When the Privileged Protest

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One would assume that by definition the privileged in any society would be refined, sophisticated, educated, proper and idealistic. In a scale of one to ten, the hardships encountered by this segment compared to the underprivileged would be zero. While the underprivileged would have to fight for every half inch to move forward, the privilege would tread a path clearly mapped without undue obstacles.

The Grade-V Scholarship exam for instance is not something a student from a privileged background needs. That student is already in a well-facilitated school. For the underprivileged student, this exam is the only way to get into a school with a science lab, library and a playground.

If, after sacrificing two years of the young life, the underprivileged student does secure a place in a well-facilitated school or at least better facilitated than the present school in attendance, that child must leave home and be independent at age 11 years. An age considered too tender for a privileged child to venture out of without an adult.

Almost in the same intensity as “GotaGoHome” protests, we saw “No to Private Medical Schools” – the campaign against SAITM. For the State university undergrads, SAITM presented additional competition.

Regardless of the arguments presented the crux of the matter was that SAITM graduates in general would be from a background more privileged than most State university graduates. They would thus be better groomed for the careers ahead.

A point five in the Z-score can decide the future of Sri Lankan students. Notwithstanding the marks, entrants to State universities are not a guarantee because of the limited vacancies. Private universities as SAITM expanded this opportunity for Sri Lankan students to pursue a tertiary education.

Unlike State universities, these establishments however offered their courses for a fee. For the middle class who could afford these fees, this was a blessed relief. This distinction – the ability to pay – was resented by those whose only option is State-sponsored education.

The upper middle class did not bother with the opinion of either side. They have other options as either studying overseas or pursuing an external degree from a foreign university. Even without a tertiary education, the privileged have connections and the grooming to secure middle level executive jobs as an entry point. Conversely, the underprivileged have to start from the bottom rung.

Given this difference, one would expect a difference between the perceptions of the privileged and underprivileged. It is thus not unreasonable to expect the reaction of the privileged and underprivileged in the face of the same hardships to be different.

#GotaGoHome – a change from the usual protesting style

Until the shortages on essentials as fuel prolonged and queues elongated the crowd that galvanised around the anti-Government campaign stayed uninterested in any political discourse. If protesting in the streets was a new experience for this neo-liberal upper middle class, to have them on the street was also a new experience for the nation.

For the first time, the language of the protest was in English. The usage though at best was unrefined and at worst derogatory. Obscene signs and shameless behaviour as removing and displaying underwear became features of this protest. This vulgarity is a new experience for Sri Lanka.

The magical appearance of creature comforts is another defining feature. Never before had protesters received unlimited free supplies of food and beverages. Instead of the tarpaulin, camping-style stitched tents appeared. There was solar powered electricity to charge electronic devices and a well stocked library to read and exchange books to while the time away. Artistes appeared to give live concerts. It is highly doubtful the performing artistes financed their own sound systems and expenses required for such a performance.

Previously, protesters stayed focused on their theme. The GotaGoHome protests were liberally mixed with demands to recognise LGBT rights, justice for Easter Sunday victims, release those imprisoned for terrorism and extremism and exclusive homeland for northern and eastern Tamils. The protesters could not decide if they wanted only the President, he and the PM, all the Rajapaksas, the whole cabinet, the entire Government or the Parliament in its entirety to resign.

They certainly do not have an alternative to replace when the incumbent vacated the position. This was underscored when Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from premiership. Though a campaign for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s resignation has started, it is one without steam. Their lack of understanding of the crisis’ root causes and vision for a solution has enabled politicians to hoodwink them. Despite the changes to the cabinet and Government with a new face as the PM, all because of their demands, shortages have not abated. Instead, experts warn that the worst is yet to come.

The new Government’s focus is however on constitutional amendments to wrestle power from the Executive Presidency. The protesters who celebrated 50 days of protests with a bang befitting the dawn of a new year continue to bake and soak at Galle Face Greens without a clue of what is actually taking place in Parliament. Most are confident that once President Gotabaya resigns this economic crisis will disappear and uninterrupted power and fuel will return.

So-called democracy advocates are praising the protesters as the insightful generation. Their embassies are issuing travel warnings against traveling to Sri Lanka. Puffed with the praise, protesters do not realise the damage this does to our economy.

Did the Anti-Government Protesters Get Duped?

Would they still have taken to the streets had they known that the JVP was coordinating this movement is an interesting question.

The comfort factor was that this movement did not have a discernible leader. Usually protests are spearheaded by a political entity. That political ownership was invisible. In fact, this was promoted as an apolitical movement and even called for the resignation of all 255 MPs.

JVP Politburo member and former MP Sunil Handunnetti’s comments in the aftermath of 9 May 2022 disclose his admittance that the entire JVP cadre was on the field managing the movement. JVP however denies the IGP’s alleged comments that the JVP had a hand in the counter attack of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters who attacked the protesters at Galle Face Greens or the unrest afterwards.

The aftermath of outmaneuvering 15,000 odd MR supporters was not pretty. Some of them were stripped naked whilst others were dunked in the Beira Lake and forced to stay in the murky waters until late evening. Despite effectively turning the tables on the attacking supporters the counter attack continued to develop in momentum.

Soon, vehicles used by MPs were either set on fire or pushed into the Beira Lake. This violence was extended to MPs properties that over the next one and a half days were looted, stoned to destruction or burnt to rubble. Notably, the new MPs from professional backgrounds at the peak of their careers and enjoying a privileged life who entered Parliament on a national agenda came under the attack. Young MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala, who did not even use a Government vehicle, was lynched to death.

Wimal Weerawansa’s residence too were attacked by arsonists. He, after very critical and damning comments, had already quit the Government. In fact, it was his tirade that kickstarted this protest movement. None of the other rebel MPs came under attack. The JVP has a bone to pick with Weerawansa for defecting from the party in 2008 to support the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s efforts to eradicate terrorism. Even if the JVP had no hand in the matter, for those who remember the ‘88-‘89 insurgency, the burning of Weerawansa’s house was a chilling reminder that the JVP never forgives defectors.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa too was physically attacked when he visited the protest site in support of the protesters. Handunnetti’s explanation was the sight of the huge petrol guzzling vehicle in which Premadasa travelled enraged the protesters. This is an exposé the movement’s stated and real agenda are worlds apart.

The naive, neo-liberal middle class are fooled into believing that they, as the wrong generation to mess with, are showing the door to a corrupt Government. In reality, they are being used to bring about anarchy. In the ensuring madness the distinction of enemy is being blurred and a simple parameter as the vehicle one uses might be justification enough to be attacked as the culprit for this crisis.

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(The views and opinions expressed in this column are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CeylonToday)

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe