By Ayesha Zuhair
Sarah Mann, Spokesperson for the British High Commission in Colombo has informed us that Britain respects the legitimate right of UK citizens to protest.
“We respect the legitimate right of UK citizens to protest, but this has to be balanced with the right to free speech,” she said in response to accusations that the UK law enforcement agencies had failed to provide adequate security to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his recent visit to London to attend the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Mann’s comments were published on June 15, 2012. What a coincidence, I thought! For exactly four years ago on 15 June 2008, I personally witnessed a shocking event in London which showed the extent to which this ‘right to protest’ is in fact respected in practice. The location was Parliament Square. Tens of thousands of demonstrators had gathered under the aegis of the Stop the War Coalition to protest against outgoing US President George W. Bush’s war policies, and Britain’s continuing support for his illegal wars. Bush was on a two-day visit to the UK part of his final European tour before leaving the White House. My husband and I along with some of our friends from University College London (where we were reading for our Masters at that time) decided to join in. Though our group consisted primarily of foreign students, the overwhelming majority in our midst were UK citizens with an undeniable right to be heard.
And yet, on 15 June 2008, they were denied this right. The anti-Bush protestors were banned from marching to Downing Street from Parliament Square, where British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was entertaining the then US President. A ‘Green Zone’ was set up around 10 Downing Street to prevent citizens from exercising their legitimate right to protest. A massive contingent of riot police was deployed to ensure that the protestors didn’t get anywhere near close to the visiting Head of State.All the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men were there to protect Humpty Dumpty.
Actor Roger Lloyd Pack asserted, “I feel affronted that George Bush is coming over here, and even more affronted that I’m not allowed to march in protest. This is a new thing isn’t it, this banning of peaceful marches? What’s going on? I thought we were supposed to be living in a free country. Isn’t that why they said we went to war with Iraq?”
The protestors wanted to hand over a letter to Downing Street but they were not allowed to do so. And the trouble began after some placards were thrown over police lines. The protestors were (naturally) agitated that their democratic rights had been infringed upon, apparently at the request of the US government! They insisted that they be allowed to march to No. 10 to hand over the letter.
This demand fell on deaf ears, and it wasn’t long before a full-blown clash erupted, much to our dismay. As foreign students, we were particularly appalled by the manner in which the authorities conducted themselves, and used force to prevent the demonstrators from exercising their democratic right to protest.
So I found the comments from the British High Commission in Colombo that Britain respects the rights of its citizens to protest rather strange to say the least, having seen otherwise during my time in the UK.I recall how the rally that kicked off with chants of ‘George Bush – terrorist’ and ‘Bush, go home!’ ended with chants of ‘shame on you’ directed at the British Metropolitan Police for their brute handling of the demonstrators.The Police, who had come well-equipped with batons, appeared threatening all along. They did not hesitate to baton-charge the frustrated and hapless protestors. The excessive use of Police force left many protestors bleeding after the clashes, and scores were detained.
Stop the War Spokesman Andrew Burgin argued that heavy-handed policing had led to the fighting. “The police were very free with the use of their batons – some went berserk – and while I saw no police being injured, many demonstrators had serious head wounds,” Burgin stated. This writer can only agree having been present as the events unfolded.So what of the traditional right to assembly and movement? The right to protest is an important right in any democratic society. Whilst people vote governments into power, protests can keep them in check.
While the statement “We respect the legitimate right of UK citizens to protest” sounds extremely suave, it is obvious that the British government curtails this right as and when it suits them. The right to protest did not apply in the case of George W. Bush, but it was certainly applicable in the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The anti-Bush protestors were barricaded and beaten, while the anti-Rajapaksa protestors were completely free to make themselves heard. Not only did they have the right to make their voice heard, they were at liberty to openly exhibit their affiliation to a banned terrorist organisation.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is a proscribed organisation in the UK, yet many of the anti-Rajapaksa protestors in the UK brandished emblems associated with the LTTE. Such is the extent of freedom in the United Kingdom, or rather; such is the extent of duplicity and double standards.
Having witnessed the way the British authorities conducted themselves and curtailed the democratic rights of their citizens in 2008, it came as no surprise that students protesting against the UK government’s plans to raise tuition fees were met with an equally brute police force in 2010.So much so that during the student protest of 9 December 2010, Jody McIntyre, a disabled student protestor suffering from cerebral palsy was dragged out of his wheelchair by riot officers, assaulted with batons, and dragged across the road.
“We can’t control the protestors” is the attitude when it comes to Sri Lanka. One wonders if Barack Obama were to address a private function in the UK today, what level of protection would be accorded to him. Would the British Government allow protestors to come as close to Obama as they did in the case of Rajapaksa? One is inclined to think in the negative. courtesy: Daily Mirror