From streets of fire to strikes against freedom

Saturday, 17 July 2021 00:11 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

HANDS-ON: Conflating public health and safety with carte blanche for punitive police action – while ignoring the present plight of a host of communities in crisis – could lead to a meltdown of law and order


If you have seen it once, you’ve seen it literally dozens of times. In a climate of paranoia, one takes care not to exaggerate the incidence by assuming it’s “hundreds” of times, or even “thousands” of protestors. 

Because the reality – or not – of the issue at hand is possibly part of the question of State insecurity at citizen unrest. News is often not simply what happens; it’s also what stations and their audiences (to say nothing of the Law) make of it.

With that being said, to see and to hear is to believe. If only the powers that be would take cognisance of reality – rather than denying, suppressing or punishing it – ‘vistas of prosperity’ would be on sounder ground.


To see

On the one hand, the sight of masked protestors grimly bearing the cost of living or burden of barely existing in difficult times... they’re mostly maintaining a safe physical distance in-between them and their scores of angry fellows. The sounds of raised voices and strident slogans are interspersed in certain places with the ugly clanging of antique farming equipment working overtime as protest bells. It’s hot and humid sooner than later. They’re sweaty after hours of standing firm against shortages and shocks, and evidently feeling very sorry for themselves and utterly disenchanted with those who govern us.

On the other, there are those policemen who’re built like PC Plod but acting like Mr. Goon. As well as policewomen whose role models are evidently Boadicea routing the Roman legions or Valkyries riding into battle. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving. Male protestors may consider themselves fortunate if they’re merely kicked from behind by a hefty uniformed thug. Women are hustled away with much ignominy. An elder of the gentler sex is manhandled in the most disgraceful manner reminiscent of the arena or drawing and quartering in a far less civilised age. Venerable monks get short shrift, with torn robes to boot... all these being tokens of a none-too-virtuous law and order ethic.

Government can’t afford to – or doesn’t want to, for reasons of its own – or won’t, for now – hear or see through a glass darkly. Rather, it has chosen of late to add an element of its own violent response and hostile intervention into a quite volatile mix. So all hell breaks loose.

To do to-do

There is an old colonial law – the Quarantine and Diseases Prevention Ordination  of 1897 – which permits the subject minister to make (and revoke) “such regulations as may seem necessary or expedient for the purpose of preventing the introduction into [Sri Lanka] of any disease, and also preventing the spread of any disease in and outside [Sri Lanka]”. 

However, for starters, it has been argued that this did not extend to declaring a ‘police curfew’ as was done last year... and now, not to apprehending suspects – once in police custody – who had been bailed by a magistrate. By no means can Quarantine Law be extended to forcibly transporting these court-enlarged protestors sans testing to any other form of public health-related isolation. That the regulations issued under the Health Minister’s aegis enjoined the police to do so in the recent imbroglio has been expressly denied by the public health authorities. On whom then does the onus of oppressing protestors rest?

The Minister of Public Security in order to defend and validate the action of the law enforcement officials under his purview has chosen to fall back on the health authorities’ rather general regulations issued. This is a legal fiction to boot. There is dirty work afoot here, Holmes. As evinced by a panoply of political and legal luminaries who have decried it.

To add insult to injury, a new form of punishment – ‘quarantine detention’ – has become the rage of the day amongst shadowy law enforcement officials lurking shamefully behind a public health and safety regulation. Claims that the medical authority whose word reigns supreme in the midst of the pandemic mandated that protestors be forcibly isolated have been shown to be a canard at best or a cunning ploy to stifle dissent at worst. 

It has been argued and demonstrably proven in certain courts of public opinion that seizing a bailed person and enforcing their despatch to distant quarantine centres, in the absence of a PCR or rapid antigen test being duly carried out by a public health inspector, is tantamount to abduction by the police. An abject failure to release the detainees days after such tests proved negative has added fuel to the fire of the theory that shots other than public health and safety were fired by precipitate action on the part of the police. This is elementary, my dear Watson. Say supporters of the cause: “Habeas corpus!”


To hear

In the wake of a slew of fundamental rights applications being filed by public interest actors including civil society watchdogs and opposition political parties, we await the court’s considered opinion with bated breath. On the verdicts rides not only whether we’re a disciplined and virtuous society, but also decent human beings after all, with a disciplined approach to law and order. At stake is the very ethos (‘One Law, One Country’) that nearly seven million of ‘us’ – where are they now, why are they silent? – voted for, time out of mind...

To be fair by the integrity of certain State ministers, they too spoke out against the heavy-handedness of the police action and the legality thereof. Law enforcement, for its part, appeared to have learned a lesson, or had its (shall we say) enthusiasm muzzled. 

