23 April, 2024


Occupy The Square & Colombo’s Coffee Shop Liberals

By Hafeel Farisz

Hafeel Farisz

Hafeel Farisz

Gihan De Chickera in his analysis published last week on the Daily Mirror puts forth an argument on the class dynamics of the recently held ‘protest’, for the lack of any other term, at Independance Square. He brings to discourse a valid point on the class dynamic of the protesters and how it panned out during the protest. Only, he stops short. He stops short of unveiling the hypocrisy of the protest, the protesters and the symbolism that is projected through the ’cause’ for which for against, they protested.

The protest among others, brought to the fore a collective I’d like to identify as “coffee shop liberals” or “coffee shop radicals”. They usually roam — no not Colombo’s streets — but its more up-market coffee lounges. These “coffee shop radicals” and “coffee shop liberals” are the focus of this critique, and I use the terms interchangeably because the two overlap.

But before looking at their role in “Occupy the Square”, let’s flashback to the 2013 Commonwealth Summit in Colombo. Two things happened then under the direction of the Urban Development Authority. The city’s beggars were removed from the streets to god knows where, and so were the stray dogs. In the weeks that followed, social media commentaries and columnists were aghast at the fate of the dogs. Reams of columns, posts, protests, comments and discussions in Colombo’s coffee shops centered around the fate of the dogs. All well and good. Only that the beggars, whose fate remains a mystery to this day, were ignored.Occupy The Square

I brought this up once, during a conversation with a self styled animal rights activist, someone Id call a ‘coffee shop radical’ or “liberal”, and pat came the reply. ” The dogs have no voice, the beggars could protest”. It is this kind of stupidity, or lack of ideology, or both, for me, which symbolizes the gathering at the Independence Square. I am aware that my genaralisations are sweeping. It is intended to be. To the minority who dont fall within the ambit, i extend no apology. Instead, I take a leaf from comedian George Carlins classic tirade on Golf. He has no pity for those who arent ‘rich’ or ‘white’ but yet are participants of the sport-, “Shame on them for engaging in a rich, white, elitist, boring, meaningless, mindless activity”,

It’s true that the issue of couples being harassed is not an elitist one. In fact it’s an issue that has affected Sri Lanka ever since we imbibed Victorian morals into our culture. Cultural policing, sexual assault, patriarchy and misogyny cut across all classes and ethnicities.

One of the more dramatic examples of this happened a few years ago, if my memory serves me right in Dambulla when several lovers were rounded up by the cops. The youth were herded to the police station, divided according to their sexes, and video footage showed a police officer reprimanding them. The police then called their parents and handed them over. The incident made the news. There was no suggestion that the lovers did anything more than hold hands. There was no charge as serious as “public nudity”, for which they most certainly would have faced a magistrate. The police simply decided that the couples’ behaviour was against our “culture”. But the coffee shop radicals maintained a stoic silence throughout it all. Young couples all over the country are harassed and victimized on a daily basis, but the Coffee shop liberals have nothing to say.

Independence Square, however, is too close to home. It has become a haven for the elite, especially after the controversial post-war city beautification drive. Why one might ask, is the reason for this sordid silence over the thousands of incidents that affect the common man, and the sudden call to action when its close to home?. Self interest seems to be the clearest answer. The coffee shop liberals were only protecting their little space, and that was what “Occupy the Square” ultimately represented. To imagine that it was about a larger cause and was symbolic of people taking to the streets for this larger cause is a load of nonsense. The larger cause may have been vicariously addressed, but the motives of the protest weren’t altruistic. It’s true that most causes arise from a threat to personal space, and I have no problem with it being depicted as being just that. It’s the projected altruism that reeks of hypocrisy.

