In November last year, tens of thousands of people gathered in Colombo to safeguard democracy and denounce the president’s unconstitutional removal of the prime minister. Pic Reuters
In recent days and months, Hong Kong, Iraq, Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, Lebanon and several other countries have seen mass-scale public protests. Though the reasons that drew the people to the streets vary, a common thread or a powerful message binds them together. Rulers, be mindful. Do not underestimate the people’s power or take their docility for granted. Beware! Their collective force has brought down tyrannical monarchies and dictatorships.
People power protests erupt when a government betrays the trust the people have placed on it or those in power insulate themselves with elitism and become a law unto themselves. In 1789, what triggered the French Revolution was the continued oppression of the people, while the social inequality between the elite and the ordinary people widened. The revolution took place when Europe was politically awakening and the people were becoming literate enough to understand that the government was a social contract. The French people realised they were denied their voice in the affairs of the government.
Early French monarchs were not tyrants. Sharing power with the Catholic Church, kings like Henry the IV had the country’s interest at heart. But with time, monarchs became obsessed with power and their grandiose status. Louis the XIV disregarded the Church and ruled as an absolute monarch. Arrogant with power, he sought more power, little realising that the more arrogant he became with power, the more he distanced himself from his subjects.
During the reign of King Louis XVI, the empowerment of the people reached a peak while the Enlightenment movement contributed to the greater public awareness about politics and power. People began to realise that they owe no obeisance to an oppressive monarch, if he betrayed the social contract. So, on July 14, 1789, they stormed the Bastille and began the French revolution, which 230 years later still inspires revolutions and people’s power agitations around the world.
Rulers who become drunk with power lose their moral fibre and begin to believe that they can fool all the people all the time or oppress all the people all the time. A key aspect of power politics is that those who possess power often display their power by resorting to lavish spending. In poor and middle income countries, rulers resort to foreign loans to launch ego-boosting grandiose projects. As a result, the people are burdened with more taxes, while the rulers dwell in corruption.
Each time an oppressive ruler uses excessive power to subdue the people, a counter force to resist is the natural outcome in the people. However, they keep this emotion suppressed, until their tolerance level reaches a critical point and explodes as a people’s power force. That is the time for the rulers to run away from the country. In 1979, it happened in Iran; it happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. In recent years, it happened in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring.
But the danger here is that there are big power vultures who wait in ambush to hijack the people’s power movements to bring about a regime change of their choice. A bitter example is Egypt’s counter-revolution that undermined democracy and enabled a military strongman to recapture power. The United States and regional powers Saudi Arabia and Israel played key roles behind-the-scenes to overthrow the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi regime.
Against this backdrop, China’s accusation that the West is instigating the ongoing daily people’s power demonstrations in Hong Kong is not without substance. The people took to the streets to protest against a controversial extradition bill which violated the Basic Document that guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy under a one-country-two-systems political structure. That the demonstrations continue even after the suspension of the bill may give credence to China’s allegations that behind the riots are foreign powers which want to destabilise China. But China will be committing a big mistake if it ignores the fact that the driving force of the people power explosion is the people’s unflinching determination to protect their freedom.
In Lebanon, too, the people’s resistance against corrupt politicians reached a bursting point last week. The dislike for corrupt politicians has united the people to discard their sectarian identities and rise up as civic-conscious Lebanese to give in unison marching orders to the president, the prime minister and all lawmakers, for they are all part of a corrupt system. What began as a youth protest against social media tax has now turned into a force against the corrupt oligarchy. The protest goes on, while government leaders still hang on to their posts, offering concessions including a move to effect a 50 percent pay cut for ministers.
In Sri Lanka, which has seen two insurrections and a separatist campaign arising from social injustices and the politicians’ failure to address youth grievances and minority aspirations, a mass people’s power protest divorced of party politics is yet to happen. It does not mean Sri Lankans do not have issues that make them unite across the party lines. There were many, but they were largely at local levels. For instance, in 2013 in Ratupaswela, the people protested demanding clean water after their groundwater sources were contaminated by the effluent of a rubber glove factory. A youth was shot dead when soldiers sent in to control the agitation opened fire.
The closest to a countrywide public protest Sri Lanka had witnessed was the 1953 hartal when the left parties organised a mass civil disobedience campaign against the then United National Party government over its budget proposals to remove subsidies on rice and other welfare measures. Then in November last year, tens of thousands of people gathered in Colombo to safeguard democracy and denounce the President’s unconstitutional removal of the prime minister, although the premier commanded a majority in Parliament. But these protests lose their shine and cannot come even distantly close to the French revolution, however significant they were, due to the involvement of political parties with agendas.
This is probably a scourge of Sri Lanka where even the labour movement has been politicised beyond recognition to promote party interests instead of the workers’ interest. Even the Government Medical Officers’ Association remains highly poltiicised. This week, a photograph widely circulated on social media shows GMOA officials with presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The picture is drawing a flood of adverse comments, questioning whether politics was behind the GMOA’s many strikes that dragged hundreds of thousands of patients to the threshold of deaths. It is high time, public-spirited researchers carried out a study to evaluate the human cost of the GMOA strikes.
Talking of doctors and health care, people’s power agitations, which derive their legitimacy from the hallowed concept of people’s sovereignty, should only surface in the right dose. An overdose will certainly lead to anarchy.