Overcoming ‘Defeatist & Bystander’ Mindsets; Lessons From Guatemalan ‘Aragalaya’
By Mohamed Harees –
“Seeing the mud around a lotus is pessimism, seeing a lotus in the mud is optimism.” ― Amit Kalantri, Wealth of Words
Learned helplessness, first observed by Martin Seligman in 1965, when he was doing classical conditioning experiments on dogs, occurs when people or animals feel helpless to avoid negative situations. Seligman concluded that the conditioned dog had learned that trying to escape the shocks was futile, and thus would not try to escape it even in the new environment of the second experiment. He described this condition as learned helplessness. Humans too are just like these dogs. If, over the course of their lives, they have experienced loss of control, they become a nihilist who trusts futility above optimism. Democracy needs alert and active citizenry; it cannot afford indifferent, careless citizens. Learned helplessness as a behavioural theory, explains how people can remain passive even at the forefront of injustice violence corruption, discrimination and other forms of negative situations because of their prior knowledge or there might be other reasons like defeatist attitudes, and fear of failure.
As people of a country in a continuous state of turmoil, Sri Lankans too carrying a crushing weight of helplessness in their shoulders, and negative emotions which are leading them to a point of despair and accepting their fate or Karma. However, if they remain in this nihilist state for a long time, the danger will be that they will decide that the present status quo- of facing suffering inflicted by a corrupt political administration and need to get used to a lower quality of life and desperation are facts of life and thereby pass up opportunities to fight the evil and unjust political system which created this mayhem in the first place. The loss of control in any situation can lead to this state. The people will thus at best settle down to idiomatically ‘save the babies floating in the downstream instead of going upstream to discover how the babies are getting into the river in the first place’. Sri Lankans can no longer be political bystanders anymore, given the developing scenario of gloom and doom.
A growing recognition emerges that we Sri Lankans don’t have the stomach or the backbone to do the things we have to do to win this fight- to chase out a stubborn despot/ misfit elected due to our own stupidity and to tackle the multitude of crises he has created. Our fingers have been burned. Our international image has taken a terrible beating. As it stands, we don’t’ seem to look and like what we see in the mirror. While the self-bloated ruling politicians of the Diyawanna Oya have gone into hiding from public view , thousands if not more are joining the passport queues to take their first flight out of the country which they loved and lived in. As the crisis after crisis hit this Island nation, and many are the hitting the streets to protest and wage the struggle calling for social justice and political accountability, as a nation however, people are still wanting to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the crises will fade away when the next fuel bowser arrives and that some other nation will salvage their country. This is merely an illusion. If there is no collective nationwide commitment to the struggle (Aragalaya) to change this toxic system of governance and if everybody feels that somebody will do it for them, it will end up with nobody doing what everybody as a collective could have done.
Seldom that the people realise that corrupt Robber Baron Rajapaksas in particular and the ruling parties in general whom they have been electing democratically since Independence have been ‘actively plotting and planning their destruction’ in a sense by sucking and siphoning out the nation’s wealth and also their future over the years. People have thus paid a terrible price for connivance with and climbing into the gutter with these political opportunists and taking the nation into an oblivion and wilderness, naively believing and trusting laughable and unenforceable election promises and manifestos. However, having realised their folly, as a collective, people can do things to change the status quo and make qualitative and decisive changes in the political system. ‘Not losing hope and having self confidence’ is the starting point.
Having hope,” writes Daniel Goleman in his study of emotional intelligence, “means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges or setbacks.” Hope is “more than the sunny view that everything will turn out all right”; it is “believing you have the will and the way to accomplish your goals”. Defeatist thoughts are the mother of inaction. A defeatist spirit must inevitably lead to disaster”. One of the greatest fears people is the fear of failure, imagining all possible scenario why what you do will not work based on all past experiences with party politics, thereby going in a state of analysis paralysis. The best way forward will be to overcome this defeatist attitude and actually take a leap of faith, take that first step, and put themselves in a situation where there is no turning back. Many examples abound worldwide. What happened in Guatemala in 2015 closely resembles the Aragalaya which is unveiling now in Sri Lanka! Their campaign hashtag #RenunciaYa (Resign Now) corresponds with ours; ‘#GohomeGota’.
The political leaders of Guatemala and even Honduras have become targets of a broader frustration fed by the conviction that there is little to stop well-connected business groups and politicians from conspiring to skim off their states’ scant resources. As a Honduran journalist, said: “The government wasn’t listening to the clamour of the street. People want resounding answers. They don’t want half-answers. The peak of tolerance for corruption has reached its limit. Citizens are just fed up”(sounds familiar!).
But this was Guatemala, where 200,000 people had died in a civil war that ended in 1996 — most killed by the military. Citizens didn’t have a culture of protest. Students at San Carlos University, the largest public university in the country, were known for marching in balaclavas to hide their faces. As a protester later put it, “The biggest obstacle was fear.” The parents of many of the organizers warned them not to get involved. They grew up in the ’80s in Guatemala, when going out to protest meant death. That the first gathering passed peacefully helped inspire people to join subsequent protests, and they became a Saturday ritual in the plaza outside the presidential palace. There were also work stoppages and torch-light processions, but protesters adhered to nonviolent tactics. They didn’t break windows or burn cars; they offered flowers and pizza to police. Being peaceful was its own form of protest. On the signs the protesters carried, one message stood out: “They messed with the wrong generation.”( any semblance to Galle Face?)
