24 September, 2023


A Demonstration Is Not A Riot

By Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

Professor Siri Hettige
National Police Commission
Block No. 9,
B.M.I.C.H. Premises,
Bauddhaloka Mawatha,
Colombo 07,
Sri Lanka

Dear Dr. Hettige,

Re: On the riot police disruption of the students demonstration on 29.10.2015

We refer to our earlier letter dated 30th October 2015, on the subject of the attack by riot police on the students of the on 29th October 2015. As it has been reported that the NPC, would hold an inquiry into this incident we wish to suggest that the following matters are relevant for such an inquiry and therefore, we would wish that the NPC would among others, inquire into the following matters.

The role of the police with regard to public demonstrations

To organise and to participate in demonstrations is a recognised right in any democracy. It is a legitimate activity, as any other such legitimate activity. The organisers and the participants of a demonstration are exercising their constitutional rights.

When citizens are exercising their constitutional rights what are the duties of the police? Like in all instances of citizens using their constitutional rights, the duty of the police is to create an enabling environment for the demonstrators to engage in their legitimate activity. Such an enabling environment can be created only if the police who attend to any duties relating to such demonstrations, behave as protectors of the constitutional rights of persons who are taking part in such demonstrations.

The role of a protector should be distinguished from the role of a predator. The police who attempt to facilitate demonstrations should be trained to act with an understanding of the role of a protector. If such officers are trained instead as predators, their entire mental outlook towards the demonstrators would be one of hostility. Many of the attacks on demonstrations in Sri Lanka in the recent years, has been a result of the lack of a proper democratic education of the police who are sent to the sites of such demonstrations. If the officers are trained about their legal obligations and on their own as the protection or guardians of people’s rights, the entire mentality of such officers behaving like predators can be avoided.

Demonstrations are a feature of life, in all democracies. While, within authoritarian states demonstrations are banned or discouraged, a democracy consider demonstrations as part of the creative participation of citizens, in public life. A democracy encourages participation and participation implies the use of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. If the police behave as destructors of demonstrations, they are in fact, disrupting the democratic life of the country. It is the duty of the State to provide adequate education to any officers who attend to such matters so that their behaviour will be conditioned by the understanding of their duties and obligations.

Therefore, there is legitimate reason for the NPC, to inquire into the kind of education that is imparted to the officers who attend to such demonstrations and particularly to inquire as to whether the legal and human rights obligations have been a part of the education of such officers. If the NPC enquires into this matter and make recommendations for better education of the police, on legal and human rights obligations of these officers, the NPC could then contribute to bringing about a change of culture within Sri Lanka – on demonstrations, as well as other forms of people’s participation in public life.

Distinguishing demonstrations from riots

Participation in a demonstration is a democratic right of all citizens. To misconstrue a demonstration as a riot is perhaps at the root of some of the bad practices of officers relating to public demonstrations in Sri Lanka.

The ordinary dictionary meaning of a ‘riot’ is as follows; riot, is a form of civil disorder commonly characterized by a group lashing out in a violent public disturbance against authority, property or people. Riots typically involve vandalism and the destruction of property, public or private. The property targeted varies depending on the riot and the inclinations of those involved. Targets can include shops, cars, restaurants, state-owned institutions, and religious buildings.

Riots often occur in reaction to a perceived grievance or out of dissent. Historically, riots have occurred due to poor working or living conditions, governmental oppression, taxation or conscription, conflicts between ethnic groups, (race riot) or religions (sectarian violence, pogrom), the outcome of a sporting event (football hooliganism) or frustration with legal channels through which to air grievances. Source: Wikipedia

Riots are rare occurrences and the actions that the State should take for controlling of riots should not be equated with the State interventions to provide protection for demonstrators.

This raises a fundamental question; as to whether riot police should be called upon at all to the scenes of public demonstrations? The very act of summoning the riot police to a public demonstration creates a tense atmosphere generating a fear among the demonstrators that they may be attacked at any time.

The equation of demonstrations with riots is often the root cause of calling for the use of water cannons and tear gas

While the use of such methods can be legitimate in the instances of riots, there is no legitimacy for the use of such methods in dealing with citizens engaging in demonstrations. The very presence of such instruments creates the impression that the participation in the demonstration itself, is some sort of a hostile activity towards the State.

