Impact of coercive public protests | Sunday Observer

Impact of coercive public protests

1 August, 2021

Protests and demonstrations are valid in a democracy. Everyone in society should be able to express his or her opinion in a free manner. This is ensured by Article 14(1) (a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka of 1978 that states that every citizen is entitled to freedom of speech and expression, including publications. However, in the context of moral obligation, this does not mean that the protests and the demonstrations should be carried out arbitrarily to the whims and fancies of political agendas to disrupt public lives.

On the other hand, protests and public demonstrations have always been an effective way to show the political hierarchy that the public is not always satisfied with their decisions. Politicians often are sluggish and reluctant to make changes as their key goal is to get reelected. Hence, public demonstrations, regardless of successes or failures, were popular in the past and will play an important role in the future as well. Nevertheless, protestors must be aware of whether their demands can be met and the end result of the effort is successful.

The ambiguity of the perception of social trust is usually maintained by these factions expressing that they are always protesting for the benefit of the general public. Nevertheless, most often this is a belief artificially created by the seasoned political parties to gain temporary mileage. In Sri Lanka, habitually the opposition, regardless of the political party or alliance, from the day they become opposition attempt to organise protests to discredit the incumbent Government, aiming for the next election.

Dubious elements

These dubious elements disregard the possible erosion of civil society due to political divisions and differences. In Sri Lanka, up to now, the impact on the social capital outcome due to political protests has not been examined or researched adequately.

In Sri Lanka, almost every time, the protests are organised to change a decision or an action taken by the ruling Government, irrespective of which political party it belongs to. Any Government will consider the suggestions or demands of protestors if they are constructive and make changes based on public opinion of such demands.

However, if and when these coercive protests disrupt the aspects of the social life of the public, authorities are forced to initiate strong-arm action even if they become unpopular. The irony is if the authorities ignore such situations, they still can be targeted to criticism for inaction on public safety and welfare.

The pertinent question is whether street protests bring in desired results to the core demand or it’s merely harassing a section of bystanders. Street protests are being organised by opposing political parties or trade unions due to various reasons. Even with the participation of large crowds, in comparison to the number of protests, were the demands granted in the recent past except for a very few occasions?

Media, particularly electronic and social, routinely show a sea of people participating in demonstrations. Yet, it is surprising how little results these crowds have achieved, except perhaps instigating temporary public dislike against the Government.

For example, protests of farmers demanding the lifting of the chemical fertiliser ban had been in the main news for several weeks. The Government, without using any type of enforcement countered the move easily by utilising its own propaganda machinery by bringing in another section of farmers who supports organic farming to counter.

Farmers’ protests suffered another setback by losing the sympathy of the public due to the involvement of a political party rejected by the public that opposes any Government in power and any development effort. Lately, the farmers’ demands have been seen by the public as an unscrupulous political move rather than a genuine reason to protest. Ultimately, the protest became stale news to the media that led these protests to a forgotten issue.

Similarly, the ongoing series of protests by teachers’ unions do not gain any public support. The trade union action that has started with an erroneous police action initially demanded the release of some of their leaders who were sent on compulsory quarantine in controversial circumstances. The protests kicked off on a justifiable reason in the public eye.


Even though they were blamed by many people for discontinuing online learning abruptly, the action seemed somewhat reasonable to some people as it was clear that a blunder was made by law enforcement. However, even after releasing the said leaders, the protests continued with new demands that do not seem rational in any way.

The protests by several teachers’ unions appeared to be not only merciless on the student population in the country but also categorised by section of the media as a gross violation of social responsibility. Amid gruesome Covid-19 struggle and with the emergence of Delta variant in the country, the demonstrators expose themselves to the virus and place other people also in danger of contamination.

Contradicting continuous pleas by health authorities, the demonstrators gathered in thousands throughout the country for demands that seemingly cannot be met for the moment due to the ongoing economic crisis. The protestors themselves are aware of this fact although they keep pushing the Government while harassing thousands of innocent passersby and commuters by creating traffic snarls. Certainly, by these acts, they only are subject to public wrath. No wonder if this irresponsible act initiates a ‘Udghoshana Pokura’( Protest cluster).

Even though there can be benefits related to the protests, without public support, the impression that can be made on decision-makers is minimal. Further, the public now realises that collecting people for protests is being done most often through political influence and not through genuine inspiration. The most attractive slogans in protests become ineffective if public support is non-existent.

The country has witnessed in recent times the misuse of demonstrations by politicians for their own agenda. In a politically divided country such as Sri Lanka, the mere presence of politicians invariably divides public opinion. With today’s advanced information flow, people realise that the purpose of the protest can have a hidden political agenda that can split the public perception.

Many protests during the past few decades have become unruly and ended up as conflicts with law enforcement agencies. No Government in power will tolerate unlawful behaviour. As an obligation, any Government is compelled to restrain such activities. In reality, most often, it is the protesters who start unruly actions and provoke law enforcement, dragging them into the conflict.


The onlookers have witnessed that frequently the protesters, particularly university students, controlled by so-called leftist parties, openly challenge the Police to willfully create disagreements. No peaceful demonstration was disrupted forcefully by Police in the recent past unless they were in violation of the country’s law.

Protests are not only questionable from a security perspective but also are costly to the country. Most often, in addition to the cost of the value of protestors’ working time, indirect effect by traffic congestions, loss of man-hours of those who are stranded due to the protests is also added.

While coercive demonstrations demand changes to policies, political actions, laws, or any other issue, it is important to fathom whether it has led to a significant result. Only on rare occasions that the demands of the protestors end up in preferred outcomes.

The key aspect of the failure is that most of the protests are not in line with public preference. Hence, even when the intentions of the protests are genuine and honest, they simply become unsuccessful without public approval.

Any Government in power may simply ignore the protests if the topics or aims of such actions do not directly affect the public welfare.

Also, the reality is that the Governments may disregard protests if they are not considered crucial for future election outcomes.

It is a cinch that most of the demonstrations in Sri Lanka are politically motivated as mentioned earlier and rarely change the mindsets of the public. Most often, the demonstrations are being considered by the majority of Sri Lankans as public nuisance and annoyance.

Occasional media reports and voice cuts confirm the irritation of people. They feel that the time spent on these unwarranted and insensible acts can be utilised better elsewhere with more important things.