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Fighting for Rights in a Repressive State

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Picture courtesy of Facebook

Piyath Nikeshala, a prominent social media activist, was attacked with machetes in broad daylight by former deputy mayor of Kaduwela Municipal Council, SLPP member Chandika Abeyrathne and his supporters. And then Piyath, the victim, was arrested by police while being treated for his injuries. Maurine Noor, another Aragalaya activist who was attacked by SLPP supporters at Temple Trees on May 9, was arrested for walking down the street carrying the national flag and demanding justice after a year of inaction by law enforcement agencies to bring the perpetrators to justice. All of this happened within 48 hours after the anniversary of the May 9 attacks. How dangerous is it to be not just an activist, lawyer or journalist, but to be a citizen exercising his or her constitutional rights?

May 9 marked the one year anniversary of the state-sponsored attack on peaceful protesters at GotaGoGama. After bringing thousands of SLPP supporters in buses to Temple Trees, feeding them and plying them with free alcohol, cabinet ministers and SLPP members made people believe that anyone demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were enemies of the state and traitors influenced by foreign powers. They emboldened these people, under a false banner of an opportunity to be national heroes, to do their duty to the state. And if it must end in blood, let it be so.

The police failed to protect the people at GotaGoGama by allowing the attack to unfold. State sponsored terrorism is not new to Sri Lankans be Black July, anti-Tamil pogroms, anti-terrorism laws or Rathupaswala. This time, Sri Lankans finally pushed back. What unfolded between May 9 and May 13 is now history; history that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Rajapaksa dynasty and the SLPP/UNP government are trying to rewrite in their favour. Statues fell, mansions were set ablaze and the Rajapaksas fled to the North and hid from their own people.

Sri Lankans will always remember this chapter in history as the day they stood up to their bullies.

For generations Sri Lankans patiently endured the thuggery of politicians and state-sponsored terrorism. After decades of abusing human rights and breaking the public’s faith in international bodies and the human rights charter, it was thanks to activists and journalists that people finally understood the importance of standing up for their rights and the impact of their own power. Politicians and political dynasties know that their biggest threat isn’t a political party or a different political ideology; it is people who understand their fundamental rights and who want to exercise these rights. They are also afraid of activists, lawyers and journalists who are disrupting their narrative by encouraging people to embrace their rights. The ones who ask difficult questions and hold politicians accountable are the biggest threats to their reign.

This is why human rights lawyers such as Kanchana Abhayapala and Wijedasa Liyanarachchi, journalists such as Richard de Zoysa and Lasantha Wickrematunge and activists such as Padmasiri Thrimavitharana and Father Mary Bastian were tortured and killed. It is the same reason why Piyath Nikeshala and Maurin Noor are now being attacked and intimidated.

All those fighting for their rights are doing so because they decided to do what was right to make sure freedom could be enjoyed by all and that whoever was standing in their way would be held accountable.

In a sane world, legislators and politicians who faced the wrath of the people on May 9 would have resigned and retired from politics altogether. The least they can do is remember May 9 to avoid another blood bath.

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