By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been considered a draconian piece of legislation by many international commentators and human rights advocates. It allowed, among other abuses, arbitrary arrests, indefinite detention, torture, confiscation of property, and the use of confessions made in detention as evidence. Although the PTA was used against all communities in Sri Lanka, its main target was Tamil people. It terrorized Tamil people, especially those who lived in the North-East regions. Therefore, one may presume that the leading Tamil party of the day, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), would have done everything to oppose ratification of the PTA. That was not the case.
The PTA evolved from the Proscription of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Similar Organizations Act of 1978. The PTA was enacted in 1979. When the PTA was introduced and enacted, the TULF was the main opposition party as J. R. Jayewardene’s United National Party (UNP) secured a landslide in the general election of 1977. The coalition headed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was trounced in this election.
The TULF had two specific reasons to oppose the legislation. First, it was the main opposition party. Hence, it had the responsibility to protest a piece of legislation that had enormous potential to undermine democracy and good governance in the country because the legislation was not restricted to the Tamils or the North-East. From the inception, it was clear that the law could be used to silence critics and political opponents of the government in the South. Second, the real targets of the PTA were Tamil militants, especially the LTTE and the Tamil people who directly or indirectly supported militancy. The TULF represented the Tamil people. It had the obligation to protect them from the possible legislative onslaught. Also, the TULF, in this period was promoting and benefiting from Tamil militancy. Hence, an unfamiliar observer could easily assume that the TULF opposed the PTA in parliament when it was introduced as an “urgent bill.”
What did the TULF do? It boycotted parliament on the day of voting. There was nobody from the TULF to speak or vote against the bill. By boycotting parliament, the TULF managed to make both the government and Tamil people happy. The party did not have an extra-parliamentary campaign either. For example, the bill was not challenged in the court of law. According to some observer, the party was taken for a ride. The TULF was promised that it will be withdrawn within a year or two. So, the Tamil leadership was outsmarted by the Jayewardene government.
Under pressure from some of the Western states, the incumbent government promised to repeal and replace the PTA. Now, a replacement formula called the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) has been approved by the Cabinet and expected to be introduced in parliament sooner rather than later. Initial reaction by experts indicate that CTA, compared to PTA, is equally, if not more, problematic
The backdrop of CTA is not that different from PTA. CTA could be used against political opponents in the South as well, but its primary target will be violent tendencies within the Tamil community. Again, a Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance plays the role of the main opposition party in parliament.
Seeing the draft of the CAT, TNA parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran declared “we are shocked by the extent to which the draft framework curtain civil liberties, erodes judicial control over the state security apparatus and the staggering potential for abuse and torture.” If Sumanthiran, an ally of the government, considers the legal framework is bad, it should be really harmful. Sumanthiran’s statement, one again, may impart the impression that TNA is going fight this bill tooth and nail.
I have my doubts. Based on the way the TNA operated in the last two years, I do not believe that it will seriously challenge the bill. There are two major issues. The party leadership does not have the energy to fight for anything. TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sambandan is old and tired. He does not even have the energy to enthusiastically talk to journalists about issues facing his community. Some of his recent interviews are hard to watch. When he is clearly unable, it is treacherous to continue as the party leader at a crucial time in the history of Tamil politics. Interestingly, there is no pressure from the Tamil community to step aside. Therefore, the TNA will continue as a do nothing party.
It will be interesting to watch how the party fares in the next general election. Despite the constant electoral victories, there exists a great sense of frustration about the TNA among the Tamil people. The lack of viable alternatives may be the only factor that could save the TNA from electoral defeats in the future. Currently, many people are furious about the TNA and its activities.
Two, some of the top leaders of the TNA operate as if they are part of the government; not the opposition. Therefore, they are very vocal in defending political schemes and ideologies of the government. One effective example is the issue of constitutional reform. Everyone knows that the process is painstakingly slow. TNA does not complain. Top leaders of the TNA on the other hand, insist that great progress has been made. A recent video indicated that top TNA leaders threatening protesters in Koppapilavu who are struggling to get their land back. On many of the other issues, the TNA remains silent and inactive. Like in 1979, the TNA could be outsmarted by promises, especially on the issue of constitutional reform. A case in point is the voting on the last budget. Without any incentives, the TNA voted in favor of the budget. Among other factors, the TNA was probably convinced by promises.
Against this backdrop, one cannot expect the TNA to effectively challenge the CAT. In fact, I will not be surprised if the TNA decides to boycott the sitting on the day of voting on the CTA.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland