By Rohana R Wasala
The “Janabalaya Kolambata” held in Colombo by the Joint Opposition (JO) on September 05, 2018 was a roaring success. It was, of course, a foregone conclusion. That it was going to draw huge crowds was clear to all. Through their well attended and meticulously organized demonstration the JO made a direct hit on the government. By trying to forestall it, then to obstruct its progress, and finally to belittle the astounding success that the Janabalaya achieved as a daringly defiant show of people power against all odds, the Yahapalanaya worthies and their cronies have only succeeded in demonstrating their own intransigence against the public will. They have thus scored an own goal in favour of the JO, an instance of poetic justice indeed, in the circumstances! That is locally. Will the deafening roar of protest be echoed in Geneva, where it matters most?
To any fair-minded Sri Lankan whose vision is not clouded by racist hatred, personal prejudice and vain arrogance, the Janabalaya protest was the loudest outcry to date against an incumbent government in post-independence Sri Lanka. What the ‘Janabalaya’ (People’s Power Demonstration) achieved was that through it the common people gave the government a severe warning that they were fed up with it. They did this in the hearing of the whole world and expressed their earnest desire and their urgent demand for a democratic change. This is a cry that NO government that abides by, or is morally and legally bound to abide by, democratic norms could turn a deaf ear to.
Opponents of the Joint Opposition (JO) deliberately misinterpret the message of the People Power March of September 5. But the reality that the demonstrators experienced at firsthand in Colombo and that we watched on TV and CP screens across the world is in stark contrast to their devaluing assessment. Their farfetched misrepresentation of what actually happened is not of any significance, though, because the whole kit and caboodle who engineered the change of 2015 are now being blamed for it; and the honest few among them who were duped to join in, now suffer from bouts of self-blame. On the other hand, there is enough unmistakable evidence that the impact of the “Janabalaya Kolambata” March and Rally has already been felt both within and outside Sri Lanka. A couple of days ago, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited by India and given a reception that, as some in the media said, is normally accorded to a visiting head of state (whether the Indian gesture indicates a positive attitudinal change in respect of Sri Lanka is yet to be seen, though); at the Atakalanpanna Multipurpose Cooperative Society elections, all of the 210 seats have been won by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), with the UNP and the SLFP having won no seats at all. An independent Sinhala language website had a headline which declared “Jala Bala Virodhaya Asarthakai” (Water Force Resistance Fails). This was a sarcastic reference to the government’s alleged failed attempt, as the organizers were quick to charge, to demoralize the Janabalaya demonstrators and to create public misgivings about the bona fides of their declared peaceful intentions, through a massive display of police presence equipped with a fleet of water cannons, and batons and riot shields that suggested that the authorities anticipated violence. The IGP had previously warned that in the event of any violence occurring, he was going to use not minimum force, but required force!
The protest marchers came from every corner of the island: from Jaffna in the north, from Devundara (Devinuwara), Matara, in the south, from Trincomalee and Baticaloa in the east, and converged in Colombo with others from the western province. People from every community, needless to say, thoroughly disappointed with the present state of affairs, participated in the Janabalaya. A large crowd of Sri Lankan expatriates working abroad, intellectuals, professionals and entrepreneurs from Viyathmaga, retired army generals and other veterans of the military (people who normally do not take part in such public demonstrations) were also reported to be taking part in it. So the marchers were not kasippu (bootleg) guzzling tramps as some opponents of the demonstration wanted us to believe. It must be appreciated that those who sought to scuttle it did everything in their power to make the task extremely challenging for the organizers, and for the two hundred thousand who were said to take part in the demonstration. The participants in the events showed the highest level of discipline and restraint in the face of the active hostility of the spoilers who lacked those qualities. (Some detractors in the media falsely and insultingly claimed that the demonstrators’ good behavior was due to the massive presence of riot police!)
