Stifle today and suffer tomorrow

During the past six months, Sri Lanka saw a lot of unrest and violence, with various forms of violence becoming a common sight in the lives of many, especially those who actively engaged in the “aragalaya” (struggle) movement. In this context, as some sociologists have opined, the tendency to be violent or aggressive has become more prevalent in Sri Lankan society, and is a part of what we call the “social crisis” triggered by the economic crisis.  

The International Day of Non-Violence was observed yesterday (2), in commemoration of the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated for a culture of non-violence. The United Nations (UN) stated that that was a day to “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness”.

In Sri Lanka, there was violence throughout the “aragalaya” movement – unleashed mainly by the law enforcement and defence forces. While those engaged in the movement were the primary victims of these events, violence surrounding the “aragalaya” reached a crescendo on 9 May and in the following few days. Law enforcement and defence forces, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) supporters who attacked peaceful protestors, a segment of not-so-peaceful protestors, and also certain external groups that are said to have participated in these activities unleashed violence in an unprecedented manner. These events even claimed lives and resulted in serious damages to properties.

There are various claims as to who should be held accountable for the 9 May attacks, while the former and current governments and Presidents as well as the law enforcement and defence forces under those administrations are blamed for the disproportionate violence that was unleashed to handle protests. Nevertheless, one fact the entire country can agree on, regardless of these arguments, is that during the past few months, an unnecessary and unjustifiable level of violence became prevalent and was normalised.

However, the Government seems to be determined to continue the stringent approach it employed in the future too. The declaration of a number of high security zones in Colombo, which was later rescinded, and the use of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA) to deal with protestors are proof of the Government’s intentions to suppress. Adding to this is the fact that many of those representing the Government have expressed a need to “control” protestors through “any means necessary” – with the exception of peaceful discussions. 

In this context, violence is likely to be prevalent in the future as well, as it was in the past few months, given the fact that “aragalaya” activists are determined to continue their endeavours.

It is crucial to identify this increased violence, which has triggered a certain instability and uncertainty and tensions in society, as a social problem, not just a fundamental rights/human rights issue. The use of the PTA to deal with protestors who merely wanted better living conditions and a better political culture has been interpreted by local human rights activists as a sign that the Government is concerned about getting rid of protests instead of addressing the root cause that led to the protests. 

In a context where the Government as well as the law enforcement and defence forces have lost the trust the public had in them and where most economic and political issues that led to the “aragalaya” movement remain unresolved, the possibility of the people taking a stance against the authorities, which the Government may easily interpret as “taking the law into their own hands” cannot be completely ruled out. The frustration the people are going through is likely to erupt in a backlash at some moment, and it is the authorities’ duty to prevent this by taking democratic action, without resorting to the mere suppression of people’s right to dissent.

Failure to do so would prove what the famous 1993 Supreme Court “Jana Gosha” case judgement noted: “Stifling the peaceful expression of legitimate dissent today can only result, inexorably, in the catastrophic explosion of violence in some other day.”