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Damage Control

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Photo courtesy of Saskia Fernando Gallery

There’s been quite a lot of damage done in Sri Lanka over the past few days; damage to both public and personal property, which has been splashed all over the world media and often misrepresented by media outlets who are familiar with the dynamics of sensationalism, and whose reporters cannot conceive of peaceful protests. Protestors inevitably have to, according to them, clash with police. Look at the verbs deployed in these reports and you will see the way events on the ground are framed and presented to serve the geopolitical agendas of mainstream media platforms.

There appears to be a deliberate refusal to identify the laws of causality in the way these stories are told. Context is important and often events are decontextualised and selectively photographed, and the public are thus denied a view of the whole picture.

For example, in the rapid sequence of events since July 9, despite the many accounts of the peaceful occupation of the Presidential Secretariat and the president’s residence and the burning of the prime minister’s personal residence was what news stories focused on. Has the burning of elected representatives’ homes become commonplace? Because if so, many Sri Lankans say it is horrifically reminiscent of the events of 1983.

What psychological damage incurred by themselves and their families could have motivated the perpetrators to cause such distressing and unpardonable violence?

The youth of Sri Lanka have described themselves as a wronged generation; their right to happiness, prosperity and career fulfillment have been destroyed by several generations of leaders and irresponsible sociopolitical decisions. And people with a grievance are not the best people to recruit when forming the basis of a new structure of governance. Their decisions and suggestions and conduct will often be motivated by revenge, and a powerful desire for compensation, which makes them focus on their rights rather than their responsibilities.

We are reliably informed that the residences in question that sustained damage are insured and that, even in the parlous state of the country’s coffers, they will be restored to their former functioning capacity and stately appearance. Plaster, concrete, metal, wood and white paint will be used to complete and finalise the transformation.

However, some damage is unrecoverable; almost the entirety of the family library at the prime ministers’s personal residence was burnt to ashes. The burning of books is a tragic and incendiary act although it is inaccurate and even insulting to equate this loss to the immense cultural loss suffered by the burning of the Jaffna Library 40 years ago or the cumulative losses of the homes of so many citizens who have been the target of race-based attacks on minority groups during the ethnic violence fuelled by majoritarian politics over the past decades.

Violence to property can be fixed. But the immeasurable damage done to less material things by acts like this, however justifiable in the eyes of their perpetrators, is worse: to people’s lives, their trust, their sense of safety and belonging and worth and dignity. Their sense that it is their right to live in peace.

Also disturbing was the inadequate representation of the events of July 13. Incensed by the continuing non-fulfillment of the undertaking of the outgoing president to supply his official letter of resignation and the collusion of the beleaguered prime minister in assisting the president’s exit from the country, what has been described as a mob converged on and occupied the prime minister’s offices on Flower Road.

Many pictures have been shown of the peaceful protestors standing like smiling trophy hunters on a jungle shooting trip on various parts of the stately white facade of the building, visibly taking occupation of it. But no pictures have been shown to us of the lead up to this or of surrounding events.

Some of the residents in areas where buildings have been targeted over the past several months, private citizens who are completely unrelated to any politicians and have no connection to the political sphere, experienced the violent invasion of their family homes during various protests and uprisings, not only by security forces armed with weapons but also by protestors impossible to identify as belonging to any political interest group and indistinguishable in their conduct from hired thugs.

Can you imagine your own gates being suddenly, violently broken and a crowd of people coming inside your property? Imagine not being able to see clearly what is happening because of smoke haze and being hit by smoke canisters and weapons being hurled by total strangers who have no concern for you or your family?

Attacks on the homes of private citizens may be described as collateral damage and normalised by a citizenry constantly exposed to violence but this is not acceptable. If a person’s crime is just living near a location which is targeted by a mob, then the modus operandi of the revolutionaries need to be radically re-evaluated.

Who will pay for the restoration of these private citizens’ residences? Who will take responsibility for the damage and hurt caused to them, their bodies and their property?

Sri Lanka has become a country that has normalised a lot of violent and destructive conduct, both physical and verbal, including harassment and violence in the online and digital spheres. To destroy and inflict damage is far easier than to create and rebuild.

But it is rebuilding and revisioning that is required now.

When the damage done is justified by statements like “that person is attack worthy”, or “that building/statue should be defaced or destroyed because it offends my sensibilities and the injustices done to me”, it breaks open the gates to what will turn out to be the ugly side of revolution. When personal grudges are disguised as public acts of challenge against inequity, boundaries become blurred in unjust and indefensible ways.

Social resentments, class envy, a sense of personal deprivation, frustration and long held grievances will then feed the fires thatare lit on the streets of our towns. To add insult to injury, they will be cloaked in the rhetoric of people’s protests and liberation from long suffered class oppression. It would be replacing one smouldering injustice with another and guaranteeing further recrimination.

After intense cycles of insurgencies, pogroms, terror attacks, lockdowns, economic crises, fear of pandemic illness, impending food shortages and losses of every kind, the damage we as a society would then be facing if the wrong choices are made at this juncture will be impossible for us to recover from.

Let us limit the damage while we still can. Our future depends on it.

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