Another instance of such self interest was seen during a rally for LGBT rights in Lipton’s Circus a few years ago. Such rallies must be lauded as they represent a cause we as a country should espouse and fight for. Sexual freedom has for long fallen under the watchful eyes of the cultural police and continues to do so. But Lipton circus drew the ‘occupation’ crowd. The very same genre we saw holding placards a few weeks ago. Eager to picture themselves ,eager to be seen as a part of the rally, and eager more than anything else to be a part of that social circle. Again I stand guilty as accused- of generalisation. Day in and day out homosexuals are arrested and charged with indecency, arrested and produced before courts throughout the country. Not a word is being said, not a word will be, by these ‘radicals’. The arrests and the fines are in the public domain. Make no mistake, they make the news, just like the above incident involving couples did, but our coffee shop liberals remain indifferent, because as Richard de Zoysa would say, they have to “load chicken livers on a plate / declare the world’s a total mess”.

I quote the lines from de Zoysa’s poem “Talking of Michelangelo” because they aptly portray the hypocritical and self serving nature of the Coffee shop liberals. The poem describes a woman who would like to be a poetess “and sit aloof in a Sapphic state / Preside, beringed and Kaftan clad / at coffee mornings-soirees, teas  / expound the need for nuclear freeze”. The title of de Zoysa’s poem is no coincidence. It is a reference to a refrain from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Although Eliot himself espoused elitism and classism, this poem exposes the hypocrisy of London’s elite. Its protagonists pretend that what they are doing is of value, but in reality they do nothing of value, just like the protagonists of this column.

The same mind-set can be seen in Colombo’s pseudo-feminists, who are also an inherent part of the ‘Coffee shop liberals. Sri Lankan women suffer rape, marital rape, domestic violence, sexual assault,  and other such despicable, heinous and horrendous acts on a daily basis. These pseudo-feminists weren’t seen protesting against reports of rape and murder in the North or the South, nor against the use of servants in their own houses. The term “servant” may have changed to “maid”, a convenient masking, but the master-slave dynamic remains unchanged. Women mainly from the estate Tamil community, have no option but to pay obeisance to their “owners” in Colombo.

Our Coffee shop liberals/ pseudo-feminists maintain a sording silence throughout all this. They would however explode over the use of the word “rape”, while employing their “maids” and feeling good about doling out some extra petty cash to them during Avurudu. They are quick to be outraged and project their disdain against patriarchy and misogyny, while sipping cappuccino and munching a cupcake or brownie. The predicament faced by the hundreds of thousands of housemaids shipped abroad and the underlying degredation that comes within the families, don’t even feature in their enlightened discussions. That is as far as their altruism stretches. They would take offence to the term “beggar” and instead would want a better euphemism to mask a prevalent social condition, like they do in most of their endeavours. Latch on to the semantics, and stop there. The hypocrisy of it all is telling.
But parallels can be drawn. The white feminist movement which dominates public discourse in the West is also guilty of the same. Rarely were the problems of Black, Hispanic and women of other races taken up, except when it served a political goal. Their ideology was limited by their narrow, unenlightened self interest, with the underlying ideology of protecting their reproductive rights and health at the heart of it. Much has been said and critiqued about this movement, but its ideology stretches far. As far as Colombo.

Joe Gould, a New Yorker in the 1930s, was one of the most profiled bohemians at the time. Writer Joseph Mitchell in his seminal profile of Gould, rephrases Gould’s description of the New York radicals of the time. “I know a woman who is married to a rich doctor and collects art and was a ballet dancer. I ran into her one day and she told me that her daughter now is a proletarian ballet dancer”. The sarcasm is scathing. He then goes on to describe the gatherings at New York coffee shops. “They sat around the old village hangouts that they sat around when they were ordinary bohemians and they talked as much as they ever had, only now it wasn’t art, sex or booze that they talked about, but the coming revolution and dialectical materialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat”. It’s not that hard to replace these scenes with what might be said today in Colombo’s coffee shops.

It is these ‘radicals’ who take inspiration from the “14 steps to organise a protest”, and I’m not being tongue in cheek here. The step by step guide  was posted on a site that is trendy among our Coffee Shoppers-paying no heed to the larger dynamics of social movements, and how they come forth. Unsurprisingly of course, the ‘step by step’ guide drew inspiration from the “Occupiers”.It is these coffee shop liberals, who are unaware of the crucial role played by women to bring a government to its knees during in the 1953 hartal. It is these very same radicals who live in blissful ignorance of the day-to-day struggles of the common Sri Lankan.

