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Occupy Sri Lanka! Be there, or be square?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 11 March 2016 00:00


 dguOccupy The Square – like its inspiration, Occupy Wall Street – was a flash-movement created on social media and driven by the passionate intensity of a few likeminded liberals sensing that an injustice had been done to civilian liberties. Outcome, provenance, and purpose aside, its modus operandi and the involvement of a government mandarin may raise as many questions as libertarian civil-society activism can answer



Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the park again, the cultural police come crashing out of the thicket to threaten your sense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And despite the positive outcome of the Independence Square imbroglio of the days past, there is still a sense of some sub-cultural goat-headed ogre lurking in the undergrowth, undermining Sri Lanka’s feeling of hard-won freedom. But all things not being equal in a public domain where social media is gaining an edge over traditional or mainstream media, let’s go back and begin at the beginning; go on till we reach an end or a conclusion; and then, hopefully – like the Neanderthal spoilers in the park – cease and desist, or stop... 

The timeline makes Tahrir Square – or even Tiananmen Square – seem not a million miles away. A couple in love with their civil liberties hang out together at Independence Square. They are approached and upbraided by a brace of loutish goons masquerading as security officers. df

“You can’t sit together here as a couple.” “It’s not the done thing according to the cultural ministry circular.” “It would be all right if you were married and had a child with you – because that would make you a family.” (The duo were told…) 

They plead their innocence and beg for an explanation – to no avail. They upload the captures from their phone cameras to social media – which begins a perfect storm of protest. They have a lopsidedly representative gathering of Colombo’s $Civil Society$ turn out to occupy the square in symbolic agitation against illegal moral policing by quasi-officialdom. A deputy minister shows up to grill the guards, muttering “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” under his rasping breath. Those security guards (Neanderthalis sekka culturalloutii) are publicly humiliated. 

Point made. Point taken. Point proved. Case closed! Or is it? 

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Social media has the power of a Sri Lankan spring.

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: #Independence is neither Tahrir nor Tiananmen Squares.

In the aftermath of the debacle’s ostensible resolution, commentary on Facebook and Twitter have been as unabashed as in the run-up to the showdown between the government mandarin and the moralistic goons. (See box for a rough idea...)

In an irony not lost on social media-watchers, much of this outpouring of angst (as well as approbation) has been on social media-platforms alone. Which are necessarily far from the madding crowd. In other words, this revolution will not be televised. It will not be headlined. This movement is for a highly connected, highly motivate-able, urban subset of elites. 

It is no Tahrir really. It is hardly a Tiananmen at all. Regimes won’t change (well, one security company lost its billet). Heads won’t roll (well, save one – the Director Operations of the said company). The potentiality of social media as the mover and shaker of national monuments has not yet trickled down to the grassroots (well, maybe clarity on what the circular is legitimated to enforce might still impact the hoi polloi at Galle Face and the still-Victorian in many senses Viharamahadevi Park). 


Pseudo-cultural philistinism

So, Independence Square 2016 is still, simply, pieces of plaster falling off a damp ceiling. As for Samson leaning heavily on a pillar in the temple – we might have a longer wait to see some entirely undesirable bureaucratic edifice come crumbling down as proof of civil society’s dynamism in antidisestablishmentarian drives. While our Philistines wait for that bit of entertainment to eventuate, they might consider repealing our antiquated Vagrancy Ordinance. As we saw only too clearly thanks to social media, it’s only security guards who seem able to loiter without intent, and get away with it. We wait with baited breath to see what the rest of mainstream media will do with the opportunity for anarchy by libertarian fiat and civil society voting with its feet that has knocked on the door of governance. 

Of course, TV news stations did their usual number – commenting, inter alia, on the power of social media to spur civil society and effect the desired change in undesirable national conditions. Newspapers followed suit, also speaking to the potency of people when galvanised to gather and agitate in a cause and the potential of civilian action to transform a situation. Nobody mentioned anarchy, out of ignorance or polite apathy it wasn’t established – and besides, in these heady democratic-republican days, anarchy has become an anachronism. Almost.

So much for those brickbats. This whole fiasco and its finessing of pseudo-cultural niceties (another way of saying “relative nonsense”) has opened a new space for debate about what is blasé and what is passé in our so-called *culture*. For what is nonsense and prudish for some, deeply offends some others’ sensibilities. It is one thing for liberal Colombo to assert that holding hands together in public is not indecent. It will make more than a civil libertarian victory in cyberspace to change the mind of village conservatives as to what is lewd and not allowed in a public place.


Subversive savvy

There is also an entirely other – subterranean – dimension to the saga under scrutiny. One can’t quite forget that only too recently, in time not yet out of mind, we all lived under an oppressive regime in which it was equally par for the course to abduct, torture, and kill one’s loathed dissenters in private – or just about anybody who stood in a brutal regime’s way – as it was prohibited to address, treat lovingly, and kiss one’s delighted lovers in public. Strange how priggery in one sphere flips so easily into thuggery in another! 

