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The Way Forward in Sri Lanka

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been destroyed, but the future looks dismal for the Tamils and indeed for all of Sri Lanka. There are three critical and interlinked steps that need to be taken if the country is to have a political and economic future: demilitarisation, restoration of the rule of law (including curbing the powers of the executive presidency) and democratisation.


that large numbers of elderly people were

The Way Forward in Sri Lanka

dying of dehydration and malnutrition. The plea by Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader Anandasangaree on behalf Rohini Hensman of a one-year-old child whose release had

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been destroyed, but the future looks dismal for the Tamils and indeed for all of Sri Lanka. There are three critical and interlinked steps that need to be taken if the country is to have a political and economic future: demilitarisation, restoration of the rule of law (including curbing the powers of the executive presidency) and democratisation.

Rohini Hensman (rohinihensman@yahoo. is an independent researcher and writer.

he way forward in Sri Lanka involves demilitarisation, restoration of the rule of law, and democratisation. These are interlinked so closely that it is impossible to separate them, and on their fulfilment depends not only the political future of Sri Lanka, but also its economic survival.

Fate of the Internally Displaced

Perhaps the most urgent issue is the fate of internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially the Vanni civilians who were displaced in the last stages of the war. Reports of conditions in the camps where they have been interned vary; but the central issue is not the conditions under which they are being detained, but the very fact of their detention. Various spurious arguments justifying it have been put forward by the government and its supporters, none of which hold water. The fact that in many cases their homes have been destroyed and the areas from which they come have been land-mined by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would certainly suggest that the government should offer them shelter until they can return safely, but that is very different from forcibly preventing them from leaving the camps, even if they have homes or relatives elsewhere. I ndeed, one family has filed a fundamental rights petition before the Supreme Court, arguing that it is unconstitutional to d etain them thus. The Supreme Court has a llowed the re unification of this family within one of the camps, but the larger issue of the violation of funda mental rights still remains unaddressed.

Another argument is that LTTE cadre are hiding amongst the civilians, and therefore a process of screening needs to take place before they are released. This might have been plausible if there had been a steady stream of civilians being released as they were screened and cleared, but so far, only senior citizens have been released – that, too, after a court ruled

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been refused by the authorities makes nonsense of the security argument: are we really to believe that it takes more than two months to ascertain whether or not infants are LTTE cadre who pose a threat to security?

A report by the International Centre for Strategic Defence states that inmates can secure their release by bribing the military authorities running the camps Rs 1-3 lakh. This makes the “security” claim even more farcical, and suggests that these hapless people are being held for ransom – unless, indeed, the purpose is even more sinister.

In fact, while the last batch of displaced people has now been interned for over two months, earlier batches have been deprived of their liberty for much longer. If this situation continues, it will become a crime against humanity as defined by the International Criminal Court (ICC), since it involves “severe deprivation of physical liberty” and “severe deprivation of fundamental rights” of a civilian population. With each passing day, the government’s claim that the assault on the LTTE’s last bastion was launched in order to free the civilians held hostage there looks less plausible, and the allegation that the real purpose was to effect a transfer of population – also defined as a crime against humanity by the ICC – looks more likely. It is an irony that a government that has gone to great lengths to refute the charge of war crimes should open itself up to the more serious charge of crimes against humanity, this time requiring no investigations since they are being committed in front of the whole world! Foreign governments and aid agencies involved in providing for the Vanni IDPs are understandably getting anxious about continuing to contribute to the illegal detention of innocent civilians.

The immediate release of displaced persons who have been interned, and speedy resettlement of all displaced people, including the Muslims ethnically cleansed from the north by the LTTE in 1990, must be part of any post-war programme, and

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foreign governments and aid agencies should insist on these as condi tions for a ssisting the government of Sri Lanka in relief, reconstruction and redevelop ment. Access to the camps and registration by the International Commi ttee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and/or the United Nations (UN) of all inmates, both of IDP camps and detention camps where LTTE cadre are being held, is also nece ssary, in view of reports that abductions and disappearances have been taking place.

