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A futile finale

It is fitting that the Joint Opposition protest rally in Colombo on Wednesday culminated in a Thovil ceremony of sorts, since it amply gave expression to the pithy Sinhala saying natapu thoilekuth ne beray paluwakuth ne. There was no takeover of the government, come dawn, the next day, as vowed by some JO MPs. Come to that, there was no nocturnal vigil either by the protesters preceding such a take over. Also, there was no surrounding of the Capital city (api kolomba vatalanawa) as claimed by Wimal Weerawansa, nor did the protesters number one million, as predicted by Dullas Alahepperuma. Far from it there were hardly 50,000 protestors, which was visually magnified by TV cameras, aided by the confined space of the Lake House roundabout, which was eventually chosen for the final gathering.

On top of that, the slogans that were on display did not match the stated objective of the protest, one such placard calling for the restoration of media freedom, decidedly incongruous with the determined bid of the protest leaders to send the Government home by early morning. It all boiled down to just one thing - showcasing Namal Rajapaksa as the next face in the Rajapaksa lineup to assume the country's leadership.

But at what cost? Lotus Road and its environs that contain the heart of Colombo's commercial centre was laid siege upon, the protesters blocking all access roads, forcing businesses to close shop and employers in the State and Mercantile sector to dispatch their staff home early. Fuel waste caused by the long lines of vehicles struck in the traffic-jams no doubt was another loss to the economy. In addition, like the recent railway strike, many of the office workers and schoolchildren certainly would have been caught up in the blockade and forced to spend the night on the streets, for when the do was over, it was well past midnight when no public transport plied. Like Minister Thalatha Athukorale was to opine, the Rajapaksas who ruined the economy by accumulating astronomic debt, while in power, were now inflicting further damage to the economy, while out of power, by staging shows to retain power within the family.

Which again brings to the fore the question of demarcating special venues for demonstrations in the Colombo city. Like we advocated in these columns yesterday, the government should seriously consider revisiting its earlier suggestion to reserve locations that are cut-off from the mainstream traffic in the city, for agitations of this nature. If necessary, laws should be introduced to facilitate this. In such an event there would not arise the need for the police to obtain court orders to prevent protestors from converging on places which are the economic hubs and that which would inconvenience the public.

The police failed in its bid to obtain a court order on this occasion, with the Magistrate refusing to issue one and instead requesting the law enforcement to act if there was a breach of the peace. The police, to its credit, acted with great restraint, not falling for the wiles of the organisers to instigate a police firing, in order to have a handy dead-body to parade forth.

Be that as it may, there was much gloating about the crowd attendance at Wednesday’s do by JO speakers. For S.B. Dissanayake, although the Galle Face crowd at the Pohottuwa May Day was nothing to write home about, Wednesday's throng, confined to Lake House roundabout, happened to be the largest that ever assembled in the Colombo city. According to Bandula Gunawardane, who addressed the crowd from a make-shift stage, Wednesday was a historical day (ithihasagatha dinayak) where they were able to surround the entire Colombo city (api mulu kolombama vatakaralai thiyenne). This by an individual who claimed that a family of three could subsist on Rs. 2,500/- a month, when he was the country's Education Minister, no less.

The crowds that were seen at the JO's do on Wednesday were those who were bussed- in from all parts of the country. There are over 140 electorates, not counting the North and East, and, like on May Day, political party leaders in charge of these electorates are tasked with bringing as many supporters as they could muster to the meeting venues. As an incentive the supporters are supplied with free liquor and the inevitable buth (lunch) packet. There are many willing villagers who are ready to jump at the chance of visiting Colombo, together with the jetsam and flotsam sans any occupation. Thus, with supporters brought in from all the 140 electorates in the country the final tally tends to get magnified in the end. What was seen on Wednesday at the Lake House roundabout was such a phenomenon. If crowds were to be the barometer to gauge the popularity of a political party, Rohana Wijeweera would have been the President of this country even before JRJ.

Obviously massive financial resources had been liberally thrown into anoint Namal Rajapaksa as the next heir to the throne within the Rajapaksa clan. There can be no second guessing as to how and when such a war chest had been amassed.

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