I covered the #Mirihana protest while it was still contained at Jubilee Post. I left around 8pm. We soon heard that demonstrators had entered the private lane that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lives on. There was a sense of dread that it wouldn’t end well.
But the Jubilee Post protest in the one-and-a-half hours that I was there wasn’t like this. The size of it surprised me. And so did the ardour. People were angry. Incandescent. They railed, first, against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and, second, against the #Rajapaksa clan.
It was unlike any other protest I had seen in recent times because it was “ordinary, middle-class folk”.
There were friends. There were young, educated, white-collar workers. People who previously had little to no interest in my journalism. People who thought the “news” was extraneous to them. People who thought that real problems, where you couldn’t afford to eat or had no means to earn a living, happened to others.
They carried placards, flaming torches and shouted for the Gota to go home, for the Rajapaksas to get out and that they’ve had enough. They. Have. Really. Had. Enough.
Passing vehicles from buses, lorries and three-wheelers to motorcycles and vans tooted their horns in support of the protesters. It was loud, boisterous, and very, very fed-up.
I wasn’t at Pangiriwatte to see how the violence erupted. But I know that when the President labels everyone that participated as “extremists”, he is ignorant, misguided and fantastically out of touch. Who are his advisers? Because I have lost confidence–if I ever had any–that he can think or analyse anything independently.
At every protest, there are disruptors. We have seen it repeatedly. They are the types who incite violence. Often, they join from outside the main protest. Add the STF, police and military to the mix, and the outcome is as predictable as it has ever been in this country.
Mirihana underwent rapid beautification after the President chose to continue living in Pangiriwatte Road. The junction was widened within weeks so he could have a pleasanter drive back and forth. Trees were planted on roadsides. Old buildings gave way to new ones. And plainclothes intelligence officers started crawling everywhere. Perhaps they parroted this tired “extremist” narrative to Mr Rajapaksa who, unable or unwilling to confront his own unpopularity, readily absorbed it.
But let me tell you from our reporting in recent weeks and months that the people who are angry now are not extremists. Everywhere you turn is a tale of utter despair. It is interminable pain. It is difficult to express in words the level of abject scarcity, desperation and hopelessness that people have fallen to.
I’m not going to compare this with the northeast narrative. Because I know that story, too. I reported it. I have cried bitter tears over what I have seen and heard. Even as I write, the similarities are stark. And the south must understand that. However, this truth also needs to be conveyed on its own merits.
I don’t have space to narrate the stories of the men and women who I’ve met over the past few weeks that tell me their sufferings. They are across sectors. Not just the poor, who have been delivered a blow they might never recover from. These are people who built businesses and put away money to provide better lives for their children, only to have years of toil decimated overnight and the value of their savings more than halved.
It is hard, HARD, to watch your perspiring child study by torchlight or candlelight. To register for courses that you cannot attend because there’s no electricity or connectivity.
To eat one meal of rice a day and bread the next two, only to find bread too expensive overnight.
To depend on diesel and petrol to earn a living and spend three days in queues to get a day’s worth.
To not give your baby milk.
To run out of cooking gas and not find any despite standing in line.
To buy firewood as a substitute and find kerosene out of stock.
To have no power to work from home, no fuel to get to work, and deadlines to meet.
To not be able to farm or fish because there’s no diesel for the outboard motor or fertiliser costs too much.
To not be able to sleep in the sweltering heat.
To not be able to afford rice, lentils, fish and vegetables. Or the little “luxuries” you bought for the kids at the weekend. Hell, there was no sugar at one time.
The corporate sector is suffocating. Their costs are spiraling and returns drying up. They need money just to electrify their offices. This is already impacting jobs. People who dreamt of building their lives in this country are desperate to leave. And it’s too expensive even to do that.
All these “sacrifices” might have been worth had there been even a semblance of a plan–and I don’t mean Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s shameless lies.
Because you know what rankles the most?
The denial at the top. The President and his administration denied for more than one year that there was a problem and that swift action had to be taken to avoid the situation we are facing. There were people to help. There still are.
Now, the situation has arrived. And STILL there is denial. Because, you know… the “neon lights”.
In his address to the nation on March 16, this is the one thing President Rajapaksa said that he truly believed: “This crisis was not created by me.”
Oh, but it was. Just by failure of governance, by not reading the signs, not listening to advice–apart from his inner cabal that clearly benefits from whatever this reality is that they created for the rest of us–and acting swiftly enough to cushion the blow. Experts have shouted themselves hoarse offering solutions. None were taken.
Until the money completely ran out and, with it, food, medicines, fuel, electricity, transport, businesses, and everything else. It is unraveling at a breakneck pace.
The second unacceptable truth: That the Rajapaksas blithely continue to enjoy all the benefits that the public granted them by virtue of the vote. Their sons, daughters, extended family and friends flaunt their privilege while an entire nation–minus them–are begging, crying, pleading for solutions to their problems. Their hangers-on, the “positivity brigade” that has direct financial benefit from their blinkered support, are investing in properties and other assets.
For heaven’s sake, who is governing this country? Is it the President, Prime Minister, Finance Minister (all of them Rajapaksas)? Is it PB Jayasundera and S R Attygalle? Is it the Cabinet? Who?
Where is the roadmap? Where are the answers? If there aren’t enough dollars for fuel today, how will we find them tomorrow? If we can’t clear coal shipments, what is the alternative?
We don’t need a government if all it does is continue increasing the number of hours we spend without electricity. And water will be the next to go.
This is why people turned up at Mirihana yesterday. Anybody that says otherwise needs to get his or her head out of the President’s rear end.