Demilitarisation and Rule of Law

In the latter stages of the conflict, the military was doubled to around 2,00,000 personnel, and one would imagine that with the defeat of the LTTE and end of the war it would be halved to its original size, with the demobilised soldiers being reemployed in civilian tasks like the reconstruction that so urgently needs to be done. Instead, there have been proposals that it be expanded by another 1,00,000. This proposal should cause concern not just to minorities, but also to the majority of Sinhalese citizens, because against whom would this enormous military be used, now that the LTTE is no more? And who would pay for it? If the cost of military expansion is borne by the public, which is expecting living conditions to improve with the end of the war, there is likely to be protest in the southern part of Sri Lanka. Perhaps that is the expectation.

The government speaks with two tongues when it talks about the LTTE. On one side, it claims that the LTTE has been completely defeated and the war is over: the huge popularity of President Rajapaksa is premised on this notion, as are the celebrations that accompanied the announcement. Yet government policies, including an increase in military spending and the continued incarceration of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians, can only be justified on the assumption that the LTTE is still a potent threat. Again, paramilitaries kept by Tamil parties like the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) were earlier justified by their need to defend themselves from LTTE assassins, but this excuse no longer holds. They should be disarmed immediately.

The LTTE’s war machine has been destroyed, and its leadership, including

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its supreme leader Prabhakaran, killed; there is no chance that it can be revived in the near future. Desperate attempts by the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora to foster the illusion that it is still alive have more to do with their claims on LTTE financial assets than with anything going on w ithin Sri Lanka.

Basis for Militarisation

The proposal for increased militarisation is based on a Sinhala nationalist view of the conflict, which sees it solely as a problem of terrorism and separatism. Why this terrorism and separatism arose is left unexplained, because the Sinhala nationalist narrative conveniently leaves out all the discrimination, persecution and violence directed at Tamils prior to the outbreak of the war; if the pogroms of 1983 are reluctantly admitted to have taken place, the official death toll resulting from them is cited: 300-400 as opposed to 2,000-3,000, which is the unofficial death toll. Hence, they argue, the way to prevent similar problems arising in the future is to militarise society even more, and keep in place the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations, which allow state actors to violate human and democratic rights with impunity. The horrible paradox is that if the real precursors to the war are recognised, it becomes evident that violation of the human and democratic rights of Tamils and militarisation are precisely what led to it! In other words, what are seen as measures to avert future terrorism and separatism could become catalysts of these very problems.

Furthermore, the destruction of the rule of law wrought by decades of the PTA and Emergency Regulations affects all sections of society in all parts of the country. A bizarre example is the public boast by Labour Minister Mervyn Silva, already infamous for his assaults on mediapersons in the state TV channel Rupavahini, that he was responsible for the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga and the brutal assault on Poddala Jayantha, general secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association. That a minister close to the president can preside over a mafia with such impunity speaks volumes about the lawlessness prevailing in Sri Lanka. The Asian Human Rights

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Commission reports that other ruling party politicians too run criminal gangs that t errorise the south, while the kidnapping of little girls for ransom in the east, and their subsequent murder, is blamed on one of the state-linked Tamil paramilitaries.

Use of ‘Traitor’ Label

A particularly disturbing development is the branding of lawyers defending the publishers of the Sunday Leader in a case filed by the Defence Secretary as “traitors” on the defence ministry web site, a clear instigation of physical attacks on them by state-linked stormtroopers. One is reminded of the reign of terror in the late 1980s, when anyone who criticised the state was designated a Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) member or supporter and therefore worthy of death, while the l awyers who defended them were tortured and killed. Unless civil society in Sri Lanka wakes up to the danger and takes action to avert it, there is every likelihood that there could be a repetition of that nightmare.