Whether laughing, crying or writing about it would be an eye opener, I don’t know. But the bluff must be called.

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Latest comments

  • 26

    Spot on. I believe your article will increase the footfall of the coffee shops for the simple reasons, the coffee shop activists will be very busy contemplating a critical response to your article. Who knows, it may escalate into protest against your “freedom to write”. Nevertheless, you managed to bring home the truth. Now get ready to battle the social media ire. Do keep writing please.

    • 4

      Spot in Michael, They could be the lads and damsels from Galle Face or far away as Matara who don t have to sit under their brollies in the hot sun as the square is protected from the sun

  • 21

    I enjoyed this article quite a bit; but want to rectify one thing. I do not THINK that the couples chased away from Independence square belonged to any chic set. Not certain about it, but feel that it is those people who cannot afford to go to the plush coffee shops who frequent the independence square as ‘lovers’ or ‘couples’. i could be wrong though.

    • 7

      You’d be right, actually. Of course, the author living in the comfortable environs of New York Shitty wouldn’t really be privvy to that information.

  • 0

    [Edited out]

  • 7

    Spot on. What these coffee shop radicals need to change their ideology is few hours of power cut to disconnect them from their worldly comforts. Since Sunday’s power cut many yahapalana acolytes started blaming their own making. Interesting there is a saying Abuddassa Kale Labuth Tiththailu.

  • 12

    Spot on!! “Coffee shop Radicals” ! i called them wanna be YOLO!! Our idiots too quick to follow west garbage liberalism !! Even without understanding the true meaning !!! I really enjoy the article and happy to see there are still guys like you who could write something meaningful and with lots of sense!! I’m sick and tired of coffee shop radicals so called analysis write ups purely based on someone’s agenda!! It’s sad that not many good article comes out in English language … So keep writing … Bravo !!

    • 8

      @Game Kolla,
      The negative thumb downs show the attitude of the high tea “Borru Soabanay” Colombo 7 elitist culture who cannot show any visible accomplishments to their credit but a government that has distance itself from the grass roots and the masses. Worse when we have a dumb F*ing Prime Minister who says “They cannot be toppled” when the toppling will be done not by others but those idiots like himself who are good at shooting their own goals.

  • 33

    The irony of a guy living in New York writing about a perceived disconnect a certain class of Sri Lankans may have with the rest of society.
    This is basically the rant of a 13 year old child, complete with petulance, ad hominem, and directing insecurities towards a certain social class. The labeling of “coffee shop liberals” is also very revealing of your classism.

    • 8

      Now THAT is spot on!

  • 9

    This dude got it all wrong.

    These chicks don’t eve have the brollies..

    The Colombo Coffee set don’t have to go to union Square to have a smooch.

    They do it in comfort, while daddy plays golf and mommy is getting a BotoX and a full facial.

    It is a full frontal attack on the FRs of the Daits who only have a few places nowadays.

    Previous regime did a lot in creating recreational facilities for the Elite including walking paths and parks for relaxation,while doing something for the Dalits as well in terms of Jobs, Schools and Health.

    Batalanada and Bodhi sira are rounding up young couples and jacking up Flour price to protect Sinhla culture, while jailing Buddhist monks for protesting against these Yahapalana measures and sending poor dalits home without even severance packages..

    BTW that golf joke is a bit silly.

    That is one sport where Dalits can be as good or even better than elite on their own turf.

  • 24

    What is the purpose of this article? Is it to say that protest should be the exclusive preserve of university students, doctors, and farmers? Or would you rather they not be outraged at all?

    The French Revolution began in a coffee shop in the Palais Royal, Paris which is also the site of the killing of the socialist leader Jean Jaures, during World War I. As in France, the coffee shop or cafe recognized very highly related to intellectual life, politics and rebellion in France. There are similar documented incidents in the history of several former Soviet states. So are you trying to say that the above protest has no point? Let’s see the constituents and causes of the common sorts of protests that erupt in Sri Lanka:

    University students: Mostly lacking any form of soft skills, abusers of free education, but with a sense of entitlement that they should all be given plush government roles because, well, they’re ‘entitled’ to them.

