Yesterday, we discussed several protests that took place in Asia. They are the students protest in Hong Kong; the protests of the people fighting against eviction from their lands by the Onkareshwar Dam project in Madhya Pradesh, India; the fight against the abuse of blasphemy law in Pakistan in the case of Rimsha, the 14-year-old mentally handicapped girl; and the student protest in Sri Lanka.
We noted that while in all the other three instances there was massive support for the protestors from the local media after the incidents had been revealed, the Sri Lankan media was almost completely silent about the attacks on the students by the government.
We also noted that in the other instances the governments showed tolerance towards the protestors and there was no use of violence against them. In contrast, in Sri Lanka the police, who arrived in large numbers, used brutal violence. Tear gas and baton charges were used against the peaceful demonstrators and some were arrested and charged. Added to this a heavy propaganda campaign was carried out by the government spokesman, and this was given wide publicity through the state media, which said that the violence was provoked by the students and that there are investigations are being carried out against them.
In all the other three instances the governments concerned at least partially granted the relief demanded by the protestors. The Hong Kong authorities promised not to enforce the proposed new curriculum on moral and national education that the students were objecting to; in India the Madhya Pradesh government promised to grant all the demands of the protestors, who stood neck-deep in water for seventeen days, and appointed a five-member committee to deal with the matter completely within 90 days by giving land for land and stopping the rise of the dam's water levels. In Pakistan, where protesting against the blasphemy law has remained difficult for a long time, the court released the young girl on bail and the government provided her with protection to move out of the location. Also, the police have arrested the cleric that made the false charges against the girl and charged him in turn with blasphemy.
What all this shows is that there is at least a certain degree of willingness to negotiate with the protestors, and to treat protest as a legitimate means by which citizens may express grievances and demand urgent action when they are frustrated with the negligence of the authorities. Such negotiations are possible when the idea of rule by consent is treated as the foundation of the legitimacy of a government. What the Sri Lankan government showed in this instance was that they derive their power purely by physical force and the idea of government by consent no longer has a practical relevance.
How did Sri Lankans come to accept rule by brutal force? Why have the citizens cowed down to this way of being ruled? How have the mass movements, which were at one time so vibrant in Sri Lanka, become so subdued? Why is the media so self-censored in the face of brutal violations of all the basic norms of democracy and rule of law? Why is everybody so unwilling to lend support for those who come forward to protest for legitimate reasons?
The answer to all this is not difficult to find. It lies in the way enforced disappearances have been used as an effective tool to suppress public protest. The fear of abduction followed by torture and many other forms of harassment, probably ending in an enforced disappearance, is now an impression so deeply embedded in the psyche of the Sri Lankan people.
While all that happens, the legal machinery of investigations into complaints, prosecution of offenders and even the judicial independence has been so badly undermined. That investigations into complaints against the state's abuse of its powers and of the use of naked violence will not take place is now known to everyone. The examples are available of such refusals to investigate, not in their hundreds, but in their thousands.
The Sri Lankan people have being reduced to persons with no enforceable legal entitlements. The Constitution does have a bill of rights and many fundamental rights are mentioned. There are many statutes that have criminalised violence of various forms against the people. However, the enforcement mechanism has been suppressed and by now it can be said that, virtually, an enforcement mechanism against violations of rights no longer exists.
A long period of the abuse by way of enforced disappearances, illegal arrest and detention, torture, denial of fair trial, suppression of freedom of opinion and expression, publication and association have virtually made the Sri Lankan people into a broken-hearted people who have lost faith in their legal rights.
When there is no possibility of the enforcement of entitlements, the idea of citizenship becomes a hollow one.
September 11, 2012