V for Victory or V for Vendetta?

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The events of 9 July are best seen as part of ‘The Power Of 3’ – with the former PM leaving office on 9 May, his brother on 9 June, and now his other brother the former President leaving his residence on 9 July. So close to a perfect 3 times 30, 90 plus days, let’s call it 100. Back in late April, around Sinhala and Tamil New Year, the 100-day struggle to demand leadership change started with a few citizens with candles and torches standing at junctions, crossroads and roadsides in Colombo and larger towns throughout the country with handwritten placards highlighting their concerns.

The movement grew. Many people had grievances. And it became inclusive and diverse. All protesters found they had a voice, and people from all generations started to join in, so it did not remain solely a young people’s movement. It is the young people who first set up and occupied the tents outside the Presidential Secretariat, and their voices and their energy have often been the loudest because it is their future in this country that they are fighting for. This is the only country in which the majority of Sri Lankans have citizenship, and they cannot go abroad to seek employment, so they had to demand that their country change to become a place in which they could live, and work, in a viable way.

There was an inexorable momentum about 9July. Public announcements were made, via social media, and the people started making their way from all directions via foot and bicycle and friendly local truck to the centre of events from about 9:00 a.m. The country had come to a standstill: no fuel, no vehicles, no schools open, hardly any offices open.The most moving and visible thing was the slowly swelling crowd, rising like a tsunami wave.

By now, people knew they could expect tear gas, and threats and intimidation from Security Forces, if the President’s life, office or residence was perceived to be endangered.It was clear, by the time the barriers had been breached and people swarmed up the steps of the Secretariat, that the peaceful protesters had been infiltrated by dedicated provocateurs of mob violence, blending in with the crowd, and urging them on.
On the morning of 9July, the BASL had officially announced that peaceful protest is absolutely lawful within a democracy, and the right to engage in such activity could not legally be denied.

By midday, the protesters had gained access to the official residence, and had started investigating the rooms occupied by the former First Family: looking at their menus, cooking in the kitchens, delving into their wardrobes and bathrooms, swimming in the pool, and watching the televised coverage of their own activities on the former President’s large television sets.

There was nothing of the grim and murderous personal destruction of kings and families associated with the 1917 Russian invasion of the Royal Family’s Palace, or the uprising of the French Revolution of the late 1700s in the joyful and fun filled escapades that were live-streamed from the scene.

Later that afternoon, however, the Prime Minister’s personal residence was set on fire, and many items in his family home were destroyed. Security camera footage for that period of time is not immediately available: so theories proliferate, and public comments of various kinds are flowering on social media, often along lines of karmic justice, privilege, differential treatment, entitlements that accompany elite class and status, and augmented with historical anecdotes from the past several decades.

How could ordinary protesters who didn’t have fuel for their cars or motorbikes, who have been waiting in queues for days for basic necessities, have amassed enough petrol to cause fire damage on a scale like that? Not being able to work, amid this economic crisis, how could they afford to buy fuel even on the black market?

Whether this momentous day will be remembered as V for Victory Day or V for Vendetta Day remains to be seen. People pointed out in long comments threads on Instagram and Twitter that people crying over their own lost libraries seemed to lack empathy for their fellow citizens from minority communities whose houses had been repeatedly destroyed in race-fuelled conflict for decades.

Karmic retribution is a complex matter, and it is unlikely that any of us can see into each other’s projected fates and call tragic or disruptive events fair and just outcomes. But leadership should be a simple and clear matter: service to the country, not to self or family and friends.

The leadership problem that the country has been facing these past several years is a problem caused by a quality shared by politicians and their cronies and career criminals alike: Short-Term Thinking. Also known as opportunism, this is a fusion of laziness and greed and impulsiveness and carelessness, all tied up with a brazen lack of accountability.

These kinds of actions, which are taken regardless of consequences, and in the face of statistics and expert advice, are the undoing of opportunistic leaders. Because there can be no taking without giving. And if that giving is not done willingly, what is owed is taken by force, as we have begun to see in the past 100 days. The people in these exalted positions had disqualified themselves from public respect, by their own actions.

Often politicians, given to flashy flourishes of rhetorical hyperbole, speak of ‘giving up their lives for their country.’But they somehow don’t see that what is less dramatic and visible but far more effective than performative verbal sacrifice is sober, dedicated service, and a consistent commitment to actual work.

We need to clear our minds of biases and assumptions, as well as clearing out the debris and the root systems of the last stages of the former regime, and focus on selecting leaders who are capable and willing to guide the country into economic recovery. Actual suffering and not revenge was the primary motivation for this people’s protest, and recrimination should not be the foundation of the future we have struggled to bring into being.

By Dr. Devika Brendon