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One striking issue is currently polarising society. Should the country forget about demanding system change and accept the status quo for now to get the economy back on track? The argument is raging hotly on social media where some people are telling protesters to keep quiet and allow the tourists to holiday in peace while activists are demanding an end to repression, the release from prison of their colleagues and the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

The media is filled with images of police outnumbering protesters carrying placards and marching peacefully. The question arises about the waste of manpower and state resources spent of policing these events. They turned up in force, complete with a water cannon truck, outside the UN to drive away people asking for the release of Wasantha Mudalige and other detainees held under the PTA. After initial rumblings and a friendly chat on the street with UN resident coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, the protesters were allowed to remain. The Liberty Plaza demonstrations were continuing without disruption but now police have told them not to come there hereafter and asked some of them to come to the police station for questioning, according to social media reports.

The repression continues. Lawyer Nuwan Bopage, who regularly appears for detained protestors in court, has been named as the 59th suspect in the case of entering President’s House on July 9.

The November 9 protest drew some crowds to Galle Face as well as several hundred policemen who walked alongside them as they marched, trying to get them off the road. Amnesty International said its observers were the ground as demonstrators took to the streets against state repression. “Under international law, law enforcement authorities have a responsibility to facilitate the right to peaceful assembly within sight and sound of the intended audience, in this instance, the general public,” the organisation said.

Before the November 2 protest organised by the opposition SJB, students and trade unions, the police sent letters to the leaders telling them not to take part, a request that was was not heeded. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the Minister of Public Security instructing him to allow the protest to continue, pointing out that freedoms of speech, expression and peaceful assembly were enshrined in the constitution.

Saying that police permission was not necessary for a protest, Amnesty International pointed out that “Urban spaces are not only an area for circulation but also spaces for participation. Many assemblies, by nature, involve a certain level of disruption to ordinary life or the rights of others. Disproportionate restrictions to protest jeopardise the right to freedom of expression. Freedom of peaceful assembly is a right, not a privilege. Authorities are under an obligation to facilitate this right.”

But there were calls to call off the protest. “While recognizing their freedom of speech and right to express views, the chambers request all parties to call off protests of this nature that could undermine the efforts being taken to resolve the current economic crisis with the support of the international community,” said a statement issued by several business chamber including the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Chamber of Young Lanka Entrepreneurs and Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

But the fact remains that while a certain section of the population is enjoying the benefits of electricity, petrol, gas and food supplies, the majority of Sri Lankans, especially the urban poor, are fighting for their very survival.

While the UN has raised $79 million for Sri Lanka through its Humanitarian Needs and Priorities Plan, it requires $70 million in additional funds due to more people being in need across all 25 districts. “Two consecutive seasons of poor harvests, foreign exchange shortages, and reduced household purchasing power have triggered a dramatic increase in food insecurity,” the UN said.

Food inflation was 85.6 per cent in October while 28 percent of the population – or 6.3 million people – face food insecurity. There are fears of rising malnutrition among children, which leads to long term development difficulties.

In its 2023 budget, the government has allocated Rs.539 billion to the military and the police, which is almost as much the money being spent on education and health combined, which comes to Rs.554 billion.

As business conglomerates continue to post huge profits while small businesses go under and the poor get poorer, the inequality gap remains wide. More than half the total household income of the country is enjoyed by the richest 20% while the bottom decile (poorest 20%) gets only 5%, with the share of household income being just 1.6% for the poorest 10%, according statistics from the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA).

In response to the appeal by the chambers to stop protests in order bring about stability to the country and ensure increased tourist arrivals, trade union activist and lawyer Swasthika Arulingam roundly condemned big business as being one of the contributing factors for the economic collapse of the country.

Swasthika spoke to Groundviews on the failure of large companies to look after their workers, the future of the aragalaya and her own hopes for a rejuvenated Sri Lanka.

How has big business contributed to the economic crisis?

Since the crisis started hitting us in March this year, seeing the desperate situation of the people, the unions asked to increase the minimum wage to Rs. 26,000 from Rs.16,000. The business sector is making profits during the crisis and we are asking them to share these profits with the workers. Plantation workers are still not being paid their Rs1,000 a day, which is anyway now inadequate.  The chambers are asking us to  stop protests because they are destabilising the country. But they don’t say anything about not repatriating their profits to help economic recovery. According to Central Bank statistics, only 20 percent of residual profits of exporters are being repatriated. They don’t talk about illegal activities such as union busting. The point is that living conditions have not improved for those outside Colombo. Pregnant women are becoming anemic and children are facing malnutrition so in long run what’s the stability? With less than 10 percent of workers being unionised, there is no one to fight for their rights. They don’t have any bargaining power to negotiate for better wages, working conditions or to fight sexual harassment. During Covid garment workers were forced to continue their jobs and were forcibly vaccinated. Workers are sacked for standing up for their rights. The business community is complicit in creating the crisis the country is facing.

Do you think protests are preventing economic recovery?

The protests are peaceful. There would be no problem if the police didn’t attack them using tear gas and water cannons. If anyone is causing disruption and instability, it’s the state. It’s like a women coming to report domestic violence to the police only to be told not to break up the family by complaining. Protesters are asking for a stop to repression and to be able to come out and protest. The south is now calling for the repeal of the PTA and the release of PTA detainees. The fundamental call of the aragalaya was system change with accountability, transparency and decentralisation of power. We also need control over our own resources. These are long term demands; we are not expecting current president to deliver them.

Will there be another aragalaya to bring about the systemic change necessary?

The current leaders are not giving room for new leadership to emerge so they are arresting young leaders such as Wasantha Mudalige. That’s why they destroyed GotaGoGama as well because they did not want new ideas and political debate. Both the strength and weakness of the aragalaya was that there was no leadership. When some direction was needed to take the aragalaya to the next level, there was no leadership. People are still willing to fight to keep the democratic open. While there is fuel and electricity for some, the masses are facing the unbearable cost of living. If government doesn’t address this crisis, the country will go in a direction we don’t want it to. That’s why it is important to keep democratic spaces open when people want to show their grievances; then there is no need to violence. I am hopeful that we can emerge from this crisis but there are no short cuts. We will have to chart a different economic and social course with a different and radical system. We will either emerge out of the crisis stronger or descend into violence and anarchy. I am fearful that it could go into chaos.