14 August, 2022


People Power As A Healthy Political Force

By Shyamon Jayasinghe –

Shyamon Jayasinghe

“If people power provides no panacea, it does in many instances open up alternatives to war and armed struggle.’ – April Carter “People Power and Protest since 1945”

The recent Australian Federal Elections threw into sharp relief a dramatic instance of the play of people power operative within a democratic system.  It was an organized and effective assertion of community action against the prevailing duopolistic stranglehold by the two mainstream parties.

This illustration came from the Northern Victorian electorate called Indi. In the vast Australian landscape where political power is being monopolized by two main parties forming government in a game of musical chairs, here in Indi we saw how an independent grass roots movement spontaneously formed during the election campaign worked to bring down the influential Liberal Party front bencher, Sophia Mirabella, who held the seat for 12 years while simultaneously disregarding any challenge by the Labour Party. The independent movement became known as “The Voice of Indi,” as if to suggest that neither of the mainstream parties represented the aspirations of the electorate. Its candidate, Cathy McGovern, triumphed in a campaign that was on the wire right to the end.  People power registered a victory to the surprised dismay of the main players who had taken the electorate for granted and stopped listening to it.

This particular electoral drama sent shock waves through the two-party dominated political system. For too long the political players under this two-party system had demarcated the country into a list of ‘safe seats’ and’ marginal seats.’ A goodly part of the whole electorate had safe seats for either Labour or Liberal. The seat I live in is claimed to be ‘Labor- safe’ and I’ve never seen the MP who just complacently walks under his party umbrella.

MS McGowan told ABC Radio Statewide Drive Victoria that she holds her victory with enormous pride.

“A very tightly fought victory, right down to the wire, we’ve run a grassroots campaign and people have really responded and you walk up the street and people tooting their horns and congratulations and well done and it’s amazing to think about what 33 000 votes looks like but you hear it, it’s wonderful.”

MS McGowan says Sophie Mirabella congratulated her on the victory in a short and professional conversation.

Ms McGowan says the enormous community involvement helped her across the line.

“It really was a community response, they thought they were being taken for granted and they’ve reacted in an amazing way, but I’ll probably never understand really the amount of work that everybody has done…you keep hearing the hundreds of stories of people right across the community who got out, got engaged, did community work, letter dropped, knocked on doors.”

The concept of people power is no doubt one laden with ambiguity. If one were to put it in simple terms it stands basically for political pressure exercised through the public demonstration of public opinion. In a democracy like Australia it fills in deficiency gaps; in an authoritarian system it may signal the emergence of a challenge to the oppressors. Depending on the individual responses of the governments concerned people power can remain essentially non-violent or it can transform into armed rebellion as we now see happening in Syria or as we saw happened during the Arab Spring. Violence is not seen as an essential component of such forms of protest as by definition such movements alight from among the mass of civilians who are essentially unarmed.

In this sense the idea of people power is as old as history.  In modern times, Gandhi led a successful non-violent people power movement that eventually led to the mighty British Empire quitting India. The famous salt march was a highpoint in the Gandhian drama. In The Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was ousted by peoples’ power. Other instances from contemporary times can be cited: resistance to dictatorial or authoritarian rule, as in Iran in 1978-9, the ‘velvet revolutions’ in Eastern Europe in 1989 and currently the Arab uprisings, and resistance to attempts to thwart the democratic protest through a coup d’état or stolen elections – as in the ‘color’ revolutions in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and the Ukraine (2005). Most recently the world witnessed the Spring Revolution in the Middle East.  These are all instances of people power in action.

Handled intelligently people ’power can be channeled into healthy courses in a democracy. This is what occurred at the Australian Federal Elections. It can be a meaningful complement to democratic governance. Handled foolishly and arrogantly it can be unfortunately destructive. This is what occurred during the Arab Spring.

Sri Lanka had its own recent moment of people power at Weliweriya in the Gampaha District when villagers in their hundreds got together to register their protest over what was perceived as a contamination of their ground water supplies by  a factory owned by a government bigwig. This action had been a culmination of several attempts made through the normal democratic channels via local MP’s and ruling politicians. The latter would not lift a finger because the factory owner was too powerful. In desperation the community developed a grassroots protest. At Weliweriya the people were totally unarmed. Government lied when it tried to assert that the protestors were armed.  In a strange act of executive folly or foolish bravado the army was brought in to crush this demonstration when it would have been sufficient to leave it as a police matter. When the army turned on the protestors the latter were compelled to vent their anger by picking the only weapons that nature provides them with namely stones and rocks.  We have yet to see the government looking into the complaints.

