When rights groups have a role to play

The 2019 Presidential Elections finished with a bang and what’s surprising is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s critics have fallen silent. This fact was highlighted recently by JVP’s Sunil Handunetti. We’ve read about a few incidents which make us concerned about the new Caretaker Government that’s headed by ex-military man Gotabaya.   

The hunt on scores of CID officers, the alleged white van abduction and release of a Swiss Embassy worker and the arrangements being made to round up all beggars and put them in a camp at Rideeyagama, in the Southern Province, give us an indication on what’s in store for citizens of a country who till the recent elections enjoyed a large doze of democracy, liberty and media freedom.   

One solid fact that gives us a strong pillar to lean on is that we have so many rights groups and workers’ unions who are vigilant when democracy and rights of the people are threatened. And this freedom to protest or voice grievances must be protected at all costs.   

There are fears that the present regime would suppress attempts made by the people to agitate and show disapproval of the way in which a country is governed.   

  • There are fears that the present regime would suppress attempts to show disapproval
  • The ideal entity to put pressure on a government would be a group comprising lobbyists
  • Undergraduates have the potential to fire the first salvo at the regime

Right now more than the opposition political forces there is a demand for rights groups to throw their weight behind the people. These two groups have a huge role to play in a country where its people are hugely divided between what’s right and wrong.   

For the record the ideal entity to put pressure on a government would be a group comprising lobbyists. But unfortunately this method can’t be adopted in third world countries due to the undermining of democracy and highly sensitive places like the parliament being under the constant threat of terrorist attacks. Hence the method that can be adopted in Sri Lanka is a round about approach where people agitate on the streets and not on the corridors where people with power constantly walk.   

Recently there was a candlelight vigil in memory of Yvonne Jonsson who was the victim of the much talked about ‘Royal Park Murder’. The parents, friends and relations of the deceased held the vigil which was also a form of protest against the former President Maithripala Sirisena granting a presidential pardon to the killer who was convicted of the crime of taking Yvonne’s life.   

The new Defence Secretary has warned that people who disrupt peace in the country in any form would be dealt with using the law. This attitude severely limits the chances of people who wish to take to the streets to protest against the government’s wrongdoings.  

As much as the former regime made provisions to uphold democracy the people benefited immensely because there was the presence of a vibrant opposition; led by a former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Right now there is no opposition force worthwhile talking about and the present political environment is also hostile towards such a force being developed.   

If we turn the pages of time to when the Yahapalana regime promoted democracy it was trembling at the very sight of an organised opposition. This was clearly seen at the time of the opposition staging a march termed ‘Janabalaya Colombata’. The Unity Government employed a 5000 strong police force to be on duty. But the fact to underscore during this incident was the judiciary remaining independent and turning down a request made by the police who sort a restraining order in the event protesters marched towards certain restricted areas. The maximum authority granted to the police by the judiciary was vesting powers in them to apply the Criminal Procedure Code in the event laws were breached.   

At a time when the opposition forces are disorganised or when there is infighting within their own camp the need for rights and activists groups to come forward for the sake of the people is deeply felt. Many wanted the caretaker government to have a ‘honeymoon’ period, but democracy has already been threatened and people see the need to show their concerns. IP Nishantha Silva who handled high-profile investigations fleeing the country and CID Director Shani Obeysekara being transferred within the Police Department spells the kind of threat that democracy is under.   

Sri Lanka has had a history of workers’ unions catering not only to the needs of workers, but also pursuing their political agendas. Some of these unions have put forward their candidates at elections, thus taking the shape of political parties. But ruling political parties have taken more seriously the agitations carried out by groups represented by Sinhala hardliners or Sinhala Buddhist monks. A classic example of this is the elections victory made possible for the People’s United Front in 1956 through the backing of two fronts: one a front catering to the interests of the Sinhala language and the other to the interest of Buddhist monks.   

Right now people who sweat to practise democracy and rights of people are concerned about what the future holds for Sri Lankans under a Rajapaksa regime. People are talking about the return of a white van culture; an accusation incumbent President Gotabaya rubbishes and affirms never existed. There is some hope from the side of vociferous undergraduates who’ll take to the streets if this caretaker government puts democracy and people’s rights under threat. Undergraduates have the potential to fire the first salvo at a regime when it starts faulting or getting too big for their boots. There is a saying that what’s most interesting is making the journey more than reaching the destination. These undergraduates are ‘work-in-progress’ and just the people this nation needs to put faulty lawmakers in their places.   

Once they come out armed with their degrees and settle in comfortably as white-colour workers they’ll subscribe to the theory that changing the world is useless. That theory instead supports all changes within the individual while a country bleeds from the wounds caused by undemocratic rule.   

A faulting regime can be put in place by people working towards finding financial freedom and not by those who are well settled in life. Sadly for Sri Lanka those belonging to the former group are also silent.   

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