Photo courtesy of Anoma Wijewardene

 People gasp for breath, eyes burning as the teargas canisters explode. Smashing bursts from police water cannon fling back protesters’ bodies from the serried metal barriers. Suddenly the roaring, massed, demonstrators melt away and disappear into side alleys. Then, from another street, a similar massed formation storms metal barriers blocking Janadhipathi Mawatha. Before riot police units can man those barricades, some of the barriers are pulled away by demonstrators enabling them to charge in. However, jets from water beat them back.

Activist leaders among the demonstrators on one street maintain communications on WhatsApp or direct phone calls with fellow activists in other streets enabling the marshalling of the massed demonstrators from one point to another. This coordination helps prevent or reduce physical confrontations with the police and, on the other, sustains the protest offensive at different places in the area of action.

Thanks to instant route navigation and inter group coordination with smart phones, GPS and social media, directed by activist leaders through side streets and alleyways, protester groups circumvent tear gas and police cordons. They use alternate routes to repeatedly besiege the high security zones.

It is reminiscent of urban small unit tactics but minus the calculating of arcs of fire and casualty rates of military fighting in built up areas during the war in Jaffna and Chavakachcheri. Since one does not carry a weapon, continuous handling of smart phones is easier. Look out for the many mobile phones in use in the middle of the action making calls and also live videoing.

The mobile smart phone is a weapon of civilian action. Mass communication by massed citizenry in collective political action. Most Sri Lankans watching here and across the world insist the action is for the public good. The struggle is the expression of the people for political change; for the good of the people. Being the good people, such change is legitimised.

Cyber based mass communication is directly consensual and, most significantly, collective in direct political action. It is a vox populi (voice of the people) of infinitely more collective expression than those occasional snippets included in news reports in the traditional fourth estate.

In this historic public militancy against an authoritarian government, happening now, social media is in powerful counterpoint to the previous claims of public expression by the centralised news media industry of old. The fourth estate can never again hope to claim it convincingly because its own practice deploys an anachronistic technology that is now replaced by internet based social media.

That 50th day of GotaGoGama (GGG), a veritably subversive permanent campsite at the steps of the all-powerful presidency, was celebrated thanks to public, consensual, mass action that would not have been achieved with such flamboyant bravado without social media technology.

People all around the country, and the world, watch the whole action live via Facebook, Instagram and other social media. Twitter feeds spew text informing which group is where and doing what in the compact streets of Fort, Colombo or other urban centres.

We have a newly popularised term: aragalaya meaning struggle. After months of protest demonstrations, starting in the rural areas and expanding into the cities, the urban protest gamas occupying prominent and strategic city centres, are now potent foci of a continuous struggle. Resignation of a once iconic prime minister and appointment of a previously failed new premier has not affected the momentum of this struggle: Gota must go!

For decades, both agitation and struggle were the jargon of socialist and Marxist movements. Now, the disgust with and hostility to the Rajapaksas has become so universal that these two militant left terms have become mainstreamed and acceptable to all, even the dissenting elements of the bourgeoisie.

The sheer urgency for change is mainstreaming many things political in addition to activist language. Public protest actions, at one time the style of political parties and activist groups alone, are now a common citizens’ activity. In his youth, this writer was laughed at when holding up placards on the street demanding ethnic minority rights or women’s equality. Today, some of those very same laughers send invitations to protests against the president. Other people bring drinking water and meal packets to the various gamas. Unnamed commercial bakeries gift maalu paan and banis.

Social media messaging has infused political language throughout society as everyday patois. This must be welcomed as a maturing of the public discourse and general political culture: political action now a generic dimension of citizen behaviour, a patriotic duty, complete with the correct activist language.

Within hours of the destruction of GGG by that Temple Trees mob, numerous private individuals and unnamed companies had sent in fresh supplies, tents and other camping equipment to Galle Face. Likewise, when a heavy storm damaged many camp facilities more recently.

Much of this political socialising and mainstreaming is helped by the new political culture built up by mass communications and consensus formation via social media. But the new culture of tightly knit mass communication, protest and struggle must now face up to the economic and social catastrophe engulfing Sri Lanka. How does the poor, already getting desperate, cope with the severe economic trauma that is to come? How does the rural poor understand the economic shock of the urban poor and vice versa?

In rural areas, with access to firewood as well as the space to maintain black kitchens, the domestic gas shortage is hardly felt, unlike the urban working class flat and slum dwellers who have access to neither. But with greater proximity to fuel stations and storage depots, the urbanites have greater access to vehicle fuel whereas rural farmers lack access to diesel to operate their tractor-ploughs and harvesters.

By far, the biggest body blow has been suffered by the farmers and the agro-export industries following last year’s sudden stoppage of fertiliser imports, a crucial backbone. The sermons about organic fertilisers were the most cruel farce enacted by this presidency, the government and numerous supportive actors like the GMOA. Not only does the whole country now face possible immediate famine but the nation has also been summarily stripped of its tea and other agro-export markets.

On the one hand there is a need for much communication between the urban and rural sectors especially at the level of the ordinary folks. This is where the pain is already felt right now. The agro-exports industry, because of their very institutionalisation, has some capacity to cope. The exports industry not only has financial reserves, but there is industry-wide cohesion, media profiling and leverage with the state and global institutions.

Not only do the rural farmers lack any of this but also with their meagre social power to resist they face the worst nightmare of cuts in subsidies and other state support even in any crisis recovery programme to come – that is, in structural adjustment and austerity measures that are conditionalities integral to any global financial support.

