Civil Rights Movement condemns attack on peaceful protests

The Civil Rights Movement, in a statement signed by Ms. Surya Wickremasinghe, issued the following statement on ``attacks on peaceful protest’’ with reference to statements it had made on such matters on previous occasions.

"…all parties that have hitherto shared in government must share in some measure the responsibility for these despicable tendencies." (Daily News editorial Aug. 20, 1983)

"We have seen men enjoying positions of responsibility conniving with hoodlums and rowdies … The law, to be respected, must be enforced without fear or favour. There are people, probably, who fancy that they have the wit to flirt with thugs and thuggery, take what they want out of them…and then maintain a firm hand over them. To be so deluded is to ignore the lessons of history1." (ibid)

The right to peaceful protest is only one of many current concerns of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). Human rights issues requiring attention arise from many events that took place in 2009 and the first few weeks of the present year. These include the armed conflict and its aftermath, the plight of the IDPs, killings, attacks on, abductions and arrests of journalists including Vidyadaran of Sudar Oli (February 2009), Poddala Jayantha (June 2009) and Chandana Sirimalwatte of Lanka (January 2010), the killing and disappearances of lawyers and journalists including Lasantha Wickramatunga (January 2009), and Prageeth Ekneligoda (January 2010), the Tissainayagam case, and the presidential election.

There are also issues relating to military law, and to the continued use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency powers. Vital among all this are the needs of the war victims of all communities and their families, of the war-torn civilian population of the North and East, and the building of a just and equitable post-conflict society. That the present statement is limited to the right to peaceful protest and counter protest by no means indicates a lack of consciousness of the many other issues. It is because of its immediacy in what CRM sees as an alarming slide towards further curtailment of democratic norms, particularly in view of the imminent general election, and because it has such a compelling significance for the long-term as well.

In 1956 Tamil political leaders engaged in a peaceful Satyagraha on Galle Face Green, and were attacked by thugs while the police looked on. A retired senior police officer has described how Tamils were taken out of buses and ducked in the Beira Lake while many young MPs watched from the steps of the Parliament building (now the Presidential Secretariat) and found it amusing; "Seeing the Parliamentarians enjoying themselves in this manner no junior police officer dared to order his men to arrest the ringleaders of this violent mob..." (FND Jilla, Retd. Supdt. Of Police in ``Without fear or favour’’.

In 1972 forty two Tamil youth protesting against the 1972 Constitution were arrested and detained for over a year (some for over two years) before being released without charge. In the late 1970s and 1980s there were a series of attacks on peaceful picketers, demonstrators and others which CRM has identified as a The tolerance of opposing views, not merely by governments and politicians, but by all the diverse elements that make up our society, including each and every individual, is vital for us all. As the late Justice Mark Fernando said, "… stifling the peaceful expression of legitimate dissent today can only result, inexorably, in the catastrophic explosion of violence some other day". We have seen this happen in our past; let us even at this stage try to secure a future where justice and dignity prevail.

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