In the big global picture Weliweriya is a tiny speck.  In comparison to Indi in Australia, however, it approximates better. The important thing is that the two different cases may be regarded as offering opposite lessons.  Indi may be treated as a model of a well- organized movement full of vitality absorbed healthily into the broader democratic governance. Weliveriya failed against all these criteria. Both cases, however, represented illustrations of the free expression of freedom from established political infrastructure.

The potent force of people power derives from one fundamental truth in politics namely that all governance systems have to rest on popular acquiescence. In an immediate and urgent sense this is true of functioning democracies; in the eventual sense it is true of even authoritarian systems.

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  • 0

    People power?,!!! With the idiots in the south?? Is there something called MODA power. Only people in the north used their brains. That is because they have some thing there. Those in the south. The politicians stole from the people, with this stolen money they printed posters, with. Our moneytheybought cell phones T shirts Biriyani and illicit liquor and so they voted for those same people who give them grief by stealing their own money!,
    So no wonder the likes of Weerawansa and Gamanpila do not like Tamils because they have brains!!!

    • 0

      Northern Tamils have shown the Rajapassa military dictatorship with its facade of democracy – where to get off! This is the BIGGEST slap in the face to Rajapassa and has given him notice that there will be a place and time when he and his family and their military machines will be DEFEATED BY A LANDSLIDE.

      Unlike the cowardly Muslims and Sinhalaya modayas – including the UNP headed by the corrupt clown Ranil Wickramasinghe (who has got to resign or be HOUNDED OUT not just of the UNP but the country), and the dead leftists – northern Tamils have shown that they are not impressed by the corrupt and nepotistic Rajapassa Sinhala Buddhist military business model of “development”.

  • 0

    Tamils can add they see the roads and the pavements which are bigger than the road ,as more and more Basil gal have to be used, and they voted against them!!!

  • 0

    Mr. Shyaman Jayasinghe:





    “Ask Australians when Aborigines got the vote and most of them will say 1967. The referendum in that year is remembered as marking a turning point in attitudes to Aboriginal rights. In one of the few ‘yes’ votes since federation, 90.77 per cent of Australians voted to change the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aborigines and to include them in the census.

    But the referendum didn’t give Aborigines the right to vote. They already had it. Legally their rights go back to colonial times. When Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia framed their constitutions in the 1850s they gave voting rights to all male British subjects over 21, which of course included Aboriginal men. And in 1895 when South Australia gave women the right to vote and sit in Parliament, Aboriginal women shared the right. Only Queensland and Western Australia barred Aborigines from voting.

    Very few Aborigines knew their rights so very few voted. But some eventually did. Point McLeay, a mission station near the mouth of the Murray, got a polling station in the 1890s. Aboriginal men and women voted there in South Australian elections and voted for the first Commonwealth Parliament in 1901.

    That first Commonwealth Parliament was elected by State voters but when it met it had to decide who should be entitled to vote for it in future. Three groups attracted debate. Women had votes in some States but not in others, so had Aborigines. And there were some Chinese, Indian and other non-white people who had become permanent residents before the introduction of the White Australia immigration policy.

    The debates reflected the racist temper of the times with references to savages, slaves, cannibals, idolaters and Aboriginal ‘lubras’ and ‘gins’. The Senate voted to let Aborigines vote but the House of Representatives defeated them. The 1902 Franchise Act gave women a Commonwealth vote but Aborigines and other ‘coloured’ people were excluded unless entitled under section 41 of the Constitution.

    Section 41 said that anyone with a State vote must be allowed a Commonwealth vote. South Australia got that clause into the Constitution to ensure that South Australian women would have Commonwealth votes whether or not the Commonwealth Parliament decided to enfranchise all Australian women. The Commonwealth did enfranchise all women so they did not need section 41. But that section did seem to guarantee that, except in Queensland and Western Australia, Aborigines would be able to vote for the Commonwealth because of their State rights.

