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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Most serious problem faced by people in the North-East on a day to day basis is that of militarisation

Today, the most serious problem the people in the North – East face on a day to day basis is that of militarisation. The military controls all aspects of individual, social and professional life. But perhaps the most destructive practice is the running of commercial enterprises by the military. From barber saloons to bars, and restaurants and hotels to tourist services – the military’s presence is strong.
M.A. Sumanthiran

 Honorable Deputy Chairman of Committees, Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the Defence Ministry’s vote on the Budget for 2012.

With your permission, may I begin with the quotation from John Donne?

I quote “Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.”

(John Donne (1572-1631), Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris)

The allocation for Defence continues to grow each year, even after the war has ended and for this year and next year the budgetary allocation reaches 230 billion rupees. There are reasons for that. And those reasons will reveal a greater threat to this country, than what it faced anytime before in its history.

The tragedy, though, Mr. Chairman, is that the country, blinded by triumphalism and euphoria, is unable to see it yet. I wish to suggest to you today a way of discerning what awaits the country as a whole.

In the aftermath of war, much is being said about ‘uniting’ the country. We are also keen that this country be united, and that all its peoples live in harmony. As President Obama often says “E pluribus unum” – out of many, one. But one of the natural corollaries of unity is that when one is affected, all are affected. You cannot strike my brother, and not hurt me. You cannot take away my sister’s liberties, and not take mine. If we are all connected, we will all rejoice together, and suffer together.

The people of the North – East had the worst excesses of the State thrown against them. They have been deprived of food, medicine, shelter, water and most importantly – their own dignity. They have been denied full and equal access to their citizenship right of this country. The rights that have been taken away from the people of the North – East – those peoples of this country who are numerical inferior – those liberties cannot be taken away from the Tamil people and the Muslim people and not be taken away from the Sinhala brethren.

This country’s history is littered with examples of the rights taken away from the peoples of the North – East, then also being taken away from those in the South –perhaps not in equal measure, but with unerring certainty.

The Prevention of terrorism Act (PTA) is a good example of this. This was devised to control Tamil youth. It was then used to decimate communities in the South. His Excellency, The President himself, and our own Ambassador to Geneva were bitter opponents of the same PTA that is being used with impunity today. Here is what Ms. Tamara Kunanayakam had to say about the PTA in 1987 at the Human Rights Council: and I quote “Most of the threat arrests, the victims which, by and large, are Tamils, are effected under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations.

It may he noted that the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been described by the International Commission of Jurists as an ugly blot on the statute book of any civilised country.” She went on to say, and I quote “no longer can the government of Sri Lanka divert the attention of those genuinely concerned by the human rights situation in that country by references to separatism and terrorism. It must, as we said earlier, address itself to the root causes that have given rise to violence and violations that characterise Sri Lankan society today.” What prophetic words!

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, His Excellency the President himself showed us by example how one should go about complaining to the UN bodies when human rights of the citizens in this country are violated with impunity. He complained about the disappearances of the youth in the South to the UN Working Group. This fact is recorded in the legal annals of this country, in the official law reports, and I would like to read from [1992] 2 Sri Lanka Law Reports at page 223:

“In September 1990, the petitioner went to Katunayaka Airport to board an aircraft bound for Geneva, where the 31st session of the working group on enforce involuntary disappearance was being held from 10 to 14 September.

At the Airport, the 1st respondent disclosing the fact that he was an assistant superintendent of police, informed the petitioner that he wish to examine his baggage for fabricated documents which were likely to be prejudicial to the interest of the National Security and which were likely to promote feelings of hatred or contempt to the government.

The petitioner refused to permit the search and wanted to contact a lawyer. The 1st respondent did not object to this. The petitioner then spoke on the phone to Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranayke the leader of the opposition and there after threw the bags at the 1st respondent and asked him to examine them.

The 1st respondent examined the bags and recovered 533 documents containing information about missing persons and 19 pages of photographs and issued a receipt for them which was counter signed by the petitioner. The petitioner however refused to make a statement to the police.”

And so, we saw the spectacle of the PTA being used against the southern youth of this country. As one who entered the legal profession around that time, I too have had the personal experience of seeing how this draconian piece of legislation was used against the Sinhala people as much as it was used and continues to be used against the Tamil people of this country.

