People’s Dilemma: Stability or Protests

M. S. M. Ayub | 28 November 2022
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Inter University Bikkhu Federation Convener Ven. Galwewa Siridhamma Thera who was detained along with Convener of the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) Wasantha Mudalige under a ninety-day detention order issued by President Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Defence Minister was released on bail by Colombo Additional Magistrate T.N.L.Mahawatta on Wednesday.

They had been arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) while the government had given an undertaking to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to replace it with another counter terrorism Act. The Thera had been detained for 89 days. Earlier, on November 17 the Additional Magistrate had ordered them to be remanded until the Attorney General’s instructions are received. They were detained till then at the Tangalle prison.

Opposition political parties including Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had questioned several times as to what terrorist act they had committed for them to be detained under the PTA for which no valid answer was given by the government leaders. At times it was amusingly said that they were detained to examine if they had committed any terrorist act while claiming at another time that the police were probing whether they had any involvement in the murder of Parliamentarian Amarakeerthi Athukorala.  

 UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia, George Laryea-Adjei after a visit to Sri Lanka said in a statement in August “Families are skipping regular meals as staple foods become unaffordable. Children are going to bed hungry, unsure of where their next meal will come from”

 Athukorala was killed by a mob on May 9 during countrywide violence after the supporters of the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked the peaceful protesters at Galle Face Green and in front of Temple Trees.

If one is to accept these justifications of detention of the student leaders, anybody could be detained under PTA to check whether he or she had committed any offence that comes under the PTA. Hence, International human rights organizations including Amnesty International had called on the government to release them. In fact, since the authorities have failed to present any valid reason for the detention of the duo, the possibility of them being acquitted by the courts is high. Yet, by the time they are released they would have languished in prisons for months. This may be the motive behind the detention of them. This is in a way intimidating other student and trade union leaders who are against the government’s various actions.

The government seems to be determined to crush any protest or demonstration after the predawn attack on peaceful protesters in Galle Face Green on July 22, the day they were to voluntarily vacate the protest sites. Several protests demanding the release of the student leaders were dispersed using force. It is the same police and the armed forces that did not take highhanded measures during the countrywide public uprising commonly known as “Aragalaya” between March and July that is cracking down on the protests now. Hence, it is clear that it is not a law and order issue but a political issue.

The core argument by the government and the supporters of it against the protests now is that they disturb the political stability which is much needed for the country’s economic recovery. They argue that protests would prevent the inflow of tourists, especially those arriving from European countries which is picking up now and expected to reach its a peak during the oncoming Winter in Europe. They have forgotten the fact that President Ranil Wickremesinghe then as Prime Minister told Sky News, though in a lighter vein that even tourists join protests.

He whose ascension to the position of Prime Minister in May was mainly attributed to the countrywide agitations against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government made a public statement that his government would provide facilities for the protest site at Galle Face Green, which had then been named by the protesters as “GotaGoGama. By the time the government has started staff-level discussions with the international Monetary Fund (IMF).

Subsequent to his assuming office as President on July 21 President Wickremesinghe told diplomats that non-violent protests against his government will be allowed to continue, including in the commercial Capital Colombo. This was announced by his office and it was carried by international media as well. Besides, the IMF started talks with the Sri Lankan government in April, amidst continuous protests at Galle Face Green, without complaining. Only time it asserted the stability was between May 9 and 12 when there was neither a Prime Minister nor a Cabinet in the country, following the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Hence, so long as the protests are peaceful and not overstepping, they do not disturb the political stability. Despite the main demand of the recent public uprising having been the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa the four-month long protests were by and large peaceful and legal, except for the occupation of the offices and official residences of the President and the Prime Minister from July 9 to 22. The despicable arson attack on the properties of government politicians and the murder of a Parliamentarian was the result of provocation by the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters who attacked the protesters.

Governments always find a ruse to prevent public protests. For over thirty years successive governments questioned the propriety and validity of protests during a war. And recently, the government politicians argued against public agitations citing safety measures specified by the Health Ministry against COVID 19 pandemic. Defence authorities prevented people in the north and the east from attending events for commemorating those who died in the war including the members of the LTTE, citing those health instructions. However, people in the country are indeed in a dilemma now over trade unions and student unions conducting agitations and participating it them. In view of the severe economic hardships they too seem to prefer to give a chance to the government to test the IMF bailout package, though they, except for a few, know nothing about what it is, how it is going to work or whether it will really bailout the country. On the other hand, many people who participated in the Aragalaya even with their children do not seem to want to face brutal oppressive measures taken by the police and the armed forces. Nevertheless, their lives are in a hell with their income plummeting while prices are unceasingly going through the roof. In June, the UN said that at least 17 percent of children in Sri Lanka are suffering from chronic wasting, a disease that carries the highest risk of death. In August, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) said that staple foods have become so unaffordable in crisis hit Sri Lanka that severe malnutrition is among the highest in the region and it is the poorest, most vulnerable girls and boys who are paying the steepest price.

These are not just facts and figures in reports; they are felt by the people in their day-to-day life. President Ranil Wickremesinghe quoting a recent study by the World Food Program (WFP) told Parliament in June as the then Prime Minister that 73 percent of households had reduced their diet and food intake. UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia, George Laryea-Adjei after a visit to Sri Lanka said in a statement in August “Families are skipping regular meals as staple foods become unaffordable. Children are going to bed hungry, unsure of where their next meal will come from.” Given the pace of the price hike the situation cannot be deemed to have taken a turn for the better now, despite the miles long fuel and gas queues having disappeared. People want to take to streets and express their pain and anger in unison and aloud so that the leaders could hear, as they did four months ago. But they fear baton charges, tear gas and water cannons on the one hand and to disturb the so-called stability on the other.  

M. S. M. Ayub, Author. 

This article was originally published on Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.