“Stifling the peaceful expression of legitimate dissent today can only result, inexorably, in the catastrophic explosion of violence some other day.”
This is an excerpt from the Supreme Court (SC) judgement on the famous Jana Ghosha case (Amaratunga vs. Sirimal and Others), which Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President Saliya Pieris PC cited in a letter written to draw the attention of the Army Commander and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) regarding Police and military personnel unfairly disrupting peaceful protests at the Galle Fort, where a cricket match is underway between Sri Lanka and Australia.
What the SC said decades ago is still valid today. When there is no space for dissent, it will most likely lead to the intensifying of anger and frustration, with which the majority of Sri Lankans are living every day. How the prevailing situation is being handled, as far as social unrest is concerned, is the most concerning part of this discussion. On the one hand, anti-Government and anti-President protests are spreading and are intensifying as the economic and social crises continue with no sign of a proper solution. On the other hand, the Government does not seem worried, while the Police and military are resorting to even illegal and unethical practices to stop lawful protests.
It is oppression that was seen in videos circulated on social media platforms regarding the aforesaid incident. Several peaceful protestors, who expressed their opposition against the Government and the President on Galle Fort – probably with the hope that their struggle would receive more attention along with the ongoing cricket match between Australia and Sri Lanka at the Galle International Cricket Stadium – were opposed by Police and military personnel. Placards with the “GoHomeGota” slogan were snatched and torn, and protestors were asked to leave. Police and military personnel also tried to stop some protestors who held placards from entering certain parts of the Galle Fort. All these could be clearly seen in videos circulated widely on social media. In one video, a military officer can be heard saying “What freedom of expression or protest”, when one protestor mentioned his right to protest.
However, despite all video evidence to the contrary, Army Spokesman Brigadier Nilantha Premaratne has claimed that the protestors were not removed from the site, but that the protest was interrupted because the protestors were using banners that could have been a disturbance to the batsmen’s vision.
The Police, military, and even the Government denying plain facts and lying through their teeth is not new to Sri Lanka, especially during the past few months. Also, incidents of protestors being violently attacked, unlawfully arrested, obstructed, and spied on have been common sights during the past three months. However, that is not the right approach to address the prevailing and increasing public furore. At least now, the Government should stop trying to deal with protestors, instead of giving reasons that lead to protests.
What the Police and military personnel did, regardless of who issued the orders, was illegal, unethical, and immature. In an apparent attempt to stop the international community from seeing the opposition against the President, which is not at all a secret to the world, what they did was try to wash dirty linen in public, especially when it had ample time to have dirty linen washed in private. Essentially, the Government made what it tries to hide more visible, and added a black mark to the country by showing that State-backed oppression against dissent is real.
However, hiding problems, or oppressing those voicing opposition against problems, are not going to end either the economic and social crises or the protests. It will also not change how the international community sees Sri Lanka for the better. In fact, the manner in which the Government is handling protests is giving the international community more reasons to not support Sri Lanka.
If the Government does not want to see the country’s problems for what they are, the least it can do is refrain from exacerbating them.