By Rajni Gamage –
Sri Lanka is experiencing a record economic crisis. The fallouts of the economic crisis the public experience in their day-to-day lives, from unaffordable food items to fuel shortages, are arguably the result of a crisis of governance. The increasing frustration among the people is evident, in a growing grievance discourse and local road-side protests calling for the government to resign.
In such a crisis, a number of questions arise in the mind of the ordinary thinking citizen. What can we as citizens do in good faith? What are our rights and responsibilities? How do we mobilise collectively towards a politics of change? What does the power of the people really look like?
These are some of the questions that two young activists, Achala Meddegama and Kalana Samarasinghe, are addressing in their recent efforts at civic activism. Using the bicycle as a vehicle of protest, they embarked on a series of journeys around the country to spread their message to the people. The first round of the campaign was carried out to and from Kandy, Dambulla, and Polonnaruwa (a leg breaking 315 kms in 3 days); the second was a more active event from Matara to Galle and Hikkaduwa and back; the third was in Colombo during 74th Independence Day (on 4th February 2022). The next lap of the campaign will be carried out in Kandy on the 13th of March 2022.
Sharing the thought-provoking message that a citizen’s political responsibility does not end at the polling booth, these activists urged the public to engage more actively in the political processes that affected them directly. In practice, this would look like, for example, using the Right to Information Act to gain more information about local development initiatives and how their tax monies were being spent. As another example, they could push elected officials to be more responsive and accountable, in ensuring that a comprehensive local development plan was decided through a dialogue on what the local-level needs and priorities were. In doing so, the people were urged to stand by their values and fight for their rights, acting as moral power brokers for politicians and denying them the ability to rob the public. This required letting go of political party affinities and thinking instead of what was best for the country and its people.
Although provisions for such political accountability to local communities are limited within the present political system, these activists argued that engaging in such conversations with the people was still important.
Cycling is a distinct mode of political activism. It involves a transcendence of space and going directly to the people. For the two riders, public engagement interspersed with long, unbroken stretches of scenic landscape triggered a form of reflective introspection that was unique to this mode of activism. It reminded them of the potential that the country had, soon followed with the sentiment that this potential was being robbed by its corrupt politicians since independence. Thus, the need for action was now.
In their engagement with the public, it was also obvious that the ordinary voter in Sri Lanka was disillusioned with the mainstream political alternatives. The mood among the general public they encountered was one of anger, frustration, and restlessness. Nevertheless, the hope within the people on how change was possible was evident too. The two activists reflected on how this hope and the value the people said they saw in the bicycle protests and their message provided them with the strength and motivation to continuing cycling hundreds of kilometres.
This made them realise that real power was within the people and not the state. It also strengthened their belief that small actions with the correct intention, over time, can bring about the change we want to see. This is an important reminder in the present moment, where the fight for political change is a matter of survival and not choice. They hope to be joined by like-minded, conscientious citizens on social media (Buildlkcom on Facebook) and at www.buildlk.com.