A recent online video showing a young couple challenging two security guards who were trying to evict them from Independence Square for spending time there together deserves to be commended, as it highlighted a firm stand taken by citizens against the absurd and arbitrary imposition of a set of hypocritical and misguided rules and morals.
Better still was the news that a demonstration titled ‘Occupy the Square’ had been organised at the same location on March 6, to show solidarity with the aggrieved couple, create awareness on the issue and hopefully push for a removal of the unfair ‘no-couples’ policy. No one expected trouble. Police barriers and water cannons were not required. After all, this was not a protest by workers demanding a liveable wage, undergrads seeking a livelihood or villagers needing clean water to live.
As expected, the demonstration was held peacefully. Solidarity was shown and some awareness was created. What was not expected, however, was that it produced results. And in a country like Sri Lanka where people’s fundamental rights are flouted on a daily basis, this could be considered a victory, albeit a small one, for all like-minded citizens.
"According to the government, the ‘no-couples’ policy had been arbitrarily imposed by the firm, and was not a policy of the Department of Cultural Affairs as was previously perceived. "
Even the Premier acted on the matter, and got rid of the security firm in question and removed its Director Operations. According to the government, the ‘no-couples’ policy had been arbitrarily imposed by the firm, and was not a policy of the Department of Cultural Affairs as was previously perceived.
But the arbitrariness on which the security firm apparently acted was also reflected in how it was eventually removed. A proper independent inquiry that studied the role of the firm and its staff, and also the role of the Cultural Affairs Department and its officials, should have been conducted. This would have protected the rights of all those involved and also ensured that one group was not used as a scapegoat to protect another. A functioning system cannot operate on decree or diktat. Due process must be followed and insisted on at all times, because while circumventing it may sometimes expedite right decisions, it would also inevitably serve to expedite wrong decisions.
So while ‘Occupy the Square’ did ultimately produce an outcome, the process by which it was achieved remains problematic, and points to more disturbing and deep-seated issues that plague our socio-political system, which even (or especially) those who supported and participated in the demonstration must take note of.
On that day, Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva arrived on the scene to hear the concerns of the demonstrators who belonged to his constituency. This was an example of direct democracy in action, and was a good thing. However what followed was less commendable. The Minister, by virtue of his presence and as often happens in our political culture, soon assumed the mantle of de facto spokesperson of the event. Using his clout, and surrounded by the mass and social media and a section of the crowd, the Minister challenged and berated the two security guards involved in the incident and their superior officer. The guards were bombarded with questions under the constant and intimidating glare of a host of cameras. The disturbing power dynamics of the scenes being played out were fast becoming evident.
For starters, there was the class aspect. Both the Minister and a majority of the crowd were from a privileged Colombo-centric background. They represent a group, or class, that wields significant economic, social, linguistic and geographical power in Sri Lanka. The guards were their antithesis; poor, underprivileged, mono-lingual, and most likely rural.
"Secondly, there was the question of intimidation and ethics. The manner in which the guards were questioned was at best insensitive, and at worst downright threatening"
Secondly, there was the question of intimidation and ethics. The manner in which the guards were questioned was at best insensitive, and at worst downright threatening. Their body language revealed that they were embarrassed, uncomfortable, angry and helpless and even when they tried to speak they were not heard. They grinned and grimaced amid condescension and scorn. Just because people are put in the media-spotlight it doesn’t mean they are given a fair chance or a ‘voice’. On the contrary, such acts often silence, intimidate and rob people of their dignity. Interrogation under duress does not happen only in dark rooms when no one is watching, it can happen in broad daylight under the full glare of the media.
Next, was the unwillingness of the crowd to try and discern the actions and motivations of the guards. Simply put, the guards were doing what they perceived as their duty, and were subconsciously abiding by a dominant cultural norm imposed on them by an insular and puritanical society. So, although their actions were fundamentally wrong, they believed that what they were doing was right -- both legally and morally. And unlike many of our leaders, they were not abusing their power or using cultural norms to further an agenda. Their position needed to be addressed and understood, not ignored and scorned upon. Then there was the issue of the enacting of a needless political drama. The wrong that was done could have been rectified without creating a storm in a tea cup. There was little need for the public drama that was enacted, which clearly was an attempt to secure political mileage.
"And so, the politician involved in the incident was not Dr. Mervyn Silva but Dr. Harsha de Silva. The group he represented did not comprise political goons or underworld thugs, but decent, right-thinking citizens -- floating voters who shun political patronage"
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was the issue of an ever recurring malignant political culture that keeps engulfing us, and has desensitised us to such a degree that we either casually ignore it or endorse it. After all, the scenes at Independence Square were played out by a people and a representative that profess to uphold freedom and democracy. In fact, these were the ideals that ‘Occupy the Square’ was based on. But unfortunately, the discordant atmosphere generated by the Minister’s conduct and the tacit approval shown towards it by some, went against these ideals.
And so, the politician involved in the incident was not Dr. Mervyn Silva but Dr. Harsha de Silva. The group he represented did not comprise political goons or underworld thugs, but decent, right-thinking citizens -- floating voters who shun political patronage. The target of the campaign was not ‘tied to a tree’ and abused in foul language, but instead was educated through definitions and interpretations and a Sinhala that included at least one angry “Hallo”. But is one scenario really all that different to the other? And are the similarities not to be considered as important or relevant? Ultimately, while movements like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and its affiliates were bottom-up campaigns that mobilised the numerically superior 99% against the economically superior 1 percent, ‘Occupy the Square’, although launched in the right spirit, somehow morphed into a situation where the reverse happened, except that in this instance the one percent was numerically superior as well.
So in the final analysis, what the participants and supporters of ‘Occupy the Square’ must take note of is that while outcome is important, process is more important. Outcome will vary depending on who is in power, and many other factors. But it is process that ultimately ensures justice and fair play. If process is circumvented and democratic principles such as freedom, justice and equality are not upheld, it matters little if the result is good or not.