Peaceful protests are an accepted way of bringing wrong doings or injustices to public notice with the idea of getting the authorities to remedy or rectify them. Right to peaceful protest is enshrined in the Constitutions of almost all democracies.
However, what has been going on in Colombo over the last many months, in the eyes of many Sri Lankans, is far beyond the boundaries of peaceful protest. Hardly a day passes without some protest causing huge traffic jams and disrupting public life. Many who came to the city on important business would have either gone back postponing their work or would have ended up in frustration wasting their valuable time.

Problem has reached such heights most people who come to the city have been speaking about this issue and as a result, the matter became the subject of some recent discussion at the highest level of the government. A group of government politicos representing both UNP and SLFP has taken up this matter with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in view of the untold hardships to the people and colossal loss to the economy due to these regular protest marches. politoical

They are supposed to have looked at the possibility of framing new laws to regulate these protests minimizing their negative impact on the economy and to give permission for one protest a week until such laws are introduced. Yet, there are doubts whether even such measures would resolve the issue as these protestors generally do not seek prior permission.

Already some trade union leaders have reacted to this proposal saying it is an attempt by the government to suppress the rights of the working people. What is going on daily has nothing to do with workers’ rights with most of the agitators being university students believed to be members of Inter University Students’ Federation. These protests have been on various subjects from SAITM medical degree issue to proposed ETCA trade agreement to other vague policy issues which are sometimes hardly connected to actual students’ or workers’ rights.

Mostly, their aim seems to be to go beyond limits of peaceful protest, stir up some trouble and to have a clash with police forcing them to use tear gas or other means of force, so that some of the key players in protest groups can end up as heroes.

Limits of peaceful protest

The right to peaceful protest originates from freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association and freedom of speech, all of which are among the rights recognized under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the United Nations. This is also enshrined in section 14 of our Constitution. Like any other right this is not an absolute right and therefore, subject to certain limitations.

For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contains prohibitions on “propaganda of war” and advocacy of “national, racial or religious hatred”; and it allows the restriction of the freedom to assembly if it is necessary “in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” (Articles 20 and 21)

Policing public demonstrations has been a historically difficult task both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. If Police fail to prevent a riotous situation they are accused of being too lax in enforcement; if they are too restrictive they are accused of violating rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Therefore it has been suggested that police should increase their intelligence capabilities to identify potentially aggressive or violent members. Other strategies include the establishment of no protest zones, increased use of less lethal weapons like water cannons and strategic use of arrests.

The kind of daily protest and demonstration as it happens in Colombo is tantamount to real infringement of rights of thousands of others. Their free travel and movement is restricted because of the blockades created by the protestors. It is the duty of the legally elected government to protect the rights of public who are daily affected by these protests.

The real loss created by these protests is much more than what it appears to be.  There is a consequential loss in terms of the number of lost work hours, portraying the country as a trouble spot, creating a sense of political instability in the minds of foreigners vising the country, creating confusion among people and discouraging prospective investors.

Clarity on economic policy needed

The worst is that these things are happening at a time the country is desperately in need of investments. Lack of a clear policy on economic development and investment has added to this problem. Often, on any single issue, there is a divergence of opinion within the ranks of the government. These differences are obvious between the UNP and the SLFP and the ill-effects are more, when each one brings his or her own opinion into the public domain through utterances made at mass meetings.

A classic example was the controversy over the concession agreement to be signed with China Merchants Port Holding Company for revitalizing Hambantota Port. The disagreement between the two governing parties was obvious from the contrary statements made by various ministers.

We are no longer in a position to obtain foreign loans with debt servicing obligations reaching full capacity. Build Own and Transfer (BOT) method of investment has already been proposed as a way of getting investments for essential areas such as infrastructure development.

However, now it is clear that it will not be possible to agree on terms of any such projects unless there is consensus within the government. This situation could best be avoided by first having internal consensus at upper levels of the government which could be achieved through dialogue and discussion.

Between the two governing parties there should be some agreement on modalities with regard to privatization, semi privatization, public-private partnerships, restructuring of loss-making state enterprises and terms of possible Build,  Own and Transfer arrangements (BOT) etc.

If these policy differences are not ironed out, any investor coming into the country will have to face numerous problems with officials at subject ministries as well as line ministries even after the investment decision is made. No investor will want to risk his money in a country where investment policies are not clear.

ETCA and free trade opportunities

While inflow of investments have been negligible and pathetically slow compared to what people expected under the unity government, there is a wide segment of economists and business community who believe trade and economic co-operation with India with access to the Indian market can still encourage investments into the country.  They point out that Sri Lankan market is too small for any significant investor to come and invest and there definitely is an issue about recovery of the investment cost and achieving profitability. On the top of it, there is also a shortage of labour in the country and it is not a secret that in Chinese and Indian projects quite a number of expatriate workers from those countries are currently working.

They point out that despite opposition from nationalist and protectionist groups there seem to be no other way out other than having some opening to the wide Indian market. With huge restrictions it is far more difficult for major international investors to set up their operations in India. If they can have easy access to the Indian market through Sri Lanka they will use the opportunity to set up their operations in Sri Lanka particularly targeting the Indian subcontinent.

This goes hand in hand with our plans of converting Colombo into a financial and shipping hub taking advantage of our geographical location. They say that while straightening the economic policy of the government through internal discussions, steps should also be taken to minimize other negatives and disincentives including corruption.

Now the government in power has completed two years in office it’s time some serious thoughts are given to removing obstacles for investment and economic development as it is the economy which will decide the future of the unity government than any other factor.