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Gota Go Gama (GGG) has been making news headlines around the world. Both local and international news media have covered what has been happening throughout the continuous protests. What they haven’t has been shared through social media.

Walking amongst the protesters at GGG, it is clear that it is unlike any ordinary protest we are familiar with, or have learnt of through the news. Despite their voices, hoarse from chanting day in and day out, there is joy. There is learning. There is art, expression, solidarity, vibrancy and life.

There’s always a story to tell at GGG, which many fellow journalists have shared through various mediums. GGG is dynamic in the best of ways. As I walked among the crowd, and spoke with dear friends who were there when I wasn’t, my interest from an academic’s point of view of the protest continued to grow.

Power to the people

The GGG and related citizen uprising has become a phenomenon unlike any other in Sri Lanka. I personally am not sure if we all truly grasp the concept of us literally making history with what has been going on.

Even with no clear leadership structure or organised movement, the GGG has displayed order when most would expect chaos and maybe even a hint of anarchy. Yet, the protesting masses have yet to become violent in the expression of their dissent. Neither have there been reports of mass lawlessness that one would expect with such a massive crowd.

Food is not wasted, resources are not wasted, and waste – both organic and plastic – is not left unattended for long. A sort of unspoken code of conduct has emerged amongst the protestors. Order is preserved. There is no violence.

The past

The current uprising isn’t the first widespread civic activity to happen in Sri Lanka. According to journalist, author, and researcher on political communication Kaushalya Abeywickrama, “The people of Sri Lanka are oppressed people,” she commented. “Citizens living in this country are not provided with the opportunity to live a comfortable life in any social, economic, cultural, political as well as spiritual sphere. Sri Lankans did not have the good fortune to enjoy the freedom gained after the independence struggle because the British Crown did not leave this country and give us real freedom.

Instead, they created a herd of black and whites in their own class. These are bourgeois people. They do not feel the hunger of the little guy. Everything happens to protect their power and capitalism. Therefore, in addition to the struggle for survival of the oppressed citizens of Sri Lanka after independence, there have been many instances of anti-government struggles. A look at the history of Sri Lanka reveals that in every decade since independence, human struggles and protests have taken place in Sri Lanka.”

Unravelling a list of civic uprisings that have taken place in the history of Sri Lanka, she noted that like those of the past, this ongoing civic uprising is the result of an inequity and disparity that the people have experienced.

However, she notes that, “This is the first time in history that Sri Lankans have broken down barriers such as religion, ethnicity, culture, and belief to unite against the State. This is a positive sign of the democratic country’s aspiration to build a people-governed State.” She notes that GGG is unique because it is a demonstration by the people requesting a democratic State, free of nepotism and political corruption, which are the most dangerous barriers to development as a developing country.

Politics, but no politics

Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Colombo, Dr. Mohamed Mahees, shared similar sentiments, noting that the GGG protest and the current citizens’ uprising is a phenomenon that must be studied by the academic community.

He notes that in contrast to the history of Sri Lanka’s civic upheavals and uprisings, the current GGG protests do not involve party-politics. “We can’t call this non-political,” he shared. “Whatever matter is involved in relationships of power and structure of power is politics. It can be even within a family.”

Postmodernism in protesting

According to Dr. Mahees, there are three types of social movements that could be categorically identified in the history of civic demonstrations. Among the three are old social movements, “Which tend to look similar to leftist movements against the Government,” he explained. “These usually tend to be aggressive and have some form of violence.”

The second type is identified as new social movements. “These are more social identity based movements. The feminist movement, the fight for environmental democracy are great examples of this.”

Dr. Mahees notes that the uprisings that took part in the 70s and 80s could be considered as old social movements. “They are very crowd based,” he shared. “Fights broke out on the streets, vandalism, tyres burning on the street and all that.

“But later came a new social movement, which mainly involved marginalised communities fighting for their freedom and liberty.  However, the current protests are different. These can be identified as a post-societal movement.”

According to Dr. Mahees, a post societal movement in the sense involves collective sentiment. “Collective sentiments are organised on artificial platforms. It’s something that looks more real than real. We call this in sociology and postmodernism hyper-realism.

“In the past, people carried arms to change society, however, youth use modern technology in this modern age. They communicate, they share their views. This is thanks to that liberal social background, or we could also say postmodern social setup. They are beyond traditional, cultural and political control.”

Unlike any other

Commenting on the unique characteristics of this postmodernist movement in protesting, Dr. Mahees explained that unlike the old societal and new societal movements of the past, the ongoing protests in GGG and throughout the country are led by a majority of individuals who come from a middle class, urban and suburban background. There is participation and integration of almost all races and religions of the country.

