Vigil for Lasantha: Challenges of keeping the flame alive

Too little, too late? Civil society candlelight vigil for Lasantha Wickramatunga
Too little, too late? Civil society candlelight vigil for Lasantha Wickramatunga

This evening, I quietly crossed a personal threshold. For the first time in my 42 years, I joined a street protest: a candlelight vigil for the slain newspaper editor and investigative journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga.

As I have explained elsewhere: “I’m strongly committed to promoting media freedom, but have never been the placard-carrying, slogan-shouting type. Street activism is necessary — but not sufficient. I’ve been more interested in studying trends and conditions, trying to anticipate what the next big threats, challenges and opportunities are, and how best we can respond to them.”

So I went to the vigil more for Lasantha the person and less for any organised effort. The invitation I received by SMS and email from several sources asked us to gather outside Colombo’s Vihara Maha Devi (formerly Victoria) Park at 5.15 pm. It was going to be a ‘joint civil society protest’ against Lasantha’s killing and the erosion of media freedom, democracy and human rights.

It turned out to be a well-intended but poorly-planned event lacking in vision and dynamism, perhaps a bit like our (very) civil society entities themselves. The couple of hundred people who joined it came mainly from Colombo’s high society, the ones who faithfully lapped up every word that Lasantha churned out week after week for nearly 15 years. Ironically, Lasantha and his newspaper were only loosely associated with this kind of (very) civil society – fellow companions on a shared journey, but not necessarily agreeing on priorities or strategies.

Missing from this gathering were the ordinary people and the grassroots end of the civil society spectrum – the ones who are bearing the brunt of our mismanaged economy, pervasive corruption and decaying public institutions. Some of these people turned up on their own initiative at Lasantha’s funeral service and/or the funeral itself, even if the latter event was shamefully hijacked by opportunistic political parties. (As one blogger noted, politicians of all colours and hue love dead bodies.)

I remembered the battered face of an old lady who sat through the entire funeral service – and then left quietly, without even lining up with the rest of the crowd to take one last look at Lasantha as he lay amidst flowers. I remembered the handful of men and women dressed in bright coloured clothes – standing out amidst the sea of white or black clad people – who I later found out came from the Kotahena area and were part of Lasantha’s home town church.

Lighting candles was good. Keeping the flame alive is harder...
Lighting candles was good. Keeping the flame alive is harder...

No one had sent SMS or emails asking them to turn up. Some of them might not have been readers of English newspapers, which circulate among a numerically small but socially and economically influential section of Lankan society. They came because they felt the fallen man had stood up and spoken out for them.

In comparison, the candlelight vigil was decidedly upmarket. Nothing wrong in that, for the chattering class is very much part of our society and have the same rights to dissent and protest. In some countries, the upper middle class even provides vision, articulation and leadership to mass struggles. Ours, sadly, is more characterised by part-time activists who move more in the cocktail circuits grumbling about everything yet doing precious little to change the status quo. Indeed, some of them in their day jobs benefit personally from the prevailing corruption and nepotism, no matter which political party is in office.

The vigil’s organisers – it wasn’t clear who exactly they were – had painstakingly got the material ready: a large painting of Lasantha, black cloth bands and, of course, candles. But they hadn’t given enough thought to the location. We initially gathered and spent over half an hour on a stretch of road (Green Path) where only motorists passed by, but absolutely no pedestrians. Then someone thought of moving to the nearby roundabout which was a more visible, strategic location.

Not perfect, but better. By then, dusk was beginning to fall. We moved unhurriedly, chatting among ourselves, and slowly converged on a wide pavement. There, one by one, we started planting our candles on the ground in front of Lasantha’s picture. It was a moving moment captured in many still cameras and a handful of video cameras.

There we lingered for another hour or more, chatting with each other — and not necessarily about the lofty or somber matters. I was glad to catch up with several friends or associates active in artistic, journalistic or intellectual circles. I saw everybody else doing the same.

One of them, a human rights activist now turned peacenik, asked me many eager questions about blogging. A columnist for an English daily, he isn’t active online and his organisation is notably inept when it comes to mobilising the web for their cause. In his early 50s, he evidently hasn’t crossed what I call the Other Digital Divide. And he typifies the face of our organised civil society – a motley collection of do-gooders who are liberal, mostly secular, passionate yet largely ineffective in their advocacy for reform and change. They just can’t mobilise people power.

Candles burn out, but the image captured will live for longer...
Candles burn out, but the image captured will live for longer...

Admittedly, it’s a quantum leap from the one-way street in op ed pages of mainstream print newspapers to the far less orderly, sometimes near-anarchic and often unpredictable world of the blogosphere. This might explain why a majority of Lankan civil society groups stay within their comfort zone and don’t engage the world of web 2.0

On the other hand, the younger, digitally-empowered activists who engage the web with technical savvy and passion are often too impatient or inexperienced (or both) with the necessarily tedious processes of institutional development – such as legal registration, financial management and putting in place mechanisms for the very ideals they advocate in governments and corporations: proper governance and accountability.

Fortunately, this offline/online divide is blurring, even if only slowly. Groups like Beyond Borders, which originated and found their feet in the new media world, are becoming more institutionalised. If they sustain themselves (and don’t lose their sharp edge), they can bridge the online world with the offline realities and needs.

Meanwhile, as some doggedly persistent citizen journalists and new media activists have shown in the days following Lasantha’s killing, it is now possible to stir up public discussion and debate on issues of rights, freedoms and democracy using dynamic websites, blogs, online video and other tools of web 2.0. See, for example, this reflection by the Editor of Groundviews.

Whether they are active online or offline, committed activists in Sri Lanka have their work cut out for them. If the candlelight vigil for Lasantha is an indication, far more work needs to be done in strategy, unity, networking and technology choices. The old order needs to pause, reflect and change their ways. If they can’t or won’t, at a minimum they must get out of the way. (Remember what happened to those dinosaur species that were vegetarian and harmless? They too went the way of T rex…)

Earlier on in the evening, as we were heading to the roundabout with burning candles in our hands, the wind suddenly picked up. Many of us struggled to keep the flame burning, sometimes shielding it with one palm. It wasn’t quite easy to do this while walking forward, watching our step. Amidst all this, we lost sense of where we were heading. We just followed those immediately in front of us, unsure who – if anyone – was leading. Not smart or strategic.

As I drove home, I realised how symbolic that candle-in-the-wind moment had been. Keeping the flames of truth, justice and fairness alive is hard enough. It becomes that much harder when winds of tribalism threaten to snuff it out. And in the thickening darkness, how do we make sure we are headed in the right direction?

The night is young and storm clouds are still gathering. We have miles to go before we can sleep.

Related posts:
August 2007: People Power: Going beyond elections and revolutions
November 2007: True people’s power needed to fight climate change
November 2007: Protect journalists who fight for social and environmental justice!