That Colombo’s #Occupy Independence Square event – or purpose-driven short-term movement – privileged civic ethics over bureaucratic moralising was only the tip of the intergovernmental iceberg. It helped the incumbent administration undermine and undo at least a part of the previous regime’s continuing stranglehold on the goon culture of buffoonish bullying. And the attendant defusing of the by-now long-defunct militarisation of public spaces would be welcome by all and sundry, except perhaps in some chauvinistic barracks and cultural backrooms. 

From a civil liberties perspective, one can’t quibble too much with the proceedings and its products. Friends (let alone lovers or childless couples) were not free to sit together in a public square once upon a time in Monster-faiRy land... and now, under a more enlightened dispensation (which, admittedly, is dismantling its predecessors’ cultural machine piecemeal: by default rather than by design), they are. But is there more to it? Could/should there be?

  • For instance, will civil society similarly mobilise for a plethora of other issues making (or not making) the headlines? [e.g. #Occupy The Zoo contra cruelty to animals, vis-à-vis the elephant in that cycle parade this week… (SIMPLISTIC)] 
  • Again, can rights activist groups and advocacy lobbies correspondingly impress social media into employment to achieve desired results for longstanding issues on which they have already been agitating? [e.g. #Occupy Public Transport, to protest harassment and abuse of women on buses and trains (STRATEGIC)] 
  • Last not least, could it be that be the genesis of these issues as they may, certain quarters in government are growing savvy about the paramountcy of social media in teaching and transforming the demographics they wish to challenge and change? [e.g. #Occupy The House, to show that sitting together as strange bedfellows in a romantic-mode pact is not a bad thing (SUBVERSIVE)] 

The last is me being facetious. In the first, I’m being facile. With that said, it is the middle ground of battles against what bugs Sri Lanka the most – and not just Colombo’s liberals – that stands most to benefit with #Occupy-type sit-ins and satyagrahas. More power to the people! And not just those with smart-phones?


Independence 3.5: Sociocultural divide

“When liberals show their strength in numbers, politicians will recognise them as a constituency worth appealing to,” said one legal-eagle political commentator and civil-rights activist.

“Let us chase this base so-called ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ “culture” and beat it off for good to keep the flame of Independence Square alive,” another posted (we translate, loosely) on the Facebook page ‘Occupy the Square’, hash-tagging his post: #NoCulturalPolice.

Also posting on ‘Occupy the Square’, these are some questions we need to ask ourselves, according to a newspaper columnist and management savant:

“Did the masses who are often victimised by such harassments turn up for the silent protest? Is the root cause of the problem with the security guards or further up in the hierarchy? In any case, does it constitute Good Governance for the security guards to be subjected to such treatment in public?”

Many tweeters thought it was not Good Governance. Many others loudly lauded the Colombo District MP involved in the denouément. 

In a three-way discussion between Facebook interlocutors, one suggested that the liberals stop beating the tired oppression drum… He urged the Government to behave in a “grown-up” way and not harass poor minions in public at a “silly demonstration” – To which another responded hotly that “nobody did anything to the security guards!” adding: “They were asked a few questions and requested to justify their actions!” A comeback: “By the deputy minister of foreign affairs – really?” 

Someone who “watched all the virals, couples, guards, and ministers” felt that it had “really turned into a quasi-Mervyn Silva episode”; but was quick to placate his critics with this rider “on a positive note”: “it was nice to see many Colombo liberals putting their money where their mouth is and turning up”.

More pertinent, maybe, was this plaintive query: “Who decides the standard of what is indecent or acceptable?” Most pertinent, perhaps, was this naïve venture: “Oh Colombo, don’t you have anything more meaningful to protest?”

A rather long-winded status, no less trenchant for that, ruminated: “It’s great that an FB video galvanised a protest and political intervention so quickly. There needs to be more decisive action taken against historically repressive systems. However, in order to encourage Good Governance, those actions need to be taken with due process. MP Harsha de Silva’s actions were laudable in that they engaged the issue, but consequences need to follow after due process. This short-term solution doesn’t highlight, or address, the underlying issue which is the socio-cultural divergence of what is permissible in a sexually regressive, prudish town. The fact that holding hands is ‘indecent’ to some and perfectly acceptable to others, is not a difference of opinion that’s going to go away because Harsha thinks everyone should adopt his values. This pompously puritanical way of thinking – like the Kuliyapitiya incident – needs to be dealt with at source.”

And here’s the post from the civil activist who galvanised ^the fight for the right of a couple^, ^Independence 2.0^, and ^Occupy The Square^ on FB: “It’s about time this madness stopped! We’ve encountered similar crap at V Park… and even if a man and woman sit next to each other among a group of friends, it’s an issue for them. This absurdity must stop… and it must stop now!”

Let’s end with a plaudit for her (refer above): “This is proof of what a person who is passionate about an issue can accomplish.”

[Culled from social media in the week gone by]



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