Photo courtesy of Roel Raymond

Many people in the international community are now waking up to the realization that Sri Lanka is experiencing an unprecedented phenomenon. And unfortunately, due to the media’s predilection for sensational news, the peaceful protests that began in the country two weeks ago are often being misrepresented in terms of violence both in words and images. Incendiary phrases such as ‘police clash with protestors’ and images of individuals brandishing flaming torches evoke political uprisings of a physically violent kind such as The French Revolution or more recently – and to the shame of the US – the failed attempt to take over The White House on the part of the maudlin supporters of the outgoing 45th President.

Perhaps the world at large can only understand protests in these violent and oppositional terms. Perhaps the consumers of television news are so jaded that they cannot believe that people can protest on just grounds for a better future without mayhem and property damage inevitably being involved. Most particularly, it is difficult for certain stereotypical mindsets to appreciate that the modern generation in their 20s and 30s can protest without self indulgence in the form of gratuitous violence, abuse of alcohol and drugs and promiscuity being their main focus.

In Sri Lanka, the politically fuelled protests of the early 1970s and early and late 1980s are still alive in the memories of the older generation. Ethnic strife, cynically fomented by politicians with opportunistic agendas, has long been a successful ploy to keep the people disunited and relatively easy to manipulate and coerce in predictable ways.

This protest is altogether different in kind: it is apolitical, and although many political parties, companies and interested individuals are trying to hijack the moment as observed by Roel Raymond, of Roar Media, the protests have been clean and inclusive of diverse and pluralistic viewpoints, characterized by orderly conduct, community spirit and respect for the environment as well as respect for fellow participants.

Sri Lanka has unfortunately often presented on the international stage in recent years in relation to natural and manmade tragedies and disasters: the decades long civil war, the tsunami of late 2004 and the terrible Easter Sunday attacks of three years ago. This regrettably associates the country with negativity in global terms. In the present economic crisis, we are presenting as debtors on the international stage.

But Sri Lanka has also long been associated with individuals of exceptional skill, dedication and talent in many spheres of life and it is the desire to create new context for the fulfillment of this positive potential that unifies all the protestors. The protestors are not exclusively young people; the mismanagement of the country has been ongoing on many levels for decades and many citizens of all communities and generations have valid grievances, as clearly outlined in their statements on the hand made placards they carry. The protestors have created a space in which all voices can be heard.

The agitation site set out for public protest is growing in size. One of the most positive aspects of it is the focus on education; there is a dedicated library of resources available on site to inform all who wish to know about relevant political and economic issues pertaining to this crisis and law students and economics students are conducting Teach Outs, which are public information sessions conducted via a public address system to the crowds outside the Presidential Secretariat.

It is important that the energy and vibrancy of the people power that is prompting this call for change is not distorted or wasted. Of all the sources of fuel currently available to us, the energy of the protestors is the most renewable. But it needs to be strongly supported and supplemented by the guidance of more experienced people who can amend the Constitution and set in place the economic teams with the credibility and capacity to negotiate with the IMF and other international bodies who require evidence of a stable political situation in the country in which they are asked to invest.

A panel of four experienced public figures spoke about these issues at a discussion facilitated by Hashtag Generation discussing the economic, political and social challenges that the country must navigate in the immediate future.

One of the questions asked of the panellists was about the need to select and appoint capable and qualified people for both public and private governance. The question was about education and the panellists understood the phrase to refer only to formal educational qualifications. Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy and Dr. Asanga Welikala both said that imposing formal educational requirements on ministers would be seen as elitist and cited examples of past successful and effective leaders of the country who had not attended university and did not have formal degree qualifications.

In fact, the question was more about the need for education of a less academic but more practical kind; training in basic economics, finance, history, civics and law and governance knowledge which recent serving ministers in the grossly oversized governing body have clearly lacked. This kind of education would be a bridging course that could be mandatory for all serving ministers to ensure that they are capable of fulfilling their roles in governance in an effective and responsible way. And the people would have greater faith in those who represented them.

The past effective but academically unqualified leaders referred to had only basic schooling but – crucially – they experienced this education in the public school system in a former era of the country before the standards of the education system had fallen into the brokenness and stagnancy that presently characterizes it.

The protestors in Colombo are now being criticized as the elite, being English educated and thus seen, inevitably in Sri Lanka, as privileged. But if they had not had the opportunity to study English via Cambridge or London courses at O’level and A’level they would not be able to communicate their views internationally or gain professional qualifications and skills at an internationally recognized level of competency.

On a material level, they would not have been able to earn salaries in Euros or dollars, which would benefit the country at this juncture. Many have chosen to live in the country, and to accuse them of elitism and of only developing empathy for the hot struggles of the poor because they have been directly affected by power cuts for the first time is an easy way to denigrate and ridicule their participation.

But the very ease with which this privilege of education can be used to diminish the current protestors itself speaks to the vital need for better quality education being made widely accessible in the country. To focus on STEM subjects only is to devalue the critical thinking skills and capacity for structured logical thought that studying the humanities offers. The brilliant Sri Lankans of past renown had the benefit not only of free education but excellent and broad based education.

Via English, an international link language, and through advanced computer literacy as a result of their age, the protestors emerging today so articulately have been able to see beyond the borders of the country to see how other countries organize their lives and cater for the well-being of their citizens. They have been able to see beyond the external differences of race, religion and socio-economic class that have always been invoked to divide and disempower them in the past. And they have been able to act differently based on this more expansive and less defensive vision, to begin to create a different outcome.

Emergency was resorted to by past generations. What we are seeing today is a different response to crisis from a more educated and aware generation. We are seeing emergence – the emergence of a citizenry who have a sense not of spurious entitlement based on past glories but of worth and dignity based on present capacity and the desire to create structures of governance in which their potential can be fulfilled, not only to adorn their resumes but to benefit the country as a whole.