    But did it mean that? The first Solicitor-General, Sir Robert Garran, interpreted it to give Commonwealth rights only to people who were already State voters in 1902. So no new Aboriginal voters could ever be enrolled and, in due course, the existing ones would die out. The joint Commonwealth/State electoral rolls adopted in the 1920s give some idea of the number of Aborigines who voted for their State parliaments but were barred by the Commonwealth. The symbol ‘o’ by a name meant ‘not entitled to vote for the Commonwealth’ and almost always indicated an Aborigine.

    Garran’s interpretation of section 41 was first challenged in 1924, not by an Aborigine but by an Indian who had recently been accepted to vote by Victoria but rejected by the Commonwealth. He went to court and won. The magistrate ruled that section 41 meant that people who acquired State votes at any date were entitled to a Commonwealth vote. Instead of obeying that ruling the Commonwealth passed an Act giving all Indians the vote (there were only 2 300 of them and the immigration policy would see there were no more) but continued to reject Aborigines and other ‘coloured’ applicants under its own interpretation of section 41.

    Some of the Commonwealth officials got even tougher. They came to believe that no Aborigines had Commonwealth voting rights. Besides refusing new enrolments they began, illegally, to take away the rights of people who had been enrolled since the first election in 1901.

    It was not until the 1940s that anyone began to battle for Aborigines’ political rights. Various lobby groups took up their cause and in 1949 the Chifley Labor government passed an Act to confirm that all those who could vote in their States could vote for the Commonwealth. The symbol ‘o’ disappeared from the electoral rolls. But not much was done to publicise the change and most Aborigines, told for so long that they couldn’t vote, continued to believe it.

    In the 1960s moral outrage at the way countries like South Africa and the United States treated their black populations stirred Australians to look at their own behaviour. Many changes in Aborigines’ rights and treatment followed, including at long last full voting rights. The Menzies Liberal and Country Party government gave the Commonwealth vote to all Aborigines in 1962. Western Australia gave them State votes in the same year. Queensland followed in 1965. With that, all Aborigines had full and equal rights. In 1971 the Liberal Party nominated Neville Bonner to fill a vacant seat in the Senate. He was the first Aborigine to sit in any Australian Parliament.

    There is a happy ending to this story of discrimination and neglect. The Australian Electoral Commission is now making up for the sins of earlier generations. For a time, through its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Electoral Information Service, it sent field workers all over Australia, especially to remote areas, to tell people about voting and encourage them to enrol. But funding cuts have since ended that service.

    At election time it cooperates with Imparja, the Aboriginal television station at Alice Springs, to broadcast information about State and Commonwealth elections to the outback of Queensland, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. A mobile polling program uses aircraft to enable remote people, black and white, to vote where they live rather than travel long distances to polling stations in town.

    There’s an irony there. Some of the strongest opposition to Aboriginal rights came from the outback. But equality with the Aborigines has brought its white settlers better electoral services than they ever achieved on their own. “

  • 0

    see the hypocrisy of yours


    “Aboriginal people struggle for citizenship rights

    One of the remarkable strands of Australian history which has been omitted from most orthodox history books until quite recently has been the struggle by Aboriginal people to gain citizenship rights. The Aboriginal struggle for land rights is quite well known, but less is known about their earlier struggle for citizenship rights. This is a story about the struggle by Aboriginal people for social justice.

    This paper outlines how Aboriginal people have been denied citizenship rights and highlights some of the initiatives they have taken in their struggle to gain the rights that other Australians have already been granted. An appreciation of this struggle requires some understanding of what citizenship rights are and who has the power to bestow or withhold them.

    What are citizenship rights?

    Aristotle gives a clear and concise definition of a citizen: a citizen is someone who shares both in ruling and being ruled. To many, the right to vote and the responsibility to obey the law are central to a concept of citizenship. Others believe that citizenship involves more than this. Thomas Marshall (cited in Chesterman and Galligan 1997), for example, believes citizenship involves having, and being able to exercise, three kinds of human rights:

    · civil rights necessary for individual freedom e.g. freedom of speech, freedom of movement, the right to own property

    · political rights necessary for taking part in political processes e.g. the right to vote, the right to stand for election

    · social rights necessary to share in society e.g. the right to education, the right to a decent standard of living.