Thus, the very understanding of the nature of demonstrations in a democracy becomes distorted by bringing such instruments to the scene of a peaceful public demonstration.

In the context of Sri Lanka, it is also necessary to distinguish legitimate activities such as demonstrations from insurgent activities.

Sri Lanka has gone through a long period where the State engaged in counter insurgency activities under particular circumstances. However, the situation that exists now in Sri Lanka, is different. However, it may be natural for security agencies that have been mobilised over a long period of time, on counter insurgency activities to continue to suffer from the mentalities created in such times – even during times of peace. When a transition has taken place, from such situations to a peace time, it is the duty of the State through the leaders of the security agencies to re-educate all security officers on the manner in which their conduct needs to be adjusted to peace times.

The manner in which the riot police and even other agencies like the Special Task Forces have been mobilised against demonstrators indicate that no such change of mentality has taken place within the security agencies. The NPC could play a useful role in investigating as to what measures have been taken within the Units, like the riot police, to bring about a change of mentality in order to condition them to adjust better to peacekeeping in peace times.

The attire of the riot police

The attire of the police is another matter that needs to be looked into. Was it necessary for a batch of riot police in their full gear, with their unique type of helmets, and other paraphernalia, to be mobilised to assist a group of students who were participating in a public demonstration. The photographs show, a tremendous incongruity, where unarmed students are being surrounded by a group of officers attired like ‘Gladiators’. Such gladiator like figures who are kept in isolation when let loose on crowd, think of their roles as that of fighters or attackers rather than peacemakers.

When we look into many countries today, officers who accompany demonstrations, are not clad in this manner. In the neighbouring Kerala Sate in India, the police who attend to such demonstrators are clad in their usual attire, and carry only a small cane-like stick, to be used only when orders are issued for such use, by a superior officer, when there is a situation of a disturbance. The change of attire itself was to indicate that the officers themselves belonging to civilian policing and their function is only to assist the citizens in their legitimate activities. In other jurisdictions, like in Hong Kong, the officers do not even carry any such sticks. They remain in their normal usual police attire and are being specially trained to be polite and courteous to the public. We suggest that the NPC should inquire as to whether this type of riot gear should be worn at all, when the officers are called to attend to normal peacetime, public demonstrations.

A further issue of importance is about command responsibility

Before riot squads are sent to any place, it is the duty of the Superior Officers to investigate whether a situation of a riot or a situation of a disturbance exists at all, requiring the engagement of such riot squads. Such decision must be taken by the superior officers in taking into consideration all the circumstances of the situation. Where, any request is made, for their attendance is the duty of the superior officers to assess whether there is any legitimacy for acceding to such requests. After any deployment takes place, it is also the duty of the superior officers, to supervise the manner in which the officers under their control engage in such a situation. If the officers act in a wrongful or inappropriate manner it is the duty of the superior officers to stop such a conduct. If such interventions have not been made by the superior officers, they have failed in their obligations relating to command responsibility.

A further issue of relevance is the issue of proportionality

Any action that is taken in the event of some unfortunate disturbance in a public demonstration, and any action that is done to control such a situation must be justifiable in terms of the proportionality of such an action. Any action that is disproportionate is an act of violence, on the part of officers themselves for which they should be held responsible.

Assessment of political consequences of security officers disturbing public demonstrations

Actions taken by security officers in these circumstances are perceived by the public as the actions of the Government. If, a public demonstration is attacked by the security officers, the public perception is that the Government has mobilised such officers for such actions. Thus, a Government can suffer a serious damage to its image when such actions occur. When political damage is done in that manner it is difficult to erase the impressions made by the public. Thus it will be the Government in power that will suffer most when officers engage in such actions.

The report that the police claim that their attack was provoked by the unruly behaviour of the students

It is quite likely that the officers trained in a riot squad would see slogan shouting students as being unruly. Here again, what is demonstrated is the limited mentalities that have been cultivated within the riot squads of which many officers may not have the adequate education to understand the manner in which democracies work and how people participate in public life.

We hope that the NPC, would look into all such and other relevant measures with the view to bring an end, to this kind of actions of the riot police, and also to contribute to a harmonious culture where vibrant democracy can prevail allowing all its citizens to express their grievances in a peaceful atmosphere.