One important reason for the lack of professionalism in our Police force is the PTA. The Police no longer possess the ability to investigate crimes. All they have to do is to extract a confession from a suspect when the chances of him getting out on bail is almost nil. I can confidently say that more than 95 per cent of the PTA convictions are based solely on self-incriminating confessions that are made admissible under the PTA.

I appeared for a husband and wife who had been charged under the PTA for failing to give information to the Police, another offence which is found only in the PTA, about a supposed LTTE operative. The TID as usual, had extracted confessions from them to this effect. But that supposed LTTE operative, who had also been arrested, somehow resisted and did not make any confession about his supposed LTTE activities.
 And so he was released; but this respectable couple still had to face the charge.

On the day of the trial that supposed LTTE operative came to court as a free man to watch the proceedings, in which two people were charged and convicted for failure to give information about him to the Police! That is how ludicrous the provisions in the PTA are.

Thanks to the September sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, the Emergency was withdrawn with effect from the 30th of August this year. But the very same emergency regulations have been re-introduced through the PTA! The situation is worse now. At least previously the validity of these regulations depended upon the extension and vote in this house month after month; now its forever, although clearly the regulations are ultra vires even the PTA and the Supreme Court dismissed two Petitions challenging this, without giving reasons. It was quite obvious though that they really had no reasons but only instructions.

The impunity and the gun culture that prevails in the country was brought to sharp focus just last month, when two advisors to HE were involved in a shoot-out in the Colombo District itself. The advisor on Trade Union matters died and the Member of Parliament who monitors this Ministry was quickly shipped out of the country to prevent arrest.

If this can happen in Colombo, one can imagine what happens in the North-East. The grease yakka saga and the sudden increase in robberies in Jaffna now, are all designed and choreographed to keep tension going and to justify the continued presence of the large military in the North-East.

Mr. Deputy Chairman, The business and investor community today is reeling after the passing of a Bill enabling expropriation of property. This is a most serious development and our party opposed the Bill in the strongest of terms. The rich were not the only ones affected. But before the passage of the Takeover Bill, the poor and marginalised, most notably in Colombo had their houses demolished in broad daylight. But this came as no surprise to us. What is called expropriation now has been happening in the North – East for many decades. People’s private dwelling houses have been taken away, they have been forced onto the streets – or IDP camps – and this happened with impunity.

To date the private dwelling houses that the army occupies extends to 1000. We should not for a moment delude ourselves into thinking that the South is insulated from the North, that the West is insulated from the East. In Ponnalilai, in Jaffna, the people of the area are not allowed to go to their own homes. But tourists from the south are permitted to go into that area. In Madagal, In Keppapulavu, in Mullikulam, and the list continues. All of these areas the military occupies and therefore the people of the area cannot go back and resettle.

Today, the Sinhala media is under severe threat. Many brave Sinhala journalists are in exile, other have been killed. Prageeth Eknaligoda continues to be missing, despite former Attorney General Mohan Pieris’ recent irresponsible assertion that he is in a foreign country.

This too came as no surprise to us. In the years during the war, as many as 12 Tamil journalists were killed. Many were forced into exile.

Others were imprisoned and convicted. One such was one Mr. Tissainayagam – who was convicted under no other law than the very PTA against which our own President and his colleagues lobbied against, which such eloquence and passion. After the conviction of Mr. Tissainayagam there has been yet another conviction and the judge concerned has now received the due promotion.

On the 16th of June this year an election related meeting at Alaveddy in Jaffna at which five Members of Parliament of the TNA were present, was attacked by 30-50 soldiers and officers of the Sri Lanka army, in full uniform and carrying automatic weapons. I made a complaint at the Tellipalai Police immediately, but was forced to make it in Sinhala, a quarter century after Tamil was also made an official language.

To this day, the only action taken by the Police is to file an information at the Mallakam Magistrates Court saying that unidentified men in army uniform attacked a TNA meeting. Can there be a bigger joke than this: that so many pretenders are able to run around in such a heavily militarised area in army uniform and armed to the teeth? What is the point in allocating such a colossal amount to the Defence Ministry if the assialants in Alaveddy cannot be apprehended?