With a mammoth sky-blue and white Guatemalan flag looking down on the scene, thousands of citizens flocked to the central square of their capital, Guatemala City, in April 2015. A striking mix of people—indigenous villagers, their skin like worn leather, urban youth wearing glasses and goatees, retired office workers, beribboned young girls—braved the memory of massacres to voice a common demand. Most are from the young, middle-class, smartphone generation, and they organized the leaderless demonstrations through social media. But there are also priests standing shoulder-to-shoulder with businessmen, and students alongside homemakers, in what Guatemala analysts call an unprecedented mass mobilization cutting across socio-economic, political, even class lines. Amid demonstrable evidence that their president and vice president were entangled with organized crime in a vast corruption scheme, protesters required nothing less than their resignations. Mass protest movements by millions of Guatemalan miners, Doctors, Workers, Students and Teachers continued throughout 2015-2016, even after the resignation of the government.
Guatemala never had protests as massive as the ones seen in 2015, driven by a new generation that through social media took to the streets, and that ignited and inspired others to join in.” #RenunciaYa kicked off three straight days of non-stop nonviolent action on 25 August. Protesters marched on the capital, shut down major highways going into Guatemala City, staged protests, and gave speeches, all in an attempt to force President Molina’s resignation. Protesters waved the Guatemalan flag and dressed in blue and white, the national colours. On the final day of mass protests, 27 August, many universities shut down so that students could fully participate. Many businesses, including fast food chains, followed suit. People who could not participate uploaded pictures to Facebook and Twitter that showed them holding pieces of paper that had slogans such as #YoEstoyPorGuate (“I am for Guatemala”) and #YoNoTengoPresidente (“I don’t have a president”). These slogans were used frequently throughout the campaign.
The day their President Pérez Molina resigned, protesters waved flags in exultation. On 2 September, when it became clear that the Guatemalan Congress would strip Molina of his prosecutorial immunity, President Otto Perez Molina resigned. The people in this Central American republic witnessed the resignation of their President, only to see him appear in court facing corruption charges before being taken into custody Later in the day, the police arrested him on charges of multi-million dollar fraud. What happened in Guatemala gave their people a new spirit of citizenship. One of the organisers said, A hope that if we unite, we can do things. It was a great victory for the people.”. As university don later said, “The consciousness of citizen power has expanded,” describing how three generations of families turned out to march. If people do not demand change, he said, “the politicians will never do it, nor will the economic elites.” #RenunciaYa (Resign Now) continued to serve as a forum for protests against governmental corruption and injustice in Guatemala. Lesson drawn was a change began as society won’t keep silent, in the face of a new generation that grew up without the fear their parents had and were eager to raise their voices, thus triggering change. It can be argued that another outcome of the Guatemalan protests was the emergence of an accountability culture, in which we are seeing citizens being much more aware of what the new government is doing, and of the laws being passed in their Congress. In Guatemala, people as a collective came out and results were magical.
Cross-class mobilization in developing countries can be a powerful force for precipitating political change. Guatemala has made notable gains in the fight against corruption and impunity in the last decade. What was different from Sri Lankan scenario was the involvement of a United Nations panel in this case. Central to these efforts is the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG), an independent body with investigative and prosecutorial powers set up by the United Nations and Guatemala. Lessons From Guatemala’s Commission Against Impunity | Council on Foreign Relations. Guatemala’s progress has led many to conclude that CICIG can serve as a role model for other poor countries seeking to strengthen local judicial institutions and combat crime and impunity. But for all its accomplishments, CICIG has not spurred widespread or lasting rule of law in Guatemala. However, the CICIG experience provides lessons for policymakers in major Western donor nations and also UN as they contemplate creating similar structures to fight corruption in aid recipient countries like Sri Lanka. Their effectiveness will require continuous commitment and a strategic approach that prioritizes the long-term development of home-grown capacity. SL ‘# Gota Go’ campaign also needs a national wide mass level push along the lines of Guatemala’s ‘#RenunciaYa’ for the former military man to heed the public call and vacant office.
What happened in Guatemala can offer apt lessons to Sri Lanka. Guatemalan story of struggle can be lesson to Sri Lanka about fighting corruption being a worthy cause, and it can be done in accordance with the rule of law. They reflected new processes of social participation and activism, characterised by the absence of defined centres of deliberation and coordination, and by transitory leadership. This activism is part of a wider global wave of social protests that began with the Arab Spring in 2011, with which it shares common features such as the generational factor, the role of social media and networks and the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), the gap between institutional politics and the citizenry, and the weakening of the convening and mobilisation power of classic social movements. The culture of impunity underwent change in that country and impunity is no longer accepted as the ordinary situation; the public demands change. In fact, mass participation in protests seems to demonstrate that a new active citizenship is emerging—more attentive to and more keen to scrutinise politics, eager to participate in public issues affecting individual citizens’ quality of life. In this sense, these new movements, especially mass mobilisations, are an expression of a mature democratic culture, where citizens are outraged and fight for rights that are no longer questionable.
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