17 December, 2017

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Occasional Stories: A Velvet Revolution?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

I am not imagining the future, but relating an experience of the past, in 1989. It was not in Sri Lanka, where things were quite rough or violent. It was in Czechoslovakia. The change was so smooth, it was called the ‘velvet revolution.’ It started on the 17th November and by the 27th, the ruling communist party gracefully agreed to step down and hold multiparty elections.

This did not happen in many other communist countries in transition during that period as the parties or the party leaders did not wish to relinquish power. In contrast, the incumbent president of Czechoslovakia, Gustav Husak, held talks with the democracy activists and agreed for their demands for change. Perhaps, there was some ‘velvet’ character in the country even before the ‘velvet revolution.’

It is a story for me because I was right there in Prague when it started. I was at least a witness to ‘one revolution’ which is I suppose a rare experience in anyone’s life time. I have been in many troubled places, but this was different because of its ‘velvet’ character. 

Academic Freedom Conference

The conference started on the 14th, organized by the International Union of Students (IUS) and I was invited as the World University Service (WUS) representative and also the person in charge of WUS’ human rights program in the educational sector. The year before, in 1988, we came up with the ‘Lima Declaration of Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education.’ And it was on that subject that I had to make my presentation. There were other invitees like the International Association of Universities (IAU), UNESCO etc. But many of the participants were IUS branch members from various countries almost all over the world.

As a university based organization, IUS must have sensed the winds of change of that time. I cannot say all the winds were in the right direction, but it was obvious that the emerging middle classes and the intellectuals in the communist countries yearned for more personal freedoms and civil liberties. Although the IUS was reputed as a communist leaning organization, its headquarters located in Prague, the organization more or less reflected the emerging trends. They also came up with their own ‘Charter on Academic Freedom,’ influenced by WUS, leading to the said conference that I attended.

By 16 November, a Thursday, the main sessions of the conference were over leaving the final ceremonial session for the 17th afternoon. The morning of 17th was blank which I didn’t even notice until the last session on the 16th. There was a special announcement at the end.

“Dear comrades and delegates. As the 17th November is the International Students’ Day, we warmly welcome you to participate at a commemoration ceremony at the Charles University tomorrow morning at 9.30 am. It is a walking distance from here. But buses are available at 9.00am for those who wish not to walk.” 

Prague was a picturesque city, blended in medieval and modern architecture. The social fabric represented both communist and ‘bohemian’ values. Bohemian values refer to ‘care free living without strict moral claims.’ I was highly impressed by their cultural mix and most prominent of them were music, designing and ‘cha cha’ dance. During our evening strolls to the city centre, I was amazed to see young men in tuxedos and ‘equally’ young women in puffy round frocks walking to a dancing rhythm. 

I wondered where they were going. I was told that dancing is a must for their socializing process. Either they must be coming out of or going in for dancing classes or simply going to attend dances. Another impressive thing was their glassware. There were few blow-glass shops near our hotel. There were ready made items and in addition if you ask them for a particular item, they would make it for you within minutes. I got an ornamental Owl moulded and it appeared quite artistic.

At the Charles University     

We were staying at the President Hotel. It was in the old part of the city, just near the Vltava River when it was taking a turn towards the south. I hope my geography is correct. It was just walking distance to the main campus of the Charles University where we had the ceremony. It is called the Univerzita Karlova in their language. There were different Faculties located in different parts of the city. Built initially in 1348, the main block was a magnificent medieval building with glamour and a majestic look. It is claimed to be the oldest university in Europe, or at least one of them.

The ceremony was in the Great Hall. Many academics were in ceremonial gowns like Priests or Bishops in a church. The proceedings were in Czech except one speech aiming at the visitors like us, I believe. It was said that a student named Jan Opletal, a medical student at the Charles University, was killed when the students were protesting against the Fascist occupation of Prague on a day like today (17 November) in 1939 exactly fifty years ago. It was in memory of him that the International Students’ Day was declared and commemorated since 1941.

After the ceremony when we were coming out, there was a group of students who were distributing leaflets. It was in Czech language of course. When I was given one, I said:

“Sorry, I can’t read. What is the meaning of it?”

After few seconds, a young man appeared from the crowed who could speak English and explained to me that there is a counter demonstration today. He was not reluctant to say that it was against the ‘repression of the government.’ He didn’t say what repression and I didn’t ask about it either. I very clearly remember that he was a tall and impressive young man.

I think it was him who gave me a business card which I had with me for a very long time. It read:

“Panek Simon.”

I state this with some reluctance today because Simon Panek, who was supposed to be a prominent student leader of the ‘velvet revolution,’ in a Radio Praha interview in 2006 had stated that he was not in Prague that particular day! Until then I believed that the person whom I met was the actual Simon Panek, except that the name was in the reverse order in the business card. Or otherwise, there can be some reason for Simon Panek to deny his presence in Prague on that particular day.

May be, I was mistaken. It is not good to deny the claim of another sincere person on such a matter. He later became a prominent leader of the civil society organizations without tagging into power politics.

Towards the Wenceslas Square

We didn’t have a clue of what was happening outside, even by that time. We went back for lunch and then we had the final ceremonial session in the afternoon. What do I mean by ‘we’? By that time, I had made close acquaintance with two other participants staying next to my room. One was a Dutch and the other a Swedish. I can’t remember their actual names now. Let me call the Dutch, Birt, and the Swedish, Alf. We used to have early dinner by 5.00pm. Perhaps it was the Czech tradition. As usual we left for our stroll.      

