammunition, bloodied from a wound in his side, was rushed to hospital.
The regime then deployed armed soldiers and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) with camouflaged paint were seen rolling through at least one city street.
As happens everywhere in the world when the authorities initiate escalation and resort to violence, the ratios in the composition and temper of the crowd recomposed kaleidoscopically. The middle-class component thinned-out, while the word of the brutal crackdown reached inner-city youth who streamed towards the action to show solidarity.
What happened from then on was Act 2 of the Mirihana drama. Its high point was an unforgettable cameo of a youth in a motorcycle helmet, standing alone, making a powerful yet poignant social critique and moral appeal to the armed soldiers.
Act 3 was around 4 am when tear-gas and other methods of suppressive coercion was massively used and the protestors resisted with the rubble of masonry from a nearby worksite.
Meanwhile, inspired by the Mirihana mobilization and triggered by the regime’s violence, protests spontaneously broke-out on the Colombo-Kandy Road in Kelaniya and as far afield as Anuradhapura.
The social resistance that emerged at Mirihana was revelatory of the mass mood. The people are ahead of the political parties and the politicians. The people have instinctively understood the prerequisite for a solution to the economic problem, given that all decision-making is centralized in the hands of one man who has a tendency to make irrational policy decisions and therefore cannot be counted upon to make rational ones.
The politicians of center-right and left are respectively saying “go to the IMF” and “tap the potential of the expatriate workers”. The people are saying “GOTA GO HOME!”
As of this morning 45 arrests had been made. Those demonstrators fought for all of us. They deserve solidarity and support.
Future historians will write that the masses of Sri Lanka began to write their own history on March 31st 2022, at Mirihana, a suburb of Colombo, actually of the administrative capital Kotte, instead of having political parties and politicians write it for them. The mass resistance was met with the regime’s repression but was not defeated or cowed. Mirihana is a miniature of the process that will determine this country’s future.
The word that is most in currency after the Mirihana mass resistance is: “ARAGALAYA” (Struggle). The struggle to remove the ruler, the ruling clan and the regime has begun.