    Doctors: Having obtained everything they have for free, now wanting more, such as car permits, an exclusive preserve for malpractice by not permitting foreign doctors (recently, a friend of mine was involved in an accident and was declared ‘fine’ by 6 doctors at the Accident Service. It was a doctor in a private hospital who detected that he was at risk of losing a leg, after which the government doctors acceded that there was indeed a problem, and carried out surgery – fortunately, on the right leg), and car permits (despite the fact they are usually transported to hospital in an ambulance and not driving themselves).

    Farmers: Never happy with anything, decide they cannot survive without handouts, do not explore any options of using organic fertilizer, producing paddy instead of other crops even if there is a supply glut, etc. etc. We have been farming with handouts for 40 years and without handouts for a 1000 years before.

    Coffee shop liberals: For the freedom of those university students, those visiting colombo from outstations, etc. to be ‘couply’ in public. You assume that it is these coffee shop liberals who ‘PDA’ in these locations. You couldn’t be further wrong.

    LGBT rally: I don’t see the farmers and doctors speaking for them?

    Beggars: You do know that 95% of Colombo’s beggars are controlled by a mafia (there is a sociology study done by the UoC that can give you more information). You want people to protest for what? To increase the power of the mafia?

    I still don’t get the point of your article? Perhaps we should launch protests against radical islamisation of Sri Lanka instead.

  • 6

    A series of valid points here. But, with all your (good) intentions of critiquing hypocrisy, and selective (convenient)activism, 1500+ words (TL;DR category for some readers) on a subject of this nature should not, I feel, be smattered with statements along the lines of “I am aware that my genaralisations are sweeping. It is intended to be. To the minority who dont fall within the ambit, I extend no apology.”

    The danger: You could end up alienating the ‘Occupiers’ who don’t fit the generalization and, worse, discourage them from reading on and sifting the points that are of value.

  • 6

    Agree with you Mr. Farisz,
    Your pen and tongue in cheek statements are too innocent to call out the “bluffs” in government.
    “Whether laughing, crying or writing about it would be an eye opener, I don’t know. But the bluff must be called”.
    What you are seeing Mr. Farisz is not just fluff, bluff or hogwash but government failure and incompetency. This is a worldwide phenomena where a few elitist using social media decide to congregate in a false flag operation. Most of these ‘bluffs’ are instigated by politicians to create a smoke screen to deviate attention from the more critical and pressing problems that are faced by citizens due to government inefficiency and failed policies whether calling against austerity measures or in opposing economic- structural adjustments. A genuine occupier’s protest movements is driven towards social injustice against governing policy, security and not to mimic some Cafe sucking Coffee imbibing elitist by a few jobless pricks from Cinnamon Gardens. A true Sri Lankan “Janna Hunda” (People’s Voice) in the square should be for a few good reasons that I can think of below.
    1. Increase of our daily bread, essential items, utilities and just about everything else. These price increases in itself should call for a revolution for demeaning out cost of living standards and NOT about privacy of lovers in a square.
    2. Farmers who cannot get a fair price for their produce or those who have not got any fertilizer subsidy to encourage them to continue in their livelihoods. Cultivators and estate sector that cannot get a fair price for their commercial crops as has been the bane of our Tea industry. In a vibrant economy, those who produce, manufacture and create a tangible product than any service are those that contribute to GDP.
    3. All workers who have not got a wage increase and wages that have remained disproportional to double digit inflation
    4. Villagers who cannot exercise their basic universal right to clean drinking water, lack basic and affordable hygiene, lack adequate food and nutrition, affordable medicine and healthcare, cannot afford descent clothes/uniforms, lack basic infra structure and housing
    5. Villagers who have no proper infra structure and access to schools to educate their children or have not got text books, school supplies, etc
    6. Protest against the increasing wave of crime and plummeting public safety, policing, law and order.
    7. Our socialized education system, medicine and others are under attack of being privatized. I myself advocate privatization as a last resort but not a supporter of crony of capitalism or government nepotism
    8. Plummeting economy with our weakening monetary and fiscal strength
    9. Protest against any kind of Tax, withholding or wage deduction on individuals or business
    10. Protest against government or any entity who have failed to fulfill their promises to the people.
    11. Protest against bribery & corruption.
    12. Protest demanding better jobs for graduates and clean up a failed public sector by replacing with a merit system and fair wages.

