By Jehan Perera –
Every Independence Day there is the hope that the country will turn the corner and reach the potential it had in 1948. Leonard Woolf, the British Civil Servant who wrote “Village in the Jungle” saw the newly independent country as a future “Switzerland of the East” if it found a way to share political power amongst its different ethnicities and regions in the way that Switzerland had. But once again Independence Day reminded the country of the seemingly permanent divide that exists in the country without getting erased with the passage of time and the gaining of wisdom. The divides showed starkly on this occasion. The event was boycotted by several of the most important national actors which demonstrates a political polarization that the government has been unable to bridge.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa explained his boycott by saying it was not acceptable to hold celebrations, spending billions of rupees, amidst a crisis situation in the country. He said, “That was why I decided not to attend the celebration. Even the powerful and wealthy countries in the world did not spend so much money to celebrate their independence days, when there is a pandemic.” Less surprising was the boycott of the Independence Day event by the Tamil political parties. They have generally not participated in Independence Day events, as their position is that the Tamil community in the country is not being treated as equals and with equity. It is the tragedy of Sri Lanka that 74 years after independence the country has not displayed pluralistic values that could have bound communities together by jointly celebrating Independence in a meaningful manner.
Without dialogue and an exchange of ideas there cannot be fellow feeling that can unite both hearts and minds. This ethos of estrangement was evident in the fact that the entire Independence Day event was conducted only in the Sinhala language, disregarding the Tamil language which is equally an official language. In the past two years, civil society groups urged the government to have the national anthem sung in both official languages at the Independence event as recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. This had been done during the period of the last government, which gave rise to the hope of a gradual process of reconciliation. Sri Lankans who give priority to national reconciliation can only hope when we celebrate our 75th anniversary of independence next year, it will not only be a display of military might and hardware, but celebrated by respecting and showcasing our religious and cultural values that would enable us to become a nation truly reconciled within.
In his Independence Day speech, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appeared to fix his gaze to the future. The president had reassuring words which all citizens would wish to believe. He said, “Our objective is to do what is right by the country, and not to please everyone. We can make our way forward successful only with a positive attitude that looks optimistically towards the future…Difficult times do not last forever.” He also had words that the international community would wish to hear. He said, “We are a nation that safeguards the rule of law and respects international conventions. Although some parties have attempted to make various allegations against Sri Lanka for narrow motives, the government has not condoned any type of human rights violations, and will not leave room for such incidents in future either.”
Sri Lanka’s continued reception of GSP Plus benefits from the EU hangs in the balance. The government needs to meet the challenge of the EU parliament’s resolution that called for a temporary suspension of this tariff privilege so long as Sri Lanka did not bring its Prevention of Terrorism Act into conformity with international standards and showed progress in other areas of human rights. The task of meeting this challenge appears to have fallen onto Prof G L Peiris who was appointed to the position of Foreign Minister due to the escalation of the human rights-related pressures from the international community. The centerpiece of the government’s response appears to be the reform of the PTA.
After a long and laborious process that saw the PTA go through a committee of officials drawn mostly from the security forces and government agencies with links to national security the amendments were submitted to a committee of government ministers headed by Prof Peiris. It is notable that the amendment to the PTA is being presented to parliament by the Foreign Ministry and not by the Justice Ministry or by the Defense Ministry which would have been more appropriate. It appears that Prof Peiris has taken up the challenge to bell the cat. This is an act of courage for which he needs to be appreciated. Getting the amendments approved by the cabinet was reportedly not an easy task and required much argumentation and persuasion on his part.
The PTA has been a reform-resistant piece of legislation and these amendments being made to the PTA are the first in 43 years. The last government (2015-19) was perhaps more human rights and civil society-friendly than any previous government. It made a serious attempt to amend the PTA. This was in pursuance of the commitments it had made in terms of UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015. The government proposed to replace the PTA with a Counter Terrorism Act. But the CTA turned out to be worse than the PTA. Later modifications made it more acceptable and it was approved at the cabinet level only to be stopped by the Easter bomb events. Despite being human rights and civil society-friendly, the last government was also unable to release any PTA detainees from custody which is itself indicative of the tremendous resistance to reform within the state system. Such a resistance continues to this day.
The amended PTA is an improvement over the law as it currently stands, but has been roundly criticized and rejected by the Tamil political parties and by human rights groups as being wholly inadequate. The powers of arbitrary arrest and detention given by the PTA to political and administrative authorities and to the security forces are frequently misused. They have impacted most severely on ethnic and religious minorities and also on political opponents of incumbent governments. In addition the law has indemnity clauses that protect public officials which need to be removed in cases of egregious abuse as decision makers should be responsible for their actions.
The amendments include provision for detainees to apply for bail to the Appeal Court after one year of being detained whereas they can now be kept in detention without bail for several years. However, the amendments do not touch other very objectionable features such as the overbroad definition of terrorism which led a government minister to recently threaten to arrest striking railway engine drivers under the PTA and for confessions made to police to be admissible as evidence. Reportedly, in reply to an observation by an opposition parliamentarian that the amendments were unsatisfactory, Prof Peiris had replied, “We have to start somewhere…”
The boycott of the Independence Day event by the Catholic Church is an indicator that hope got lost in this long wait. The words and pledges of government leaders are not manifested in deeds. Ironically, at the same time as the government was proposing its amendments to the PTA, a church worker was being held in detention without bail under the PTA for allegedly placing a bomb in the church. The CCTV cameras in the church showed, very clearly, another person placing the bomb and going away. In other words, the abuse that the PTA permits continues even while the amendment process is taking place. Only a repeal of the PTA accompanied by a sincere implementation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s words that his government would be leaving no room for human rights violations can prevent such injustices from recurring time and time again, and help to put Sri Lanka on the path to being the Switzerland of the East.