If this can happen with such impunity in the presence of MPs and then for over six months no action is taken, can one imagine the levels to which respect for the rule of law has fallen in the heavily militarized North-East.

Today I wish to challenge the government on this: bring the offenders involved in this crime to book if you are serious about your assertion that it is only ‘a few’ individual soldiers who are involved in excesses and that you take prompt action to punish them. I can tell you that you will not do it, for the simple reason that, in this case, as in most, the orders came from the very top and these are not isolated incidents for which some individual soldiers are responsible. I challenge you again: prove me wrong if you can.

I mentioned the Alaveddy attack only because it had assumed prominence due to the presence of 5 Members of Parliament but what about the attack on Hon Sunil Handunetti in Jaffna? What about the attack on Hon Suresh Premachandran’s Secretary? What about all those dastardly acts of slaughtering dogs in the run-up to the Local Council elections? The list is long and has come to the recent abduction of two JVP activists in Jaffna on Human Rights Day. What then is the point of allocating such a colossal amount to the Ministry of Defence if this is the state of the rule of law in the most militarised part of the country?

So if you believe North and South, East and West are connected – if you know the history of this country – you must also know that what threatens the lives, livelihoods and way of life of people in the North – East will also come to threaten the lives, livelihoods and way of life of people in the South.

Today, the most serious problem the people in the North – East face on a day to day basis is that of militarisation. The military controls all aspects of individual, social and professional life. But perhaps the most destructive practice is the running of commercial enterprises by the military. From barber saloons to bars, and restaurants and hotels to tourist services – the military’s presence is strong.

I recently met a gentleman from one of the chambers of commerce in Colombo, who recounted a story to me. He had met a labourer on the A9 near Mankulam, who had asked him the price he paid for a Thmbili that he was drinking. This gentleman had told him that he paid Rs.40.00, to which the labourer had said that it only costs Rs.20.00 in Vavuniya, and that if the local people are allowed to sell this they would sell it for Rs.30.00 and make a 50 per cent profit.

But the army sells it for 100 per cents profit and will not let them engage in trade. This has completely decimated the livelihoods of people in those areas. People would otherwise have run the local barber saloon, or set up their little shops on the side of the A9 highway are rendered unemployed and destitute. If there is one certainty in this country, it is that you cannot compete with the military.

But it is not just livelihoods – the entire economic structure of the North has been undermined. Because labour and overheads are free of charge when the military gets involved in business, pricing become distorted and competition is quashed. The military is an external, artificial factor that further disturbs economic equilibrium in an already disturbed land.

It does not require a prophet – only a student of recent history – to predict the trajectory of the Sri Lankan economy in the coming years. And we have seen warning signs in the last few years. From security companies to hotels and restaurants to selling vegetables – the military is unmistakeably becoming interwoven into the fabric of the country’s economy.

As we consider the subject of defence, consider the voices of those from the North – East. Heed their warning. In their history, you will see your future; unless we dramatically change the way we run this country and say enough is enough. Civilian rule will be a matter of the past. Civilian rule however flawed and inefficient, however chaotic and unwieldy, should never be surrendered to the oppressive dictatorship of military economic rule.

By calling the Army out each and every single district in the country on the 6th of each and every month by gazette, the President in effect declares a no confidence motion against the police and its ability to maintain law and order on a monthly basis.

We have forgotten the fact that the correct and right place for an army in a normal society is behind barracks. The country cannot live in a perpetual state of military siege. The army needs to be retrained and sent back to civilian life. The military is a hammer in the toolbox of state policy – it is a very powerful hammer – but not every problem is a nail.

I appeal to every right-thinking member of the government today: do not condone the continued militarisation of our country. It is patent that this is continuing to ruin the social fabric of the North-East and therefore will soon eat away all that is precious in our democratic tradition in the South too. This is already happening.

Don’t be fooled by the effeciency with which Colombo is being beautified. That is NOT the job of the military. The longer you take to protest the militarisation of the North-east, the more difficult it is going to be for you to take a stand against forces that are already at your door step that will completely annihilate the precious democratic way of life of the entire country.

One way in which you can do that today, is to speak up against this mamoth allocation for the military in the budget for 2012. You have an opportunity to speak up against this trend that I am speaking about.

