Rajpal's Column

22nd July 2001

People power and the profound commentary

By Rajpal Abeynayake
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Two deaths is not front page news in Sri Lanka, not even in one of the most popular Sinhala language newspapers. Profoundly political stories gain precedence over two deaths, which are taken as routine collateral damage.

The newspaper that relegates the two deaths to page three is not one that wants to downplay the opposition protests either. Editorially, the newspaper gets hysterical and lyrical in turns. 

But the two deaths do not earn a separate story. Mention of it is made, as the reader goes along, towards the fifth paragraph of a continued story that runs over from front page. Two people died, the writer deadpans. Back then to the profound political commentary.

That's people power in Sri Lanka. Incidentally, even the so-called state controlled newspapers give honourable mention to the two deaths, on front page, while the privately owned newspaper thinks it is fit to mention in passing on page three.

A society inured to death and violence needs more shocking tactics than people power. Death itself lost its shock value decades ago, in the killing fields of Vavuniya, Hambantota and the trains and buses of Colombo.

That's reason perhaps, for the JVP ignoring the street protests. Death doesn't interest the JVP at all, because all its dead comrades can be put down to collateral damage.

The JVP aims at shutting down the system, which is people power in reverse. Shutting down the system aims at making the people "powerless'' as opposed to "empowering'' them. More people may get killed that way, but they wouldn't be dying standing up for what they think is right. They would be dying because the system didn't deliver the milk, the water and vitamins.

A Phillipino lesson in revolution says: 

Chairman Mao Tse Tung once said that a revolution ain't no picnic and should therefore be articulated from the muzzle of a gun or words to that effect. Well, he ain't a Filipino. Revolutions can't be any easier and more fun than doing it Pinoy-style. The people, particularly the youth, have spoken loudly at how it should be done with an arsenal of disarming charm and a stockpile of explosive sarcasm.

But there is more to this. The EDSA lesson on revolution states:

There was no weapon more powerful at EDSA than cellular phones! The Short Message System or SMS was credited for the fastest mobilization of people in EDSA, just one hour after pro-Estrada senators muzzled a move during the impeachment trial, highlighted no less by a lady senator who provoked public outrage with her now infamous dance of the Dunce. Indeed, EDSA 3 could be sparked at an instant by a Charge of the Text Brigade!

For tyros, if there are any , "the charge of the text brigade'' refers to text messaging via cellular phones, which was the chief instrument for mobilization used by Philippines campaigners in the "people power'' and the "people power 2''.

But, though a cellular provider here came up with Sinhala SMS just days before the "people power'' on Thursday, SMS mobilization too was stopped in its tracks. Cellular networks, at least some of them, stopped working. 

Lanka Telecom holds the power to keep these networks crackling, so it's anybody's guess how SMS died during the two to three hours the protests were at their peak.

An uprising is a Molotov cocktail of anger and adrenaline which should be attuned to the sober and non-intoxicating melody of reason and righteousness if only to prevent it from running riot. 

So says the continuing EDSA lesson on people power revolutions. The Molotov cocktail doesn't achieve the correct mix here in Colombo under the best of circumstances.

Sometimes, the anger seems to be acting itself out without any help from the adrenaline. People prefer to vent out their anger watching others work their adrenaline.

On Thursday, this writer took a ride from Colombo to Kandy, despite warnings of dire consequences including getting caught up in a curfew in the middle of nowhere between Nittambuwa and Mawanella.

No curfews, not even any protests, but plenty of spectators. A guest house in Kandy had a special generator working during the power cuts, just to bring home pictures of the rioting relayed via privately owned Swarnavahini. 

Yet, Sri Lankans are honourable men and politically conscious people. The University Teachers of Peradeniya released a statement condemning the government tactics as "morally reprehensible.'' 

The rhetoric is always perfect, it's the mobilization department that cannot get their cell phones coordinated.

The JVP has perfected the rhetoric and thinks that mobilization is not important at all. The JVP wants to kill two birds the UNP and the PA with one speech. In the marketplace of power, the JVP believes that sobriety is the best advertisement. The UNP believes that stomping the macadam alone could convulse a government into giving up.

Both should look at the EDSA document. 

Needless to say, the fiesta atmosphere is crucial in maintaining the presence of a mammoth crowd. The festive mood eases tensions and draws in people from all walks of life. There is strength in numbers and these numbers increase only in proportion to a decrease in the fear factor of the populace.

Sri Lankans don't have to follow that to the last letter. But let's not laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. Get the deaths reported first, and the people properly psyched. That'll be a start.

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