For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
NFR Statement for UN Democracy day – 15th September 2010
Staring at a great opportunity of genuine democratization brought about by the end of the war, Sri Lanka appears to be going back to a more historical form of democracy that prevailed in ancient Greece, where democracy was effectively the will of a small group of privileged people, with majority of its people such as women and slaves prevented from participating in governance and politics. Like the slaves and women in ancient Greece, minorities and those with dissenting views are at the losing end of democracy that is being practiced in Sri Lanka today.
The clear electoral rejection of the President and his ruling party in both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2010 in the Tamil dominated North and East point towards the need for power sharing and to move away from Colombo based centralized power structure dominated by Sinhalese. But even with the support of a near two thirds majority of the members in the parliament, no serious efforts are being made to address grievances and political aspirations of the Tamil people. Available proposals including by the All Party Representative Committee appointed by the present president himself as well as proposals brought forward by the ruling party and it’s previous leader / president appear to be ignored.
In addition, there is hardly any effort now to deal with problems of minority communities or the other problems such as finding missing persons, due acknowledgment, documentation and compensation for those killed, charging or releasing those detained for several years. Sufficient steps have not been taken for the wellbeing of displaced people and those who had returned to their places of origin recently. Building of Buddhist statues and proliferation of Sinhalese village names and sign boards as well as the massive military presence in the predominantly Tamil North are given more importance. Hardly any attention is given to address the problems of the Muslim who were evicted from the North by the LTTE 20 years ago.
In an ominous sign of continuing repression of dissent, in the immediate aftermath of the presidential elections, the defeated presidential candidate, who won about 40% of votes, including clear majorities in the North and East, was arrested and detained and number of charges that appear to be politically motivated, have been brought against him in both in military tribunals and courts. Any form of community organization is prevented and banned in the North which the government claims it has liberated. Even religious events to remember civilians killed are banned.
Journalists, human rights activists and those who oppose the government continue to face repression, as exemplified by the arrest of the printer and printing press staff for printing a poster of president Rajapaksha with a Hitler mustache although the responsibility of the poster has been taken by the main opposition party and the attack and subsequent arrest and detention of JVP parliamentarians engaged in a peaceful protest, by the Police in Galle recently. Freedom of expression and protest appear to be a right that only government allies could enjoy, with government spokespersons justifying the siege of the UN building and staff by a mob led by a Government Minister. The a farcical inquiry and exonerating a minister who tied a government official to a tree by the ruling party is a clear sign law in the country is not applicable to ruling party politicians and henchmen.
Although the government claims to have defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) it has not been unable to investigate, prosecute and convict those responsible for killings, disappearances, assaults, attacks, threats to thousands of Tamil people and opposition parliamentarians, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, humanitarian workers, Catholic priests, academics and others Many others, who had faced threats and survived assault, long detention and torture, have been compelled to flee the country and live in exile.
With the passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution the independence of the Judiciary, the Public Service, the Police Service and the several statutory Commissions such as the National Human Rights Commissions, the Judicial Service Commission, the Elections Commission, the Bribery Commission, etc. has ceased to exist. There is no sign that the Emergency Regulations or the Prevention of Terrorism Act would be repealed in the near future. Hence it appears that there is no room for democracy in the country. This amendment has brought Sri Lanka towards to the threshold of a constitutional dictatorship.
Along with an institutional set up that will facilitate the rule of law and address impunity, Sri Lankans society, particularly the majority community (Sinhalese Buddhists), and will also need to undergo a paradigm change respecting minority rights and dissent. If Sri Lanka is to emerge as a truly democratic country, the majority community will have to understand that their wellbeing is closely connected to the wellbeing of minorities. Progress will not be achieved by subjugating minorities through electoral and military victories and branding those with dissenting and critical views as traitors and unpatriotic persons.
The litmus test for true and lasting democracy is not how rulers treat their allies, partners and the majority community that voted them in, but rather, how minority communities and those with dissenting, critical and opposing views are treated.
Issued by Steering Committee of NfR – Sri Lanka:
Buddika Weerasinghe (Japan) Iqbal MCM ( The Netherlands), Lionel Bopage ( Australia), Nadarasa Sarawanan (Norway), Nadarajah Kuruparan(UK) Padmi Liyanage (Germany), Raveendran Pradeepan (France), Rudhramoorthy Cheran (Canada), Saman Wagaarachchi ( USA), Sunanda Deshapriya ( Switzerland