SJB defiant: Sri Lanka opposition to go ahead with protest despite legal hurdles

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s main opposition the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) is determined to go ahead with a mass rally cum protest planned for Tuesday (16) despite what the party claims are government attempts to block it, party spokesmen said.

The event was originally supposed to take the form of a number of protest marches in different parts of the country culminating in a mass rally at Hyde Park grounds, Colombo, against the “accursed government”. But the public health department of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) had other ideas. Last Friday (12), it revoked an approval it had previously given the SJB for the Hyde Park rally, citing increased COVID-19 cases.

Last Thursday (11), a gazette was issued with amendments to Sri Lanka’s quarantine ordinance, making it mandatory for event organisers to obtain prior approval from relevant authorities for any public gathering. The authorities were empowered to make decisions on venues, the number of participants and other particulars.

The latest development is court orders sought by Sri Lanka police blocking the protest.

Police spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Nihal Thalduwa told EconomNext Monday (15) afternoon that Hulftsdorp magistrate’s court 5, Mahara magistrate’s  courts  1 and 2, the Kaduwela magistrate’s court and the Homagama magistrate’s court has issued orders to this effect.

“Some other courts’ orders are pending. The request from police to the courts was to issue orders to prevent the rally under quarantine law,” said Thalduwa.

SJB MPs cried foul.

SJB general secretary MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara told EconomyNext that the rally will go ahead as planned, despite the government’s best efforts to block it. Though some courts had issued orders against it, other courts have rejected the appeal from the police, the MP said.

“The government is trying in various ways to stop the event, but this is failing,” he said.

Asked for more details on the nature of the event, Bandara said a number of participants cannot be specified because “everyone will come voluntarily”.

“Expect a good crowd, and protest marches coming from several areas will gather in Colombo,” he said.

The main opposition party has been promoting the protest for over a week, with videos shared online and on broadcast media inviting the public to join its protest against an “accursed” government which has betrayed its own voters.

If it goes according to plan, the protest will see thousands of farmers and people of all walks of life take to the streets to express their frustration over the rising cost of living, the ailing economy, the COVID-19 epidemic, and a number of other issues.

MP Harin Fernando told reporters last week that the objective of the protest will be to see if the government will make good a perceived threat to “grab farmers by the neck”.

Related: Sri Lanka opposition SJB to launch massive farmers’ protest on Nov 16: MP

Other SJB lawmakers who spoke at a press conference Monday morning accused the government of dictatorial attempts to stifle protest.

SJB member S M Marikkar questioned what he claimed was the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s hypocrisy with respect to COVID-19 regulations.

“How did the SLPP have its anniversary celebration then? How is the president holding Katina (a Buddhist religious event) ceremonies with a massive crowd? How was the [opposition United National Party] allowed to hold a protest at the Lipton Circus? Was that part of a deal?” said Marikkar.

“Public protest against this dictatorial regime cannot be suppressed this way. It cannot be allowed to suppress it,” he added.

The MP also accused the government of not heeding expert calls for a lockdown when Delta-led COVID-19 deaths were spiking in August.

“We have no wish to grab power at this time. We will come to power through an election. But this leader must learn the kind of strain the people are under,” he added.

Firebrand SJB MP Harin Fernando said: “Sir is scared. He has gone crazy. We are definitely coming tomorrow.”

“Sir fail” has been a popular meme on social media in Sri Lanka which has now become an opposition mantra against the failures of the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Fernando further said the police cannot be blamed for seeking court orders to prevent the rally as they are compelled to follow orders from the top.

“We have made revelations about DIGs in parliament, senior police officers who hid in hotels when they were needed the most. Such senior police officers exert pressure on junior officers,” Fernando claimed, referring to a controversial speech he made in parliament last week on the 2019 Easter bombings.

Related: Sri Lanka police minister denies Easter attack allegations; opposition doubles down

“We ask police officers to have a backbone and remember that governments change. The same government won’t be there forever,” the MP said.

Nor does the SJB wish to harass the health sector, he said.

“A president who isn’t afraid would never attempt to sabotage such democratic rallies,” he added. (Colombo/Nov15/2021)

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