This is where the social media’s fangs can become tender lips. As the new vox populi instrument that is relatively free of state controls, social media is a wonderful enabler of solidarising conversations between the various strands of the aragalaya.

Farmers’ organisations have already visited GGG and shared their side of the economic crisis. That must be just a start. Even if there is a cohesive, politically unified GGG leadership – which there is not – there has been no apex level reciprocation from urbanites to the peasantry. Some exchange is being cautiously facilitated by left political movements such as the Frontline Socialist Party and JVP, both veterans in rural sector organisation.

One of the ideological advantages that the SLFP and its offshoot the SLPP have over the UNP and its offshoot the SJB is its sensitivity to rural society and agrarian interests, an advantage stemming from the centre-left origins of the SLFP. The UNP was originally also a rural society based formation but with the growth of urban capital, the UNP, being the original flag bearer of the bourgeoisie, quickly moved into the export led economic mode.

Generations of rural society have well experienced their marginalisation by the UNP’s persistent free market bent. For the UNP’s apex social circles the farmers are the yakkos. To the SLFP/SLPP they are not.

Thus, the SLPP rebel cohort is a multi-class social bloc that is sensitive to rural society because its ethno-nationalist patriotism embraces the land as a national life resource rather than a mere commodity with an asset value. In fact, a major component of their revolt against the Rajapaksas is their realisation that their own leaders had also been selling off the land to foreigners.

The naming of all the urban protest campsites as gamas is a telling sacralisation of rural-urban social links now being stretched in the decades-long, inexorable, transition to the privilege and power of urban location.

These are useful tropes for the inter sectoral supportive conversations needed for Sri Lankan society to cope with the economic crisis that is already here and worsening. Social media provides the communicational structure that enables a multi-level corpus of conversations.

Some possible agendas for the vox populi usage of cybercommunications:

  • Sharing personal experiences of survival and coping organised through religious institutional networks, civil society networks, political party networks and any other modes of communication that deploys social media and uses digital technology for creative sharing;
  • Exchanging knowledge/data of resources and reserves – human, financial, food – available in different social sectors and in various localities using online consultation and deploying digital tools for data compilation, analysis and dissemination as well as creative presentation;
  • Political consensus building at tactical, strategic and policy levels among the various social sectors and sub-sectors including the new citizens’ groups now active in the struggle and where not feasible, the mutual recognition and balancing of special interests; the internet provides the ideal infrastructure for a myriad online chats, arguments, plannings, advocacy;
  • Enabling civic voluntarism and corporate charity already happening on a small scale in helping the poor access food, medicine and other essentials – there must be preparation for famine type conditions;
  • Bridge-building between rich and poor, village and metropolis enabling both the expression of solidarity and social consensus on need priorities and paths of social action;
  • Cyber interaction enabled neighbourhood watches as well as reliable local social media reportage will help mitigate crimes of desperation whether theft, addictions, hoarding food or social violence over distribution;
  • Neighbourhood chat groups will enable mutual support in coping with food shortages, home gardening, transport and delivery collaboration and local security;
  • Ethnic bridge building through multiple sharing between regions of local predicaments, struggle achievements and community needs;
  • Inter group consultation and cooperation for social media content management formulating codes among the millions of newly activated netizens for socially responsive media content management including collaboration among professional and amateur cyberspace watchdog groups to regulate abuse and counter disinformation, gradually setting up multi stakeholder content management that supplements, pre-empts and counters/evades state control mechanisms.

The above agenda is feasible only in the sphere of the internet powered vox populi. As all netizens know, cybercommunications provide enormous capacities in terms of online discussion and broadest participation and representation (thanks to digital translation). The Sri Lankan diaspora will participate to learn, to advise, to help and to empathise.

Netizenship is yet the privilege of the smaller and economically upper segments of the citizenry even if its political impact has proven to be decisive in some ways thanks to its media capacities. The rural society’s protests that began last year was less noticed because it lacks cybercommunications capacity and also because the news media industry privileges urban voices due to their consumer power and easier access by news media hubs.

Activist social media leaders should engage with media marginalised rural groups. The real village voices must be brought into the voices of the urban protest gamas that are now focal points of the aragalaya.

The fourth estate continues to play an important political role because radio and television yet dominate media audiences in terms of actual numbers. Controlled by a small elite ownership and more directly governed by advertising compulsions, the fourth estate does not have the flexibility of following the broad, multi-purpose agenda presented above in the way the social media and internet communication users can.

The fourth estate will not get left behind if it transcends purely ownership directed messaging manoeuvres and engages more closely with the agitating mass of people. The social media vox populi are critical of those fourth estate corporates that have persistently angled in favour of Rajapaksa regimes.

The advantage that the fourth estate has is its very industrial nature; mature news processing systems that give it a yet unparalleled, professional news gathering capability and stringent standards of news output. This gives the traditional news industry an information reliability and messaging credibility that surpasses social media coverage in some ways.

The fourth estate can continue to demonstrate its reliability and political relevance in four influential ways:

  • Sustained investigative news production via the press and TV on anatomy of the economic crisis; the massive corruption, nepotism, human rights violations and ecological devastation; and locating illegal wealth;
  • Professionally moderated debates on TV and in the press to explore the gamut of institutional repair that is needed beginning with the constitution; legal and fiscal structures; state policy on ethnic, gender and other social group interests; and ecology management;
  • Radio can be an economic and social contingencies alert mechanism and will help people cope with economic trauma;
  • Resist any scapegoating of ethnic minorities for the crisis.