For those residing in the nation’s capital it’s a rare day that goes by without a protest, march or some other gathering for some cause. Often, people for and against the same causes, legislation, political parties, or even global events gather in the same place to be heard.

Politics apart, every citizen of this nation has a right to protest against any oppressive encumbrances on their lives. But, citizens’ action must be peaceably and carefully planned. There should be a decency and credibility to the outlook of such demonstrations of ‘people’s power’.

But they can and must be done without any political attachments or agenda. And above all, they should not be orchestrated by any elements hoping to gain political mileage for their own selfish agendas. Yes, any such demonstration should be well-coordinated to ensure it does not breach the peace or cause public disorder. The recent spate of protests and demonstrations appear to be the order of the day in this neck of the woods.

Democracy is not just about casting our votes at the ballot box. It is about us engaging the political process on an ongoing basis through dialogue with lawmakers and government servants, lobbying or petitioning for change in a certain policy and even protests.Some issues need multi-pronged approach when the authorities are unresponsive. Admittedly, protest is not the only way to go but sometimes it is the only option left when all other attempts are met with indifference or disdain.

While our Constitution permits protests and enshrines freedom of expression, it also states that this should be done peacefully. The right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest are crucial in a democracy – information and ideas help to inform political debate and are essential to public accountability and transparency in government.
Democracy,   simply put, is the rule of the people. In a representative democracy, the people grant elected representatives the power to represent them and make decisions with the people’s opinions and interests in mind. It must be understood that representatives do not rule the people but merely make decisions pertaining to state-governance on behalf of the people.

Some of the recent demonstrations both in the capital Colombo and the deep south percolated into kicking, punching, screaming and smashing. That’s not striking the balance between the right to political expression and the right to live in an ordered society. Basically you cannot disrupt traffic and the freedom of your fellow citizens’ right of way. You can stand on your head for all they care in some secluded area but you cannot do so blocking roadways or causing interference to others.

Around the same time in Colombo police fired tear gas and used water cannon to disperse the protestors of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) at Kollupitiya Junction. The students of the IUSF were protesting against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM).The students learned the hard way that they could not cross police lines or storm barricades as a means of pushing home their  point.

I spoke to a top brass copper this week who said:  “We will always facilitate peaceful protest and have a strong history of doing so. However, over the last few months these events have seen high levels of anti-social behaviour, crime and disorder. We have strong reason to believe that peaceful protest is the last thing on the minds of many of the people who will come along. It is unacceptable that a small minority should believe they have the right to break the law, disrupt routine traffic, harass people, damage buildings and attack police officers”.

In this particular instance I actually have a lot of sympathy for the police. That is because in these situations they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Ban the demonstration and they are accused of facilitating the establishment of a police state. Allow it to proceed – risking the inevitable violence that follows – and they are condemned for their inaction.Protesters, when assembled in hundreds and thousands, must now accept full responsibility for hosting anarchists who find cover within their ranks and wreak havoc.

Which is the very reason why we need to start to take these decisions out of their hands.Public, commentators and politicians have to start banging on about the right to protest a lot less and start banging on about the right to law and order a lot more. Sure, people have the right to protest peacefully. But they also have an obligation to protestserenely. If they can’t meet that obligation – and it is increasingly apparent that many people cannot – then their right to protest has to be removed from them.

“But, but, but”, wail the organisers of these protests, “it wasn’t that bad. There were only a handful of arrests. It was only a few idiots. The vast majority of the marchers were peaceful”.Tough luck! There are too many arrests. There are too many idiots. Not enough marchers are acting peacefully.

One of the pillars of democracy is the freedom of expression, meaning everyone has the right to express their views, as well as the right to disagree.However, when this freedom is exercised irresponsibly by failing to respect others’ rights, or worse, expressing oneself in ways that are intolerant, coupled with actions that make others fear reprisals, it becomes a different story.

On the flip side there is nonetheless the crude political reality to contend with, that makes it hard to get rid of the ‘fat’ in many areas of government spending. It is made worse by waste, fraud, abuse and vague out-of-control spending.

Yet the crisis is far from over. The government must make every attempt to demonstrate that austerity should mean austerity for all and not prosperity for only the rulers. They must realise that the nation is sitting on a rumbling volcano ever on the edge of a social eruption. The administration must move closer to the people and demonstrate that they are not insulated from the common man.

Yet, if the government does not come down hard on groups and individuals who espouse violence, the consequences could be severe, as frequent occurrences of this sort would harm the nation, undermining democracy and social stability.