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Sri Lanka: Noisily Divided House is Waking up its Neighbours

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M.A. Sumanthiran MP

by M.A Sumanthiran .M.P.

A Protest rightly understood is a form of mass communication with the intent to persuade policy change. The freedom to protest is characteristic of a healthy democratic society.

It is a safeguard mechanism for the rights of the marginalized. Bertrand Russell argued that the most salient facts in a nationally contested issue are often lost in conventional mediums because those with unpopular views are given limited space by the mainstream media to make their case. Niche news doesn’t sell papers.

This means the court of consensus is often a flawed court; equal opportunity for evidence is seldom provided. As a result, the ‘blind scales of justice’ are artificially weighted by the pervasive rhetoric of the majority.

The problem with this modus is apparent; consensus could decide that the world is flat and exert enough pressure to politically entrench this fallacy.

In contrast to a consensus system, an adversarial system predicated on robust debate is designed to approach the truth of the matter asserted not by a measure of voices but by a weighing of words. The latter method is clearly superior. The quest for truth and justice is more ‘trial by jury’ and less ‘popular election’.

John Stuart Mill builds on Russell’s observation by arguing that protests can serve to highlight the views of the minority or the marginalized by inviting exposure and allowing ideas to be disseminated on a larger scale.

Those ideas can then be evaluated for their worth. Through properly executed protests, a national dialogue can become a sort of evidentiary process, where the views of the afflicted are given adequate coverage and a place at the table of national discourse.

The purpose of a protest is to persuade. This teleology is crucial; to strip a protest of its purpose is to pollute the discourse. Protests are not about making noise. It should be noted that the primary distinction between a protest and revolutionary action is teleological. A protest is designed to persuade the government to change its policies. A revolutionary action is designed to persuade the government to cease to exist.

This distinction ought to inform a government perspective. For example, a protest by university professors to persuade the government to change its education and budgetary policy should not be interpreted as an attack on federal autonomy and should not be regarded as such.

The recent violence towards Sri Lankan tourists in Tamil Nadu is being called a protest, but it cannot be construed as a proper one.

In order to be proper a protest must represent a legitimate interest and be philosophically consistent. The plight of Tamils is certainly a legitimate interest and one worth bringing attention to. But the Tamil Nadu protest was not philosophically consistent. If press is a means toward disseminating and defending an idea, value or principle, then it is self destructive to betray the same to make a statement.

Targeted violence and malicious disruption of innocent lives is unacceptable. It is upon that principle that we are demanding justice for crimes committed by both sides during the latter stages of the war. It is upon that principle that we demand detainees who are being wrongfully held be released, disruption of lives in the North and East through militarization be diffused, and the livelihoods of fishermen be restored, etc.

The principle is the legal ground upon which we file suit. You can have eyewitness testimony, persuasive statements and corroborated evidence, but if you lose the legal principle, you lose the case.

It is possible that a protestor or agent become so immersed in his activity that he forgets his true purpose is arbitration. But it is equally possible that the protest devolve by the action, inaction or inattentiveness of the intended audience.

If a protest is proper, in so far as is it philosophically consistent and represents a legitimate interest, then it must be engaged and not ignored. Ignoring a proper protest does not challenge its legitimacy; by refusing to acknowledge it, the audience perpetuates the reason for its existence.

While this practice is clearly counter-productive, the government has habitually taken an even more destructive approach. Protests from all over the island are met with violence. Earlier this year a UNP protest in Colombo over a dramatic hike in fuel prices and the cost of living was met with tear gas and water canons.

The same happened to the University students’ protest recently. Protests by prisoners in Vavuniya prison ended with two inmates being killed. Previously also two protests in Katunayake and in Negombo resulted in deaths caused by the Police

At best, protests in Sri Lanka are de facto one-sided conversations. Unfortunately for everyone, monologues tend toward drama. The government can’t expect the scene to change until they cue other actors.

Rampant anti-Sri Lankan sentiment sweeping across India cannot be inferred from the recent events in Tamil Nadu. But the question of international perception is an important one. The problem can be easily traced to domestic issues. As the fresh wounds of Sri Lanka’s humanitarian crisis continue to fester, the world becomes increasing vocal about their disapproval.

Concurrent to the alarm generated by the pervasive government infringement of protests, is the alarm generated by the pervasive need for protests. Protests have spanned most every sector and demographic of Sri Lanka. The country is united in dissatisfaction.

But with each additional protest conceived by the government’s disdain and aborted by despotism, the divide between the government and the common people deepens. Sri Lanka remains a house noisily divided, and we’re waking the neighbors.

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