A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission
(Statement on the Sri Lankan Independence Day)

(February 04, Hong Kong Sri Lanka Guardian) This picture, which has become familiar to all Sri Lankans, is a symbol of the collapse of Sri Lanka’s policing system and the loss of a sense of security among the Sri Lankan people. To understand this collapse and what has happened to the policing system one has to look at the failure of the development of public institutions in the country. The process of deinstitutionalising Sri Lanka has been accompanied by deconstitutionalisation. The basic legal framework of the 1948 Constitution was displaced in its entirety by the 1978 Constitution, which created an Executive Presidency and raised the president to a position above the law. At the heart of all the problems that the country is faced with today is this basic error of the displacement of the separation of powers doctrine with absolute power being given to a single individual. Sri Lanka is now a nation outside the orbit of constitutionalism. Balavarnam Sivakumar (pictured) is the symbol of every Sri Lankan except the president and those who receive his direct patronage.

Disappearances: Stephen Sunthararaj and Pregeeth Ekanaliyagoda

The two cases reflect the same reality. Stephen Sunthararaj was a child protection activist. He was abducted in April 2009 and, due to the efforts made by family and others, he was released from detention by a court order as there was no justifiable reason for further detention. He was abducted again on the same day, taken to the Kolupitiya police station and has been missing ever since.

Pregeeth Ekanaliyagoda is a journalist, political analyst and visual designer who worked for a well-known web publication, Lanka E-News. He was abducted in September 2009 and released on the basis that he had been taken by mistake. During the detention, he was kept in some underground place, handcuffed to the ground. He was released after talking to a person who was identified as a higher officer. He is again missing from the 24th of January 2010. Despite of complaints being made, no credible inquiry has been made into his disappearance. The family suspects that he has been abducted by a government agency due to his work with Lanka E-News, which was supporting the joint opposition campaign of retired General Sarath Fonseka for the presidential election held on January 26th. What would independence mean to the families and colleagues of these two persons? The exercise of basic rights to participate in public affairs is considered good enough reason to make people disappear. The state does nothing to prevent disappearances or to inquire into disappearances. That is the kind of freedom that anyone with any kind of initiative and public spirit can now expect from his country.

Minority leaders facing death threats

Mayor Sivageetha and MP Sambandan are both political leaders of the Tamils. Mayor Sivageetha, the Mayor of Batticaloa, is in hiding after the presidential election. Speaking from hiding, she has informed the media that her life is seriously threatened as she had openly allied herself with the common opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka in the last election. Now, she is being threatened with death by other Tamil leaders who support the government. It is well-known that in the eastern part of Sri Lanka, the political groups that are close to the government still carry arms and that the practice of assassination and other forms of harm on opponents is common.

R. Sambandan, a Member of Parliament, and the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) openly supported the opposition common candidate during the last election. On the 3rd of February, a media report in Lanka NewsWeb reported a meeting of the government allies in the east considering plans for the parliamentary elections, which are due in the coming months. An analysis was made by a leading government supporter that if the government is to win Tamil votes in the east, R Sambandan and some other TNA supporters should be assassinated. The report states that those attending the meeting unanimously agreed on this suggestion. That is a reflection of the way minority rights are dealt with within the country. What would independence mean to people who live in the north and east and those who want to represent them in the best interests of their community?

Lawlessness: A nightmare for all families

Varsha Jude Regi was six years of age when she was abducted purely in order to demand a ransom from her parents. Before the ransom could be given, her dead body wrapped in a bag was found in a gutter.

Satheeshkumar Thinushkan was eight years old when she was similarly abducted for ransom and was killed.

The cause of the killings of these young children was the same: lawlessness. Throughout the country, the only thing that seems to be commonly shared in every part is the widespread lawlessness. The state is no longer capable of protecting anyone or anything. If anyone becomes a victim of crime, one thing they cannot expect is that there will be any kind of credible investigation. Seeking a remedy through the law enforcement agencies is to invite even more trouble. Extortion is so deeply entrenched that arrest, detention and every action relating to the legal process only leads to making of unconscionable money by many persons. It does not lead to any kind of redress through a judicial process. What does independence mean when lawlessness is the most commonly shared experience of the citizens?

