The Joint Opposition’s show of force
Posted on September 7th, 2018

On Wednesday, as I left my house at around 2.30 pm to see how the Joint Opposition’s protest was working out, the streets of Colombo had about the same amount of traffic as one would see on holidays. Yet Wednesday was a normal working day with workplaces and schools all functioning. The mere announcement that the JO was planning a protest was enough to shut down the entire city. Workplaces in Colombo’s central business district, Fort, Union Place, Nawam Mawatha etc. had closed by lunchtime and sent their staff home. The government made a futile attempt to get three Magistrate’s Courts to issue orders banning the protest to no avail. This despite the experience they had earlier during the 2017 march from Kandy to Colombo of unsuccessfully trying to get four Magatrate’s Courts along the route from Kandy to Colombo to ban the march on the grounds that it was obstructing traffic on that most important highways. From that experience it should have been obvious to the police that no Magistrate will block a public protest by the main opposition.

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When the march from Kandy to Colombo took place, the Joint Opposition was just a group in Parliament with a demonstrated capacity to mobilise large numbers of people. They had no legal standing as the main opposition. But today after the local government election, the JO has amply demonstrated that they are not only the main opposition party but also by far the largest political party in Sri Lanka and it was highly unlikely that any Magistrate would look upon a protest organized by such a group as they would a student demonstration. Despite this, for the police to make an attempt to get the demonstration banned by Courts shows how desperate they were. In terms of the sheer number of protests that have taken place since this government came into power, this government by now should be totally inured to the effects of any demonstration. For the past three years we have been seeing protests almost on a daily basis.

Lotus Road in Colombo is kept almost permanently closed as protestors tend to come down that road literally on a daily basis. This writer has been saying regularly that under this government protests had become so numerous that even the media has completely lost track of who protested against what! Since no one remembers who came and asked for what, the government takes no notice of any demonstration. In such circumstances, simply making this government even acknowledge that a demonstration was to take place was no small victory for the JO. When the JO said that they were going to hold a demonstration, the government certainly took notice. Thousands of special police contingents were brought to Colombo despite past experience as during the Galle Face show last year, that it was not really necessary.

Speaking of the rally itself, as I left my house on Wednesday and made my way towards the venue that had been announced by that time, the first thing I noticed was that the buses carrying demonstrators to the protest were all jam packed which was an early indication that there would be a large crowd. In contrast to this, in 2016 when I observed the UNP May Day rally, the buses coming for that were half empty. I parked my car some distance away, I approached the venue in a trishaw on the agreement that the driver would take me as far as he could. Even though the TV Channel drones mostly captured the scenes in Pettah near the Bo tree as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa were to join the demonstration from there, most of crowd came along D.R.Wijewardene Mawatha. As they came along D.R.Wijewardene Mawatha and congregated at the Lake House round about, the crowd got pushed down Sir Chittampalama A.Gardiner Mawatha. I reached the Lake House roundabout at around 3.30 pm but even at that time, it was not possible to walk past the Lotus Road junction to see what was happening on the Pettah side. So what I saw of the procession that came from Pettah was only from the drone footage in the evening news bulletins.

*D.R.Wijewardene Mawatha

* At its peak between around 5.00 to 5.30 pm, the Lake House round about, D.R.Wijewardene Mawatha, Sir Chittampalam A.Gardiner Mawatha, the Lotus Road roundabout and the extension of Lotus Road going towards Pettah was one sea of heads as far as the eye could see. The JO’s target of having assembled the largest crowd ever, for a demonstration was met. The crowd present was perhaps the same as that which came for the Joint Opposition’s 2016 Kirullapone rally. The threat to stay overnight was obviously meant just to frighten the government. Nobody that I met at the demonstration had come prepared to stay the night even though they had been told that they were retuning late. All the buses had obviously been booked on that understanding.

When the demonstration ended at midnight the buses were on hand to take them away, and the cleaning parties were on standby to clean up after them. This was supposed to be a protest, a demonstration against certain issues. The biggest weakness in the organization was that nobody was shouting slogans on the issues that were to be highlighted. They were supposed to be demonstrating against the proposed new constitution, against the Singapore-SL FTA, the high cost of living, the increasing tax burden, and many such issues. The whole purpose of a demonstration is to display banners and placards highlighting the issues and to shout slogans. Given the media coverage received, all the issues would have received a great deal of publicity. But as it turns out, even the slogans that were shouted out were lost in the crowd, the placards and banners were rendered ineffective. Having been at the venue, this writer can’t remember a single slogan written on the placards or banners.

This is one of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the JO. It is a weakness because all the public events of the JO become demonstrations of strength and public participation. It is a weakness because no issue that matters to the public ever gets highlighted at these shows of strength. The Joint Opposition is completely dependent on their press conferences to highlight public issues. The JVP however has mastered the art of having small demonstrations of manageable proportions where people hold banners and placards which are picked up by the media and where one or two people give ‘voice cuts’ to the TV crews that also receive wide publicity over the media so that the issue at hand is highlighted. In contrast to this, what the JO organizes are mainly shows of strength and Wednesday’s one was no different. When he was a young opposition MP in the 1980s and early 1990s Mahinda earned a name for himself by organizing demonstrations against the then UNP government. Those days, just one percent or less of the crowd at Wednesday’s demo would be considered an excellent showing.

Today, once again as an opposition MP demonstrating against a largely UNP government, Mahinda is still in his element. As I made my way around the Transworks House project to get to Pettah after 6.00 pm because Lotus Road was impassable, I noticed that just the crowd in front of the Hilton Hotel would have sufficed for a very well attended public meeting by any political party including the JO. Another major shortcoming was that nobody had thought of hiring a mobile stage so that the crowd could be addressed as was done after the march from Kandy to Colombo ended at Town Hall in 2016. Later in the night a makeshift public address system appears to have been set up but by that time most of the crowd had gone back. This show of force by the Joint Opposition had been announced some time ago. The UNP also knew that they would be marking their 72nd anniversary the very next day. In this political competition, one would have expected the UNP to organize a massive show of strength for their 72nd anniversary celebrations to counter that of the JO. In other countries, when one side puts up a show of strength, the other side customarily responds – otherwise you lose face.

However the UNP’s tame 72nd anniversary celebrations held at party headquarters which cannot accommodate even the crowd that JO parliamentarian Pavithra Wanniarachchi brought down D.R.Wijewardene Mawatha just by herself last Wednesday, seems to indicate that they have given up trying to compete.

One Response to “The Joint Opposition’s show of force”

  1. Christie Says:

    There is no question we can show force with masses because of the plight we are in.

    But will that force be able to be used politically?

    The answer is no.

    We Sinhalese the majority are divided in to a large number of fragmented groups.

    The only way we can find salvation is by uniting and standing up to Indian Imperialism and Colonialism.

    If not Indian parasites money, block vote and Indian Empire will keep us under control for ever until we disappear from the earth.

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