National unity cannot be imposed by force
Among the most important of the lessons learnt from the three decades of war and counterterrorism is that national unity cannot be imposed by national security but it must come from the rule of law and the sense of freedom from fear that all communities enjoy equally, writes Jehan Perera from Colombo
THE dominance of national security considerations in the actions of the government have been highlighted again in the hundreds of detentions that have taken place in recent days in the east, especially in the Trincomalee area. It is reported that most of those detained have been released after being screened by the security forces. But the sudden search and detain operations have sent a wave of fear amongst the Tamil people living in those areas. It has served to revive bitter memory of the past. At this time when Sri Lanka is under special international scrutiny on account of alleged human rights violations that took place during the war, the government will be adding fuel to the fire regarding international doubts about its commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
The government has sought to justify this latest security operation on the grounds that those targeted were members of the LTTE or had some connections with it. The government is constantly on the alert to suppress any possible revival of the LTTE. Those found to have had associations with it are detained and are to be subjected to rehabilitation. The government has taken pride in its rehabilitation programme that was set up to deal with the approximately ten thousand LTTE cadres who surrendered in the final phase of the war in the north. Some of the government’s rehabilitation activities have been models for other post-war societies, but others have been less so.
In any event, being suddenly subjected to a cordon and search operation and being taken away by force to a year of rehabilitation will never be a desire on the part of those so detained. Furthermore, there is a significant difference between those detained in the north in 2009 in the aftermath of the war, and those being detained in the east in 2012. Most of those detained in the north were members of the LTTE at the time of the end of the war. Therefore, there was a need to provide them with time and space to adjust life outside of the LTTE. This is not the case with those being pursued and detained today in the east. The war in the eastern theatre of operations ended in 2007, which is five years ago. Virtually all of those now being picked up to be sent for rehabilitation had re-entered their communities and the workforce to provide for their families.
THE resumption of cordon and search operations meant to apprehend former members of the LTTE so many years after the end of the war has generated massive resentment within the Tamil community. TULF leader V Anandasangaree, who was a strong political opponent of the LTTE, and was guarded by the government’s elite commandos during the war, has written an open letter to the president in which he speaks of the fear and tension among the people. He has also said that ‘The only option that will be available to them will be to send their children to various other places, including foreign countries, or as the only alternative compel the youths to go into hiding.’
Even a government stalwart such as minister Douglas Devananda, who was in the forefront of the armed conflict against the LTTE, is prepared to go on record to express his unhappiness at the treatment of the Tamil community as a suspect community. As a Tamil politician who needs to be democratically elected by the people, he finds himself in an impossible situation when his constituents are being picked up in this manner. He has referred to the difficult circumstances of his own detention in the Panagoda military camp many years ago by a previous government during the early period of Tamil militancy. According to him, this is not the way to win hearts and minds and only served to harden sentiments in the direction of further militancy.
There is another serious problem with the current spate of detentions in the east. They do not seem to fall within any law. Even the much-criticised Prevention of Terrorism Act only permits detention without charges for 48 hours. However, it is reported that many of those currently detained have been held without charge. In some cases, the security forces took those they arrested before magistrates in legitimate courts of law, where their detention was declined on the grounds that there was no valid basis in law for their detention for the purpose of sending them off for rehabilitation.
There is a possibility that the government will use a provision within the Prevention of Terrorism Act to bring in new regulations to make the detentions legal. But this provision is itself unacceptable as it permits laws to be made on national security grounds that do not need to be ratified in parliament. Going outside spirit of the law to deal with potential security threats emanating from the Tamil community reflects the breakdown of the rule of law that the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission deliberated upon. The commission specifically mentioned the need to uphold the rule of law and not give any license to the rule of men. The LLRC report has especial importance in today’s context as the international community has formally requested the Sri Lankan government to implement its recommendations at the recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
THE government’s preparedness to deal severely with the Tamil people in the east several years after the end of the war in that part of the country demonstrates the failure of post-war reconciliation. Instead of freedom from fear and feeling that the government is there to protect and restore their lives, the people have to fear and flee from the government. As TULF leader Anandasangaree said in his open letter, ‘The people in the North and East have started to think that their wretched lives that lasted almost 30 years is making a comeback. I am convinced that these searches and arrests are done only to terrorise the poor village folk. The whole exercise will prove counterproductive and bring shame and discredit to the already ailing nation.’
During its heyday, the LTTE ruled over much of the territory of the North and East. As a result a large section of the Tamil community came under its influence and had to adjust to life with it. Therefore it is unjust to claim that anyone with LTTE connections from that period was guilty of a crime and has to be sent off for rehabilitation. Most of those people would have been disillusioned by the LTTE and how it acted. They personally would have experienced the human rights violations of the LTTE, not least the forcible child conscription. In the context of the need for post-war reconciliation it is unfortunate that the government continues to act as if the Tamil community is a security threat. The nationalism of the Tamil people is bound to increase and not decrease in the face of military force.
The most hopeful political development in terms of national reconciliation in recent times was the joint May Day rally organised by the UNP and TNA in the northern capital of Jaffna. There were various threats and insults levelled against them for holding their May Day rally in Jaffna. These included warnings allegedly given by the security forces of possible violence by LTTE remnants, and insinuations that the UNP was being unpatriotic in joining with the TNA which has once claimed the LTTE to be sole Tamil representative. The fact that the leaders of these two parties joined hands to carry the national flag is a symbol of the unity that is possible when there is goodwill.
Although the government has achievements in the fields of economic development and rehabilitation that it can be proud of, this alone is not sufficient to heal the wounds of war and obtain the full measure of the peace dividend that all Sri Lankans are entitled to. Among the most important of the lessons learnt from the three decades of war and counterterrorism is that national unity cannot be imposed by national security but it must come from the rule of law and the sense of freedom from fear that all communities enjoy equally.
Jehan Perera is media director of the National Peace Council in Colombo, Sri Lanka. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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