Yours Sincerely,
Basil Fernando
Right Livelihood Laureate 2014
Director of Policy and Programmes

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Latest comments

  • 3

    A protest/demonstration by accountancy students demanding a similar recognition/conversion of their diplomas to degree status, had occurred in the eastern province, and had concluded peacefully.
    Not a single policeman had been present.
    Photos available on the web.

    • 2

      The gladiator attire of police is the result of:
      1. The militarization of the police during the war years.
      2. Too much funds been given to Defense sector and spent on hardware rather than education of the police and or course for the education sector. The Defense budget must be cut back and down sized and right sized for peace time educational priorities in all sectors.

      However, Colombo residents and workers were trapped in horrible traffic for hours due to this student protest and the students need to also act responsibly or they will lose public support- fast.

      IUFS is known to be the instigator of horrific RAGS in the campuses. They also need to reform and act like responsibly, rather than torturing fellow students who have a different perspective, and it is silly to protest again private universities which have a right to exist.
      The politics of envy and hatred for those slightly more privileged is what the IUFS promotes, and this must stop.

  • 2

    While I agree with some of the things the writer says, some of it makes me wonder what he is on about. None of the “gladiatorial” riot police were involved or called into question for their behaviour on that day – the controversial retaliatory tactics were displayed by ordinary constables with shields and batons. I am in no way endorsing what these officers did as correct – however, that may be by very nature of their training that is a lot less than the riot police (who I reiterate did not get involved to this extent nor are accused of one-on-one combat).

    On the flipside, we all know the media loves a good story and loves to portray the cops as the ultimate evil. While I am no fan of the police, as someone who was in the direct vicinity just after the teargas attack and witnessed the behaviour of some of these students towards the police even after they had been asked to clear the area via bullhorn, I found this behaviour quite despicable and asked myself whether this is the type of person who wants to call themselves a “Degree holder” in our society?

    This Sandeepani child is a bit of a political animal who seems to be enjoying her 15 minutes of fame as a media darling, but it does not mean that she and her compadres did the right thing by scolding policemen in filth, throwing stones, damaging public property (and it could go on).

    I do not think that any passer-by who was inconvenienced as a result of their “civil disobedience” sympathised with the protesters, and the reality is that none of us care. Their grievance is with the minister – so they should take it up directly with the minister and not inconvenience the public who just doesn’t care.

    • 1

      Do the POLICE throw the first stone and invite retaliation from demonstrators? I have yet to see it. In 33 years of TV viewing I have watched discerningly in SL,India, Middle East and also developed countries to get at the real fact.

      Almost always provocation came from the wrong side of the law.

      Exceptions were in Ceylon and later Sri Lanka where the police lay the baton unprovoked on peaceable sathyagrahis, brutally and with anti-Tamil glee. The most notorious were enacted twice in Jaffna in 1961.

    • 0

      A protest, if conducted peacefully, is a legitimate form of dissent.

      One can scold policemen (or anyone else) in the choicest mariakade, give them the finger, speak of their parentage, taunt them, make funny faces at them or whatever. But until and unless the law is broken in the form of an assault on a police officer, damage to public property etc. it is the duty of the police to facilitate the protest. And even in the event of such transgression, the minimum amount of force should be used against specific perpetrators – and not against the entire group of protesters.

      Whether one agrees with the protesters or not, or whether these are the calibre of `degree’ holders that are being produced by our institutions of higher learning, are irrelevant to the discussion.

  • 1

    Blocking of Public Roads and Thoroughfares and causing inconvenience to Public is an offence. When such demo’s turn unruly they become a riot. When will our so called educated youngsters learn to protest in a civilized manner without harming and obstructing others?

  • 1

    This question may sound silly, but is it necessary to obtain permission from the Police before you hold such a protest or demonstartion?

  • 1

    Police are their to absorb the government crap.

    This is AHRC Armchair rhetoric dished out from a swivel chair from an air conditioned high floor room in Hong Kong enjoying free $$$$ by being a mouth piece for the pay masters.

    This is called, sell ones country to enjoy your supper & seek greener pastures.

  • 1

    Basil reminds us that students and others have every right to demonstrate and that the police should act with restraint when dealing with them. He should practice what he preaches. If any member of staff at the AHRC dares to criticise Basil or his strategies their days with the commission are numbered.

    People in glass houses Basil………..

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