By Bernadine Rodrigo
The island of Sri Lanka is a democracy. As citizens of this country, we are fortunate enough to exercise a large number of rights including basic ones such as the right to education, right to vote, and indeed, the right to access uncensored media, which are in fact freedoms that can even be considered privileges in comparison to restrictions imposed on civilians in certain other countries such as North Korea where even the right to free speech is ignored.
No, we don’t have the misfortune of facing such challenges in the Sri Lanka of the 21st Century. We are quite free to do as we please and express ourselves in a manner in which we feel like doing so. One of these methods of expression is the process of taking to the streets in protests and demonstrations, which is a method that has been used at a rapidly increasing rate over the past few years in our country. Very recently, a mere week ago for example, the Sri Lankan people employed in the railway service of Sri Lanka began a strike that lasted a long period of time, which, except by the protestors themselves, was interpreted by the majority population of the public and the leaders and governors of our country as a public inconvenience caused by a selfish group of people. The protests were often referred to as “preventing others from going about their daily work” and were also seen to have caused a gigantic wave of traffic congestion on the main highways due the increased amount of commuters on the roads, now including those who usually use the railway service.
Despite the great trouble caused to the vast public of Sri Lanka, it is rather evident that people behave this way not simply because they have no agendas on their schedules or because they simply find it exhilarating and fun, but because they have certain pains, certain needs that are not being fulfilled. It seems that these individuals have been so suppressed that their only option when it comes to voicing their thoughts and needs in order to obtain what they require is taking to the streets and publicly making them known. These people, seeking relief, abruptly put an end to their daily work, take up banners, walk out into the heavily concentrated streets full of people who are supposed to witness their activities and sympathise with them, and chant what they require.
Who resorts to protesting in Sri Lanka?
This action of physically protesting can be found most often amongst those greatly involved in the public/government sector. Mostly, until recently, a large number of these protests were conducted by students attending state universities. In fact, the areas near Town Hall and the General Hospital of Colombo are popular and common landmarks for their demonstrations. Their protests however, are quite often ignored, as a matter of fact, perhaps due to the youths being viewed as incompetent by the authorities. At the same time, their protests are not necessarily for their own benefit or for that of the State, but rather crude and spiteful causes such as students being able to practice medicine in Sri Lanka after having attended universities abroad or the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). These protests were almost an everyday site to the public going by those places on a daily basis, so much so that it was even a little strange when they were not present.
In recent times however, “protesting” was something seen more frequently amongst people of the working classes of Sri Lankan society, once again, nevertheless, almost exclusively amongst those in the government sector of the workforce – taking as an example once again the strikes organised by the employees working for the railway service. It is in fact rare in Sri Lanka, to the point of insignificance, for those involved in the private sector to behave in a similar manner. As the women of the apparel industry in Sri Lanka proclaimed to the media at their “Matai Mage Ratatai” conference organised by JAAF on 26 September 2019, they deeply love their parent companies and are constantly taught values such as discipline and satisfactory utilisation of their labour along with the provision of a substantial pay which allows them to be the breadwinners of their families. Hence, it is safe to say that a majority of protests and demonstrations in Sri Lanka is done by those involved in the public sector of the country.
So, is it that they lack the perks that are claimed to be obtained by those in the private sector? Is it that they lack this “discipline” taught by the public sector? Almost undoubtedly, it seems that what they lack is basic appreciation and due wages for their work. Examples to back this notion are aplenty when looking at the recently conducted protests in Sri Lanka. Last year, in October, workers from tea plantations gathered in Colombo asking for an increase in their wages by 50%. Although this seems like a large ask, it is shocking to realise the minimal value asked for by the people. They asked for an increase to Rs. 1,000 from a daily wage of just Rs. 500, which in a month amounts only up to a minute Rs. 14,000 – barely enough to fulfil the meal needs of a single family, especially with the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee and consequent inflation. Further, recently this year, state workers and railway workers took to the streets in protest simply asking for their wage anomalies to be resolved.
A varied type
A different type of protest, which has risen due to the changing climatic situation of the Earth, is climate change strikes. They began with an intense amount of support and publicity on an international platform and spread as far as little Sri Lanka. Many organisations such as Earth Guardians Sri Lanka and Extinction Rebellion, involving a large youth population, have been conducting these strikes across Colombo for weeks. Mostly done during daytime and working hours, this noble cause is put in a position that makes it extremely difficult for average nine-to-five workers and schoolchildren to actively support those who ache for it.
Are they heard?
Through these instances, it can be seen that although these people’s protests cause great inconvenience to the general public, they are conducted in pain and they are struggling to get their issues heard in a so-called “democratic” state.
