Photo courtesy of BBC

“The enlightenment driven away,

The habit-forming pain,

Mismanagement and grief:

We must suffer them all again.”

Auden (September 1, 1939)

“We must love one another or die,” wrote Auden in September 1, 1939 as the world slid into calamity.

Gotagogama and the nationwide anti-Rajapaksa struggle it pioneered and symbolized seemed to be animated by this spirit of compassionate solidarity Auden was pleading for on the advent of the Second World War.

Gotagogama resistors prided themselves on being not just anti-Rajapaksa but the antithesis of the Rajapaksas. They made a conscious attempt to turn that nodal point of struggle into a microcosm of a different Sri Lanka, a place where racial and religious animosities were absent, the youth were heard and women could be both active and safe, a space of sanity, decency, compassion, and reason. A symbol of the best in us both as individuals and a nation, a microcosm of what Sri Lanka could be when her people embrace their best impulses rather than the worst.

As the days passed and the struggle spread, that spirit seemed to be spilling over and permeating other loci of resistance. Even when a young father of two was brutally gunned down in Rambukkana by the police, the protestors resisted the siren song of violent retaliation. Despite innumerable provocations by the Rajapaksas, sanity and peace prevailed.

Then Mahinda Rajapaksa, the political paterfamilias of this most egregious of political families, went to the ancient city of Anuradhapura. He visited a couple of sacred places, experienced the public’s ire in loud calls for his resignation, and had a powwow with his abiding supporters, solidifying plans which would have been laid days before were solidified.

Next morning, busloads of Mahinda devotees and hired thugs (reportedly at Rs. 2,000 a day, a reflection of the economic crisis and the resultant mass desperation) were brought to Temple Trees. Mahinda Rajapaksa gave them a speech. They poured out of the Temple Trees armed with poles and laid waste to Mainagogama, the protest encampment outside the premises. Then, with no hindrance from the police, who would have been told to stay out of it by their political masters, they made their way to Gotagogama and laid waste to it. Even the makeshift library did not escape the devastating onslaught.

Meantime, the government declared a curfew effective immediately.

From that point, events departed drastically from the Rajapaksa script. The protesters resisted and overcame the attackers. Across the country, people, ignoring the curfew, poured on to streets in solidarity.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the Rajapaksas had done something more devastating than sending an army of thugs to attack the two protest encampments. They had sent a dose of their own poison along with their thugs. The unarmed protestors confronted the defeated the attackers. But not before the toxin was injected into the bloodstream of the protest movement.

As day turned into night, the anti-Rajapaksa struggle moved away from being the antithesis of Rajapaksas, and became their pale copy. Means and ends: the old conundrum. The ruins of struggles and revolutions corroded from within remind us that means shape and colour ends. An unjust struggle cannot create a just society. Mobs are mobs, limbs without heads or hearts guided by a single compulsion, irrespective of what their battle-cry is, be it Kill Tamils or Aragalayata Jayaweva (victory to the struggle).

The public stripping of Rajapaksa thugs by Gotagogama protestors symbolise the discarding of the core-values of resistance, decency, mercy, and non-excess. The fires engulfing hated SLPP leaders are also incinerating the promise of a better Sri Lanka.

Learning from history

On October 22, 2007, a group of Black Tigers attacked the Saliyapura air force camp in Anuradhapura. Afterwards, the Sri Lankan forces stripped the corpses of the attackers (including of three women) and paraded them in the Anuradhapura town; many local people, instead of cheering, responded with embarrassment and even outrage.

Two years later, the dead body of Vellupillai Pirapaharan, was stripped down to his underpants, and displayed to wild acclaim. There was no shame or embarrassment when pictures of captured Tiger cadres, including radio announcer Issipriya and Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s 13 year old son (a non-combatant) were publicised, pictures taken shortly before they were murdered.

In two short years, the Rajapaksas had succeeded in infecting Sinhala society with their brand of unethical ethics. Only success and victory mattered, not the road to it, or its aftermath. With this sanctification of the abhorrent, Sri Lankan society reached a new level of brutalisation.

To heal that Sri Lanka the Rajapaksa virus has to be removed from the national bloodstream. In the month since current protests began, the hope that we are on our way to such a cure began to take root. That hope is now almost dead. When Galle Face protestors stripped their attackers, took pictures of them, and paraded them, when those indecencies were lionised and those pictures celebrated, that development held up a mirror before us. The visage is showed belonged to the enemy we wanted to depose. We might all be against the Rajapaksas now; but we have not stopped being like them.

