The Tamils who have occupied part of Parliament Square in central London for more than nine weeks announced yesterday that they were ending their demonstration – one of the longest-running illegal protests ever held in London.
They wanted Britain to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government, first to call a ceasefire in the civil war and then, when the war was officially over, to call Sri Lanka to account for war crimes. Organisers say they will now try to pursue the same objective by other means, starting with a march through London next weekend.
The Tamils' protest had its downside. Parliament Square became a no-go area at times, and the policing bill runs into millions. The presence of more than 50 protesters at any one time broke the law, and some of the demonstrators' tactics, which included putting women and small children in the "front line" and closing crucial thoroughfares in the rush-hour were dubious.
The balance, though, we would say was positive, not least because the Tamils' protest was overwhelmingly peaceful – and so was the police response. The vicinity of Parliament should be open for people to demonstrate, whoever those people might be and whatever their cause. Laws that ban such public protests are unworthy of a democracy, least of all one that sets itself up as a model for other countries.
As it happened, even as the Tamils announced their change of tactics, supporters of the Iranian opposition candidate, Mirhossein Mousavi, with their trade-mark green scarves, were assembling outside the Iranian embassy to protest against what they see as the "stolen" election. In so doing, they were picking up the baton not just from the Tamils, but from an almost unending relay of protests by members of the many exiled and émigré communities who have adopted London as their home.
From anti-Apartheid protests outside South Africa House to, more recently, the Tibetan and Falun Gong vigils outside the Chinese embassy, to Georgians outside the Russian embassy last summer, London sometimes seems like demo-central. But that is something Britain should be proud of: providing a haven and a platform for those whose voices are silenced at home.
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