Democratic Rights and the Executive Presidency

This brings us to the issue of freedom of expression, a sine qua non of democracy. The International Federation of Journalists has called on the government to “Stop the War on Journalists”, and this is surely an apt expression when the numerous cases of detention, imprisonment, assault, torture and murder of journalists are considered, while several others have been forced into exile in order to escape a similar fate. A ccording to this professional organi sation, Sri Lanka has long been considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. This situation continues unabated even after the annihilation of the LTTE, which was also renowned for its denial of freedom of expression. The modus operandi of the state is in fact a m irror image of the LTTE’s crushing of d issent: those who disagree with the powers-that-be are in danger of being l abelled “pro-LTTE” and “traitors”, and thereafter subjected to arrest and detention, a bduction and assault or murder by state-linked criminal gangs. This has been the fate even of people who have all along been vociferous in their criticisms of the LTTE!


It is worth pointing out that this is appointments without consulting the not just a denial of the right to freedom of Constitutional Council, which itself


expression of mediapersons, but also of the right to information of the public. As of now, the clampdown on freedom of e xpression is not yet complete, but if it progresses further, the public will be fed only the state’s version of what is happening in the country, and kept i gnorant of developments detrimental to their own interests. The revival in June 2009 of the draconian 1973 Press Council Act, designed to protect government privilege rather than the public’s right to information, and opposed by Mahinda Rajapaksa himself while he was in the opposition, is one more step in this direction.

The use of the same criminal gangs against lawyers and opposition politicians undermines the independence of the judiciary and the right to free and fair e lections. But these institutions are also undermined by the existence of the E xecutive Presidency. The absolute power held by this individual trumps the rights of everyone else, and makes a mockery of democracy. This is illustrated by the fate of the 17th amendment. Passed during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency in a rare moment of unanimity in 2001, the 17th amendment to the Constitution attempts to curtail the power of the executive President by appointing a Constitutional Council with representation from all p arties in parliament, which, in turn, would select chairpersons and members to the Election Commission, Public S ervice Commission, National Police Commission, Human Rights Commission, Bribery and Corruption Commission, F inance Commission and Delimitation Commission; its approval was also mandatory for appointments to the offices of the Chief Justice and judges of the Supreme Court, the president and judges of the court of appeal, members of the j udicial service commission other than the chairperson, the attorneygeneral, auditor-general, inspector-general of police, ombudsman and secretarygeneral of parliament. The aim was to ensure the independence of these institutions.

However, as the terms of these appointees came to an end during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, he started making finally became defunct as the government failed to appoint a new one. This occurred despite a determined campaign by civil society organisations, spearheaded by the Organisation of Professional Associations. The consequences were disastrous for the justice system, human rights, the fight against organised crime, free and fair elections, and attempts to curb n epotism and corruption.

This whole sequence shows that any a ttempts to curtail the absolute power of the Executive President which depend on the concurrence of the individual in this position are pointless; neither democracy nor good governance can be ensured u nless and until the post is abolished.

Equality and Democracy versus Ethnic Nationalism

The constitutional amendment that is most often cited as being crucial to a p olitical solution of the ethnic conflict is the 13th amendment, enacted in 1987 in the wake of the Indo-Lanka Accord. The p rovisions of this can be summed up as (a) granting parity of status to Tamil as an official language alongside Sinhala, and (b) granting devolution of power to provincial councils. The former, of course, was promised even prior to i ndependence: a long-overdue measure which could, if implemented, ensure a much greater degree of equality to Tamils. But it is the latter that is normally given more pro minence.

At the time of the accord, devolution was seen as satisfying the aspirations of the Tamil minority by granting Tamils a degree of self-government in the Tamil majority north-eastern province which was created by the merger of the northern and eastern provinces (now de-merged again). The arguments in favour of it need careful scrutiny, however. Do they suggest that Tamils in the north and east would have rights that Tamils in other parts of the country would not? Or that Sinhalese would have rights in the rest

of the country which they would not have in the north-east? What about Muslims and smaller minorities: lacking any territory, would they be deprived of self-determination?

