Occupy Galle Face: WHAT’S NEXT?

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Common Starlings (kalu maina) are a bird species that known for forming flocks—especially gather in the evening, known as murmuration and perform amazing aerobatic displays before dropping into their favoured sites.

Being symbolic of communication and unity; and according to scientists, Starling murmurations generally come into existence when a predator is in close proximity. By sticking together closely, Starlings can successfully ward off these quite serious threats; in other words, a collective response to threat yields a significant survival advantage, scientists who have been conducting researches for years to understand the formation of murmurations have found recently.

This synonym with citizen protest Sri Lanka is currently witnessing. For an individual who is unfamiliar with or find it difficult to understand the currently underway protest by citizens, largely led by youth, can refer to the behaviour of common starlings to decode things in simple manner.

A collective of citizens have gathered to occupy most significant piece of land in the heart of its commercial capital and are engaged in different activities to show their protest against a predator- the status quo.

Beginning of the ending  

Gnawed by severe economic crisis, waiting in long queues to grab essentials like milk powder, gas, fuel that comes hand in hand with long power cuts led to a wave of unprecedented protests around the country calling for the resignation of all members of Rajapaksa family including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The wrath did not end there and extended towards all 225 in Parliament.

People of Sri Lanka, over the past many days, took to streets irrespective of their social or economic background demanding an end to being governed by an extravagant lifestyle of a short-sighted, corrupt, unfocused group of people, and not for the same group to continue after changing their seating arrangements in the same House.

Unlike in previous occasions, where teachers, estate workers, doctors, nurses or university students stormed Colombo or a few main cities around the country against the Government on individual demands that mattered to them, people belonging to all walks of life are taking to the street demanding a decent life to all, not only to those in the families of the rulers.

It is those who are extremely tired of being exploited and looted by a small group of people to lead a luxurious life at the expense of the future of their children that came to the streets demanding an end to a so-called economic crisis.

It is the parents who are in fear of their children losing a better education that came to the street defying a curfew declared under a state of emergency risking their own life.

While it is quite understandable that a sitting President who comes from a military background and not being in the country for a long period not understanding the people politics in South Asian countries like Sri Lanka, what alarms the majority of the public including the 6.9 million who voted the incumbent President into office, is Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa failing to understand the ground truths.

It is by no means an exaggeration to say the real force behind the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led government coming back to power with a two-third majority was the faith public entrusted in charismatic Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was known to be sensitive to the woes of the public.

It is the faith and genuine love the people of this country had for Mahinda Rajapaksa who in his capacity as the President flew to Kebithigollewa in 2006 defying security advice to console weeping parents of those innocent children who were killed in an LTTE claymore attack. It is the same trust they had for a President who pledged to not give up until he completely ‘destroy’ the LTTE and kept his word that brought his family back into power. It is the blind devotion the majority of innocent people had for the man who they believed was one of them. It is their love for Mahinda Rajapaksa that brought the entire family back to power because the general public thought it was not ‘him’ but  some of his family members including Basil Rajapaksa, that brought the Rajapaksas back to power.

However, while rulers were not ashamed to commit same mistakes in the previous regime, the public was not ready to tolerate the same mistakes or offences repeatedly. That is why they took to streets saying enough is enough.

What leaders, especially President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to understand is that the citizenry – especially those in the age group of 20-50 – of this country is no longer are willing to be taken for granted and that they cannot be hoodwinked, majority of protesters occupying Gall Face Green claimed. 

New phenomena

Whether one likes it or not, the 500-metre Galle Face Green has now become the epicentre of the on-going struggle in this country.

It is clear that external factors are keeping an eye on the existence of its peace. Its information is transmitted through the surrounding major embassies and hotel complexes where foreigners visit. Its peacefulness always sets the stage for the international media to come there.

Peaceful protests are not something that Sri Lankans are used to. This is a new phenomenon. This probably is the first time in South Asia, or whole of Asia, that protest being held by breaking traditional frameworks of protests and by acquiring or occupying the ground and holding on to it for more than two weeks with no room left for violence.

Giving a rose to the Police may seem like a joke to some, but there is so much that can be done beyond this island to make it symbolic, observed a frontline member of the on-going demonstration. 

However, the booster for citizen protests that were continuing for many days in isolation in various parts of the country and for it to be expanded into this level was set by the spontaneous citizen protest that held in 31 March in Pengiriwatte, Mirihana where President Rajapaksa was residing.

“With that spontaneous action of citizen protest, a new people’s movement has emerged, openly demanding some fundamental changes in the existing political order. In a flash, it has brought into direct and passionate political action a hitherto silent and politically passive body of citizens from a wide range of social backgrounds. They are reclaiming their lost political agency as citizens. Shaking the foundations of the Rajapaksa Government is something that the country’s political parties could not do for nearly three years. Yet, through their voluntary, spontaneous, and direct political action, Sri Lanka’s citizens have now done that. While insisting on the resignation of the President and the Prime Minister, and all the MPs in Parliament, it also demands some fundamental changes and transformations in the overall system of Government in Sri Lanka,” Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda has observed in one of his recent columns.

Is it fruitful?

While, people have every right to protests peacefully, they must be vigilant of unscrupulous politicians (political parties) and the administration attempting to take advantage by using paid people to goad peaceful protests into violence. They need to be vigilant of the possibility of the tactic of inciting violence to justify bringing the Military to dismantle the protests like the one took place in Rambukkana, Panadura or the ones we witnessed in many places by blocking roads.

This should not be limited to ousting one individual or family but must be directed towards creating a new Sri Lanka. While, it is understandable the call for ‘say no to 225+1’ the practicality call for pushing the 225 to bring in necessary changes. Even if the citizens keep on slanting slogans for another three to six months nothing would change if the 225 in Parliament turned deaf and blind to those calls. The bitter truth is that the citizens will have to depend on this same lot in Parliament now, to change the Constitution and introduce other preferred rules and regulations to convert this country into the one they aspire. A bystander on the road cannot do that as voters have given the mandate for their representatives in the legislature to do so.

This, however, will not be impossible as the citizens on streets   have so far been able to push for an entire Cabinet of Ministers to resign forced them to tap on their conscience and act according to what the ordinary public prefer. Made them to issue public statements refusing Cabinet portfolios in fear of facing public wrath and also made the President to admit his own mistakes. 

Pix by Amitha Thennakoon, Kelum Chamara and Venura Chandramalitha

By Gagani Weerakoon