You can vote against the allocation today. You have a wonderful opportunity to say enough is enough. We will not allow the militarisation of the entire country. You have it with you. Don’t throw it away. You may not get another chance next year. Such is the speed of take-over of all aspects of civilian life of the country.

Honorable Deputy Chairman of committees, I wish to say a few words with regard to reconciliation. What I want to say is that true reconciliation is always victim centered.

True reconciliation must listen to the voices of those who have suffered. True reconciliation is never prescriptive by any government. Recently there was the first National Conference on reconciliation. The word ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t fit that conference. 22 people spoke, except 3; all were from the majority community. I’m told that the first list of 16 persons were entirely from the majority community. What is the reconciliation? With whom are you trying to reconcile? With yourselves? If you are serious about reconciliation you must listen to the voices of those whom you want to reconcile. If you continue with this trend, this is just another ruse that the government is using and Sir, I was saying – listen to the voices that have suffered. Nobody can gainsay the fact that it is the people of the North and the East who have suffered more during this war. You can’t say otherwise. What is the mechanism that the government has instituted to listen to the voices of those people?

You had elections and they spoke very clearly, you had elections in staggered fashion for three times this year and at every turn, they spoke to you very clearly and elected the TNA as their representatives. If you want to talk to the representatives of the people and that you must do, if you are serious about reconciliation, you must to listen to what the TNA has to say on behalf of the people.

If in this house itself you manifest your inability, your unwillingness, to listen to the people’s representatives from the north. That says what you will do in time to come as well.

My appeal to you is you cannot achieve reconciliation by merely shaking hands with some people – one or two individuals – and making them ministers or deputy ministers in your Cabinet.

That is not reconciliation. Your contempt for the rule of law is seen by the fact that there are deputy ministers in your cabinet who have committed serious immigration offences, pleaded guilty to them and served sentences in other countries and have come back only to be made deputy minister here.

You have ministers in your Cabinet who are proclaimed as persons who are being sought after the law for murder and abduction of children and there has been proclamation to that effect and they remain, still remain as ministers in your Cabinet. If that is the attitude that you can win over some criminal elements from the Tamil society, keep them with you and then show the world that you have achieved true reconciliation, Sir that will not sell.

You have to achieve true reconciliation with the people, with actual people, not with persons who have been discarded and who have been proclaimed as persons who are being sought after and are unable to even go to the neighbouring country. No true reconciliation will ever be achieved by getting a few criminal elements and making them ministers. The only way, if you are really seriously interested in winning over the hearts and minds of the Tamil people of this country, you must (interruption).

The moment you touch a raw nerve, the moment I say achieve true reconciliation by a genuine process, everybody gets so upset and are disturbing. So that is indicative of the path that the government is treading today, which is in the opposite direction to reconciliation. I’m appealing to you please turn around, leave all those criminal elements out, come and join with the people and the people will respect you for that.

Sir, before I conclude the speech, I will make this appeal once again. As I said to the ministers: you have an opportunity today, I appeal to the members in the government ranks, you have an opportunity today, to say: enough is enough, no further militarisation of the country, North-East or even the South and West. That is in your hands today. You choose to ignore what I say: our history will be your future and I hope that sensible minds there will listen to this today.

I said if you really want reconciliation with the people who have been trodden under the jack boot of the army, who have been mercilessly ill-treated, who are still living under tarpauline sheets, because there are no houses that are being built for them, who have to see the spectacle of the multi-billion dollar roads and bridges that are being built by the side, but they have no roof over their heads, who still hold pictures of their loved ones going from street to street, from junction to junction, from town to town, looking for their loved ones who are missing. You treat them the way you are treating them today, you will never achieve reconciliation. If you are sincere about reconciliation, if you really want this country to be one, there is only one way, and that way is to listen to the voices of those people, grant them the right that they are entitled to as a People, and then in one country we can live together as brothers, as equals with dignity.

Even after we have repeatedly told you as the representatives of the Tamil People, we are willing to live with the Sinhala People, with the Muslim People of this country but as equals, not as second class citizens but as equals entitled to and enjoying our right as a People. But if you continue to ignore that there is no way in which you will achieve reconciliation.

Thank you very much.
TC