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Sri Lanka: Deterioration Of The Legal Intellect (5): A Conversation
With The Prime Minister On Periodic Massacres Of Youth Since 1971

By Basil Fernando

29 April, 2015

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Photo Credit: ColomboTelegraph

Last week, 23 April 2014, the television programme‘Sathyagaraya’ - a Sinhala language programme telecast by the Independent Television Network (ITN) and produced by Upul Shantha Sannasagala - broadcast a long conversation with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasignhe. Our concern in this article, is about one particular question raised by the producer, Mr Sannasgala and the reply given by the Prime Minister, to the same. Producer Upul Shantha Sannasgala, raised a question, which he said, is of very great importance to him, about the periodic massacres of youth which had taken place, repeatedly, every 10 to 15 years in Sri Lanka, beginning with the suppression of youth in the 1971 JVP uprising. His question was as to whether these cyclical massacres would go on, from time to time causing the sacrifice of lives of a large number of youth in the country?

The Prime Minister’s reply was that each of such events had its own causes, like for example youth unemployment was the cause for the 1971 rebellion and ethnic factors caused unrest both in the South and North of the country; both unrests causing large scale violence.

Speaking about the solutions, the Prime Minister opined that the improvement of the economic conditions by way ofdevelopment programmes can improve the well-being of all including the youth and that hopefully that would remove the kind of situations that arose in the past.

It would be quite useful for the Prime Minister to also look into the other causes of such unrest and not purely into the development issues alone – in trying to fathom the grotesque violence that the country has been experiencing periodically- in order to develop a more comprehensive policy towards the elimination of such occurrences.

The use of disproportionate force to control a difficult security situation is not an isolated issue that can be resolved through economic factors alone. It is essential to try to understand what caused the hugely disproportionate use of violence by the police and the military in each of those occasions in the past and to develop policies and strategies to avert such disproportionate use of force in the future.

To put it more bluntly, killing a person after arrest, is not an issue that arises out of economics. Such an issue relates to the type of discipline that is inculcated into the security agencies and to the type of measures that are taken, in order to ensure that the security forces will not fail to observe the basic rules of conduct, even when the situations they face may be unusual and difficult ones.

Even in the midst of great world wars, armed forces as well as the police forces have observed the required codes of conduct after a person is captured or surrenders. However, in Sri Lanka even after persons have been picked up from their homes, and not infrequently, even with promises of their return within a short while; they were in fact, killed and very often their bodies secretly disposed.

The stories of such occurrences can be counted in thousands or in tens of thousands. To give one example, the several Commissions appointed by the Chandrika Bandaranayakegovernment to investigate into involuntary disappearanceshave given vivid descriptions of how persons were kidnapped in place of arrest, were interrogated at secret places and tortured, and were finally killed and their bodies disposed of.

As this article is a commentary on a conversation with the Prime Minister, we assume that the Prime Minister is well-aware of all that has taken place during each of these periodic episodes, those to which the producer of the programme, Mr. Sannasagala was making reference to.

Besides the protection granted to persons after their arrest there is also a fundamental rule that is binding on the police and armed forces alike to maintain an official record of what has happened to each of the prisoners who come under their custody. Again, the killings that took place in Sri Lanka, found no mention in the records of those who were engage in such acts. In fact, it can be without exaggeration said that a tacit rule has developed to dispose of such persons without maintaining any form of records.

We do not believe that with the Prime Minister, we need to labour much to demonstrate or to prove these incidents. Instead a more serious approach is to request the Prime Minister to ponder about the questions raised by the producer of the programme, not purely in terms of economic roots of the conflict but also from the point of view of the ease with which the police and the security forces dispensed with the need to adhere to basic rules of law and of civilization in dealing with the arrestees.

It is the duty of the Prime Minister and the government to take all the possible measures to inculcate a tradition of obedience to rules within the police and the armed forces. Not to think about this matter seriously, will amount to contributing to a recurrence of such a situation in the future. So long as the leadership of a government does not care about the manner in which the police and the armed forces observe and respect rules, no amount of economic development would prevent the recurrence of such violence.

Therefore, it is quite appropriate to request the Prime Minister to once again reflect on this question which was posed by the producer of this programme, and to place before the nation a more comprehensive response, as to how the Prime and the government envisions carrying out of his duty to inculcate an attitudinal change into the armed forces and the police, where they would observe the normal decencies that they are expected to observe in relation to persons they have taken into their custody.

We hope that the producer of the programme ‘Sathyagaraya’, could give another opportunity to the Prime Minister to provide a more comprehensive answer to put the conscience of the producer, as well as of the listeners’ to rest, with the assurance that the government has a policy and a strategy to bring to an end, the heinous offence of harming persons who have been arrested.

W. J. Basil Fernando is a Sri Lankan jurist, author, poet and human rights activist. Having been a lawyer engaged with human rights issues, he had to flee Sri Lanka decades ago. After that he became a legal adviser to Vietnamese refugees in a UNHCR-sponsored project in Hong Kong before joining the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) in 1992 as a senior human rights officer for Cambodia. He also served, later, as the Chief of Legal Assistance to Cambodia of the UN Centre of Human Rights (now the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights office). He is associated with Asian Human Rights Commission and Asian Legal Resource centre, based in Hong Kong since 1994. He was executive director of the organization for almost two decades.


Sri Lanka: Deterioration Of The Legal Intellect Series

Basil Fernando

Sri Lanka

Human Rights







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