protest“…all parties that have hitherto shared in government must share in some measure the responsibility for these despicable tendencies. ”

“We have seen men enjoying positions of responsibility conniving with hoodlums and rowdies … The law, to be respected, must be enforced without fear or favour. There are people, probably, who fancy that they have the wit to flirt with thugs and thuggery, take what they want out of them…and then maintain a firm hand over them. To be so deluded is to ignore the lessons of history .”

The right to peaceful protest is only one of many current concerns of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). Human rights issues requiring attention  arise from many events that took place in 2009 and the first few weeks of the present year.  These include the armed conflict and its aftermath, the plight of the IDPs, killings, attacks on, abductions and arrests of journalists including Vidyadaran of Sudar Oli (February 2009), Poddala Jayantha (June 2009) and Chandana Sirimalwatte of Lanka (January 2010), the killing and disappearances of lawyers and journalists including Lasantha Wickremasinghe (January 2009), and Prageeth Ekneligoda (January 2010), the Tissanayagam case, and the presidential election. There are also issues relating to military law, and to the continued use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency powers.  Vital among all this are the needs of the war victims of all communities and their families, of the war-torn civilian population of the North and East, and the building of a just and equitable post-conflict society. That the present statement is limited to the right to peaceful protest and counter protest by no means indicates a lack of consciousness of the many other issues. It is because of its immediacy in what CRM sees as an alarming slide towards further curtailment of democratic norms, particularly in view of the imminent general election, and because it has such a compelling significance for the long-term as well.

In 1956 Tamil political leaders engaged in a peaceful Satyagraha on Galle Face Green, and were attacked by thugs while the police looked on. A retired senior police officer has described how Tamils were taken out of buses and ducked in the Beira Lake while many young MPs watched from the steps of the Parliament building (now the Presidential Secretariat) and found it amusing; “Seeing the Parliamentarians enjoying themselves in this manner no junior police officer dared to order his men to arrest the ringleaders of this violent mob… ”. In 1972 forty two Tamil youth protesting against the 1972 Constitution were arrested and detained for over a year (some for over two years) before being released without charge. In the late 1970s and 1980s there were a series of attacks on peaceful picketers, demonstrators and others  which CRM has identified as a contributory cause to the terrible events of  July 1983 when armed mobs roamed the streets killing Sri Lankans and destroying their property for no other reason than that they belonged to the Tamil community  . This sad recital can be continued to more recent times, but let us skip them and come to the present day.

On 11 February protests took place at the arrest two days previously by military police, by resort to the Army Act, of the defeated Joint Opposition candidate at the Presidential election, a recently retired General. Demonstrators were physically attacked by government supporters who to all appearances were well prepared with sticks and large stones. Several persons including policemen were reportedly injured, and the police used teargas. The version carried in the government-controlled Daily News that the demonstrators were targeting the Supreme Court and therefore had to be dispersed is hard to credit since the procession towards the Courts complex was connected with the presentation of a petition to the Supreme Court by the wife of the detained General challenging his arrest.

CRM has always recognised the right not only of peaceful protest but also of peaceful counter protest.  When the counter demonstrators are government supporters there is a special responsibility on the government, and on law enforcement officers, to act strictly impartially, and to see that opposition demonstrators are given protection and are not attacked by the others. “For government supporters feel they can flout the law with impunity, and indeed some leaders may encourage them to do so. Similarly there are always some police officers who are reluctant to be firm with persons whom they believe to enjoy political patronage”. (CRM The 5th June Protest and Counter Protest, July 1980).

The tolerance of opposing views, not merely by governments and politicians, but by all the diverse elements that make up our society including each and every individual, is vital for us all. As the late Justice Mark Fernando said, “… stifling the peaceful expression of legitimate dissent today can only result, inexorably, in the catastrophic explosion of violence some other day”. We have seen this happen in our past; let us even at this stage try to secure a future where justice and dignity prevail.
Suriya Wickremasinghe

/ English

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