Roadblocks on Lanka’s path to democratic changeView(s):
While some Air Force cadets and invitees who attended the passing out parade in Trincomalee recently might still be pondering President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s homily on parliamentary democracy how it cannot be achieved by public protestations on the highways and byways, in the capital city university students were being doused by water cannons and tear-gassed, possibly with outdated tear gas shells that the authorities have been trying desperately to hide.
Those learned in international affairs and students of world politics might well question President Wickremesinghe’s assertion that governments have not been changed by mass public protests in the streets of capital cities or elsewhere.
From South Korea to the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan to name some from the Asian region and a host of countries around the globe, dictators and authoritarian rulers have been driven out and replaced including mass uprisings. And some of those happened on the streets of those countries it will be recalled.
While limited space does not permit to expand on the causes for the overthrow of those governments, most often it has resulted from the dictatorial or authoritarian use of political power that denied the people the right to choose their governments and the suppression of dissent with force leading retaliation.
The failure of rulers to learn from history has often brought about their downfall. France’s 18th century King Louis xiv is attributed to have said “I’m the State”. Before long this arrogant, ostentatious king found himself in a poor state and ultimately lost his head–not psychiatrically but physically.
But then Louis did not have to postpone elections because there were no elections then. If the battle cry of the French revolutionaries was liberty, equality and fraternity, their echoes reverberate today as elections are denied for the ludicrous reason that there is no money when enough money is spent on other extravaganzas while the public’s right to express their opinion on a president who some believe has no mandate and a government that has lost its mandate, are suppressed.
It is being argued today that if governments cannot be changed by public protest then the public must be allowed to express their opinions so governments are aware of the thinking of the citizenry. So what appears to be happening today is not only the denial of democratic means to express public opinion but even the right to do so peacefully on the streets.
Local council elections might not change governments. But the 2018 local elections turned out to be a clear precursor to what happened in November 2019 and more importantly in August 2020.
What is being witnessed today is not only a denial of the people’s right to dissent but the people’s right to know.
One telling example of the attempt to cover up and withhold information that is of public interest and concern to the public was the Police conduct in refusing to reveal when it purchased the tear gas in its possession and, more importantly, the date of expiry of those tear gas canisters or shells.
The journalist who initiated this inquiry and asked the police for the relevant information was turned down by the police and he had eventually to take it to the Commission on the Right to Information (RTI) which ordered the police to release that information which was being refused on grounds some of which were spurious and flimsy
Had the journalist concerned Tharindu Jayawardena not pursued this and the RTI Commission, quite rightly, not supported this action against the police vigorously the Sri Lanka public and world would have been denied the stark truth which appeared in an investigative report by the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) last week.
The police had purchased about 40,000 canisters of tear gas in the last ten years since 2012 and over 8,000 had been used in various protests since then, out of which over 6,000 had been fired at the height of the Aragalaya—starting with the protests outside ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence in Mirihana in March 2022 to July 2022, the report said.
“The expiry period of a canister is usually 5 years but there is evidence that the police used gas purchased in the years 2000, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019,” the report added.
This exposure only adds to the growing worries of people here and abroad over the use of force to quell even peaceful protests and the government’s complete disinterest in what its citizens and the world including major powers on whom Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly beholden, have to say about the country’s obligations to international treaties and conventions it has signed.
Now the government is faced with an additional issue which is even more frightening than the use of expired tear gas against its own people.
That is the reported presence of ‘unknown’ uniformed persons with guns and other ‘weapons’ which are not regular issue to troops and police. From where did these large numbers of unidentified individuals turn up at the Colombo University in seeming readiness for violence against students at their protest sites?
(Neville de Silva is
a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)
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