Standing against State Repression

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Activists from the North and East against state repression

  • While there have been numerous attempts to repress the protest and  silence dissenters since the beginning, many opine that state repression has intensified following Wickremesinghe coming into power
  • Protestors also called for the current interim government to bring in  constitutional amendments similar to the 19A, that were requested by the  people and to repeal the 20A

 

Many including human rights defenders have heavily criticized the Parliament for approving the extension of the State of Emergency which was declared by President Ranil Wickremesinghe on 18 July. The extension was approved by a majority of 57 votes with 120 votes in favour and 62 votes against. This criticism comes after the increased repressive measures by the state against protestors including the forcible takeover of the Presidential Secretariat and the subsequent attack on protestors, lawyers and journalists in the vicinity on 22 July, which occurred hours after protestors informed they would hand over the Secretariat premises.   

While there have been numerous attempts to repress the protest and silence dissenters since the beginning, many opine that state repression has intensified following Wickremesinghe coming into power. The declaration of State of Emergency, arrest warrants and travel bans being issued to protestors, protestors detained with their whereabouts unknown for hours as in the arrest of Veranga Pushpika are actions that have occurred after Wickremesinghe’s presidency. These actions have been subjected to international condemnation including the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Amnesty International’s South Asia Regional Researcher, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana stated that the emergency regulations can have a chilling effect on society. “The emergency regulations give sweeping powers to the police and the armed forces to search and make arrests of  ‘suspects’ without due process safeguards. It levies hefty penalties including life imprisonment for ordinary penal offences like causing ‘mischief’. Detainees can be kept in custody for up to seventy-two hours without being produced before a Magistrate and guaranteed access to lawyers. This prolonged period of custody without timely judicial oversight or the ability to challenge their detention heightens the risk for detainees to be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment,” said Ruwanpathirana, adding that the emergency regulations brought in the name of public security should not become a pretext for human rights violations. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called for the immediate revoking of the emergency regulations. In a press release, the ICJ stated that the emergency regulations are at odds with Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights law.   

Protest by CSOs

In such a backdrop, civil society organizations gathered at Gotagogama on Friday (29) to call out against state repression against the protests. “This protest is to show that the civil society organizations (CSOs) are against all the attacks against ‘Aragalaya’. As CSOs, we’ve been part of many ‘aragalayas’ before, particularly in the North and East and we recognize that protests are important for people to talk to their leaders. Protests are important for people to state what they think, and it is also a constitutional right under assembly and freedom of expression.

These rights must be respected and upheld,” informed Shreen Saroor, a human rights activist. She shared that the ‘Aragalaya’ was a space where people were able to come and share their opinions about the country’s governance system and show their resistance towards the government, and repressing it is a violation of constitutional rights.   
Protestors at the site also echoed similar sentiments and some shared that the government was using various tricks and methods to silence dissent. “The government is trying to divide the ‘aragalaya’ using various means including state intimidation. Which is why we are here, to stand in solidarity with the peaceful protestors who have spent months protesting to safeguard our rights and ensure Sri Lanka has a better future. We cannot afford to get divided at this critical juncture of the ‘aragalaya’ because then we would be back again at the same starting point, with leaders who do not care about the country’s betterment,” stated A.L Rathnayake, a member of the Families of the Disappeared.   

The protest which started off at GGG proceeded to the barricades near the Port City entrance. The police initially believed the protestors would walk beyond the barricades towards the Secretariat. Therefore, the protestors were asked to return to Gotagogama. After a brief interaction with the protestors who stated that they did not plan to go beyond the barricades or block the main road, the protestors were allowed to stay on the pavement and carry out a silent demonstration. It was at that instance that Brito Fernando, a human rights activist and Chair of the Families of the Disappeared, shared that the protestors respected the law and the uniform of the police but that it was Sri Lankan politicians and politics that brought disrepute to the police uniform. “We respect the law and we know our rights. We have engaged in the ‘aragalaya’ to ensure a better governance system. We want the law to be applied equally to all- be it us or a politician and his family,” he said.   

“We respected the Parliament decision,”

Wickremesinghe, the former six-time Premier, polled in the highest number of preferential votes in Colombo district (500,566) in the 2015 General Elections. However, in 2020, his party (UNP) was able to poll only 30,875 votes in the same district. Thus, UNP was able to only garner one National List seat in the 2020 elections, through which Wickremesinghe entered Parliament. Due to this, many opine that Wickremesinghe did not have the public mandate to be the President. “Because the Parliament had to appoint the President according to the constitution, we respected the Parliament’s decision even though we didn’t agree with it. But in less than a day after his official appointment, the attacks on protestors happened on 22 July. Following that, we see that the law is being misused for political reasons. So, we will continue the struggle to ensure rights are safeguarded and the crisis is resolved,” shared Christopher, one of the protestors at Gotagogama. 

 
Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, the first Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest and a women’s rights activist, noted that the country’s economic crisis can only be resolved once the political crisis is resolved. To resolve the political crisis, she believed that the executive presidency must be abolished, and General Elections should be held soon. “For years, there have been calls for the abolishment of executive presidency. Everyone can now see how these excessive powers are being misused. Therefore, it definitely must be abolished. Also, at the moment in the composition of the parliament, there is a false majority of SLPP. Their leader fled the country, their PM resigned. So, it is clear that the majority in the Parliament now do not reflect the mandate of the people nor does it reflect the voices and concerns of the people. Many have also said that this is a proxy government. Rajapaksas are still holding the reigns. Parliamentary elections must be held, so that credible leaders who can represent the people are voted in,” she said.  

In addition, protestors also called for the current interim government to bring in constitutional amendments similar to the 19A, that were requested by the people and to repeal the 20A.   

Protests in the North and East 

Protests were also held in Jaffna, Mannar and Batticaloa with activists from Kilinochchi, Poonagary, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Ampara also joining in. A statement released by the North East Coordinating Committee (NECC) vehemently condemned the assaults on the protestors and called upon the government to stop assaults and arrests on peaceful protesters, journalists and civil society activists. In the statement, the NECC also appealed to government to release detained protestors. The statement further went on to state that ‘rulers who had come to power by the power changes which were made by the people’s protest ‘aragalaya’ and turning against the people and suppressing their voices is “opportunism”’.   

Clarification regarding the discussion with Dhanushka Ramanayake

On Friday, a photograph of priests who participated in the CSO protest talking to Dhanushka Ramanayake, Director General of the President’s Media Division was posted on Daily Mirror’s social media stating that Ramanayake had ‘a brief, unofficial discussion with some protestors who had gathered at Galle Face today’. The priests clarified that they did not have ‘a brief, unofficial discussion with Ramanayake’. “Ramanayake passed by and said hello to us as he knew us in a personal capacity. That was all that was exchanged between us,” clarified one of the priests. Saroor too reiterated that none of the protestors present had any form of discussion with

courtesy daily mirror

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