The new administration of President Ranil Wickremesinghe has launched a concerted crackdown on all forms of civil disobedience and protests using the flimsiest shreds of the law against those who are expressing their displeasure over the state of affairs.
Some of the ridiculous among these were the arrest of the person who sat on a chair at the president’s office, another person who bathed in the residential pool and even the individual who counted and handed over millions of rupees in money to the Police during the 9 July protests. While these intimidation tactics may initially seem laughable the clampdown on the leaders of these island-wide protests are not. They have been hounded, harassed and arrested. In the wake of unidentified bodies being washed ashore at Galle Face Green, at the heart of the Colombo city, there are early signs of a reign of terror returning to the country.
At the very outset it must be established that acts of civil disobedience involving the premeditated breaking of a domestic law for reasons of conscience is not a criminal act. These could in times such as these be effective ways to raise awareness, express social or political dissent or to bring about change. Amnesty International notes that such acts of civil disobedience can include a range of activities such as rallies, demonstrations, media stunts, sit-ins and other tactics that may break a domestic law with the intention of bringing about change using methods of disruption through direct and non-violent means.
The Sri Lankan state rather than responding to such acts of civil disobedience in a calm and democratic way has weaponised the law to intimidate and silence the people. It is even reported that those passengers on the SriLankan Airlines flight who were vocal about a leader of the protest campaign being dragged out of the airplane minutes before take-off, are to be prosecuted as well. Such over reactions are manipulations of the law to curtail the basic rights of the citizens and will only alienate the masses from the Government. As a Government that desperately needs popular legitimacy, this is a fundamental mistake to make at this juncture.
President Wickremesinghe, unlike many of his immediate predecessors, is said to be a learned man. He surely knows that movements for civil disobedience do not end well for the repressor States. The mere legality of a law does not give it popular legitimacy and thereby does not necessarily translate into justice. When Nelson Mandela burnt his ‘passbook’ needed to travel to non-Black areas in South Africa it was an illegal act; when Mohandas Gandhi led thousands of Indians from Ahmedabad to the Arabian Sea coast to make sault, a monopoly of the State, it was an illegal act that resulted in the arrest of 60,000 people, including Gandhi; when a young woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Alabama, it was an illegal act and she was arrested. Yet, irrespective of their legality they were unjust and those laws had to be broken.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his regime, which towards the end included Ranil Wickremesinghe, has bankrupted the country and ruined the hopes of generations. Resitting such a regime is a legitimate expression of free will and whatever petty laws may have been broken do not make that cause unjust. It is thanks to Mandela, Ghandi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King breaking the law that apartheid was toppled in South Africa, the British Empire dismantled in South Asia and the civil rights movement gained racial equality in the United States. Hopes of crushing a peoples’ movement that has popular support has been attempted and failed before. History is not on the side of the Wickremesinghe regime and the sooner it realises it the better for all concerned including the President and his Government.