    Where is Dr. Harsha De Silva or the other “BLUFFS” in government or opposition to intervene in any of the above?

    • 2

      You shouldn’t waste your energy protesting the price of bread (which, aside from not being that good for your health, is underpriced by international standards anyway). Rather, look to use the man hours and energy lost in such protests into developing the lot of the lowest strata of society so that they can AFFORD to spend, churn the economy, and even buy that overpriced loaf of bread.

  • 10

    So.. your point is no one should have been angry about this incident. Or Everyone should be angry about every incident?

    really? realistic?

  • 14

    Sounds like you have that proverbial ‘chip on the shoulder’!

    If this is what you call “..unveiling the hypocrisy of the protest”, I believe you have failed. The comments of Siripala and Kopi Kade Fascist are telling in this regard.

    And, as Roshan (above) asks, what the hell is your point?

  • 7

    Spot on Siripala… this article is all BULL! My piece earlier on has been edited out by CT as they probably didn’t like the tone of what I said. You have said it expansively, and they have published it.

  • 3

    Good Article.
    This is “Achcharu” and “international school culture” exit in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

    This “occupy the square” have similarities with the incident of singing “Donno Budunge” song in opera style on Independence Day.

    The PM and his royal educated “elite class” people think that these are the burning issues faced by Sri Lankan people today.

    The sad truth is that Sri Lanka is governed by this “royal educated” or elite class today.

    • 8

      Yeah, we saw the results of being governed by the uneducated set of thugs you tend to prefer, in the last 5 years.

  • 3

    Brilliant English. CT you guys need to keep publishing articles that are high class in terms of language usage.

    One of the best articles written on the subject.
    Well done!

    • 11

      By brilliant English, do you mean articles full of tautology, ad hominems, and strawmen? I can’t tell whether you are being sarcastic or for real.

      • 1

        Was that the only problem you had? Did you understand the article itself and its context?

        BTW, writer’s English is on par with a newspaper editor’s.

  • 10

    Its funny how the writer manages to draw up such solid arguments and goes to write in great detail on the involvement of ‘coffee shop rebels’. Yes, very many of those who never stepped into other protests took part in this and made videos, took selfies, wrote articles. So what?! Who can structure peoples solidarity that cuts across so many layers of the society? And on what grounds can the writer sitting in New York create a divide in the crowd that took part?! There were those who came by public transport from as far as Kurunegala to be a part of this, students from universities who also brought in posters, anarchists, artists, and yes also the Colombo 07 elites. Perhaps the photographs which popped up in his timeline were only of the elites because he has access to such mutual friends?! The fact is that everyone who came there sat on the same floor for the same cause and no one really cared who they sat next to, or how they got there or where they went in their leisure time. The effort was to liberate the thinking of the authorities from cultural policing and the effects of it would not only stop at the boundaries of the Independence Square. We fight many battles here in the Sri Lankan soil on daily basis which does not always involve holding up banners or creating public events, maybe he should equip himself with more awareness of all the battles that happens on the ground before shooting out blind.

  • 1

    Isn’t it funny that a yahapaalana minister pop up instantly and solve thy problem by a whisker. A classic example of how ministers concerned about the burning problems of the mass

  • 7

    Pointing out hypocrisy in SL is like pointing out that the sky is blue. It is a fact and is omnipresent. It is not restricted to the Colombo Kultur set, or the Kandyan “royalty”, or the Vellalar Jaffna Tamils.

    The real question is who should protest what and how. In a democracy anyone and everyone should be able to protest anything and everything. If they make a convincing case, then the majority of the silent populace will support them, and they will have their way.

    We need to recognizing that this island is inhabited by people who have significantly variable social cultures and attitudes. Despite this diversity we are all citizens, and thus should have the same freedoms. Some may choose not to exercise these freedoms (muslim women in abaya), while others would push the envelope in social liberties (some women who wear highly revealing outfits). But the key to social harmony is that you should be allowed to do either of the above examples. That is true freedom of choice. No one had the right to tell another how to live their lives. No religion should be priviledged over any other either. That is true democracy.

