Crackdown on protests: What the Dickens is happening?

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Condemning the crackdown on protesters at the Galle Face Green, demonstrators hold placards during a protest near Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on Monday. – AFP

Sri Lanka’s people-power movement is in tatters with the new government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe launching a crackdown on the protest movement’s frontline activists in what was seen as a move to intimidate protesters or warn them that they will be severely dealt with if they violate the law. 

Usually, those who propel revolutions to victory are deemed heroes and not hauled before courts on charges of violating the laws.  But Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya is not a revolution. As the term itself suggests, it is a struggle — something similar to what nine-year-old Oliver Twist and other boys went through at the parish workhouse where the food given to them was hardly enough. They were issued three meals of gruel – a thin liquid food of oatmeal — a day with an onion twice a week and a half roll on Sundays. One day, they decided to protest. 

“The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’”
Striking indeed is the parallel between present-day Sri Lanka and the settings in Charles Dicken’s novel that captures horrible social degradation in crime-and-poverty-ridden 19th century London. 

Taken aback by Oliver’s courage to demand more food, the master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.  A similar scene was enacted in Sri Lanka on Friday pre-dawn at the Galle Face Green protest site, when the president, siding more with the political class than with the suffering masses, aimed a heavy blow at the protesters, within 24 hours of being elected to office by Parliament. That he was hoisted to the highest office largely because of the Aragalaya or the protest movement was apparently lost on him, critics say.

Dickens describes the master as a fat and healthy man. In a way, he is like our government leaders who have not tasted the pain of starvation, the torment of waiting for days in queues to get some fuel, or the agony of patients who cannot get treatment in state hospitals plunged into darkness without fuel for their generators. 
The angry people ask: why can’t the president, the prime minister, and the energy minister join us in the queue for fuel? Even during the best of peace times, we have not seen our present-day governmental leaders travelling in public transport or going to the nearby market, grocery, or supermarket to buy their daily needs. They are incapable of understanding the suffering we the people go through.

We suffer largely because the leaders to whom we entrusted the task to look after us turned out to be utter failures who could not read early warnings and take necessary action to avert the economic catastrophe.  Yesterday, Bangladesh sought IMF assistance in an early reaction to an alarming drop in its foreign reserves. 
In a desperate reaction to the economic crisis which the government had precipitated, the suffering masses wanted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go. They did not carry out their protest to see one set of corrupt and inept politicians being replaced by another set of politicians made of the same substance and subscribing to the same tyrannical policies.

When the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who many believed did recognize the people’s democratic right to protest, ordered a crackdown on protesters at the Galle Face Green, the suffering people, or at least many of them, felt it was an attack on them. 
Although the Aragalaya movement is composed of myriad groups of different political thoughts and elements linked to radical socialist parties dominate its agenda, the suffering people in large numbers gathered at the protest site, uniting in purpose, choosing hope over fear.

It is unfair to dismiss people-power movement participants as fascists, troublemakers, and drug addicts just because some factions overstepped the limits. The protest movement’s core consisted of peace-loving people. Even the radical elements who joined the protest movement and later hijacked it sustained the peaceful nature of the protest.  They became aggressive, only after the government-backed thugs unleashed their violence on peaceful protesters on May 9. 

In last week’s column, I argued that the new president should be given time to prove himself, for he was probably the most qualified among the present parliamentarians to guide the country out of the economic misery. But instead of dialogue and people-friendly moves, he chose a hardline approach and ordered a predawn attack last Friday to remove the protesters from the Presidential Secretariat premises, when the protesters themselves the previous day had resolved to vacate it.

The crackdown only drew condemnation from the international community, especially the West which has thrown its weight behind the people-power movement and is waiting for the formation of a stable government to provide some economic assistance through the International Monetary Fund or bilateral agreements.
We agree that the government, in accordance with the country’s laws, has the right to deal with mob rule. But, as the London-based human rights group Amnesty International has pointed out, most governments abuse this right and misuse laws to suppress democratic dissent and the right to protest.

Days before last Friday’s police action against Galle Face Green protesters, in a statement to mark a new campaign titled ‘Protect the Protest’, AI said protesters across the globe were facing a potent mix of pushbacks, with a growing number of laws and other measures to restrict the right to protest; the misuse of force, the expansion of unlawful mass and targeted surveillance; internet shutdowns and online censorship; and abuse and stigmatisation. 

Stating that governments are also increasingly using emergency powers as a pretext to clamp down on dissent, AI notes, “Governments are justifying restrictions by arguing that protest constitutes a threat to public order and by stigmatising protesters, branding them “troublemakers”, “rioters”, or even “terrorists”. By casting protesters in this light, authorities have justified zero-tolerance approaches: introducing and misusing vague and draconian security laws, deploying heavy-handed policing, and taking pre-emptive deterrent measures.”  Sri Lanka’s new president would do well to take a fresh look at AI’s full statement posted on its website. 

Sri Lanka’s constitution insists that sovereignty lies in the people and is inalienable. The government should be of the people, by the people and for the people. If it veers from this hallowed concept that defines democracy, then a reset is necessary through a people-power shake-up, call it Aragalaya or revolution. 
In Sri Lanka, people enjoy the right to protest or express dissent. This is a constitutional guarantee the Supreme Court has upheld. Any attempt to oppress the right to protest through crackdowns, intimidation, or by declaring a state of emergency is a serious erosion of democracy. 

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