The recent protests over the economic crisis in the country and calling for the President to resign is regarded by many as a rare show of unity amongst Sri Lankans of various ethnic groups and religions. A country that was plagued by divisive politics resulting in furthering ethnic and religious divide through divisive policies, civil war and terrorist attacks, was seen coming together as one at protests. Galle Face Green, now popularly named as ‘Gotagogama’, where the protest has entered into its second week saw Sri Lankans of various ethnic groups coming together to protest, commemorate and celebrate.
People’s power prevails where unity is strength
Nuwangi Samaranayake camped at the protest site with her husband and children, protesting for her children’s future. “As a mother with young children, I found this place safe for my children and also found people to be very friendly and helpful,” she said, adding that there was a sense of togetherness and belonging in the protests as everyone could understand some aspect of each other’s struggles.
“Other than the friends and family we go to the protest with, everyone else there is a stranger. Yet people unlike in any other event are very kind, generous, hospitable and respectful towards one another,” shared Rishfa Rumaiz, a protestor. She shared that she could see people were uniting as Sri Lankans as they celebrated festivities together, created the space for breaking fast, lit candles and prayed in remembrance of the victims and survivors of Easter Sunday Attacks. “They see what the so-called leaders have done to this country blinding the people by creating divisions and distractions from time to time. They see how they have been the pawns in their political game. So, the people have now come together with a common purpose. They have come together in anger and pain but also love and hope. Love and hope for Sri Lanka because it deserves so much better. People’s power prevails where unity is strength.”
Sharing similar sentiments, Triffina Amaratunga, who had been to the protest site on several occasions, remarked that throughout the protest people were united and were supportive of each other. “People were collecting garbage voluntarily. Some even donated books to the library. I see all of these acts as acts of unity,” she shared.
Maheshwaran, a protestor who celebrated New Year at the protest with his wife, shared that it was heartening to see all the communities uniting. “As a member of a minority community, we used to not speak up in fear. But today, I feel like I can speak up because I know someone will have my back. I feel like we have started to unite and come together, uniting for a common cause. My only hope is that this unity lasts forever.”
Long path to true unity
“I think Sri Lanka as a society has a very low standard for what “unity” is. People coexisting at one place shouldn’t be the benchmark for unity. It should be something that goes beyond that,” shared Dinesh, who attended the protests on several days. He remarked that in the past, people did not unite when rights were denied to minority communities in the country. “People, especially the younger generation, have seen through this government’s and the past governments’ triumphs to divide us. So, I guess that’s a start. But this is not even the bare minimum. It’s like a drop of water in the ocean. And as much as the ocean, there are depths of unity which we aren’t even aware of,” he opined, adding that unity starts from within the individual where they understand and accept the differences of people and not even use racial slurs or stereotype people based on their differences. “These values should be followed by every individual, regardless of belonging to the majority or minority community. Unity cannot be achieved until everyone believes and follows these.”
For Anushani, who came to observe protests, she noted that the unity seen in the protest is definitely one aspect but was not enough to make a sustainable political change. “People criticise the North and East, saying we don’t support the protests. It’s not that we don’t, we have been demanding justice and accountability from Rajapaksas from day 1, but then we were told we were being racists and nationalists and rocking the boat. Now everyone else is demanding justice and accountability too to some extent, but I wonder if we can bring in our specific demands of de-militarisation, land acquisition, memorialisation, and accountability for war crimes into this space? People protesting here should understand their privilege when they talk about the lack of participation from minority communities. When protests in the North happen, we always worry about our security.”
Anushani believes that true unity can be achieved only when people are able to have hard conversations about systemic differences. “I believe that sustainable change happens in the peripheries and always from bottom-up, civil society in the South should use this moment to sustain this and have pocket group conversations where people can be honest with each other and talk about the issues in the North and East, the struggles of the minority communities, fisherfolk, FTZ workers etc. People don’t have to immediately understand and make changes, if they can just listen and create a safe, inclusive space for people of war-affected and vulnerable communities to talk about their demands and struggles, that would be a good start.”
Bilaal Marikar, who had travelled all the way from Kandy, opined that true unity is tolerance, coming together, acceptance of each other and treating everyone equally. “I definitely see unity in these protests or a form of togetherness that is building up towards “true unity” as the result of having a common enemy. I say there is a form of togetherness because this concept of true unity cannot be brought up or developed in a matter of days, although certainly, the whole struggle has sped up the process. We saw different people taking an effort to learn about different aspects of those who did not belong to the social circle they would’ve otherwise interacted with or limited themselves to. Taking into account the atmosphere that prevailed in the country, this is a massive development in the right direction,” he remarked. Marikar strongly believes that achieving true unity starts at school. “The breaking down of biases that would’ve been handed down to them from generation to generation, the ability to critically think beyond the questionable thinking patterns that some might attempt to impose, it all starts from school. This is only one of the things that can be done, but I believe, the most vital of it all if we are to achieve true unity. For those who are out of school, in society, there’s a lot of unlearning to do. Looking beyond the thinking patterns, educating ourselves about the way those outside of our social circles live-these will go a long way,” he shared.
Protests show a great potential of what can be achieved
Shamika Kulasingham, who organised the singing of the Tamil version of the national anthem, shared that hearing the national anthem being sung in Tamil at Galle Face was a great symbol of unity, social cohesion and acceptance. “It shows that a language which is heavily linked to a person’s identity and ethnicity is being accepted and recognised, and in extension-people who use this language or are comfortable with this language are feeling accepted and respected, despite the mistakes in the past.” She further added that the national anthem instils patriotism, pride and duty in people, however, when a demographic of people cannot understand the words then the feeling of patriotism, pride and duty cannot be achieved.
While noting that there were instances where the protesters weren’t unified and that certain people have been excluded from protests and certain conversations aren’t being included in the protests, Kulasingham believed that these protests were a sign of what can be achieved. “These protests are a great step forward, and we must recognise and celebrate it. This shows the great potential of what can be achieved as united Sri Lankans. People came together not because someone asked them to, people came together of their own will, realising the importance of unity in working towards a common goal. True unity starts with each individual recognising that a community or a group has many differences, that it is not a homogenous group, acknowledging it and accepting each individual as part of that group or community.”
Sinnathamby Ramachandran Tuesday, 03 May 2022 07:44 AM
Please think and post your comments without any partiality, why and how Prabhakaran came from North. Do you think he is a terrorist?
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