If further evidence was needed, it came in the form of a series of tweets by journalist Roel Raymond, published in Newswire. Ms. Raymond was doing her job as a journalist, recording the public protest at the back gate of the Temple Trees. The protestors objected to their doings being recorded by her. “Watched men stripped naked, beaten and bloodied being brought in, some carried by hands and legs. Terrible scenes. Same crowd would have turned on me had I not been taken out by friends,” she wrote in her first tweet. Two minutes later, the second one, “Tear gas just now shot at protestors there so I am glad I got out in the nick of time. Had actually feared I too would be stripped and beaten…”

She ended her tweet by saying “Rajapaksas you did this.” There is no argument that with their brutal attacks on Galle Face and Temple Trees protestors, the Rajapaksas paved the road to this calamity. But was it inevitable? Why did non-violent protestors allow Rajapaksas to push them into violence? Why did ordinary human beings let Rajapaksas turn them into rampaging mobs? Do we have no will of our own? Must we always react, and rush like driven cattle?

What is the difference between this reaction, and other reactive actions such as Black July or the LTTE’s Anuradhapura massacre? Must we always pile wrong on wrong, respond to violence with violence, become like the enemy we oppose?

Don’t we have minds of our own to make different choices and the courage to activate them?

When Black July erupted, individual Sinhalese helped individual Tamils, but as a society we failed to take a stand against the crimes being committed in our name. The same thing happened vis-a-vis the LTTE and the Tamil society (with some courageous exceptions like Rajini Rajasingham Thiranagama). It was the same story during the second JVP insurgency, the Eelam War (especially the fourth one) and the various attacks on Christians and Muslims by Sinhala mobs.

This unwillingness to criticise our own side, intolerance of such criticism to the point of equating it with enemy action continues.

Stripping and photographing one’s opponent, parading them around sans clothes is not resistance or heroism. It is brutality, cowardice, and thuggery on par with the Rajapaksas. Those who attack and burn houses and destroy vehicles are not protestors. They are mobs. We failed/refused to see these differences in the past. If we are still unable/unwilling to make those distinctions, if we are still reluctant to criticise our own side, how can our national future be any different from our national past?

The solution to tyranny is not anarchy 

Ignoring the rule of law, replacing the rule of law with the law of the rulers is a Rajapaksa trait. Now we, their opponents, have taken a leaf from their book, replacing the rule of law by the law of the mobs.

This way, even if the Rajapaksas go today and go willingly, their tyranny will not be succeeded by democracy but by anarchy.

This embracing of violence, illegality and indecency can lead to one of three outcomes: the Rajapaksas aligning themselves with the military and imposing a reign of terror; the military capturing power and imposing a reign of terror; mob rule imposing a reign of terror. Always, and each time, a reign of terror, with no peace or stability, no justice or tolerance.

There is still time to stop, turn back, take a less devastating path, realise the promise of the first phase of the struggle. Politicians of all stripes have lost credibility and relevance. But there are others who can still provide a reasoned, just, and democratic leadership to the leaderless resistance. Lawyers led by the BASL, doctors led by SLMA (and not the GMOA), a few religious figures, some trade union and civil society leaders can still come forward to educate, explain, and guide the struggle away from the looming abyss. Similarly the leading activists of Gotagogama should condemn the ongoing violence and plead for a cessation.

The Rajapaksas must go, not one or some of them, but all of them including President Gotabaya. Maybe the chief justice can be an interim president until the executive presidency is abolished. Maybe a group of experts, sent to parliament via national list, form a cabinet, and implement urgent economic and political measures until an election is held, perhaps in six months. These measures may not be strictly constitutional, but the alternative is the constitution either being suspended under military rule or becoming irrelevant under mob rule.

In the Iliad, when god Hephaestos devised a new shield for Achilles at the request of his mother, he adorned that instrument of war with scenes of peace. Perhaps it was his, and the poet’s way of reminding humanity of what it loses to violence.

The memories of the first Gotagogama, a haven of peace, a place of promise, its images recorded for posterity, is like the Shield of Achilles, a reminder of what we could be if we, in our just anger, don’t give into our worst impulses. There is still time to stop, to change track, to stop being like Rajapaksas, to abandon their ethos, to cleanse ourselves of their toxin, to be not just against the Rajapaksas but opposite them.

The Rajapaksas created a moral wasteland and called it patriotism, and damned anyone not succumbing to it as traitors to the nation. In that desert, anything could be done to the enemy, anything; law, morality, ethics, decency, pity, mercy, compassion, reason were all banned in that space.

The anti-Rajapaksa struggle is in the process of creating a similar moral wasteland, calling it Aragalaya where anything goes, so long as it is done to the Rajapaksas and their supporters.

How can a different Sri Lanka, a better Sri Lanka come into being in such a place?

“Don’t try to teach Gotagogama protestors; just learn from them” was a popular saying in the resistance space. There was much to learn from Gotagogama protestors. But they too had – and have – much to learn from history. And one key lesson is that attempts to create utopias end in dystopias, always, every time.

Violence, intolerance, indecency, these are all habit forming. And once the habit is formed, escaping is harder. Political devastation will worsen economic devastation. No aid, no trade, no investment, no production, nothing to consume, more want, more poverty, more anger, more violence, eventually turning on Tamils, on Muslims on other Sinhalese, the worst vicious cycle, endlessly repeated.

We can stop that degeneration. Still. If we depart from the false turn, now.

Tomorrow will be too late.