For was it not the very next day after the violent accosting of bailed protestors, and summary despatch to distant quarantine centres for punitive detention, that uniformed members of a visibly subdued constabulary stood mute... While parliamentarians protested the same issues – Of course, bringing into doubt whether law and order had learned its lesson, or whether this was yet another example of law-enforcement being beholden to their political masters?

To watch and wait

We need not be detained for too long by how, in the same week as the violent crackdown on protestors islandwide, authorities of all stripes turned a blind eye on the political celebrations across the country at the return of a celebrity politico to the land, House and role of Messiah.

What must concern us more than the blatant double standard is a host of questions as to the roots and fruit of the protests flowering like poisonous mushrooms around Sri Lanka. After all, our hypocritical political culture has ensured that this duality in the treatment of the people in opposition to the political class has put paid to the lie: that they are our elected representatives and we’re their much vaunted givers of the precious political franchise whose opinions still count after the election is over. 

However, it behoves us among other questions to ask – as the Health Minister said only this week, as if discovering her witty truism in a shattered pot floating down a muddy river to a sunless sea, that “all citizens (whether Stalin, Lenin, or Marx) are equal before the law” – whether this Government believes its own rhetoric. Even a Putin could be quite put out by it.


First, if it wasn’t a matter of life and death, would farmers in several districts brave inclement weather (to say nothing of risking life and limb now, as well as liberty to be at large later) to protest miserably and vociferously all day long? 

Would even an opportunistic political opposition be able to drive them to such a charade if the problem was simply a political spectre conjured to embarrass the Government? 

Also, are State policies as regards the virtually overnight conversion of Sri Lanka’s agro-industry and food sector into an organic paradise well-researched, properly planned, rationally envisaged based on analysis of other exemplars in the world, and thus sustainably implemented? And, not simply gazetted as a knee-jerk reaction to specious ideas by so-called experts or expedited as a stop-gap measure to plug the outflow of precious forex?

Is the ministerial allegation that multinationals are hoarding pre-ordered stocks a conspiracy theory? Or is there a fertiliser mafia spreading manure (to put it politely) for public consumption?



Second, the education of Sri Lanka’s next generation is a matter that is best not militarised, as much as large swathes of public life are under threat of it at present. 

Further, if the establishment of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) goes ahead as envisaged under this regime, it will result in the supplier of such education being its own regulator. This is nowhere near a good idea under a paternalistic political culture that cannot bear transparent scrutiny and also unless there is an assurance of a fair playing field for other providers of educational formation. Finally, while a stalwart military in its own right is a sterling idea – as seen recently in the security forces steeping in to bridge a chasm in the State’s immunisation campaign – it is a field of endeavour that is best regulated by the national apex body mandated with that task, the University Grants Commission, in the event it offers both military and non-military education to fee-paying students. 

The President this week has asked for Proposals – not Protests – in this regard. Perhaps we could add another P: Principles: namely that a player (Govt./Def. Min.) cannot be the umpire of KDU too.

Militarisation has its merits if it is limited to the martial arts and sciences, as well as defence of the realm. But it threatens to cramp the intellectual curiosity and natural freedom of expression that a truly virtuous society embodies.


Last, but by no means least, the right to express dissent in peaceful protests is a fundamental right enshrined in the supreme law of the land... refer Articles 14.1(A) and (B) if you haven’t burned your copy of the Constitution – in frustration, or anticipation of the state of the nation; even after recent constitutional amendments that strengthened the hand of the Executive – some would say at the expense of civil and legislative liberty?

Now, we can only leave it up to the independence of that third yeoman arm of Government (a truly independent Judiciary in concept and practice) to ensure that the insecurity of an artificially bolstered Executive ego doesn’t cripple the extant (or is that simply remnant) ethos of a functional democracy by cracking down on dissent under the guise of ensuring discipline!

To recap

We saw how recent community protests were treated with often brutal manhandling by law enforcement officers while authorities turned a blind eye to certain political celebrations in the same week, which equally compromised health and public safety protocols. 

To crown it all, it appeared that State actors used quarantine regulations to suppress a plethora of protests. It challenges the Government’s credibility as a protector of the people if health regulations are used punitively to oppress citizen dissent not necessarily motivated by politics.

So is there a class of super-citizen or untouchable political being emerging? Or is enforced quarantine a handy punishment for a panoply of communities facing several types of hardship who dare to speak out?

How well governments of the present and future treat the issues of equity and equitability of the people in their care will spell out the answer. The heat of the moment – commodity and currency crises and natural as well as man-made disasters, militating into combative protests and their volatile handling as a punitive measure tending to oppression, must stop for starters.

If a strong, stable, secure government took stock, it would use more velvet glove than iron fist...

(Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer WFH)


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