Dedicated Protest Zones | Daily News


Dedicated Protest Zones

The step taken by the Ministry of Defence in conjunction with the Police to allocate designated areas for public protests and demonstrations, no doubt, will be welcomed by motorists and other road users and the public who are forced to endure much hardship and inconvenience due to the traffic jams and other travel blocks that ensue as a result of such agitations on roads and city junctions.

According to news reports, a separate area for protests has been earmarked at the Galle Face, Colombo, adjacent to the Presidential Secretariat. Moves are on to demarcate a similar site close to the Town Hall (Lipton’s Circus). Both venues are regular locations of public protests and student agitation.

These dedicated sites for protests and demonstrations are to be named ‘Agitation sites’. Police have also warned that necessary action would be taken against those defying this arrangement and causing hindrance to the public by disrupting day-to-day activities. Such an idea was first mooted by the Yahapalanaya Government during the height of the anti-SAITM agitations that brought life in the City to a virtual standstill. However, for some reason, this plan was shelved at the time.

Mass protests in urban areas bring masses of vehicular traffic to a standstill entailing a huge waste of fuel. There is also the loss of human hours due to a segment of the workforce being stranded on the roads. There is also an urban pollution impact from the exhaust fumes, metal dust from engines and, heat emissions.

In addition, frequent protests and demonstrations send the wrong signals to would-be investors. Besides, the public financial outlay expended on free education would be to no avail if students are seen more often on the streets than in the campuses. Worse, among those stranded in traffic jams could be seriously ill patients and accident victims whose lives hang in the balance for want of timely medical attention.

The Government, no doubt, would have given consideration to all these aspects when deciding on separately allocated sites for protests.

The expansion of the visual media where optics play an important role has come in handy for those wanting to create a noise about their grievances. A dedicated area for protests where police action would be limited (since there is less disruption caused) would avoid deliberate provocations and disruptions while still enabling the protestors to express themselves and highlight their grievances. At the same time, the audio-visual media will still give good coverage to any theatrics by the protestors, of course, minus the menacing clouds of tear gas.

What is most important, however, is the endeavour of the authorities to balance a variety of social needs: the need for free and spontaneous public expression on the one hand and for the maintenance of public peace and order on the other.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa may have learnt from the vociferous protest culture that marked both the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and also the subsequent Maithripala Sirisena regime. If the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was marred by some incidents of violence during the controlling of such public protests, the Sirisena regime went in the other direction of permissiveness with literally thousands of human hours wasted due to the complete lack of any management of social order in the face of widespread and constant exercises in public protests by all and sundry.

While the previous regime may have thought that it was enhancing its democratic credentials by being so permissive with public order, the frequent chaos on the streets caused by these demonstrations did little to reassure the citizenry about societal stability. Meanwhile, potential investors would not have been encouraged.

During the previous regime, protestors would sometimes be allowed to hand over their petitions to a junior officer representing the potentate whom they were targeting with their grievances. Such low key responses often failed to convince the protestors and the watching citizenry about the commitment of the potentates concerned to the genuine resolving of problems.

In this light, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has broken new ground. He is the first executive head of State to actually step out of his offices and meet with the protesters ‘on-the-spot’ as it were. He recently personally met with protesting Dengue preventive officers and promised to make permanent all the employees of the All Island Dengue Prevention service.

It may not be possible for the President to personally meet all such protesting groups and neither should he, especially when some of these protesters are those bent on merely stirring up controversy and public uncertainty. The President need not give legitimacy to all instances of such histrionics. But the good intentions of the authorities in creating such protest zones must be acknowledged.

Hopefully, even as such dissenting voices get heard in public, the public will, in future, be able to carry on with their lives with the reassurance that they too, can give vent safely whenever they also face difficulties that need political attention.

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