Photo courtesy of Maatram
It is clear that some positive changes are happening in Sri Lanka. I am not talking about the hardships the country and the people have been facing. We all know no solution has been presented or proposed yet to successfully counter the shortages in fuel, food, medicine or the dollar reserves. But the changes emerging now are rather cultural in its context that may eventually push the country on to the right path and empower people to look for some long lasting solutions. The people of Sri Lanka have finally shown courage to unite to fight for their rights and justice. A few days of this unity has brought a powerful regime to its knees. Two weeks ago, no one would have believed that it was possible to do so through protesting, certainly not the people from my generation or older, who have seen the old fashion protests.
What made this change possible? Watching the first three days of the protests, I couldn’t help but notice how young the crowd was in general. This is not just a new generation; it is also a different generation. It’s a generation that not only dresses up differently and talks differently but also protests differently. This new generation caused the government to lose its entire cabinet, just in three days, through (relatively) peaceful protests. Isn’t this a remarkable achievement, in a country where loss of lives during an election or mass protests used to be the norm? I am not trying to take the due credits away from all others who joined the race later to show solidarity. But it was clear that most professionals, clergy and organized groups (such as artists, unions) joined the protests after it gained some momentum and perhaps after seeing the collapse of the cabinet. I must point out that momentum was built up during the first few days and it was mainly thanks to the participation of the young crowds.
Some, including the governmental elements, were quick to argue that this is an uprising similar to the Arab Spring that happened in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region over a decade ago. Those who are hanging on to this argument are doing so to say that this uprising is futile as MENA countries in the long run didn’t gain anything but chaos. This argument is wrong for several reasons. First of all, it was infamous that the Arab Spring had the backing of the west, directly or not, primarily because the regimes that the Arab Spring attempted to topple were arguably dictatorships (i.e., many were in power for more than 20 to 30 years). In the Sri Lankan story, we are talking about a very strong democratically elected government that was elected less than two years ago. Comparing this to the Arab Spring is probably an insult to the Sri Lankan youth who initiated this uprising voluntarily with no backing from any party or other organization, let alone receiving support from the west. The closest recent global examples perhaps come from South Korea and Greece. In 2016 to 17 South Koreans protested for five months to oust a corrupt leader. In 2011, the people of Greece took to the streets when their government was not doing much to stop the Greek economy from collapsing. Interestingly, ours is a combination of both these examples – a fight against corruption as well as an economic meltdown. It seems that the Sri Lankan uprising is following its own unique, local model. Despite our sad history of importing every useless commodity, finally I am pleased to see the current protest is setting an example by following a home grown model.
I read the editorial of a leading Sinhala newspaper on April 7, which was somewhat critical about the language and the “stylish” behavior of the youth in the protests. Some examples brought in with this criticism were about using vulgar language, taking selfies and singing songs. While these observations are correct, this criticism, which is also shared by a few others in the society, is not reasonable. An uprising of this sort is not done by a trained crowd of protestors but just common people from all segments of the society. It is inevitable to see all sorts of different behavior, language and styles. They are not on the streets because they have nothing else to do. The youth is on the streets because their lives have been disrupted and someone has to do something about it. In all fairness, what’s the big deal in using vulgar language if it is the way they want to show their frustration and anger? Is the principle of freedom of speech only applicable to Pulitzer prize winners? Is it a big deal to take selfies or sing songs to forget the misery at least for a moment?
Shouldn’t we embrace the freshness of the nonviolent changes brought in by these youngsters to the streets rather than attempting to shoving our century old rotten mold of protesting down the throat of the new generation? This freshness is not limited to singing or taking selfies. This is the first time I saw protestors and police sharing the same bottle of water after a tear gas attack. This is the first time I saw a protesting crowd giving hugs to the police not only to share their compassion but also to calm down the holders of the guns and batons. This is also the first time I saw police standing up to the military special forces to avoid unnecessary tension. We can’t miss the signs of the new generation written all over the whole thing. Half of the slogans were written in English and followed by hashtags, which may help to attract global attention. They used Facebook not only to tell others about who is protesting where but also to share important information and tips such as posts stressing non-violent actions, instructions on what to do in case of a tear gas attack or being subjected to arrest. News on Facebook appeared hours before other mainstream media. In short, this whole thing signified the arrival of a new generation.
This is perhaps the first time in a very long time (if not the very first time) that the people from Jaffna to Matara and the residents from the slums to Colombo 7 stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity. I take this unity as a bonus. Perhaps it is the only silver lining found in the current dark cloud.