“No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds” – The Sri Lankan Constitution
Coming on the heels of my last post about why this country is so great and why I don’t want to leave Sri Lanka, this post is devoted, ironically, to what I think is the single largest cause of this country’s problems. The root of Sri Lanka’s problems is disregard for human rights. For me, it really is that simple.
If respect for human rights came naturally to Sri Lankans, we would never have had a North-East war in the first place. The two main contributing causes of the war were the 1956 Sinhala Only policy and the Anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. These were both events in which the human rights of non-Sinhalese speakers, in general, and, in the second case, Tamil Sri Lankans, in particular, were grossly violated.
Apart from the policy being utterly misplaced from a long-term economic point of view, in 1956, the government – newly-elected with support from racist Buddhist monks – chose to ignore the right of part of its population to learn and work in their own language. By making the Sinhala language the only official language, they effectively denied most Tamil Sri Lankans, Burghers and Muslims the right to work in the government which was, and still is, by far the largest employer in the country. Despite subsequent steps to reverse the extent of this decision, the damage had been done, and the minorities had realized that under the government’s constitution at that time, their rights would be subservient to the Sinhalese Buddhist majority’s democratic dictatorship.
1956 set the background; the catalyst came later. In 1983, the government ignored the right of its Tamil Sri Lankan citizens to personal security when they allowed mobs to attack, loot and burn Tamil Sri Lankans out of house and home. I remember clearly, even though I was only four. Government ministers like Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Matthew were undeniably involved in the riots and provided support to the mobs. These two instances of extreme disregard for the rights of a people to be free to live in safety, to practice and be employed in the language of their birth, is why we have this war today.
I am a Sinhalese. If I was a Tamil adult in 1983, I would have probably been moved to join the fight for a separate state. For, is it surprising that I should want to live in a separate state, when my right to live in freedom is not recognized in practice by my own state? So, some Tamil Sri Lankans adopted countries that have greater respect for human rights and others decided to stay and forcibly create a state in which they themselves could be the dictatorial majority.
You may argue that 1983 was an outlier, a blip in the radar, never to be repeated. The chances of 1983 happening again, you may say, are slim to none. Some might even say, it is inconceivable that 1983 could ever happen again. And, this was also my point of view until recently. And, while I think that, in a certain sense, my belief still holds true – the scale and manner of 1983 will not happen again – the type of human rights violations that occurred during 1983 are happening again today and I feel fairly certain that there is direct government involvement, tacit approval, or at the very least, a lack of will to bring the perpetrators to justice. This is the reason for this post.
Two stories caught my eye recently. Both occurred in the Pettah / Fort area in the heart of Colombo’s business district. The first was about a directive by the police ordering Tamil tenants from the North and East, currently living in fifty-six lodges in the Pettah area to return home. I could not believe it when I read that article. How can you ask a citizen of this country who is legitimately living in rented accommodation to leave on the basis of his ethnicity, without any evidence of wrongdoing at all, in fact, without even making an allegation of wrong-doing? Just an unconditional order with no legal grounds whatsoever, purely on the basis of ethnic and geographical origin? I mean, seriously, WTF?!? The police have not denied the reports.
Article 14.1(h) of the Sri Lankan constitution says, “Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of movement and of choosing his residence within Sri Lanka” and Article 12.2 says, “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds.” Are the police even aware that their action is a gross fundamental rights violation? Or, is there some law point that I am missing here?
While there may be a possibility that an LTTE cadre might stay in those lodges in Pettah, the government cannot just assume that all Tamil Sri Lankans are terrorists. The police force exists to uphold the law, to protect the well-being of the collective, as well as protect the rights of the individual. They do not exist to protect the political power of the president and his immediate family. If there is no legal basis for asking these people to return to their homes in the North and East, the police force is violating the law, and, at the same time, perversely undermining the very reason for its existence. The police must not be allowed to violate the constitutional human rights of citizens so blatantly.
The second story is about two Tamil Sri Lankan Red Cross workers from the East who came to Colombo for a Red Cross conference, and were waiting to catch a train at the Fort Railway Station. This was three days ago, on Friday, June 1st. They were on railway platform 4 when they were approached and questioned by people claiming to be from the Criminal Investigation Department of the police. They were arrested. They could not speak Sinhala. The license number of the white van with tinted windows that took them is known. Their bodies were found in a tea estate in Ratnapura yesterday.
The thing is, the victims and their other Red Cross companions were approached inside the Fort Railway Station, which is probably one of the most highly secured areas of the whole country. This is why I think it is likely that, despite the police denying any involvement, that it is the police, or an alternative government agency, that is to blame. It is unlikely that any other group would act this confidant in such a tightly controlled security area. I get stopped and searched all the time when passing through the Fort area, sometimes as much as three times on just a ten-minute drive. As much as I am reluctant to admit it, I think the most likely conclusion is that these men were taken by the government and killed by the government. Who else would have the motive and the balls to abduct people in public in the Fort Railway station? Two incident reports in PDF format are attached below. One is from the Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC), the other is from, I think, the Coalition of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), but this is yet to be confirmed. The latter has more details and is more damning.
The sad thing is many in the Sinhala majority are not bothered by these human rights violations. Even if they are willing to admit that it is the government that may be behind the incidents, they seem willing to accept it as part of the price of winning the war militarily. Yes, these are the same misguided bulwarks that believe that a purely military strategy against the LTTE is a sustainable and productive course of action. For many reasons, this strategy is not sustainable, and for many more reasons it is unproductive in a country where Tamil Sri Lankans are yet again starting to experience the insecurity of the 1980s. This government is destroying the international goodwill and the trust of Tamil Sri Lankans in the credibility, legitimacy and good intentions of the Sri Lankan government that Kumaratunga and Wickramasinghe had built up from 1994 to 2004, through increasing respect for human rights. In one and a half short years, the utter incompetence and callousness of the Rajapaksa government has destroyed this invaluable positive image at home and abroad.
What the architects and the proponents of the current policy do not understand is that you cannot treat this disease by simply treating the symptoms as they appear. The root cause must be removed. Protect the Tamil people, ensure their security, and you start removing the root cause. The success of a guerilla organization depends on the support provided by the population around it. Take away the reason for the LTTE to exist and you weaken the LTTE. Fuel the reason for the LTTE to exist and you make them stronger.
Like I said above, it really is that simple. The fundamental reason for the Sri Lankan problem is that Sri Lankans are not secure, because their basic human right to security is not provided or protected by the government. Worryingly, more and more often in cases like the two above, human rights are violated by the government itself – the very entity that is supposed to protect it. Let us not forget that the government exists to provide, among other things, basic security for its citizens, not the other way around. And yes, sometimes the well-being of the collective may be at odds with the well-being of the individual and in these cases there is a conflict, and a choice that has to be made. However, in no way, should those choices impede on the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Sri Lankan constitution, because those laws exist precisely to give clarity when there is a choice to be made, and the law, if nothing else, must be held sacred, for all our sakes.