    At different times these rights were withheld from Aboriginal people by federal, state and local government authorities. The strong desire for the type of rights referred to by Marshall was frequently and clearly articulated by Aboriginal organisations and individuals in their determined struggle for citizenship in their own country.

    What citizenship rights did Aboriginal people have? The first denial of citizenship rights was the declaration of terra nullius as this negated all existing Indigenous Australians legal rights such as native title and customary law.

    Legally, Aboriginal people, like other Australians, were British subjects from the beginning of European occupation. In practice, however, they were treated quite differently. Aboriginal ownership of the land was not recognised, no treaties or agreements were made and no compensation was paid. British law did not recognise Aboriginal laws and practices or their right to own property. Aboriginal people could be tried summarily for a range of criminal offences; they could not press charges at law and were not permitted to give evidence in court. Frequently they were held corporately guilty for the crimes of others. Few white Australians were ever tried for the murder of Aboriginal Australians.

    Some notable colonial legislation that targeted Aboriginal peoples included:

    · 1816 Martial Law (NSW). This proclamation declared Martial Law against Indigenous Australians who could then be shot on sight if armed with spears, or even unarmed, if they were within a certain distance of houses or settlements

    · 1824 (Tasmania). Settlers are authorised to shoot Aboriginal peoples

    · 1840 (NSW). Indigenous Australians forbidden to use firearms without the permission of a Justice of the Peace

    · 1869 (Victoria). The Board for the Protection of Aborigines is established. The Governor can order the removal of any child to a reformatory or industrial school

    · 1890 (NSW). In a denial of human rights the Aborigines Protection Board could forcibly take children off reserves and “resocialise” them. “

  • 0

    There is no such thing as ‘people power’!! We are led to believe that but trust me, even in Western countries there is no such thing. I laugh when I see ‘people power’ being touted in the media….wake up and smell the coffee. The ironic thing is that yes the Rajapakses are tyrants but does anyone seriously think that there would have been anything but a fascist state under the LTTE? I am Burgher and even during the war, I was never detained at checkpoints even though I didn’t have a NIC. The Sinhalese and Tails should stop thinking that each is superior and everything will be sorted out. Give respect get respect.

  • 0

    Sound analysis. Good work

  • 0

    What you say about Weliveriya is true. Goa’s army crushed the innocent villagers who lined up to protest about groundwater contamination. MR lied again promising to remove the factory but did shit nothing about it

  • 0

    The writer has shown a keen interest in praising his adopted land. What has been the result of people’s power on Aborigine rights? Perhaps the writer does not consider Aborigines people.
    His examples of People’s power of the ‘velvet revolution’ and the Arab spring, and Syria are known to have been planned, instigated and executed by Western powers. What is the outcome of the people’s power in the ‘occupy Wall Street’ campaign?

    There are some good points in the article but he has used it to repeat his hobby of attacking the government of Sri Lanka, which is eminently acceptable if the facts brought forward are correct.
    Let us look at some of the distortions.

    !.”contamination of their ground water supplies by a factory owned by a government bigwig.”
    The company concerned is one of the well established PUBLIC company. The majority shareholder he is hinting at is not a member of the government.(he may be a supporter) which is a different kettle of fish.

    2.” We have yet to see the government looking into the complaints.”
    “The latter would not lift a finger because the factory owner was too powerful”

    The government has decided to shift the factory to a site in Biyagama EPZ and offered the land for the factory.
    Even before the shooting incident at a meeting Chaired by the Secretary Defense and attended by factory officials and the representatives of the villages had agreed to suspend the operations of the factory.
    I understand that the writer was a former good public servant who used to look at all aspects of case before making a decision. It is regrettable that now he has become a populist journalist.

    • 0

      Vichara,You are excellent.

      Unfortunately, if you wanted to be a NGO, you won’t get any funds.

      Because, you are honest to yourself.

  • 0

    Whatever the weaknesses of the political and social system in Australia, there are some noteworthy aspects that Sri Lanka or any other country should learn. (We should learn from good examples and not from bad ones!) Voting is compulsory and the voters are quite educated and independent. This is not just a matter of development but a matter of political culture; cultivated by parties, leaders, the media, and education and by the educated or the intellectuals. Political parties are by and large decent but whenever and wherever the political representatives (MPs) are lacklustering, they are punished by the voters.

