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Sri Lanka’s Wickremesinghe Says ACLU States Protesters’ Legal Limits – OpEd

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In his interaction with foreign diplomats last week, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe addressed their concerns about the application of force to oust protesters from the Presidential Secretariat on the night of July 21-22.  

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The US Ambassador, Julie Chung, had tweeted saying that she met President Wickremesinghe to express her “grave concern” over the crackdown. She described the military cum police action as an ” escalation of violence against protesters” and termed it “unnecessary and deeply troubling.”

She went on to instruct the Lankan government on its duties saying: “The President & cabinet have an opportunity and an obligation to respond to the calls of Sri Lankans for a better future. This is not the time to crack down on citizens, but instead to look ahead at the immediate and tangible steps the Government can take to regain the trust of the people, restore stability, and rebuild the economy.”

For his part, President Wickremesinghe reaffirmed to the diplomats, Sri Lanka’s commitment to upholding the rights of peaceful, non-violent assembly. He stated that both Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 14 (1)(b) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, which governs the rights of peaceful assembly, would be upheld by the Government.

But at the same time, he pointed out that the protesters had not acted as per norms, which do not allow protesters to violate the sanctity of the institutions of the State such as government offices (and even private space without the consent of the owners of the private space).”

Wickremesinghe pointed out that even in the US, there are clear norms regarding protests as stated by the American Civil Liberties Union (see: https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/protesters-rights). The ACLU states that protesters are not permitted to “block government buildings and interfere with other purposes the property was designed for.” 

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The ACLU instructions went on to say: “Your rights are strongest in what are known as ‘traditional public forums,’ such as streets, sidewalks and parks. You also likely have the right to speak out on other public property, like plazas in front of government buildings, as long as you are not blocking access to the government building or interfering with other purposes the property was designed for.”

Wickremesinghe told the diplomats that measures had been taken to ensure that non-violent protests were allowed to proceed within the city without endangering property or lives. Facilities within Colombo, such as the Open-Air Theatre at Viharamahadevi Park, the New Town Hall, Hyde Park and Campbell Park were all being made available to non-violent protests. 

The President appealed to the diplomats not to go entirely by social media reports but fact-check with concerned officials of the government before tweeting their comments.

Attack on Capitol

On January 6 2021, federal security agents had to use force to clear the the Capitol housing the US Congress, when it was invaded by right-wing extremist followers of defeated President Donald Trump. The mob had stormed the building to force Congress to declare Trump as the rightful winner and not Joe Biden. In the melee, a lady protester was shot dead, while four others died due to causes other than violence inflicted on the occasion. It was an ugly confrontation, in which, initially at least, the protesters had the upper hand. Some of them were armed with lethal or non-lethal weapons.  

The ruling Democratic party described the attack as an “insurrection”, while the Republicans considered it an expression of pent up emotion against Trump’s loss in what to them was a ‘stolen’ election. While confusion prevailed outside, the Capitol police were also divided and extremely unprepared despite advance warnings about Trump’s followers going berserk after listening to his incendiary speeches and tweets. The police were also short of arms as these were not easily accessible, having been locked up.

Although many officers fought with the mob (one rioter was shot to death and one officer later died of injuries) others took selfies and offered no resistance. The relatively lenient handling of the invaders was deeply troubling to many Americans. But Americans were divided on racial lines on the issue of police action. While Whites desired tough police action, the people of color desired restraint. Apparently, the cops at Capitol were also divided on class lines, with the non-so-well-heeled right wingers siding with the protesters.

Be that as it may, even a liberal, left-wing administration of Joe Biden is unlikely to be soft on protesters invading and occupying State buildings and that would bring government work to a grinding halt. It is against this background that the Lankan President told foreign diplomats that while protests are legitimate, invasion and occupation of government buildings, could not be condoned.

The protesters at the SWRD Bandarnaike statue at Galle Face had been given the court order asking them to clear the space within 50 meters of the statue, but they took no notice of it. According to the police, the protesters were not intending to vacate the Presidential Secretariat until Wickremesinghe resigned. 

It is for this reason that the Wickremesinghe government is proceeding with legal action against those who had violated the laws and court orders. About 150 protesters who had vandalized the Presidential Secretariat and the Presidential palace have been identified by the CID and the young man who stormed the studios of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and telecast a speech was arrested as he was about to fly to Dubai. There is a travel ban against a few leaders. 

Role of Governmental Instability 

In the US as well as in Sri Lanka, violence broke out not so much because activists had violent elements among them but because the State was unsteady. While in Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was unsteady with his morale at its lowest, in the US, it was a time of transition from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration. In both cases, the law and order machinery was found to be wanting. This enabled protesters to be whatever they wanted. 

On May 9, a pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa group bashed up peaceful protesters on Galle Face and in the night anti-Rajapaksa elements burnt 40 to 60 houses of ruling party leaders. Many buses were torched in Colombo. On July 9, anti-Rajapaksa protesters stormed the offices and official residences of the President and the Prime Minister and burnt the latter’s private residence. This was because the law and order machinery was defunct due to the absence of orders from the top. The top had atrophied.

However, in Sri Lanka as well as the US, the system did come back to life within days and peace returned to the land.

This article was also published at News In Asia

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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