An opposition MP goes to the Katunayake Airport to board an aircraft bound for Geneva for a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. At the airport, an Assistant Superintendent of Police asks to examine his bags for “fabricated documents” likely to compromise national security interests or promote feelings of hatred or contempt to the government. The MP says that he has documents, photographs and forms relating to deaths, disappearances and injuries caused to persons, which are to be produced at a conference in Geneva. He insists that they are not “offensive or subversive” but are intended to be used to promote the protection of human rights in Sri Lanka. Upon examining the bags, the senior police officer discovers 533 documents containing information about missing persons and 19 pages of photographs.

The year is 1990. The regime in power is the UNP, led by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The opposition MP? Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The incident described above formed the basis of a fundamental rights case of Mahinda Rajapakse v Kudahetti and others [1992] 2 Sri L.R. 223. It is an interesting read; certain details will be amusing to all readers, even if the legal analysis will not.

Revisiting this case today (as it has been on prior occasions), the ironies write themselves and I cannot possibly do justice to them in this article. This opposition politician, then the Secretary of the Committee of Parliamentarians for Fundamental and Human Rights, was not to be seen when he became President. Much ink has been spilled documenting his regime’s violation of human rights, harassment of human rights defenders and his opposition to internationalizing “Sri Lankan problems” or of allowing any international “interference” in Sri Lanka. Today, he is suffering his second (and by far greater) fall from grace. In 2015, it was a political defeat; a surprise outcome perhaps but there was still great reverence for his personal legacy. In 2022, that entire legacy is being reviled and rejected and he has been reduced to having his name and visage dragged through the mud – sometimes quite literally, on the rain-soaked fields of Gotagogama.

My intention is not to add to the political commentary on this unique moment in Sri Lankan history but to put down some reflections and hopes on how we might seize this momentum going forward.

One thing that has inspired me is the passion and zeal of my generation in spearheading this movement. From the witty posters, to the creative slogans, to the overnight camping, to the coordination of food and drink for thousands, to the social media documentation (and yes the memes), it is a testament to the limitless potential of people willing to invest their resourcefulness and creative energies towards a common goal. “You messed with the wrong generation!” is a common refrain on posters; an apt description of this phenomenon, which takes to new heights the efforts of past generations.

This is refreshing because for the longest time, most of the conversations I’ve had with my friends (and I am probably painting with a very broad brush) have revolved around how to get out of this country, why things will never change, why Sri Lanka will never afford a decent quality of life and, of course, paths to citizenship and permanent residency abroad. In stark contrast, the very decision to head down to Galle Face Green is an act of faith; faith that others will weigh their options on a Friday evening (without power cuts) and will also decide to come, faith that one extra body will mean anything at all in a crowd of thousands. But it is because each individual steps out in faith that we have the awe inspiring images of a sea of Sri Lankans lapping against the banks of the Presidential Secretariat, threatening to be as eternal and relentless as the Indian Ocean a few hundred yards away.

Amidst the resounding calls of #GoHomeGota and #GoHomeRajapakses, and the slightly insidious “225 එපා!”, is a clear call for a system change. I take this to mean a complete change in the way we do politics and business and in the way we order social relationships. I think the root problem is the disconnect between values and interests and the failure to be open and honest about them. Whether in politics, business or social relationships, people tend to pursue what promotes their interests and choose their values (or compromise them) accordingly. It is why we hate politicians who cross over in Parliament to accept portfolios in government and why we even dislike those who leave government (or claim to) only when it is clear that it is losing popularity. It is why reports that 24 MPs voted for all four constitutional amendments, from 17th to 20th despite each being completely contrary in spirit to its predecessor. It is why big conglomerates are called out for joining the bandwagon on social movements (think Black Lives Matter and climate action) when their business practices have long flown in the face of these movements. And yes, it is why many of us with wealth and privilege are only now taking direct personal action on issues that have long plagued the underserved because while these problems have always gone against the values we claim to espouse, it is only now that they have actually gone against our interests.

So, what can we do to change? To risk a cliché, we must begin with ourselves and I have three suggestions. The first is to be willing to embrace for ourselves the same accountability we expect of politicians. How is it possible for a one-time human rights advocate to become the all-powerful president under the 18th amendment? The cynics will say it was always merely a game, the best way to serve personal interests at the time. But perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was a hundred small compromises across several decades, each time choosing interests over values, and never being questioned or second guessed.

We are not so different. We start our lives full of ideals, often this peaks during our time in university (for those who are privileged enough to get in). But then come the bills and rent and distant prospects of marriage and children and agonizing about how we will ever fund any of it. The millennials have been described as the unluckiest generation, facing the global financial crisis as they looked to enter the workforce and COVID-19 just about a decade later. It is therefore understandable for us to have anxieties about money and for this to play a significant role in our career and lifestyle choices. No one can live a life entirely consistent with their values every day of their lives, nor is that expected. But we can at least be more open and honest about them and cultivate relationships in which we are open to being asked difficult questions about our choices – where and how we choose to live, who benefits from our work, how we spend our money and why. My experience has been that the veneration of personal autonomy in our times has translated into a virtual prohibition on raising questions about a person’s choices and preferences. And yet, there is overwhelming empirical and anecdotal evidence that when people choose to live lives that also serve others, it can transform the world in ways they cannot predict. Being confronted with searching questions about the disconnect between the values we claim to uphold and the lives we actually live, we may be pushed to rethink some of those choices. So, my first suggestion is to change our mindsets to be open to this.

The second is to use this moment to open our eyes to deeper structural issues we haven’t seen or considered before and to make the most of the opportunity facilitated by Gotagogama. We can make unity mean something more than chanting the same slogans together; it can be an opportunity to see ourselves and the world through the eyes of people we may otherwise never meet. Who is spending nights in tents and who is going home to comfortable beds? Why are there so few posters and slogans in Tamil and why isn’t the North and East able to join in protest with the same freedom? Taking friends along to the protests is good; speaking to someone new and unlike us might be better. Without empathy, we will struggle to care about issues that don’t affect us from the families in the North demanding the return of their lands to the hardships of farmers in the south and east and of estate workers in the hills.

The third suggestion is to keep apathy at bay with small acts of faith. I have been so inspired seeing the numerous organisations founded by people in this generation taking on issues so large that the issues are likely to outlive them. I am inspired by friends and colleagues who have returned from prestigious universities around the world to join the public service, to teach in state universities or to begin projects in Sri Lanka. Each of them started with one act of faith – believing that it is worth trying. Just like it takes faith to believe that it makes a difference to join the masses at Gotagogama, it takes faith to believe that it makes a difference to start up that soup kitchen in your neighborhood or to equip one rural school with a library or a well or to secure bail for one of a thousand remand inmates. This moment may feel like some radical transformation is just around the corner but realistically, lasting change is a long term process and we need to brace ourselves for the long haul. These small acts and initiatives will keep corrosive apathy at bay so that we do not throw up our hands in frustration and say “things will never change”. Things are changing and they can change but only with small acts of faith on which bigger things can be built.

In all of this, though the responsibility is on us all, we are not all equally equipped nor do we all have the luxury and freedom to make choices that run contrary to our material interests. Therefore, the burden is greater on those in the middle and upper classes, who have the privilege to make these choices. If you are reading this, this is probably you, even if you don’t think it is. But may we all be open and honest about what each of us can do and resolve to continue the struggle long after the lights come back on, the fuel flows freely and the Green lies still.