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This has been a long time coming. The leaders of this country have been betraying their people from the get-go. Starting with Bandaranayake and his ‘Sinhala Only’ policy, which caused a great divide, with a massive brain drain when much of our Tamil population migrated, feeling marked. Then came Jayawardane and his Executive Presidency, right royally screwing us up. Then the shameful Tamil pogroms of the 80s, followed by the creation of the LTTE and the ciivil war. Each leader had a narrow vision and their own selfish agenda. Under each one, certain people benefitted and acquired certain unethical privileges.

All this comes to pale under the Rajapaksas. The wealth they acquired, the nepotism, with 9 people in the government being from the same family, went beyond imagination — all this whilst they maintained the narrative of being the saviour and guardian of the Sinhala Buddhist race, subtly hinting at threats from ‘the other’. They used the shameful tactic of divide and rule upon the citizens. Politicians and their families behaved like this country was theirs to do as they pleased with, with people forgetting their rights and bending backwards to please them. The politicians and their families and cohorts became unimaginably rich and richer, at the cost of the citizens, and the opposition was no better (see the bond scam), as they too stood by whilst racist attacks became the norm (see Aluthgama, Digana, the Eater Attacks) with no justice, which was delayed or sidelined or brushed off.

Every day brought news of some deal, some underhanded money-making scheme by politicians, at the cost of the country. The money started running out, then it was milk powder and food items, then gas, and finally fuel. Overnight, we didn’t have certain staple food items, no gas for cooking, people losing their livelihoods, farmers losing crops due to a bad call to ban fertiliser. Queues for gas and fuel started, with the days starting and ending in them. Everyday brings a new nightmare: deaths while standing in queues, suicide by those unable to make ends meet, medicine shortages — you can’t afford to get sick now — with the icing on the cake being the 13-hour power cuts that caused unimaginable hardships. Meanwhile, politicians still hung on to their privileged Marie Antoinette-type lifestyles, motorcades pushing the common man off the street, the Rajapaksas, their brats and their wives and families opening and shopping at luxury stores, people fawning over them, dressed in designer wear, arriving in vehicles which cost as much as a land or a house, displaying a vulgar disregard for the appalling conditions their rule had brought upon the common man.

I have to be completely honest and confess that what drove me out was the power cuts. I am ashamed of this, but this was what literally drove me to the streets. Before this, I was upset seeing the hardships the normal citizen had to go through just to get by, day to day. One part of me was angry, thinking this would have been the 6.9 million that voted for this government, and that they deserved every bit of this and more, especially if they voted on racist grounds (the Islamophobia perpetuated by the government). It became hard to see the plight of the people, standing in queues, in the hot sun, and barely getting by, people losing jobs, resorting to one meal a day. This is 2022, there is no excuse for this, people cannot suffer like this. How can the rulers and a certain segment of society have so much wealth, yet not be affected by the plight of their fellow citizens?

It was then that I read about the Kohuwela protests. There was no electricity, I was angry, pouring with sweat, and needed something productive to do to channel my anger and frustration at the government. So I think it was on the 3rd or 4th of March that I headed to the protest in the evening, after which I headed off to any protest that was happening — at the Liberty roundabout, Rajagiriya, Thummulla, at the top of my lane, wherever. Whenever I could, I joined a protest.

Then came the Mirihana protest. The atmosphere was different, I could feel that people had had enough. The government was completely blasé, with the President not even acknowledging the problems, leave alone speaking to the nation about them. When he did speak, he spoke up to say how it was not his fault! This was just unbelievable, a President who held himself unaccountable for the mess he and his government created! There was some angry chanting after which we (my family and I) proceeded to the Kohuwela protest to show support as it was their 31st consecutive day of protesting. On our way home after this was when we learned about the riot initiated by unknown elements, as when we were at Mirihana, although the people were angry, they were adamant that things should remain peaceful, and didn’t trust the President and his army not to use any excuse to attempt a military takeover. Whilst at Mirihana, we did see multiple Defenders driving back and forth, checking out the crowd, unknown elements getting out of them with slogans and megaphones. People still remained peaceful. I still don’t know what happened in Pangiriwatte, but seeing my fellow citizens there who were extremely peaceful and restrained, I find it hard to imagine them turning violent, unless certain elements were inserted to cause trouble. The brutality that followed took our breath away. The curfew, the enforcement of emergency law and a social media blackout enforced by the government pushed us over the edge.

