By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
Until justice is blind to colour, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with one’s religion, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. – Lyndon B. Johnson (rephrased in italics)
Sri Lanka is experiencing something we’ve never quite experienced before. Lots have been written about the #SriLankaCrisis over the past 2 weeks or so. To be sure, the small citizen’s protests started at least from 1st March when 7 youth from a media company found their work completely disrupted owing to the newly introduced power cuts and walked out with candles in their frustration. For the next month, the largely middle-class urban citizens silently protested and grew in number and locations around Colombo. Groups starting in Kandy and Galle were early signs of hope for national level engagement. Trying to engage the public to show support by hoking for instance proved extremely difficult as it is yet another first for Sri Lanka (though it happened in a very localized way during the 2018 ‘Constitutional Coup’) with several drivers ignorant, afraid or actively against it (often gesturing with their middle finger). Little did these small groups of protesters ever think that they were this close to what Malcolm Gladwell calls the tipping point.
As April came, the little trickles of mostly silent defiance turned to more vocal form and engaged the entire population through what’s also a first for Sri Lanka – a honking approval protest by passers-by in vehicles. By today, no coercion is needed for mass participation with many driving to protest sites precisely to show their support through honking. They’ve even invented their own form of common chants with their honking!
The beauty and the frustration of a people’s protest of course is that achieving consensus on what the protest is primarily about and what form it should take, is hard. However, those who came together initially, and those who’ve joined later, often taking leadership in new areas, are all agreed on one thing: this is a PEACEFUL protest. And that’s a BIG ask, especially from university students who’ve come to the fore more recently. The police, after an initial hiccup, has come to realize that this is indeed a significant moment in the history of the country, and are often restrained and even show unspoken support by their action. A significant and unexpected level of support has been forthcoming from the legal fraternity, with many working unprecedented long hours pro bono to ensure justice to the protesting citizens.
The atmosphere at the large protest sites has been almost festive, and so, often received criticism from within the protesting community itself. To be clear, this is a youth protest which people like me are only standing behind and supporting, and so are NOT directing. As the former Governor of the Central Bank said, our generation has largely failed this country and do not have the floor to lead this protest which is now increasingly tagged as an #Uprising. Clearly there’s no ethnic, religious or race identification in the present uprising – rarely do people flaunt these openly at these gatherings. It is however evident from our Muslim friends, who attend in their numbers despite fasting during the day, as they don’t even go to the comfort of their homes to break fast! Other little acts of individuals and groups also promote the need for celebrating diversity instead of criminalizing it as the present regime has been doing in its first incarnation as it has in its second.
So, we’ve moved from #SilentProtest to #PeacefulProtest to #Uprising within just over a month! While the government appears to be in denial of the significance of the citizen’s protest owing to its lack of experience with anything like it in the history of our nation, the movement has grown to now expand in scope to an #OccupyGalleFace phase aimed at staying out the regime. As we move forward however, one by one, several of our own blind spots are being uncovered and would hopefully lead to #SriLankaAwakened.
To keep this short, I will only highlight two of these – both of which result from the compartmentalized worlds within which we operate in our daily life. The first has been well called out by a newfound young fellow protester Angelo De Silva recently. What will it mean for the business community to unlearn the way they’ve got accustomed to on the very core of how they do business in Sri Lanka? What kind of soul searching would it require for the captains of business to realize the multiplicity of ways in which they’ve actually been part of the problem, instead of the solution? That pandering to corrupt politicians and government officials has in fact led to the population at large suffering at the expense of profits they made for their companies through patronage to powers that be. Do they have the character to admit to themselves first and then to the citizens at large, so that they vouch to do so no more? Imagine the next important business event having no politician or official as Chief Guest but ONLY those who’ve actually done something with no ulterior motives for the country? It’d be so liberating for companies to actually do this! If all the big companies start doing this, imagine the effect on the smaller businesses and the rest of society who would be able to carry out their businesses purely by healthy competition than being on good terms with any incumbent power? Almost unbelievable, but that is the nature of the new Sri Lanka in a #SriLankaAwakened.
The second is closer home to me as an academic. It has been heartening to see the students getting galvanized to come to sustain a protest that is leaderless, with their well-organized processions and chants. They have what it takes to stay out the ambitious #OccupyGalleFace campaign if anyone does. However, they need to know that this is NOT a university protest, but that they are only one partner of the many smaller mushroom groups and some of the more organized movements such as the Centenary Movement and the National Green Front. For the IUSF and the Peratugami (Frontline Socialist) Party what are the ramifications of joining this people’s movement for emancipation? While there are many issues such as democracy within the student community, the primary ramification concerns their active involvement and promotion of ragging within the universities. In a #SriLankaAwakening there’s no race, class or religious identity involved, just as much as there’s no senior, junior or indeed faculty distinguished. The IUSF and the FSP need to, like the business community, admit their own complicity in propagating suppression, just as successive governments have exercised over their constituencies, first among themselves and then to the people, primarily the university student community. There can be no continuing with the inhumane practice of ragging while standing for the bringing down of a repressive corrupt regime! This is a time of reckoning for the party – are you true stakeholders of this #revolution or just opportunistic benefactors of it for party political reasons? This is as much a call to the university academic community to help the student body to process the implications of the momentous happenings in the country now and to transform themselves to a truly powerful force in a liberated Sri Lanka.
Being part of a university education system that has failed to address the menace of ragging over so many decades, I also appeal to my fellow academics who take up positions at the Ministry, UGC or in universities as Vice Chancellors, Deans, Directors and Heads of Departments, to also put a stop to grovelling at the feet of those in authority as you have perfected the art of over the decades, and to stand with a straight backbone and respect only good work and competency, whether it comes from within our sector or elsewhere. Let us lead from the front to show others in the country what a true meritocracy looks like. To start this, you only need to stop requiring your students and staff standing up in servility every time you pass, and yourself stop bending down to superiors in fear of not receiving their favour!
We are all part of a broken and rotten system that has been set in place over decades of subjugation by proxies of our colonial masters and so, have to learn about our own blind spots in this regard. The present moment, however, calls for nothing less than a thorough self-examination and critique. I only hope that we Sri Lankans won’t miss this bus too after missing those of the Tsunami in 2004 and the end of war in 2009 to name two glaring missed opportunities for #SriLankaAwakening.