It was especially seen in the case of tea plantation workers and also the cases of state and railway workers, that their matters were not necessarily resolved. The tea plantation workers were given an increment, but it was not the 50% they asked for. The railway workers’ issue was put to an end by merely declaring the railway service an essential one, thereby prohibiting the workers from neglecting their work by protesting. In the case of the environmentalists, there’s barely anything being done by both the public and private sector to try and find a solution for the potential death of our planet.
Therefore, numerous questions about the effectivness of democratic protests remain. Do they lead to the intended outcomes? Scrutinising further, do all the grievances and opinions of all individuals get heard when they all join together in a mass movement? It seems, in accordance to the results of the presently existing answers to the recently conducted protests, that indeed, these questions can only be replied to with a disappointing “no”.
In the past, protests may have worked easily with governments being overwhelmed by the power of the people. But now, the roles have reversed and government institutions are too large in number for a group of people to overpower them. Additionally, protests have become a very common, day-to-day event and its casualness has decreased its validity.
They are in fact even despised by many civilians who themselves have the very same right to protest. Their hatred is quite understandable however, as it is not a lie that these protests prevent them from getting their daily work done. With roads being blocked and such happenings, they may even be preventing an emergency from being attended to. The real issue at hand regarding protests is in fact this inconvenience caused to the people. Members of the public can be seen often claiming in frustration that they simply “want to go home” without being stopped halfway in the middle of the road.
Further, the use of banners and posters that are hung up and kept hung up even after the end of the protest tarnish the beauty of the State. While the visual appearance of the surroundings of a country isn’t at all the most important thing when it comes to maintaining a state, it does matter in something of a psychological aspect. When something is pleasing to the eye, it becomes pleasing to the mind; a beautiful country would only make its people love it more and perhaps, at least, may prevent the large hoards of talent and energy from dreaming of becoming expatriates, which in turn would leave more people to focus on solving the issues of the nation, thereby preventing situations like demonstrations and riots.
The views of the public
An extremely common notion amongst the people of society with regard to protests is anger and frustration. Many people are simply angry about being so severely inconvenienced that they simply are not able to even care about the cause anymore.
“There’s no point screaming on the roads,” said Nirosha Kumari, a housewife residing in Kandana. “Nothing is going to get done if you don’t talk calmly and peacefully with the already wavering Government, with the huge election coming up.”
“I believe protests are a basic exercise of democracy but somehow, now it has become a menace to people because it is being overdone. The first thing people think of whenever nothing goes right is ‘protests’,” is the opinion of a 19-year-old school leaver.
Other people have confessed that they have even “hated” those that protested because they weren’t allowed to get to places they wanted to on time, while very few have claimed to be in full support of protesting even as a first option because “it is a democratic right”.
A student studying at a private university said: “People need to get up and do something instead of asking other people to do it for them. Of course, when it comes to asking for higher wages and such, protesting seems like the only option. But in cases like the environment, we have a personal, individual duty to do something about it rather than waiting for it to be solved at the top.”
Of course, politicians are the people who are or should be most moved by the action of protests.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MP Dayasiri Jayasekara believes that protesting is indeed the right of the people and that it is their opportunity to let their grievances be known to those who are authoritative over them. However, he believes that a system needs to be followed and that protesting in the streets must be the ultimate action because there are many things that can be done before, such as discussions. The unfavourable side of protesting as he says is the point where it sometimes goes beyond the normal protest and becomes an extremist movement. “We must understand that if we have them every day, everywhere, the entire system of the country will collapse. We must have an understanding,” is what he had to say.
Political activist Rasika Jayakody, who is involved mostly with the youth, says that it is important to ensure public rights and that there are numerous significant protests happening everywhere. He believes that the right to protest must be ensured in Sri Lanka but there is a current trend where trade unions launch into protests as a first action and this leads to the right being used ineffectively.
“It is a weapon that must be used judiciously,” he says, but believes that when protestors hold the public for ransom by severely inconveniencing them and using the right to protest destructively, the efficiency of the weapon of protests decreases.
What can be done?
Of course, if protesting is so much of a hassle and since recently, hasn’t even been producing any valuable results, then alternatives must be found for the people of the country to get what they need.
There are always the normal options of discussions and meetings, but there is always the possibility that they wouldn’t work. For example, a creative way of protesting by the railway workers could have been the continuation of the normal travel schedule but with no fee being taken from the people such as the protest done by the public transport system of Japan a long time ago.
That would have equally hurt the public revenue of the Government but also kept the people going. That is simply one creative idea, and one that has been done before.
Therefore, it would be beneficial for the good of all the people if protests can be done more creatively with unique ideas which do not destroy the grace of the country.