They had forgotten that they were appointed by the citizens at the expense of the citizens, and not anointed. So we circumvented the social media ban using proxy servers, broke the curfew the next day and proceeded to protest at every street corner. They would not hold a whole nation prisoner. The lawyers did an excellent job, turning up in hordes to help release all those arrested and beaten up in Mirihana.

Suddenly, after a long time, we felt a connection with our fellow Sri Lankan. We had finally united and come together to face our common enemy (an enemy that never should be): our President and our government. We hadn’t felt this way in a long time. Our President, Prime Minister and government had managed to isolate each one of us, and we were all stuck in our own bubbles of being Sinhala, Muslim, Tamil or Christian, instead of thinking in one unit as Sri Lankans. We regarded each one as ‘the other’ and were unable to see each others’ points of view or feel each other’s pain when unfairness was meted out by certain government policies. We are all Sri Lankans first and foremost, and let us never forget this.

Gota Go Gama was an amazing sight to behold, with everyone coming together. We were all Sri Lankans. We felt the pain of our Christian brethren during Easter, when 3 years on, there was still was no justice for them. Our Sinhala and Tamil brethren couldn’t celebrate their new year either, with the dire situation in the country. And the Muslims started Ramadan, a month of fasting, under these circumstances, with the hardships enforced — we preferred having that one meal, as many citizens who were forced to do so. Gota Go Gamas multiplied all over the country, finally culminating in Horu Go Gama, outside the Parliament.

Standing at protests, sometimes thirsty and hungry because you don’t want to leave as you feel united in a cause bigger than yourself, you meet some truly amazing people. The mother who brought her baby to the protest and would remain forever an icon, immortalised in pictures. A couple on the way home from hospital 3 days after the birth of their baby, who got down to protest. Parents of a 1-year-old who couldn’t find milk powder for their baby. The old couple who were struggling with the power cuts, who didn’t have children to help them with their day-to-day needs. The three-wheeler driver who had to spend many hours at the fuel queue first, then the kerosene and gas queues, until he had only a few hours left to attend to hires, finding it difficult to meet his monthly lease payments for the vehicle. An 82-year-old lady who insisted that she do her part by coming to the protest and showing support. The restaurant owner who had to shut his business down and is now dependent on his wife and her earnings. Students and youth taking the lead in telling the government that they will hold them accountable. The volunteers who turned up, the people who donated food and other items to the protesters so that they could stay on.

What stands out for me here is that these are all people who have commitments: homes, businesses, things to attend to. They are like you and me, and yet they make sure that they show up and are counted. Do not let others do your work for you, do not wait until things are truly bad to show up. Protests are a healthy form of expression to show that you know your rights and will not be pushed over and will hold those in power accountable. So when able, please do not think one person cannot make a difference — you can. Turn up, even if it is for 15 minutes, this is a duty of a responsible citizen. If you are able to, look out for your fellow Sri Lankan. If you are financially able, donate dry rations. When buying a gas cylinder, buy an extra one and donate it to someone who can’t afford these sky-high prices. Offer to pay for some petrol for a three-wheeler in a fuel queue alongside you. Buy some rice parcels and donate them. Check on your neighbours, your family, how they are managing. We need to be extra kind and compassionate.

For me, there are many lessons to be learned from the protests. They have taught me that the people do have power, they have just forgotten it as they allowed their rulers to hoodwink them into believing that power is vested in the government and the President. The true VVIP of a country are it’s people. Politicians are put in place as ‘public servants’, to work for the benefit of the citizens. The protests have culminated in making us more aware of our rights as citizens, of the law, of how a citizen and a politician should conduct themselves, and also how much has been looted from the country by the corrupt. Never again will we let our politicians run riot, but hold them to high standards of accountability and transparency in their transactions. The change starts which each and every one of us. We have to make sure that we behave in a way we would like mirrored by those leading us. Aragalayata Jayawewa!

FSR
Author: FSR
Greedy traveller, at the mercy of ‘put your brake on’ husband. Sometimes spiritual , sometimes emotional, psycho on and off. Always interesting.
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