ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe denied wide claims of a crackdown on protesters and said he will allow non-violent protests amid continuous arrests of protesters who were instrumental in forcing former leader to resign.
Rights groups and activists have said President Wickremesinghe has been cracking down the protesters after he succeeded to win a parliament vote to become the president on July 20.
Before 24 hours of his oath taking, military brutally attacked protesters within and near presidential secretariat which was occupied by the agitators for 13 days. Police have said the eviction came after repeated requests from protesters to leave the public properties occupied by them.
The July 22 attack and gradual arrests of a number of protesters with some raids under the state of emergency have led rights groups to blame Wickremesinghe for a heavy hand on protesters, who indirectly helped him to become the president of the country.
“Some groups are trying to spread a huge propaganda through social media that I am hunting down the protesters,” Wickremesinghe told in his policy statement when he delivered in the parliament.
“But it is not true. I will not allow any kind of prejudice to the peaceful activists. I will establish an office to protect the peaceful protesters and support them,” he said.
Many protesters accuse Wickremesinghe of acting on behalf of former Rajapaksa first family. Wickremesinghe has been critical of protesters after some of them violently broke into his private house and burnt it on July 9. Since then he has claimed that he does not have a house to stay.
Wickremesinghe said this struggle was “conducted on a non-violent basis and creative manner” and those activists did not commit any act of violence.
“Although, later this non-violence was suppressed and violence emerged, with certain politicized groups that became stakeholders. By indulging in violence the protests turned towards terrorism.”
“I do not allow violence and terrorism. However will protect non-violence and democracy.”
“Peaceful struggle is a fundamental right. I accept those rights.”
He said a peaceful activist can call a 24 hour dedicated line and file a complaint if any injustice occurs to the person and a committee headed by a retired judge will examine such complaints and take necessary measures, accordingly.
“LAW IS THE SAME” FOR ALL
“If there are individuals who have participated in such illegal activities either unknowingly or due to the influence of others, a plan will be prepared to act sympathetically towards them,” he said.
“However, if there are individuals who intentionally violate the law and engage in violent and terrorist acts, legal action will be taken against them. I will not allow anyone to act outside the law. The law is the same for you, me and everyone.”
Before his throne speech, the US-based Human Rights Watch, has warned that Sri Lanka’s government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent appears to be misguided amid a heightened surveillance and threats of violence on lawyers and media after several prominent protesters and social media activists arrested.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the crackdown appears to be an “unlawful attempt to divert attention from the need to address the country’s urgent economic crisis”.
However, Wickremesinghe said his government was only implementing the law of the land.
“The law will be applied equally to the people who attacked the peaceful protesters on 09th May and those who are engaging in violence and terrorism under the guise of the struggle. I will ensure that there is no political intervention in this process,” he said.
On Wednesday, the police arrested a trade union leader for not honouring a court order and ordered the protesters to vacate the protest site by Friday (05).
He also requested the people not to stay in unauthorized places anymore the peaceful strugglers to vacate the unauthorized places and assist to maintain law and order.
“I will take measures to make the change required to build the Sri Lankan nation. I will implement social and political reforms requested by the nation, with the cooperation of all the citizen,” he said referring to the “system change” long demanded by the youth-led protesters.
Protesters shrugged off Wickremesinghe’s comments on protecting non-violent protests.
“He has started to suppress the freedom of expression of the people in the name of implementing law and order. One of the main demand of the protest is law should be equal to all. Wickremesinghe needs to prove this by investigating Rajapaksas and all the corruption alleged MPs,” a protester told Economy Next asking not to be named.
Many activists and his former allies have blamed Wickremesinghe of being soft on some corruption cases against Rakjapaksa family members when he was the prime minister from 2015-2019. He has, however, denied such allegations. (Colombo/Aug 03/2022)