That day I had a particular interest in seeing the old Jewish cemetery on our way to the Wenceslas square. Wenceslas square was our usual destination in the evenings. We didn’t spend much time in the cemetery. There were thousands of tombs placed close to each other in a small place, who died perhaps during the fascist repression. Although it was my interest to closely observe the cemetery, I realized that the other two were not that interested in the matter. I thought of coming the following day when I have more free time. My flight back to Geneva was on Sunday evening. I have almost two days more.

Freedom, Freedom!

When we were going along the streets, they were mostly empty. When we entered the square, it was almost completely deserted except one or two persons, dashing hurriedly. There were two police trucks and few gendarmeries hanging around. We sensed something fishy. When we were circling around the square, we heard some noise from the side towards the River. We instantly went in that direction.

There were about three hundred people in the middle of a park. They were shouting nothing but,

“Freedom, Freedom.”

Why they were shouting in English? I could not understand. They were perhaps shouting for the consumption of the ‘international community.’ I came to understand later that the BBC and the Voice of America were there. Surrounding that crowed was a circle of policemen. They were larger than the protesters.

But then there was another circle of people surrounding the policemen! That circle was growing steadily. There were about two thousand when we went there, and then the number increased to over five thousand soon. They were not shouting at the beginning, but then one or two started the same slogan ‘Freedom, Freedom’ followed by others. There was confusion and tension. The time was around 7.30pm now.

After watching it for some time, we decided to approach the protest from another side of the park and entered some side streets to encircle the place. When we were approaching the park again, some people had started running because there had been a batten charge or some clash. But those who ran were only a few. More were coming in and joining the protest.

It was around 9.30 we started to ‘retreat.’ Bert decided to go back to the hotel as he had his flight back on the following noon, and with Alf I entered a place called ‘Charles Bar’ where we could have some drinks and watch the situation. It was a two-story small pub. I am not sure whether it is still there. We went to the upper flow and sat near a glass window. We could not see the protest but could hear the ‘Freedom’ quite distinctly like waves of the ocean. 

We drank ‘plum brandy’! It was the cheapest available and prominent among the hard drinkers. It was extremely strong and not very refine in taste. It was like our ‘gal arakku.’ It was cheap and suited the occasion, because the weather was getting cold. We were there past midnight and what we could see on the road was approaching armed vehicles, taking position in the Wenceslas square.

I decided to come alone the following day, late morning. The armed vehicles had disappeared from the Wenceslas square. That had been a top government decision it seemed. Instead there were thousands and thousands of people gathering in a festive mood. Only in some pockets that there was some slogan chanting. Those were in Czech I believe. If there were around ten fifteen thousand on Saturday; there were nearly fifty thousand on Sunday morning.

I took my flight back to Geneva in the evening of the 19th.

A Possible Lesson? 

I previously thought a revolution to be a violent event, with clashes, fighting, and even death. Since my childhood, my imagination of a revolution was something bigger than 1953 Hartal.

The ‘Velvet Revolution’ changed my mind. It could well be a peaceful and a smooth one. Perhaps in a country like Sri Lanka, you don’t need a hard revolution at all. You have the opportunity of changing a government by ballot. January 2015 is the most appropriate example, not denying a similar character for 1956, 1970, 1977 or 1994. This opportunity was not there in Czechoslovakia at that time.

In the case of Sri Lanka, only if something goes terribly wrong in between two elections, that people may have to resort to mass protests, general strikes, satyagraha or similar action. That also could be done peacefully, without disrupting public life and not making the country unstable. Before that, the negotiations may also be possible. Those who resort to violent protests, by and large, are those who do not have mass support. It could also be because of the political nature of the protesters, agitators or organizations. There are some, who cannot easily control their emotions; they are prone to violence. This is something we must change through public education.              

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Latest comments

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    Long before the Velvet Revolution, there was the Prague Spring. Remember those days ? Ended when the cruel communist Soviets rolled in the tanks into the square(beautiful old Prague). Remember Alexander Dubcek?He was Slovakian but the leader of all Czechoslovakia for a brief period in 1968-1969.

    He tried to reform their Communist party. Prague and St Charles Bridge is beautiful. The two nations split peacefully and gracefully. Why not the Tamils and Sinhalese ? Let Jaffna and North split and let the rest of the nation be one. Slovakia is in bit of bad shape economically but they still bat on.

    Why not Eelam and Sri Lanka living side by side with open trade, taxation, and say fees for higher education? For example if a Sinhalese from Matara goes to Jaffna Uni he/she pays an out of state fees. Same for a Tamil coming to Peradeniya, Moratuwa, Colombo Uni. They pay 3 times more to get benefits. Have a system of internal passport cards. Income Tax to be paid in the state they live in. No war and lovely break up. Lorries can be inspected at the border in Vavuniya. Eastern province to be split into a North of Trinco part to be merged with the Tamil nation, and rest with Ceylon.

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    One of the reasons for the velvety transition was the then incumbent president of Czechoslovakia, Gustav Husak, held talks with the democracy activists and agreed for their demands for change.
    An equally compelling reason was a rumor circulated that Czechs will get visa-free travel to US. The activists neither confirmed nor denied this.
    Laksiri describes the “Panek Simon” experience at Charles University, Prague.
    Evidently Laksiri was handed a leaflet in Czech Laksiri said: “Sorry, I can’t read. What is the meaning of it?”
    This happens everyday in N&E of SL – police summons in Sinhalese!
    Charles University has a tradition in research into Indian languages. Kamil Zvelebil was a recognized international academic in Tamil. (Google for details)
    Thank you for the article and the message you are conveying.

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