aradoxically though, protests in this country have become something akin to a Roman circus.They are no better than reality television and celebrity gossips and at times, vintage pornography. Of course, they may be truly boring and increasingly banal, yet they give you a break from your equally mundane life. That was exactly what the ancient Roman strategy was intended to be; a distraction and diversion from the hassles of everyday existence.
“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses,” wrote Roman satirist Juvenal, in Circa 100 AD. He was referring to the Roman practice of providing free wheat and holding costly games as public entertainment to keep Plebeians -- the Roman working class -- satiated, so that they would not run riot and turn on the nobility.
What those myriads of everyday protests in Sri Lanka and Roman circuses have in common is that they add little substance to your life, nor do they intend to do that. The whole objective is to keep the crowd hooked to it, at least until it is over. However, achieving that minimum end itself is a tall order, since protests have become so frequent in this country, that there are more demonstrations every day than road accidents. Nonetheless savvy organizers know how to make things happen: Media is the key to success. Live TV coverage would be even better. When the indifferent media tone down the coverage, or don’t send reporters at all, there are means to get that precious air time: Block the traffic and get the police to fire water cannons; reporters will flock and breaking news will be flashed across all media. Though it is not common any longer, violence also helps, but with a dubious effect.
But given the mushrooming numbers of protest rallies, it is not always easy to get a fair publicity. Worse still, when two camps compete for public attention. No brainier, the weaker side will lose much of its publicity. And months of hard work may end up in the drains.
That is why the joint opposition would have been better off had they checked with the Sri Lanka Cricket itinerary. And that simple failure threw a blanket over the JO’s PaadaYatra, most of the time during the past couple of days. Of course, that was an unintended consequence, not every match in this cricket-mad country does generate public enthusiasm as the one ended with a historic win against the Aussies last Saturday. We have been losing too many matches in recent times, and the JO should be forgiven for thinking this one would be the same. But, when the unthinkable happened, it hit the PadaYatra for a six over the pavilion.
Of course, last week’s triumph over the Aussies would not change our everyday lives in any meaningful way. However, it was a better circus than the PaadaYatra, not least the former was unifying and the latter divisive. There are simply too many protests. Since there are no marauding thugs of Kelaniya and white vans to scare the hell out of the protesters, it is natural that the permissive environment for protests and dissent have been put into good use. As a Sinhala proverb goes, everyone is trying to fry a roti while the pan is hot. The Paada Yatras are supposed to be the mother of all protests in recent times. And there was an impressive crowd, at some points, numbering 10,000. However, since the two main political parties in this country have the capacity to mobilize around 50,000 supporters, a crowd of 10,000 was a bit like an under-achievement.
What really matters is not those who trekked all the way from Kandy to Colombo, but the millions of other Sri Lankans who were rather dispassionate observers of the whole affair. They are as indifferent spectators as Sri Lankan fans who watch Indian Premier League (IPL). What matters are good sixes or block hole Yorkers and not the side that wins the match.
However, the government by resorting to time tested inglorious tactics make those dispassionate observers to root for the joint opposition. One such was the refusal to release the Hyde Park grounds, which was earlier booked by Vasudeva Nanayakkara for the final rally on Monday. The flimsy excuse (reportedly the CMC had said it was under renovation) smacks of very authoritarian tendencies the Yaha Palanaya decried not so long ago.
"The Paada Yatras are supposed to be the mother of all protests in recent times. And there was an impressive crowd, at some points, numbering 10,000.'
There is one last point about bread and circus. People need them. Ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa during his reign did not forget to deliver them, some of which like night races were decried as too extravagant. However, there were others, partly circus, but also a positive public investment, such as public spaces and jogging tracks built during the former regime.
People appreciated those ventures, which at times those served as a distraction from the former regime’s assorted evils. Yaha Palanaya can not keep the public satiated simply by delivering good governance and the rule of law as it claims. People need a distraction from their mundane existence. When they are short of positive distractions, such as the Test win over the Aussies, the public have no option, but to seek solace in protests. In this country, people are more likely to protest not just when they are aggrieved, but also when they are bored.
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