ONCE MORE INTO THE BREACH – while ‘big match’ energy and paparé-band millennial vibes fuel that feel-good feeling at the protests, feeling is that civil society must protect the essence of an apolitical, peaceful, organic grassroots movement that has so far best synthesised citizen suffering at shortages with outrage at the impunity of a pervasively corrupt political culture – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A polity on the street protesting price hikes and essential shortages among other woes, while politicos in the house sought to safeguard their cosy privileges and meal tickets. The writing is on the wall... for many – from the corrupt we elected to the crooks, charlatans and chauvinists who supported them in power.
That the surge in civic consciousness is an organic development which is a marvel to behold is not in doubt. That said, the protestors themselves – like Parliament – could well be a House divided. That also said, this is not to impugn the motives or methods of the millions among a resurgent Sri Lankan nation movement; but a caution against simplistic interpretations and a call to reflect on what may lie beneath the surface.
As usual in these social media sodden times, maybe a meme titled ‘Why It Started’ says it best. It is of an iceberg adrift in the Arctic Ocean. The visible tip has the unholy trinity of ‘price hikes’, ‘power cuts’ and ‘no fuel’. That submerged chunk which comprises a majority of the moving monster says more... about ‘Why It Keeps Going’ – ‘stealing public money’, ‘political mismanagement’, ‘abusing the right to information’, ‘one family ruling everything’, ‘driving the country to bankruptcy’, ‘abductions’, ‘oppression of media’, ‘despotism’, ‘fuelling racism’, ‘lack of transparency’, ‘dirty politics’.
Kairos moment for our island nation or not however, the clear sky above the iceberg as much as the deep-blue sea suggests there’s a devil in the details. Here is one take... on why the protest movement must take care that its core does not melt into insignificance – as its impetus floats it into the warmer waters of meaningful critical engagement and mindful uncivil resistance.
The businesspeople, professionals and academics who once collaborated with – and benefited in no small measure from – the regime are crawling out of the woodwork now, to stand in solidarity with protestors on the street.
A few ‘venerable’ clergy who once looked as mighty, as only a sycophantic theocracy could or should, also joined their ranks.
The responses to these quislings ranged from short and sharp – ‘You go home, too!’ – to sweet and simple: ‘never mind, that’s all forgotten and forgiven now’.
Yes, people have a right to change their mind.
Yet, one wishes they would feel and think more... and critically engage the candidates standing for election – before they made up their minds in the first place.
One lives in hope.
From the profane to the pointless, the flippancy and frivolous approach of some protestors has threatened to rob certain outings of their seriousness.
While there is no doubt that Gen Z and millennials in the main are as earnest as are their older counterparts, some yahoos and flibbertigibbets have made a mockery of the masses’ sufferings.
The point has been made that this is not a joy ride – some youthful protestors having treated their contribution as a ‘cycle parade’ (in 4WDs and SUVS, to boot) – or a big match.
This has caused a storm among the staid or steadfastly politically-correct.
In response, baby-boomer backers of the ‘Young Turks’ have sprung to their defence, asking Gen X critics to back off and let those who do so protest as they may.
And it would be a pity if generational differences in style and substance divide the sundry camps – or rob the overall movement of its united vitality.
Also into the breach are those who – by design or by default – were able, ready and willing to overlook the red flags.
Those flags were once being held up before the usual suspects who are now in power as well as under pressure. These range from allegations of fraud and corruption, to suspected murder, and causing mayhem among the polity for petty, narrow, partisan or political gain,
An entrepreneurial mother was captured severally on electronic media, protesting the price hike fiasco and crippling shortage of consumer essentials for her young family.
As a representative of the MICE industry, she was also vociferous against abuses that resulted in the collapse of the leisure and entertainment sectors.
She was once a UNP supporter, though, grown tired of its own incarnation of corruption and cronyism, who decided to support – if not vote – for the SLPP... if, as and when it would safeguard the tourism and travel industry by assuring national security.
Yet, to date, she will not admit or confess to (much less repent of?) ‘standing with Gota’ in spirit and in truth... for as long as the shekels filled state and personal coffers.
How many of us are like that... self-centred and short-sighted?
I have to interrogate my own motives and underlying biases, preferences and prejudices – in the harsh unforgiving glare of the social media spotlight on just about everyone who’s saying anything today.
So unrelenting is Sri Lankan society when the vigilante in them surfaces!
Take off your hats then, ladies and gentlemen, to the bold or brave few who have publicly performed their ‘mea culpa, mea maxima culpa’ even at this late stage on eleventh-hour social media confessionals. And repented at leisure of their former political choices, perhaps made in haste then... or out of sheer desperation?
More worrying than any noise being made at the barricades: the silence of the big guns in high places!
True: business has to be careful that it doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it, and stem the revenue streams that pay its employees and stakeholders.
True also... the apex bodies that can afford to speak out – with a lot to gain for their constituent members and little to lose, personally or professionally – have regrettably held their peace.
Even while the rank and file of small businesses or medium enterprises have taken the plunge and followed the hoi polloi’s pied pipers into the street, the major chambers of commerce and industry at large have opted for a stupefying (but perhaps not very surprising) silence.
Truth be told, they’re being called out one by one – and the roll call of those who benefitted over the years, nay decades, by turning a blind eye to corruption (or worse) is a sorry tale...
Meanwhile, the usual suspects – the cause of all this furore – continue to contemplate their navels.
Blithely tabling for Hansard and posterity that the sentiment on the street is that ‘ALL 225 must go’, they blatantly insist on remaining in situ and debating how best to manoeuvre through the morass of party politics – ‘business as usual’ – amidst the abyss of human suffering in plain sight outside Parliament’s hallowed precincts.
But one must interrogate the street call of ‘ALL 225 must go’ (in some cases, generously extended by a significant other: a ‘plus one’ at the centre or root of it all) with the hermeneutic of suspicion.
For instance, is it genuine disgust at the pervasive political culture that has crippled our national interest for seeming aeons – in reality: a short, sorry 74 years? Or is it a gawking dishonesty on the part of those who cannot admit they made a major mistake, not many moons ago?
In the meantime, there’s a new enemy at the gate of the so-called ‘august assembly’. Of late, while members of parliament haggled with each other over their political futures, armed and masked motorcyclists made a mockery of ‘One Law, One Country’.
The Defence Secretary has said that there two types of protests – the silent, sincere suffering masses (not his words!); and the agents provocateurs (again, mine...) who are wantonly destroying public property.
Shall we add to that a third – a motorised ‘fifth column’ emanating from sinister state sanctioned or tolerated sources, to drive fear and uncertainty into the hearts of the people and the police?
It is ironic that while the unbearded youth of our country protest openly and often in very personal if insolent tones, the ‘cream of the cavalry’ have to ride into battle to defend – whom exactly? – their political masters in camouflage, incognito.
This must be nipped in the bud if the president and commander-in-chief wishes to maintain his ‘moral mandate’ – to say nothing of what his highways minister calls a ‘secure majority’.
As to whether the executive itself stands to be abolished, only time will tell? If the political opposition grows a pair and follows through with its proposal to ditch our albatross-like presidency and scrap the abysmal 20th amendment!
In the interim: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’
Yet, unlike Dickens’ masterpiece, this is more than merely ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Let’s not allow corrupt politicos, craven henchmen or apathetic citizenship to convert a strong civil society movement into ‘a tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
| Editor-at-large of LMD | ‘One City, One Challenge’ |