By crushing the Aragalaya, we are failing our youth
By Angeline Ondaatjie
“There is a new force of nature at hand, stirring all over the world. They are the young people whom frankly, we have failed. Who are angry, who are organised, who are capable of making a difference – they are a moral army. And the most important thing that we can do for them is to get the hell out of their way.”
Words from Harrison Ford at a recent conference on climate change ring particularly true for Sri Lanka at this moment, more than ever.
It’s a universal truth: we empower, educate, and nurture the youth because they are our future. Parents spend their savings and the best years of their lives disproportionately to fulfil this duty. Similarly, corporates allocate huge budgets to harness and train the best young minds to think critically and to challenge the status quo.
I’m reminded of this every day as an educational counsellor at a leading US university, where I coach and evaluate applicants on their hunger and drive to make the world a better place of ‘wholesome goodness’ and on their potential to succeed in a holistic manner. It’s a volunteer position, but in reality, it’s one in which I gain more than I give. Each time I interview a student I am left humbled, inspired, and educated. Their fountain of energy, humility, and pure desire to make a difference is unparalleled.
During the early months of the 2022 economic crisis, the youth spearheaded protests at GotaGoGama (GGG) at Galle Face following in the steps of farmers, and the neighbourhoods in Colombo, across Sri Lanka, and the world joined them. Many of us were drawn to their ‘Aragalaya’ because they were unspoiled, determined, and driven to see a country free of corruption and racial and ethnic divide – a country where meritocracy is rewarded over privilege and political connection.
During my visits to the GGG camp, I met bright young students from every level of local and international education, lecturers, professors, engineers, and educationalists – everyone united to demand change and reform. I recognised many of the qualities that I was trained to identify when evaluating talented youth – remarkable energy, compassion and a sharpened moral compass – qualities that are sorely lacking in our political and corporate hierarchy.
Among them were Sri Lankans from leading colleges and professional pursuits from around the world, who chose to devote themselves to this remarkable movement. They grasped the opportunity to steer a country broken by decades of ethno-racial divide and institutionalised corruption. They were savvy, witty, and fearless, using both raw efforts and technology in the brightest ways to propel change.
They created a solar power station to sustain protests around the clock during a fuel crisis, a multilingual library to share ideas between peers, and an art camp to foster communication through mediums that convey what words could not. The free and inclusive space they enabled for open discourse in both national languages and through artistic and creative expression is a monumental achievement for peaceful dissent.
During the early weeks of the Aragalaya in April, corporates, religious groups, and civil and legal societies supported the movement openly. Both parents and corporates encouraged the exercise of democratic rights and took the opportunity to provide donations of food, water, medicine, and camping equipment to display their social responsibility. Supporting the movement was deemed mainstream, and therefore acceptable, both in Colombo elite living rooms and corporate boardrooms.
On 9 May 2022, the Aragalaya was brutally attacked by pro-Government mobs and the camp at Galle Face was partially destroyed. Only momentarily fettered, the fearless youth returned stronger and were determined to carry out the struggle to forge change. The movement continued to be maligned and the worst of the State oppression took place after 9 July, when the new Government openly cracked down on students and key GotaGoGama activists.
Leaders who have used nationalism and a religious chauvinist agenda to gain power since our independence feared the youthful clarity of inclusive change and branded it a ‘terrorist ideology’. Acts of violence against peaceful protesters were largely ignored by the authorities, while the Public Property Act was selectively used to ‘nail and frame’ those they wanted to punish. Students, bloggers, and activists were arrested multiple times while the leaders of the student movement were isolated under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The democratic act of ‘peaceful protest’ was criminalised and protests were branded as a new form of ‘terrorism’. In a fast deteriorating landscape for the freedom of expression, police charge sheets were issued for car horns tooting ‘Kaputu Kaak,’ peaceful bike rallies were stopped by invoking the Emergency law (even though said law had already lapsed), and people were prevented from walking with the national flag.
In this tragic reversal of justice, the most disturbing silence was from the corporates, the chambers of commerce, and civil societies, as the combined call for change – a national reboot, went mute. Many of the students I interacted with at GGG have already left for overseas, while others have lost their livelihoods as the corporates no longer tolerate their activism. The data is out – the brightest of our doctors, nurses, engineers, IT personnel, innovators, entrepreneurs, and students have chosen to leave the country, and in all likelihood, are lost from our workforce forever.
Why are the corporates that brag about Corporate Social Responsibility shirking their responsibilities in protecting the youth? ‘We need economic stability,’ ‘Be positive,’ and ‘Patriotism,’ are now euphemisms used to maintain the status quo.
Do we not realise that the investment we make both in the public and private sector to educate, train, and harness talent is now lost forever to foreign countries? Haven’t we learnt that the biggest loss of post-colonial Sri Lanka in the 20th century was in human resources, when the Burghers, Tamils, Malays, Muslims, and the wealth of diversity of the country were forced to migrate or become refugees?
We are truly complicit if we sit in silence in the complacency of ‘a sense of normalcy’ and watch the great loss of the brightest of our youth who are capable of steering us out of our lowest times – the moral army. If the true measure of success is wisdom and not just monetary gain, a migration that is led by meritocracy will result in bankruptcy with no bailout.
If we don’t act now, defend, and speak up for our children, we will be left with a generation forced to thrive in a cankerous, despondent society that rewards corruption over merit, and perpetuates a system that is rotten to the core.