  • 12

    “Coffee shop liberals” (are they related to the “Coffee shop revolutionaries” of the last century?) know very well that no security guard or government or non governmental officer has the right to take the law into his or her hands and mete out punishment. Doing so amounts to the setting up of a Kangaroo Court and amounts to a contempt of court. The owners of the security firm concerned should have been hauled in for contempt of court.

    There is no law that empowers any officer to prohibit people holding hands on public property. “Coffee shop liberals” know this BUT LLB graduates from the R—- Institute do not seem to know this.

    We need more and more of these “coffee shop liberals” if that is what they are. That is the only way to make make people obey the law.

    If the common man is not willing to rise up against unlawful acts that is the common mans problem. “Coffee shop liberals” are not common men AKA Godayas. They know the law and will fight to protect the law and see that the law is followed. The common man on the other hand will simply bow down and be bullied by every thug who tries to impose his will on the land.

    I stand with the elites. The elites are educated and know how a state must be used to govern. The Godayas on the other hand simply want to grab all they can and abuse the law and harass citizens and kill off as many as they can.We saw how they conducted themselves over all of a decade.

  • 0

    kopi kade liberals or hippies?.. that’s my question.

  • 10

    Reading this chaps tedious tirade on this young group who gathered at the square clearly indicates a massive chip, sorry CUT, on his shoulder.
    Whatever the issue and however menial, it shows us that the younger generation does not like to be pushed around now,and will stand up for themselves.
    This in my opinion is fantastic. It shows us of things to come, and crooks and murderers beware.
    Thirty years ago one would never hear of a protest by this age group, they were too docile , letting their parents handle such issues.
    Their use of social media to summon a crowd is also commendable, they fought for a cause, even if it was self interest.
    In my opinion the Minister getting involved was highly unnecessary and only politicized the issue.
    Any cause has to have a certain degree of self interest in it or at the least affect you indirectly.
    The writer also seems to be severely affected by people who visit coffee shops, well get used to it, thats the trend, specially when shamelessly, most outlets serve a new thing called “nestea” because they are too lazy to brew a cuppa. So obviously coffee is sought after.
    The writer refers to “Beggars being sent somewhere”, well the beggars were sent to some island off mutwal according to what i heard and GOOD RIDDANCE to them.
    Begging is a planned business mainly carried out with the aid of politicians and area thugs. I suppose the writer is unaware of this. Why do you think the beggars went without a problem? Just try to evict a beggar without protection and see what will happen.
    The write quotes the late Richard De Soysa “load chicken livers on a plate / declare the world’s a total mess”. I am sure richard (may God rest his soul) wouldnt be singing the same hymn now.
    By the way chicken liver is more expensive now than the whole chicken.
    And,about independence square being a place for the elite, what elite? they all died a natural death with the introduction of sinhala only.
    Lastly 3 cheers to the protesters, may u protest more often and freely.

  • 0

    Thank you for that, Hafeel Farisz.
    There are many like you who are sick and tired of the self-righteous b.s. of these self-styled “animal lovers” at least one of whom has made an “icon” of herself by becoming the protector of stray dogs in Colombo 7.
    Essentially, this exercise in “morality” is simply another excuse to show the “hoi polloi,” in very simple terms, what their “place in the scheme of things really is.” They could perhaps, more usefully display their morality by taking in a few of new rich who utilise “hotels-by-the-hour” for their sexual shenanigans.

    • 2

      @Emil van der Poorten

      On the other hand, YOUR self-righteous b.s. and perennial moaning about the loss of your entitlements should be tolerated and applauded ???

      Nice one !

  • 8

    Sounds like you have a major chip on that shoulder of yours when you drift off topic to vilify “those self-styled animal lovers”, aiming specifically at the ““icon” of herself by becoming the protector of stray dogs in Colombo 7”.

    For your information, it is not only in “Colombo 7” that these services for animals are present. And for “animal lovers”, your sentiments smack of some other agenda.

    The rest of your dumb comment makes no sense at all.

  • 1

    Thank heavens the tea drinkers have been spared.

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