    The usual way of punishment at the national level is by voting for the opposition, but the voters are also sometimes weary of this ‘Kotta Maruwa.’ In those circumstances, they vote for minor parties and they also have better avenues by going for independent candidates like what happened in Indi as the author has very clearly explained. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka this avenue is closed, unless the independents become a group which is the opposite of independence. Australia still maintains the seat system and Sri Lanka has abolished it. Yes, it can be called “peoples power” but what I see mostly is voters’ autonomy and candidates’ responsibility. Even before the final count was announced, Sophie Mirabella congratulated McGowan. That is quite symbolic of the decency of political culture.

    There are two important questions that arise in respect of Sri Lanka or any other country. How can we possibly educate and make the voters more autonomous, irrespective of their party affiliation? More importantly, how can we promote the selection and fielding of more responsible candidates whatever the party they belonged to? No need to say that there should be room for independent candidates under a seat system in a reformed electoral system.

    • 0

      All the points you make are valid and the anecdotes of ‘gentlemanly’ conduct of Aussie elections make good reading but the core problem with our island politics is the underlying layer of nepotism and violence. To enter the political arena in SL as a player or a supporter is to lay yourself open to violence; at its meekest, a warning to lay off, then having your home stoned, your loved ones threatened and, if all these fail, having your life threatened. To expect our police to maintaing good order is futile. Are we surprised at the shortage of good quality candidates coming forward to serve the people?

    • 0

      “Voting is compulsory and the voters are quite educated and independent.”

      Lakisiri Fernando:

      How did you decide that voters are educated and independent ?

      Who gave you a Ph. D ?

      Which University ?

      Who was your Supervisor ?

  • 0

    Author is living in a completely different world.

    Syrian what ever is funded by Saudi Arabia. the reason is Saudi Arabia wants to Send A LIQUID NATURAL GAS PIPE LINE TO EUROPE via SYRIA because it is shortest route. syriaN pRESIDENT assad AND SAUDI ARABIA ARE ENEMIES because they are from the different camps if Islam. It is Saudi Arabia and their allies who are funding and providing weapons to the Syrian Terrorists who are called REBELS.

    Author has written all BS. UKRAINE, SERIBA etc., AND VARIOUS arab springS ARE WESTERN WORK.

  • 0

    The writer must be commended.
    Sri Lanka is a fake country. Everything here is fake. Statistics are fake. President is fake. Ministers are fake. Gota is fake Development is fake. Democracy is fake. Elections are fake. Democracy is a fake.
    We had better learn from Australia rather than talk nonsense about the Aborigines. Australian government publicly apologized for its past treatment of Aborigines. There is no people power as far as these indigenous persons are concerned. They are treated equally and fairly today.
    Sri Lanka should apologize to the Tamils and adopt true reconciliation rather than fake reconciliation

    • 0

      Bertram Rodrigo – September 26, 2013 says :We had better learn from Australia rather than talk nonsense about the Aborigines.”

      The following extract from Wikipedia indicates the lessons we can learn.
      “The health of indigenous Australians is significantly below that of the rest of the country for instance a 2006 study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed that 70% of the Aboriginal population, who number almost 500,000, die before the age of 65, compared with 20% of non-indigenous Australians. The average life expectancy for Aboriginal men is 59, compared with 77 for non-indigenous males with child mortality rates 3 times higher than the nation average.”

    • 0

      He is trying to be somebody by writing stupid and crappy articles.

      • 0

        JimSofty, similarly you are also writing Stupid and Crappy Comments to become somebody? Jima Kohomada ara Kiss eka?

  • 0

    And Namal is fake! Latest fake is Maitripala Sirisena who claimed Ceylon Tobacco wanted to bribe him. CTC flatly denies. They have already bribed Basil and Mara. Ha…Ha….Ha…!

  • 0

    Who is this Jim Softy? Never heard of such a weird name. I have been reading CT for many months and I find this Jim Softy writes volumes, repeating himself over and over again. His initial problem is that of comprehension. In this case he has not comprehended Shyamon Jayasinghe and, like Don Quixote, he is hitting at wrong windmills.

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