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Bearers of the brunt of protests 

18 Apr 2022

  • Street police reveal the unique challenges they face in managing the ongoing demonstrations
BY Sumudu Chamara “We spend hours in queues when we are off duty, and in front of protestors, when we are on duty,” said a police officer who had been deployed to manage the ongoing protests, adding that despite facing situations similar to those faced by the protestors as far as economy is concerned, he cannot express his frustration in the same way that the protestors do.  Despite the common perception that the law enforcement authorities are looking to curtail protests, the above mentioned situation is common among many police officers, according to officers who were performing similar duties at protest sites during the past few weeks, many of whom lamented the stressful work environments and living conditions, and the inability to express their opinions freely. These sentiments were expressed by several police officers while speaking with The Morning A shared struggle  Police officers acknowledge that the ongoing protests are a struggle by everyone, including law enforcement officers, even though they cannot actively participate in the protests.  Kamal (name changed on request), a police officer, emphasised that many police officers silently support the ongoing protests. However, they have had to prioritise their duties, as it is their profession. “Most people, especially protestors, think that we are their enemies and are a heartless community. They think of us as lackeys of the Government and bigshots, and that we do not support the struggles of the common man. I cannot speak for police officers I do not know, but 90% of the officers personally known to me support the ongoing protests and the people’s demands.” He further said that the fact of police officers being supportive of the ongoing protests should not be surprising, because of the simple reason that they too are people who go through what most of the general public go through every day. He explained: “When we go home after work, we also wonder how to make ends meet. We also have to argue with our wives about making sure that our children have everything that they need. Even though people think that police officers get all the essentials they need through the back door, that is not true. There may be high-ranking police officers who are entitled to such benefits, but it is not applicable to a majority of the police force, and therefore, we also want some kind of relief.” According to Kamal, however, expressing support for protests is extremely challenging for them, despite having a genuine need. The reason is the nature of their profession.  “Protecting the law is not an easy task. Our hands are tied, and even a minor act by us in favour of the protests can attract considerable consequences. Therefore, we will always have to stand on this side of the barricade and control the masses,” he said. Protecting both sides of the barricades  We also learnt that protecting barricades is not an easy task for officers, as it requires not only physical fitness, but also great patience, according to Saman (name changed on request), a police officer who has been on duty at Police barricades during the past few weeks. He said that handling aggressive masses is a far more difficult job than catching criminals.  “These are normal people, and their demands are driven by everyday issues that affect their families. Even though there is some political influence on some elements of these protests, for the most part, these are people-led protests. “Therefore, although we deal with them in the capacity of law enforcement authorities, as human beings, most of us are empathetic towards their struggle. That is why managing these protests is a difficult task. We have to manage them as humanely as possible, while also upholding the law and following the orders that we receive.  “Sometimes, protestors tend to be somewhat aggressive, both physically and verbally, and that is when we have to decide on how we deal with them, or the situation that they create. We have to act patiently, and according to the instructions we have received. Although some say that the Police easily tend to resort to violence, that is not true. We use force only if the situation is or is becoming uncontrollable.”  He added that police officers work in stressful environments when it comes to duties at protest sites and that they have had to exercise great patience despite the stress.  “What most people do not understand is that we are also human beings, and that dealing with protests is not something that brings us joy. Some of us work nearly 12 hours a day, while some of us do not have time or an opportunity to relax after work. We do not have time to think about our physical and mental wellbeing.  “As a matter of fact, some of us have not seen our families for months despite the difficult situations that they are going through. As protestors, we also spend a lot of time in the searing sun, on the road, with no proper rest or peace of mind. protestors can do or say anything that they wish, but we do not have the same freedom.  “We have to be patient and careful when dealing with protestors, and despite the intensity of the situation, we have to make sure that our actions do not result in anything that harms people or properties, and that the protestors do not do the same.” When asked for his opinion about the instances where the Police used excessive powers during the protest near the President’s private residence in the Mirihana area recently, Saman said that even though he cannot speak for other police officers, tense situations may require immediate action with no adequate time to take all the relevant factors into consideration, and therefore, sometimes, confronting protestors may not be as peaceful as it should. “This is not just a matter of protestors. We have to protect the law and order, properties, and the general public, including those who do not take part in protests. Therefore, I do not think that it is acceptable to limit this discussion to how the Police deal with the protestors,” he opined. Everyone’s rights Meanwhile Samarasekara (name changed on request), another police officer who had been deployed to manage protests, pointed out the gravity of the police officers’ duties, adding that if the law enforcement authorities did not perform their duties, the protests would have already escalated into an uncontrollable riot. “The people are angry, and we understand that. However, Sri Lanka is a democratic country, and we have to be considerate about every citizen’s right to live in a peaceful country. Unlawful or disruptive acts have to be curtailed, while also upholding the people’s democratic and constitutional right to engage in peaceful protests.  “This is where the law enforcement authorities have to perform their duties. Our duty in this context is to protect the rights of protestors while also making sure that those who do not engage in protests are not affected by the protests,” he explained. To achieve this, he said, the people or the protestors’ contribution is of utmost importance, adding that ensuring that the protests are lawful and meaningful will ensure advantageous results. Some do not have the same freedoms or opportunities to express their concerns about the prevailing situation owing to various restrictions, and the law enforcement officers are such a group. While many protestors were seen trying to encourage the Police and the Security Forces personnel on duty to join the protests, their situation is not an easy one to manage. Doing so may require them to risk their livelihood and profession, according to the police officers who spoke with us. At the same time, protestors too have the ability to make their lives easier, by engaging in peaceful and lawful protests and by co-operating with the law enforcement authorities whenever possible.

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