Assassination and harassment of torture victims

The cases of Gerard Perera and Sugath Nishanta Fernando are now well known in Sri Lanka. Gerard Perera, who was a torture victim pursuing a case against several police officers filed under the CAT Act was assassinated in November, 2004. Sugath Nishanta Fernando who was a complainant in a corruption case and another of torture allegations against several police officers in Negombo was assassinated in September 2008.

There are thousands of torture victims who have made complaints but the state does not make any attempt to seriously investigate these charges or even to protect the victims who make complaints. In fact, the victims who make complaints are exposed to enormous harassment, threats and even death. The judicial process itself is pathetically slow. Cases drag on before courts for many years. Even high courts cases are postponed from one day to another for years despite of a Supreme Court order for hearing cases from beginning to end after a trial begins. Cases are postponed after taking evidence from a witness for a short while. Even the same witness has to come to court to complete evidence several times over the years. The system is counterproductive to justice. Victims suffer and the perpetrators get the benefit of the failure of the system.

It can be said without exaggeration that the failures in the criminal justice system are a major cause for criminality and indiscipline in Sri Lanka. However, the state, which is well aware of this, does nothing to improve the system.

Dengue fever and threats to basic health

Over 320 persons died during 2009 due to dengue fever. Twenty persons have already died in January, 2010. Dengue related deaths are only a reflection of the overall decline of the general standards of health care in the country, particularly regarding the less privileged sections of society which in Sri Lanka means the majority in all parts of the country. The decline in public health is removing one of the claims of the achievements of the early independence when Sri Lanka achieved a reputation for the improvements in the areas of health and education. Today, as the basic guarantees of health are being removed and basic welfare measures related to health are being taken away, there are many deaths due to preventable diseases.

During the early part of the 20th Century many efforts were made to fight against the malarial mosquito and also to improve the health conditions by providing for the primary infrastructure for safeguarding health. Now many of these measures have been removed without consideration into income disparities and the result is that many persons suffer from the inability to afford medical care. Many health services at the local government levels have also suffered due to the failure to allocate funds to maintain basic services and to improve basic infrastructures.

As in the area of health there is also the serious neglect of education for the underprivileged groups in society. The reports about schools being closed or schools lacking qualified teachers are being heard frequently. The numbers of children who do not attend school and those leaving prematurely have also increased.

Naturally, these problems are felt more acutely in the north and the east which was devastated by the internal conflict during the last decades. It is in these areas that also political problems are being created once again to prevent the emergence of independent voices and the development of civil society in order to deal with the problems they are facing. The political pressure brought on the population in these areas virtually prevents the peoples’ own initiatives for resolving their problems and protecting their lives.

The political development of the country, instead of trying to address the serious problems affecting society in every aspect, is in fact, going in the opposite direction. Petty interests, corruption and small mindedness is so wide spread that every initiative taken by the citizens themselves to improve their lot is being discouraged. The very nature of the politics that emanates from the top demoralizes and disintegrates society. Petty divisions are encouraged and used for the purpose of maintaining political power. Destructive impulses and a counterproductive mentality are being constantly regenerated to serve the interests of the few.

Under these circumstances the political system and the legal system together deprives the country of the meaningful realisation of its independence. The younger generation of the country, have no experience of a parliamentary democracy or of the independence of the judiciary. They have seen both the parliament and the judiciary being subjugated to serve the interests of one institution known as the executive presidency. They also do not have the experience of seeing credible investigations into crime. Instead they have witnessed the criminal elements having the upper hand in society and being rewarded.

The younger generation of today sees the vulgar use of the national media. Day in and day out national television and radio engage in political propaganda and the broadcasting of personality cults. The language habits and the cultural attitudes imparted by the national media create a demoralization and degeneration of the mind and the spirit.

It is under such circumstances that Independence Day is celebrated this year.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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