What the ‘Janabalaya’ (People’s Power Demonstration) achieved was that through it the common people gave the government a severe warning that they were fed up with it. They did this in the hearing of the whole world and expressed their earnest desire and their urgent demand for a democratic change
The JO’s original date for the protest march and rally was August 17, 2018, which was the third anniversary of the present government. However, considering the fact that it could potentially disrupt the movement of students sitting for the GCE (AL) examination due to be ongoing around that date, the organizers changed it to September 5. The massive Janabalaya was organized by the youth wing of the SLPP, led by MP Namal Rajapaksa, former president’s son. As a precaution against possible legal obstructions that could be imposed on the peaceful nonviolent demonstrators, the organizers kept the routes of the march and the venue of the rally and sit-in protest under wraps until the morning of September 5. The marchers were just asked to descend on Colombo from all quarters. Eventually, the protesters marched along five routes in the city (Kandy, Baseline, Negombo, Maligawatte and Town Hall roads) and congregated at the Lake House Roundabout where they held a satyagraha (a non-violent protest based on ‘truth’, demanding justice) .
Some incredibly anti-people, anti-social strategies were employed in turn to stop it beforehand, to obstruct it while it was in progress, and to declare the mass protest a failure after it ended. The police were used in several places to try to move court to take out bans on the protests on spurious grounds, but the strategy failed, showing that the judges are not for ‘bending the law’ for serving the political whims of those in power. To harass protesters, the Road Passenger Transport Authority in various provinces ordered private bus services not to accept private tours during the days that they were expected to travel to and from Colombo (September 3 to 7). Several participants were physically attacked while on the peaceful march. At Nittambuwa a trench was dug under some false pretext using Road Development Authority (RDA) workers, which inconvenienced thousands of normal commuters as well as the marchers, MP Udaya Gammanpila said at a post event news briefing. He also claimed that several young men who were decorating a stage in the city on the night of September 4th, were assaulted by an unidentified gang and were hospitalized; a bus carrying demonstrators to Colombo was intercepted at Hali-Ela in the Badulla area and was attacked by hooligans, inflicting grievous injuries on the commuters, and smashing up the bus beyond repair, Gammanpila said. There was also the case of alleged distribution of poisoned or contaminated milk sachets among the protestors on the march. Media reported that action was instituted at a court in Matara by an individual who was affected by this wicked deed. On September 20th The Island’s lead headline was “Alleged bid to ‘poison’ JO supporters – Milco admits its milk was spiked”. The news report said: “Milco Chairman A.C.M. Zuflikar Cader, yesterday, told a group of Joint Opposition members that a needle had been used to introduce something into the packets of milk, distributed among those participating at Jana Balaya Colombata protest, on Sept 5”.
Vain attempts to disparage the Janabalaya demonstration are a part of the third or the postmortem phase of the harassment of the public of the country for trying to exercise their right to freedom of expression, the most important form of freedom in a democracy. This writer deems it a national responsibility he owes to his Motherland as a journalist not to stand by while parties that currently wield power, by means of their falsehoods and false claims, continue to feed and perpetuate the many misconceptions about her that the Tamil racist separatists (a minority among mainstream Tamils in Sri Lanka) have spread abroad including the powerful West, which are so injurious to the Sri Lankan state and people as a whole.
The protestors who came down to Colombo, in brotherhood and humanity, from every part of the island, representing all the ethnic communities that compose the Sri Lankan population, amidst numerous difficulties, in the name of democracy, justice and freedom, demonstrated how peaceful, disciplined, non-violent, but courageous in the face of adversity they are, for all the world to see. They did not come to Colombo to indulge in any fun and frolic as the government media wanted to pretend.
Democracy-loving Sri Lankans deserve better treatment in their own country and at the UNHRC, Geneva.
(The opinions that the writer expresses here are independent personal views presented for what they are worth. Readers are not expected to accept his points of view without examining them for themselves. All the information used in this article is thanks to reliable internet sources.)