That’s not all, according to Dr. Mahees, there is also active participation of women. “It’s the very first time I’ve seen this level of female participation in a social movement as a sociologist,” he commented.

“This is a stark detachment from what has been seen before. Even the student bodies from State and private universities are working together; another first in Sri Lanka,” he continued.

“That is why we call it post-societal. It goes beyond one identity, to create a common identity. Although they come from a heterogeneous group, they end up forming one homogenous body.

“Another impressive fact is that they hardly resort to violence,” he said. “It’s very hard to provoke them to be violent, even if they are provoked.”

Dr. Mahees noted that in usual protests, the first to step onto the streets are communities whom society may deem as ‘non-elites,’ who are often considered as the front liners of any civic uprising, nevertheless, here it is surprisingly the middle class who have stepped up to the occasion.

Demographics aren’t the only thing different in the GGG protests. “We see that the protestors are also patient, and are committed in their actions. In fact, I think the GGG protests are nearing upto a month in continuation.”

Then there is the acceptance of liberal beliefs, embracing not only modern but also classical works of art, including literature and music. “They read and exchange books and ideas. We used to criticise youth for only listening to modern music, but here they are embracing songs penned by Sunil Ariyaratne and sung by Nanda Malini, including the ideological songs from the Pawana cassette. I doubt Nanda Malini would have ever imagined that.”

Aside from this, there is also the use of various magic and witchcraft, from shanthikarma to various rituals being conducted against the current Government and its representatives, attempts to tap into energies and powers that are beyond the plane of explanation by modern science. “This is also a postmodernist characteristic, the embracing of things beyond science,” Dr. Mahees added.

“We still can’t clearly define and understand this social phenomenon. It is yet to be studied, but it has to be,” he continued. “Seeing all this makes me feel like doing another Ph.D,” he added with a laugh.

Winds of change

One of the reasons why Dr. Mahees believes this uprising to be a historical one is the fact that within the mass of protestors is what he calls,“A collective conscience.

“For a society to form, having a collective conscience is key. All these youths feel the same thing at the same particular time. And this isn’t artificially created. This naturally emerged from the hearts of the people, something that has been lacking in our Sri Lankan society.”

In spite of having fallen into yet another dark period in Sri Lanka’s history, Dr. Mahees believes that it is also a hopeful one. “It is because of the current conditions that they are united. This is a golden opportunity.”

“It’s the first and last chance in Sri Lankan history that non-party, apolitical citizens without any discrimination have taken a stand against corruption. All the herculean heroes have lost their power. And all of this wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for how dire the circumstances we’re living in are.

“The Western Province is arguably the intellectual and economic hub of the country, but think of the public representatives we have voted for who have taken office in the past. It’s clear that before, people weren’t conscious, aware or concerned about these things but now, everyone is concerned. And it’s thanks to the youth that this momentum was created.

“As a sociologist, I really love this momentum coming from the youth,” he shared. “I find it very interesting. The older generation, including ourselves, were reluctant and shy, but this generation is different.”

Material and ideological

Dr. Mahees agrees that the demands of the protest, rule of law, eradication of corruption and nepotism which are ideological demands, were nevertheless the result of an economic crisis that affected the material needs of the people. 

This brings some cause for concern. How far will this momentum last? Will it die out when people’s material needs are met?

From uprising to movement

Dr. Mahees continued explaining that being able to maintain momentum in this uprising will be key for it to translate into a movement. He pointed out that although there is a massive crowd that constantly occupies GGG, it has yet to translate from an uprising into a movement.

“This has to reach beyond the current segment of society that is participating, and reach the lower-middle class and lower class as well,” he shared. “It has to spread throughout society. And it shouldn’t get tired, using only minimum action to preserve its power. Right now, what they’re doing is right. Maintaining that energy within the youth will be the key.”

More to be learnt

“We are still in the early stages of the uprising and its conversion into a movement. Because of that, we are still in the observational period, before in-depth research can begin,” Dr. Mahees shared when questioned if the University is engaging in an academic study of GGG and the current uprising.

He explained that for an uprising to succeed in becoming a movement, it has to focus on the actors of the movement (its participants)and its resources and structure (the strategy of action).

“New strategies are being created as a result of actions that the people take.I have absolute confidence that in the future, new concepts and theories will develop based on this youth uprising,” he shared.

Let us all remember that history is in the making as we speak, and that our actions taken today, will not only affect future society, but also help create new academic concepts and ideas in time to come. This is far beyond a fight to uproot failed politicians. It is an uprising that will shake Sri Lanka to its core, and may bring brighter days to come. 

(Pix by Venura Chandramalitha)

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage