As the country battles the economic crisis, a spate of protests, demonstrations and expressions of dissent have dotted the political landscape during the last several months. Many of these have been related to various steps taken by the Government to address some of the issues related to the economic crisis, while some relate to other [...]


Expression of dissent enriches democratic governance


As the country battles the economic crisis, a spate of protests, demonstrations and expressions of dissent have dotted the political landscape during the last several months.

Many of these have been related to various steps taken by the Government to address some of the issues related to the economic crisis, while some relate to other issues like holding of the local council elections within the time stipulated by law.

The Government’s response to these protests have been unnecessarily excessive and have in turn spawned counter protests. Already three people have died as a result of the actions taken by the Government to quell such protests.

As with many governments, this Government too finds the protests an irritant or inconvenience and has resorted to every possible measure to curb these protests’ from obtaining court orders to applying force to prevent the expression of dissent.

The latest attempt at stifling such protests took place last week when force was used by law enforcement authorities to break up protests at the University of Colombo and the University of Kelaniya premises. Predictably this action of law enforcement authorities has been roundly condemned by all sections of the polity and by civil society.

The latest criticism came from Sri Lankan students studying abroad who, in a collective statement, issued on Friday expressed their “deep concern towards the systematic violent suppression unleashed on peaceful protesters by the Sri Lankan Government during February and March 2023.”

In their statement they went on to “vehemently condemn the brutal attacks on the university students protesting peacefully and the military and Police violently entering the University of Colombo and the University of Kelaniya premises on the March 7, 2023 and March 8, 2023, respectively.”

The right to dissent is a fundamental human right that allows individuals or groups to express disagreement or opposition to established authority, policies, or beliefs without fear of retaliation or persecution. It is a cornerstone of democracy and a key aspect of free speech. The right to dissent is protected by various international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and expression. This right is also enshrined in many national constitutions and laws.

The right to dissent is essential for the functioning of a healthy democracy, as it allows individuals to express their opinions and ideas freely, without fear of censorship or repression. Dissent can help to identify and address social, political, and economic problems and promote positive change.

Overall, the right to dissent is a vital aspect of democratic societies, and its protection should be a priority for governments and individuals alike

The right to dissent refers to the freedom to express disagreement with the prevailing views or policies of a government, organisation, or society without fear of retaliation or persecution and is often considered essential to a democracy as it allows individuals to voice their opinions and hold those in power accountable.

However, while the right to dissent is a crucial component of a free and democratic society, it is not an absolute right. Restrictions on this right may be imposed in certain circumstances, such as when dissenting speech incites violence or poses a threat to national security. In such cases, any limitations on the right to dissent must be necessary, proportionate, and prescribed by law.

The Sri Lankan Constitution has recognised the right to dissent as an important feature of the peoples’ sovereignity which is the bedrock on which the Constitution has been built. So great is the importance attached to these rights by the Constitution that in Articles 3 and 4, fundamental rights, which include among other rights freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly, are recognised as part of the peoples’ sovereignity.

In fact in the Chapter on Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties it is clearly laid down that the State is required to establish a society in which the full realisation of the fundamental rights of all people is achieved.

Thus there is an obligation on the State not only to guarantee such fundamental rights but to also facilitate and create the space for dissent. From a government’s perspective the expression of dissent should be viewed as an enriching process for governance that could add value to the government’s policy processes and not as a destructive intervention that attempts to derail government’s policies.

The Government needs to work out a strategy of managing dissent however much it may think, in its view, that such dissent is unreasonable. None of the provisions in the Constitution require that the right to dissent is guaranteed only if such dissent is reasonable.

Apart from the fact that the right to dissent is inviolable, it is counterproductive to the Government’s own efforts to salvage and keep the economy afloat after it was destroyed by the previous government. When all its efforts should be directed towards winning the war aimed at bringing the economy on even keel, its strategy of suppressing dissenting means it is opening up a battle on another front and diverting some of its energies towards such an effort.

What is surprising is the difference in approach to dissent that President Ranil Wickremesinghe showed when he was Prime Minster in the Yahapalana Government when compared to what is happening under his dispensation as President in the current Government. During the Yahapalana Government, both he and President Maitripala Sirisena were criticised and ridiculed in the most stringent and vehement ways without attracting any backlash from the Yahapalana Government.

Yet under President Ranil Wickremesinghe the approach to dissent is different. It is difficult to resist the interpretation that the difference is attributable to the excessive power that is vested in the Executive Presidency.

This does not mean that President Ranil Wickremesinghe is not accountable for what happens under his watch but only means that the Executive Presidency can influence and push individuals to act in ways they may not have done if not for such power.

Such excessive power not only distorts governance decision making but also contributes to unrest in the country. If the powers in the Executive Presidency restored by the 20th Amendment paved the way to drive the country to bankruptcy, the same powers are proving to be a threat to democracy.

In the long list of reasons for abolishing the Executive Presidency, what has happened after the 20th Amendment only adds to the need for the country to urgently address the issue of abolishing the Executive Presidency.

It is indeed a tragedy that when there is near unanimity among the major political actors that the Executive Presidency should be abolished, there is no movement in that direction.



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