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The linking of territory to ethnicity, religion or language is always dangerous, and in Sri Lanka especially so. The fundamental argument of Sinhala nationalism is that the Sinhalese, as the majority in Sri Lanka as a whole, should have rights and privileges denied to people of other communities. Does the argument for devolution or self-determination implicitly accept this reasoning? For the LTTE, clearly, it did. For example, self-determination meant butchering Muslims in the east and ethnically cleansing them from the north. In the course of my interviews with IDPS in 1990, displaced Muslims told me their Tamil neighbours had wept when they were being evicted, but were unable to persuade the LTTE to allow them to stay. I came across three Tamil women in one Tamil camp whose Sinhalese husbands had been killed by the LTTE; they were petrified that their little bilingual children would say something in Sinhala and give themselves away. In a Sinhalese camp was a Sinhalese man who had managed to escape, who revealed, in hushed tones, that his wife, who was in the camp with him, was Tamil. In a country where people from different communities have lived in mixed neighbourhoods and mixed families from time immemorial, linking a parti cular community to a p articular territory necessarily entails terrible violence, crimes against humanity, and the prohibition of genuine love and friendship, which recognise no communal barriers.

Territorialising rights suggests that rights are a zero-sum game: since the territory of Sri Lanka is finite, more of it for one community means less for another. This is why Sinhala extremists have been able to convince some moderates that recognising “minority rights” means g iving up part of what they legitimately see as their country. For Tamils, surely, it is the opposite: defining only the north and east as “traditional Tamil homelands” entails giving up a large part of what they can l egitimately claim as their country: the whole of Sri Lanka. So what is the solution?

Insist on Equality

Relentlessly insisting on equality, the bedrock of democracy, would disarm the

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Sinhala chauvinists, because it could be pointed out that the minorities are simply asking for equality before the law and equal protection of the law, equal rights and opportunities, and not demanding that anything be taken away from the Sinhalese. Sri Lanka does not have the same language problems as India, since there are only three national languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English. In India, c hildren routinely learn three languages at school, and children in Sri Lanka could easily do the same; indeed, some have a lready begun to do so, and if the effort is continued and expanded, the next generation would not have the same linguistic problems as this one. In the meantime, it would be necessary to recruit Tamilspeaking people and interpreters to all government offices, police stations, courts, army outposts, and so on, so that parity for Tamil can be implemented properly. If all children could be educated in the medium of their choice and all c itizens could communicate with the state in the national language of their choice, practise the religion of their choice in the way they choose or practise no religion if they so choose, and develop their culture individually and collectively in all parts of the island, there would be no need to make special provisions for Tamil majority provinces.

Even the demand for devolution needs to be reframed as a demand for democratisation that brings government closer to all the people, not just minorities, apart from being made far stronger than the 13th amendment, which has loopholes allowing the centre to take back the d evolved powers. Along with the demand

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for abolition of the Executive Presidency, and further devolution to smaller units, it would give all the people of Sri Lanka more control over their lives, instead of having their lives ruled by a remote power in Colombo that knows little and cares less about their needs. Admittedly, the history of Sri Lanka from independence has been one of oppression of minorities, and while some wrongs have been righted (e g, disenfranchisement of the plantation wor kers, discrimination against Tamil by law and constitution), new injustices have arisen, foremost among which is the d enial of liberty to the Vanni IDPs. Therefore, some mechanism to guard against such injustices would be advisable, and this can partly be achieved by giving minorities more power at the centre through a s econd chamber.

However, the best safeguard for the equal rights of minorities would be the understanding throughout society that democracy is not a zero-sum game, but the very opposite. As Pastor Niemoller wrote in the poem quoted by Lasantha Wickrematunga in his last article, published posthumously, if we do not stand up for others when they are under attack, then there will be no one to stand up for us when we are attacked. In other words, by defending democracy for others, one is defending democracy for oneself. All but the oppressors have an interest in maximising democracy, and solidarity between different sections of the oppressed (including women, workers and the rural poor, as well as minority communities) is essential if the struggle for it is to be won in Sri Lanka.

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