Photo courtesy of BBC
Groups of people, mostly young, stand in clusters chanting slogans, singing songs, making speeches. Others distribute food – buns, biscuits and fish buns – and others go about collecting litter. Children carry flags, sitting aloft on their parents’ shoulders.The air is festive. For Sri Lanka it is a time of renewal, of hope. We are finding unity not in our religious or ethnic uniformities but in our values that embrace and celebrate diversity.
These are also bleak times. It is our darkest hour yet, and the time for first light is in the distance. What started off as spontaneous farmer protests at the turn of the year against the government’s incredible decision to switch to organic agriculture overnight has become a national movement. The epicenter of the struggle has become the Galle Face seafront where unceasing protests have taken place every day and night for over three weeks. The call is for the departure of the government that is blamed for long queues to purchase fuel and the high price of food.
Most of those who gather at Galle Face are youth who are the permanent presence at the site. Some days the numbers are bigger and other days they are smaller. The numbers are never less than a few thousand. Galle Face has come to represent the heart of the protest movement and serves to remind both the government and the citizens that there has to be change soon and it has got to come. Even if the crowds who come to Galle Face are no longer there on the same scale they were there at the start, the spread of the protest campaign to all parts of the country has become irreversible.
There are three very special features of the protest at Galle Face. The first is that there is no single organizer or mastermind behind it. There are a multitude of groups at Galle Face; some are families, others have come from far away as community groups that are connected by messages on Whatsapp and other social media platforms. Most of them come to spend a few hours, to participate in the protests, to carry placards and shout slogans and go back to their homes.
One group I spoke to were a family from Kandy who had come to spend the night in a tent they had brought with them. Another group of youth had come from Gampaha during the weekend taking time off their jobs to stay the weekend. Another man had come on his motorbike from Kegalle to show his solidarity. They came to be part of something that they feel the country needs. They have kept out party politics and don’t allow politicians to come to give their speeches. The mikes at Galle Face are for ordinary citizens only.
The second special feature is that the protests have been non-violent and peaceful. All those who have come to be at Galle Face are informed by those who are already there that they ought to be peaceful and not be provoked as their power lies in being peaceful and non-violent. The protestors are well aware that those who want to discredit them are waiting for violence to order a crackdown and may even deliberately provoke or engage in violence themselves.
The third special feature, which makes me proud to be Sri Lankan, is to see the old and the young mingling together. There are people coming on wheelchairs, the physically frail being assisted by their friends and relatives or carrying their toddlers. They come from all walks of life and from all social backgrounds, from all ethnicities and religions to be part of the Galle Face protests.
The members of the older generations at the protests may or may not be aware of it but their presence is a huge reassurance to the youth that the security forces will think twice before engaging in violence against them. Under normal circumstances, the security forces usually show no compunction to assault, arrest and chase away youth demonstrators who are seen as radicals and trouble makers. The presence of the older generations serves to protect the youth.
I believe that Sri Lanka has changed, and will change forever, as a result of what is happening today. We are economically poorer today because of the foreign currency crisis and huge loans we have to repay. But I see a determination on the part of all who come to Galle Face (and I am sure elsewhere) that we need to root out corruption, violence and racism in politics. We are morally richer even if economically poorer. I am proud to be Sri Lankan and a youth and to make my contribution to the economic and political development of my country.