ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 15
Columns - Telescope  

Govt., opposition taking cover behind counter-terrorism

By J.S. Tissainayagam

In its latest indictment against Sri Lanka’s human rights violations, Amnesty International states, “Unlawful killings, abductions and enforced disappearances of civilians are daily occurrences in Sri Lanka. Several hundred cases of enforced disappearances and several hundred unlawful killings have been registered in the first six months of 2007.” (AI 4/Sept./2007)

In its report, AI has referred to emergency regulations amended in 2006 allowing “the government to deploy the military and detain without charge anyone suspected of terrorist activities,” and that it places restrictions on civil and political rights.

The report also focuses on the deleterious effect of the amendment defining terrorism too broadly, stating: “Many provisions are very vaguely and generally worded and therefore may be interpreted as criminalising a wide range of activities… The organisation is also concerned at their allegedly discriminatory application with regard to Tamils.”

However, on the very day AI went public with this report, Sri Lanka’s parliament debated the extension of the state of emergency. The debate turned acrimonious when the Opposition UNP and JVP contested certain amendments. These however pertained to the freedom of political parties to work in a competitive, multiparty political system and not to any abridgement of constitutional protection of the rights of citizens.

The tussle was due to the opposition’s nervousness that the new amendments defined as an act of terror, even actions to bring about “…political or governmental change, or compelling … governmental change.”

Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake however said the government would not amend this clause but pledged “no political party would be penalised by its introduction.” (Daily Mirror 5/Sept/2007) Though expressing their scepticism, the opposition responded positively with the JVP voting for the extension of the emergency and UNP abstaining. The upshot of the exercise was that the state of emergency in the country was extended by one more month.

The Daily Mirror goes on to quote two senior parliamentarians: Lakshman Kiriella (UNP) and Vijitha Herath (JVP) on the issue at hand. Kiriella said the UNP would never oppose the government’s moves to crush terrorism in the greater interests of the country, while Herath had stated such laws should only be used to counter terrorism and not democratic political activity like protests and demonstrations.

It is important to dwell a little on what is meant by crushing/countering terrorism. Over the years the phrase has become a byword for a wide range of actions that governments of the day unleash on Tamil and Muslim civilians of the North and East, and the Tamils all over Sri Lanka, on the pretext of fighting the LTTE. Military operations against the rebels, which should be the core of any exercise in “crushing terrorism” have, in this country however, been accompanied by systematic violations of human rights of non-combatant civilians to which Amnesty as well numerous other institutions and governments have referred to, time and again.

The logic of this, if we exclude those who derive sadistic pleasure by victimising innocent civilians because they are unable to fight the real enemy, is the knee-jerk, law-and-order response to insurgencies and civil unrest – torture and terrorise the public which is the breeding ground of insurgents, and the rebellion will peter out. Notwithstanding the fact that such tactics are invariably counterproductive, they continue to be applied with great perseverance.

So what do we learn from this? The parliamentary opposition is quite prepared to connive in extending emergency regulations month after month so that the Tamil public is tortured and terrorised on the pretext that the hunt for the rebels is on. Suffering heaped on the Tamils is merely collateral damage that no one can do anything about.

But on the contrary, the moment the opposition perceives emergency laws as threat to its party-based political activity in the South, alarm bells begin going off to flag and redress the trend.

The slogan of “crushing/countering terrorism” has been a convenient shield behind which not only governments, but oppositions too, have taken cover. Another incident that occurred in parliament this week demonstrates their hypocrisy. When the government presented the five money bills to raise taxes, it said such revenues were required to prosecute the war. But the opposition questioned and opposed it on the basis it would be a ruinous burden on the public. The reason why the opposition was not willing to accept the cliché “more revenue in the form of taxes are needed to continue the war” is because tax levies affect all communities, whereas the slogan “crushing terrorism” only affects the Tamils and Muslims.

Another example of southern politicians’ flagrant disregard of the underprivileged sections of the Tamil public was witnessed in the recent spate of abductions. Abductions had been taking place from 2005 and began accelerating in 2006 after the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was installed. Despite matters reaching unbearable proportions in the North and even Colombo, no politician made any effort to address the issue in a substantive way until the blood-smeared hands of the abductors struck on Colombo’s elite.

But no sooner than prominent Tamil and Muslim businessmen were abducted the matter was raised in parliament leading to a series of arrests. The reason is simple; votes of Tamils and Muslims in Colombo count; moreover, it is the millions of the business community that back the ostentatious campaigns of southern politicians seeking office.

In the past, security-related laws have been retained even in times of peace. At a press conference in the early months of his government, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was asked whether he would repeal the PTA. He said he would not, and remain it did, though nominal restrictions were placed on its application under the CFA.

The question is; how do the Tamils react to two parties, whose leaderships are not fundamentally different when it comes to the bottom line in dealing with the ethnic conflict. One group might be cruder in its tactics than the other, but both parties have a tacit understanding that their repertoire of dealing Tamil grievances would include terrorising the civilian population.

It is perhaps fortunate that at a time when political parties in parliament are engaged in a grim battle to either prolong the life of the present parliament or bring about a regime change that the we know where political parties stand on that fundamental question of using law to unleash terror; closer than they would want the Tamils to know.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.