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Rights Activists Slam Sri Lanka For Using Pandemic Rules To Quell Dissent – Analysis

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Anger at sending peaceful protestors for 14-day quarantine after they were bailed out by court

There is widespread condemnation in Sri Lanka of the government’s brazen, unconscionable and partisan use of the pandemic containment regulations to quell public display of dissent.

The immediate issue is the forced 14-day quarantining of a small group of demonstrators after they were bailed out by a court. The Minister of Public Security Rear Adm. (Rtd) Sarath Weerasekara claimed that it was done not by the police on their own accord, but on the advice of the Director General of Health Services Dr. Asela Gunwardena and a request from the Public Health Inspectors (PHI). However, the head of the PHI Union, Upul Rohana, denied that the PHIs had anything to do with the decision.  

The Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) and several civil society organizations staged a protest at the Town Hall against the arrest and forced quarantining. Nineteen school teacher unions refused to conduct online lessons indefinitely as a protest. They are demanding the release of the Secretary-General of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU), Joseph Stalin, and 15 others. The teachers’ unions were also agitating against salary anomalies and problems in online teaching. Director of Catholic Schools, Fr Gamunu Dias, said that Catholic schools would abstain from teaching online classes as did the Eastern Province Tamil Teachers’ Union.

Last Friday, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa asked in parliament how the protesters were quarantined without being given an antigen or a PCR test.  The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) said on Sunday that the authorities should not use quarantine rules to suppress peaceful protest, violating constitutional rights, especially when they are bailed out by courts.

Bar Association

In a letter written to the Inspector General of Police, the BASL President Saliya Pieris and Secretary Rajeev Amarasuriya pointed out that the health guidelines issued by the Director-General of Health Services have not listed public protests or outdoor meetings as prohibited activities.  More fundamentally, public protests straddle three important Fundamental Rights in the Constitution, namely, the Freedom of Speech and Expression, the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and the Freedom of Association guaranteed by Articles 14(1)(a), (b) and (c) of the Constitution, the BASL pointed out.

“Public protests also strengthen the Freedom of Thought which is entrenched as a Fundamental Right by Article 10 of the Constitution. The rights under Article 14(1) may be restricted by law in the interests of public health. However, such restriction must be done by law; must have a nexus to the objective sought to be achieved and must be reasonable,” the BASL said.

UN Representative

Hannah Singer the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka said the government should not use quarantine rules to suppress peaceful protest. Singer’s remarks came at a time when Sri Lanka is desperately trying to show that it is protecting human rights. It has to do so to retain the European Union’s GSP Plus tariff concessions. The EU is a major export destination for the foreign exchange strapped Sri Lanka.

Tamil Progressive Alliance

Mano Ganeshan, MP and leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) said that the government’s action was “illegal and draconian”. The entire Lankan opposition is against the regime on this issue, he said and added that the “government is trying to cover up it’s political  bankruptcy and its economic and social failure, by using COVID restrictions to silence dissent.

“On the one hand it is stopping opposition protests pointing to COVID rules, but on the other, it is conducting political Tamashas gathering crowds,” Ganeshan said.

Determined to continue protests, he added. “We will knowingly break and violate these rules. No court has approved government’s COVID regulations. Neither the Department of Health nor the police can make rules and laws. It has to be done by parliament.”

Ambika Satkunanathan    

Human Rights lawyer and former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, Ambika Satkunanathan said: “The government’s attempts to stifle dissent in the guise of protecting public health is not surprising given the regime’s contempt for democratic values and the rule of law.”

“But what is disturbing is the brazen manner in which they arbitrarily apply or fail to apply the law, as shown by holding large gatherings themselves and not taking any action against those of their own party who host birthday parties, but quarantining those protesting against the Kotalawala Defense University Bill. What is invisible is that since the pandemic began, civil society in the north and east, particularly families of the disappeared and those protesting against the military occupation of their lands in Kepapilavu have had to struggle against the government’s abuse of health regulations to prevent protests.”

Satkunanathan went on to ask: “Why should a government with a powerful President and 2/3 majority in parliament be so insecure that it resorts to weaponizing and abusing the law to stifle dissent?”

“This is not a show of strength but of weakness and illustrates their fear of democratic accountability processes. They are authoritarian and used to a feudal culture. Hence, they cannot tolerate citizens holding them to account,” she said.

Sunanda Deshapriya

Free media activist Sunanda Deshapriya said that the teachers’ trade unions’ protest arose because the country was close to a boiling point due to the multiple failures of the government.  Privatization and militarization of higher education are very sensitive issues in Sri Lanka. Protests against these cannot be suppressed by arrests and quarantining, he added.

“Arresting and detaining persons who are exercising their peaceful right to protest and sending them to quarantine has a chilling effect on the freedom to dissent which is fundamental to democracy,” said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council (NPC).

Perera said that to get the EU GSP Plus tariff concession, the  government needs to implement the 27 international agreements that Sri Lanka has ratified. These are wide ranging and include human rights, labor rights, environmental protection and governance. “Civil society groups, such as the Ceylon Teachers Union, play an important watchdog role which needs to be respected.  Fundamental to all these is the right to express dissent in whichever legal form they choose. Denial of this right is a serious violation of Fundamental Rights to which every citizen is entitled,” the NPC chief said. 

M.A. Sumanthiran

Supreme Court lawyer and MP, M.A.Sumanthiran, said that the government is using a 150 year old quarantine law to crackdown on dissenters. There is as yet no modern law to manage public health emergencies. Government is also being partisan. It allowed supporters of the new Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa to carry out street celebrations on his return to Sri Lanka to take up his new assignment, but clamped down on teacher demonstrators.

“Since there is no modern law on tackling pandemics, in April, I had presented a bill in parliament to help manage public health emergencies. After the First Reading of the bill, the government lost interest in it. In the absence of a legal framework, the government is able to act arbitrarily,” Sumanthiran said.     

The Public Health Emergency bill said that where a public health emergency has been declared, there shall be constituted a body called the “Public Health Emergency Council” consisting of the President,  the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition; the Ministers in charge of Health, Social Welfare,  Environment, Home Affairs, Science and Techonology,  Defence, Police, Finance, and Foreign Affairs. The Speaker shall, in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, nominate five persons from amongst the Opposition Members of Parliament to be members of the Council.

The Council will draft rules and regulations on every aspect of public health emergency management. Those who break its orders will be liable for legal action. The Council will be answerable to parliament, the bill proposed.

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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