17 July 2012

The reason of protest

Media rights organizations demonstrating in Colombo.  Pic by Rukshan Abeywansha

Pensioners took to the streets early this week.  Media organizations protested too.  On Saturday, a dozen or so dog lovers stood at Lipton Circus pointing out that the city can be beautified without ‘white-vanning’ dogs.  University academics are up in arms.  Teachers complain of grievances.  University students boycott lectures as though their lives depend on it.  The non-academic staff of the universities have shown up in Colombo in considerable numbers to register objection.  Doctors threaten to strike. Nurses often do.  Political parties are always on the lookout for a cause to take up.

Now there are those who would add all these agitations up and say Sri Lanka is on the verge of an Arab-Spring equivalent; never mind the fact that the season of agitation in that part of the world was carefully scripted by those who really don’t give a damn about democracy, freedom and what-not and would not shed a tear for the victims of inevitable violence nor suffer any pangs on account of the anarchy they provoke.  But protests are a part of democracy and are a part of our political culture.  Some yield results, some don’t.  Some make headlines, some are ignored.  They don’t necessarily snowball into mass agitation and people’s movement for political change. They could, though. 
Protests indicate displeasure.  Moreover they indicate that establish means of getting grievances addressed have not worked.  Therefore, even though protests are prone to political hijacking, they are useful political moments for regimes or particular institutions to reassess policy.  Typically, the agitated are concerned only about the problems they face and when they table demands they are not concerned about other problems that redressing might engender. They can say ‘not our problem’ and wash their hands off.  Governments can’t do that.  They have to keep the large picture in mind.  They have to come up with comprehensive solutions, insist on the principle of give-and-take, work with the aggrieved by appealing to their better senses.

The biggest problem, then, is the ad hoc nature of policy and the inability to back decision with effective communication.  As of now, the generous view would be that the government has a comprehensive plan, only it has failed to communicate it to all stakeholders.  What is apparent however is that ad-hoc is the name of the game.  The pernicious designs on agent provocateurs cannot be the one and only ‘out’ when it comes to dismissing agitation.  The Government must do better than that. 
The eighties were like this, one may recall.  All kinds of agitation, all kinds of excuses for non-addressing of grievance, a clear movement in policy choice from ignoring to insult to baton-charge to harassment of protest leaders to outright slaughter describes the unfolding of that decade.  In this instance, the dismal track record of the regime-haters, especially their complicity in the machinations of both the LTTE and anti Sri Lankan actors in the international arena, have prevented people from rallying round them but this is not a cheque the Government can cash any number of times.

The Government would do well to look at all the faces arrayed against it and recognize among them many decent individuals who actually supported the Government in its policy choices regarding the LTTE and even with respect to its principal detractors, the UNP.  They might not shift political loyalties, but they probably will withdraw support if they haven’t already.  It is one thing to side with the Government against the LTTE and quite another to stand with the regime when key personalities with inflated egos and diminished common sense act against the national interest which includes the general wellbeing of the people. 
In all these encounters two factors are critical: reason and strength.  No one believes he/she is unreasonable, but everyone knows something about strength, one’s one and that of the ‘enemy’.  When there is lack, support is solicited and not always from the most decent quarters.  The protestor may be weak compared to a government, but he/she can find stronger allies overseas, even at the risk of compromising national sovereignty.  Politics, simply put, is not a nice game.  But in this game of winners and losers and victories squandered by arrogance and ignorance, the following advice from a Mexican revolutionary and poet might be useful to all parties:

“If you cannot have both reason and strength, always choose reason, and leave strength to the enemy. In many battles, it is force that makes it possible to win a victory, but the struggle as a whole can only be won by reason. The strong man will never be able to draw reason from his strength, whereas we can always draw strength from our reason.”
There’s a future at stake.  A nation’s future.  May everyone defer to reason over emotion, and may that be the source of strength for all parties!

['The Nation' Editorial, July 15, 2012]


Lalindra Jayewardene said...

A protest is a means of a democratic opposition. Why the protests are culminating and the protestors are getting exasperated is due to the lethargic attitude of the authorities to address their grievances.
We have an umpteen number of ministers to look after the welfare of the education sector but the students have to take their grievances of the Z score to the SC to seek redress. Even after a verdict is delivered the authorities are still inactive to the point the students have to appeal to the SC again. The academics have to discuss their grievances with the secretary to the President because they have no faith in the Higher Education minister to resolve their problems.
Pensioners only become important during an election and after that their problems are left on limbo.
The Golden Key depositors become important during the elections to the point that the head of state sit with them to listen to their grievances, but left to vagaries of nature since.
The question is not whether all these protests will culminate to an Arab Spring style uprising or draw parallels from the eighties but for the government to take an initiative to address these grievances and give a justifiable solution because these are all citizens of our own country.