By Jehan Perera –
The mass protest in Colombo by a large collective of trade unions, student movements, opposition political parties and social activists failed to make an impact. The government had made its own preparations which were more cohesive than those of the protesting groups. They were met with a mobilization of police forces who blocked their way. The police declared early that the protests on public roads would not be permitted. Following the advent of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the government has been interpreting the law narrowly and ordering the police to restrict the scope of protests to places that do not block the roads, inconvenience the general public and will be little noticed.
The situation in the arena of public protests has changed significantly from what it was six months ago. At that time the campaign to oust the government reached its peak with the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Not just the roads, it seemed the entire country got shut down to join the protests. This was also a time when one of the main slogans of the protest movement was to bring to book those who had impoverished the country through their corruption and misrule. When there were rumours that some of the government leaders had withdrawn to a naval base there was concern that fishermen, outraged by the lack of diesel for their boats, would blockade the naval base and even seek to enter it.
By way of contrast, the political parties and trade union leaders who took part in the protests last week were much more circumspect and did not wish to confront the security forces. They gave up the protest at the point the police had put their barricades to prevent forward movement on the road. They were hooted by the students and radical political activists at the protest who wanted the mainstream leaders to be with them when they toppled the barricades and stormed forward. In not forcing a confrontation that would have led to violence the mainstream political leaders preserved the peace. But they failed to uphold the democratic right of people to protest against injustice that has impoverished the masses of people.
Those who uphold human rights as their first priority have been extremely critical of the government’s refusal to permit public protests and its harassment of protestors by means of arrests and detentions. Prior to the protest, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka reiterated that the police should not use the provisions of the Police Ordinance to violate the fundamental rights declared and recognized by the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The HRCSL made this statement in response to a letter submitted to it by trade unions and mass organizations, informing the commission that the Police had notified them to obtain permission for the peaceful protest. The HRCSL highlighted that peaceful protests were permitted according to Section 77 of the Police Ordinance. It warned the Police that the Constitution of Sri Lanka was the supreme law of the country, adding that violating fundamental rights would result in serious consequences.
On the other hand, six major business chambers in Sri Lanka issued a joint statement calling for the halting of the protests that they say could undermine efforts taken to stabilize the economy. The chambers added that negative publicity could seriously derail action that are being taken to revive the economy, particularly the efforts taken to revive tourism. The statement by Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC), Chamber of Young Lanka Entrepreneurs (COYLE), Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka (FCCISL), International Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka (ICCSL),
National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka (NCE) and Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC) stated that ‘Any act of destabilization taking place at this time and any negative publicity arising from it would seriously derail actions that are being taken to revive the economy including the efforts being taken to promote tourism.’
For the time being the government appears to be winning the public propaganda battle with its narrative that political stability is the need of the hour. The need to give priority to economic revival is an indisputable truth in a context where previous governmental actions such as cutting taxes, banning the use of inorganic fertilizers and turning a blind eye to large scale corruption has caused inflation to rise to over 70 percent overall and 100 percent in the case of foodstuffs. The statement of the six chambers of commerce makes the need for political stability a truism in the current context. The rich and poor alike need the economy to revive for which political stability is important. But more than political stability is needed, as can be seen with the foot dragging by the IMF suggesting that all is not what it seems.
There is an alternative discourse that has been silenced at the present time which may explain better the present malaise. During the height of the Aragalaya, there was a demand for accountability. The young protestors said that those who had bankrupted the national economy needed to be punished and their stolen assets seized and returned to the national treasury. But with the suppression of the public protests and the arrest of protest leaders, these issues are not being given prominence either by the political parties or by the business chambers perhaps in recognition of the need to live with corruption. They have been picked up by a handful of conscientious civic organisations and individuals who have canvassed these issues in court, where the Supreme Court has given them leave to proceed with the case and, indeed, ordered government departments to provide reports and answers to questions.
The government’s success in restoring the outward appearance of normalcy by suppressing the protest movement and in ridding the roads of long lines of vehicles in front of empty gas stations, conceals the economic difficulties faced by the masses of people. Meetings with community leaders in Anuradhapura and Kurunegala just after the mass protest had fizzled out made it clear that the appearance of normalcy is deceptive. In both of those areas, which used to be strongholds of the ruling party, there is a sense of total estrangement from the government. The statements that people made regarding the economic hardships they face do not bode well for the government notwithstanding the goodwill and understanding of the business chambers.
Community leaders representing farmers said they were receiving only about a third of the fertilizer they needed for their fields. They did calculations that showed with the price increases of inputs, it was going to be difficult for them to break even. Preschool teachers spoke of children fainting at Sunday school in the morning as they had not eaten in the morning. The biscuits they might have eaten were now unaffordable with biscuit companies increasing their prices three fold or more. These problems may not be visible or noisy or disruptive as the public protests, but they will ensure that the government has little or no support at the grassroots level.
Peaceful protest engaged in by the mainstream opposition parties is a fundamental part of democracy. The first phase of the Aragalaya is a clear example of this strategy. It brought people together and was a way for ordinary people to be heard. It captured the imagination of the people in Sri Lanka and internationally. On the other hand, suppression of issues eventually has led to eruption later in many cases, and this is unlikely to be an exception. Addressing them and preventing the build up of emotions and tensions would be a better way for the sustainability and stability for the country. Unless the legitimate demands of the protestors are met, the government risks being propped up by the security forces using the law unevenly.