Replacing fascism with police state

On the opposite page we detail some of the happenings in the camps housing the Internally Displaced People (IDPs).
In recent decades, Sri Lanka has had a chronic refugee problem. There was a time when a million people were in refugee camps some for years on end, like the Muslims driven out of Jaffna and staying in Puttalam. There were refugees of every community in the camps. A million meant that one in 20 Lankans was in a camp -a damning statistic by any standard.

The Government blames the delay in resettlement on the problem of de-mining these former war zones. While some see darker reasons for forcibly keeping back the IDPs, there is no question that de-mining is a laborious task, easier said than done.

It is not so much the delay that has irked the Government's critics, especially those abroad and even more the Western countries pressurized by the Sri Lankan Diaspora in those countries, but the manner in which their claims - exaggerated as they may be -- are dismissed.

When the US State Department pontificates about human rights in other parts of the world while abducting terrorist 'suspects' in the process called ‘rendition’ largely from Pakistan and flying them across continents to a military base in Latin America to be given the 'water-board' torture treatment, it loses its moral right to speak on these issues.

However, it does not necessarily follow that what it says is always wrong. Our approach seems to be one of 'we don't care two hoots for what you say; we will do just what we want', and then proudly say we told them where to get off.

That's all very well if we don't have to go to them for favours like the GSP+ duty-free quota concessions for a number of our exports to the European Union. With every sign that Sri Lanka will lose this concession, the Government is still adopting a 'don't-carish' stance.

Whether that is the right approach remains to be seen. It is one thing to maintain national pride, but another when it has to be swallowed by having to go behind IMF loans. Compounding the issue is the human rights concerns that the EU has expressed on the Government's approach to the post-insurgency scenario following the successful liquidation of the LTTE in May this year.

The arbitrary use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has come in for increasing debate with journalists now becoming victims of this draconian piece of legislation.

The PTA was a necessary evil at the time -- a desperate law for desperate times. Even when it was introduced, the law vested with the Minister of National Security certain powers which were once used to arrest a popular singer at the airport for an alleged theft in America. The law enforcement agencies gleefully obliged with this patently illegal order.

The PTA, even if it cannot be repealed yet, must be used judiciously and its wide powers whittled down if we are to progress towards normalcy. For example, the length of time a Detention Order can operate, the non-availability of discretionary powers for a Magistrate etc., must begin to show some laxity based on the nature of the offence. The PTA cannot be allowed to supersede the freedoms provided for in the Constitution, nor be unquestionable in a court of law.

Or else, the fruits of victory will not pass down to the people, and the Government will not be able to say it has defeated terrorism. The defeat of a monstrous fascist organization to be replaced by a virtual 'Police state' is not a victory for democracy.

The agony on estates

If there is a knock-on effect of one incident impacting upon another, (as stated above), then our analysis last Sunday about the fall-out from the tragic deaths in Colombo of two teenage girls from the plantations, is another example. The investigations into their deaths have taken the authorities not only to how they died, but why they died - the circumstances in their totality - and whether the Education Ordinance and the Children, Young Persons' and Women's Employment Ordinance have been infringed etc. It is unfortunate that the girls had to lose their lives for the country to wake up to the harsh realities of life in Sri Lanka, especially for the under-privileged.

From the closure of many provincial schools under a decrepit provincial council system, child-employment; and poverty, the issues are many. The role of the 'job agent' or the 'broker' has been a long established recruitment procedure despite the hue and cry from time to time like in the deaths of these girls.

The case of an underage girl from a poverty-stricken family in the East who was sent to Saudi Arabia for employment on a false passport, but now languishes in a jail for alleged murder, was news not too long ago.

A definite co-relation in such cases is the fundamental question of poverty, manifest all over the country in 'children' working as tea-boys and bus conductors to bring home the bread. The World Bank Poverty Assessment Report also showed that the estate sector was the poorest in the country.

Plantation workers have launched a 'non co-operation campaign' - a go-slow --demanding Rs. 500 per day - up from Rs. 290 + they receive now. Many feel that poverty in the central highlands is not limited to the tea pluckers and that they are better off than their brethren outside their estates.

The knock-on effect comes when it affects tea production levels - Sri Lanka's tea production has already fallen short of about 20 million kilos this year. The exceeding poverty is not receiving the attention of either the Government, or foreign donor nations. The so-called International Community (IC) has been riveted by the plight of the North because of howls from the Sri Lankan Diaspora, but blind to the unfortunate people of the plantations.

They have no spokesman, not least India or Tamil Nadu whose kith and kin make much of these people. There is a greater need to look into their welfare, for at the end of the day, it is their sweat and toil - much like those who work in West Asia, that brings in valuable foreign exchange for the rest of the country to make their imported purchases.

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