‘Inadmissible evidence’ — the truth about Sri Lanka
March 17, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In recent years many people have fled Sri Lanka by boat and sought political asylum in Australia. Most are members of the island's Tamil minority. They are survivors of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who fought for an independent Tamil state but were defeated in 2009. The Australian government has begun sending back asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, claiming that Sri Lanka is now peaceful and democratic. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has produced two “country reports” on Sri Lanka, which purport to show that it is now safe to send people back. A group of people who disagree with this conclusion came together and produced a counter-report (see below). This document was launched on March 3 in Melbourne. Michael Cooke, one of the authors of the counter-report, gave the following speech at the launch. * * * * * Let me start my talk with a quote from the novelist Milan Kundera, which can serve as a motif of the talk: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) What I want to present at this talk is what I term “Inadmissible Evidence” when it comes to Sri Lanka. Evidence that the authorities determining the fate of refugees refuse to countenance, ignore (sometimes wilfully), or disparage — like the testimony of human rights and trade union activists, historians, politicians and other actors in civic society who have had the temerity to put their heads above the parapets of historical and political consensus. Many have been ‘made to disappear’, forced into exile or harassed out of history. It is to their vigilance and courage in telling the truth to the powerful that this talk is heavily indebted. In particular, I owe much to the recently deceased and much missed A. Sivanandan — essayist, tireless human rights campaigner, director of the Institute of Race Relations in London, editor of Race and Class and novelist. His novel When Memory Dies is probably the best book of any sort on modern Sri Lankan history. I offer in tribute one of Siva’s many pithy observations, in this case on the passing of the Sinhala Only Bill 1956:
Sri Lanka must be the only country in the world where such affirmative action is used to safeguard the interests of the majority on the grounds they are a minority in the world; but, then so are the Chinese. (“Sri Lanka: Racism and the Politics of Underdevelopment”, Race and Class, Vol XXVI, Summer 1984, No: 1 Institute of Race Relations 24).
The image the country presents to itself and the world is of a democratic country that has come out successfully out of a 30-year “terrorist war” (i.e. civil war), as evidenced by the current stunning growth rates, a rising standard of living and the generosity of the majority community to the vanquished. Its impeccable democratic credentials are illustrated by the ceaseless debates on democracy, constitutional change, and the rule of law in parliament debates, in newspapers, on international forums and on the internet. Packaging this beguiling brew are the vistas, sounds and smells of a verdant island paradise whose beauty nobody can deny — least of all me.
What I want to bring to the fore is a different story, churning mostly in the background and sometimes taking centre stage, one that is much uglier, more fractious and more violent — i.e. inadmissible evidence. In doing so I want to highlight violence perpetuated by or with the connivance of the Sri Lankan state. In the aftermath of each bout of violence the state institutions of law and order have not been reformed. They have become increasingly deformed and the perpetrators of state violence have been acting and are still acting with impunity. The victims have borne the brunt of the violence and public condemnation. One can start in 1948, 1953, 1958, but let’s start with 1971 and the insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front) or JVP. I have tried to be effective for some time but cannot. I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion…
While the memory of the riots was still raw, the government, in the form of the Minister of State, stated that all property affected by the pogrom would be vested in the state. In an explanatory speech, he made it known that as the government had spent so much on reconstruction, it would be unjust to hand back the property to its previous owners!
Parliament passed the sixth amendment of the Constitution; by doing so the government deprived the Tamils of their elected representatives. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) refused to take an oath against secession. By this action the Sri Lankan state handed the leadership of the Tamil struggle to the ‘boys’ in the North and East with the guns.
Meanwhile the UNP government blamed a number of other political parties, like the JVP and the Trotskyist NSSP (Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya or New Equal Society Party), for the pogrom that the UNP itself had largely instigated.
Dr Lionel Bopage (General Secretary of the JVP at the time) provided an eyewitness record. He was trying to find out what happened to JVP’s Tamil cadres. (See Dr Bopage, “Testimony of the Holocaust”, in Rajan Hoole, The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder.) He was summarily arrested while out shopping, put into solitary confinement, psychologically tortured but not charged with any offence; and then released after six months of detention.
Dr Rajan Hoole, in his meticulous account (The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder) of who was behind the pogrom, singles out a number of UNP luminaries. Foremost amongst them was Cyril Mathew. The trucks used to ferry the goons and the petrol used to ignite Tamil businesses came from the public corporations under the jurisdiction of his Ministry. Others who either participated or turned a blind eye to the use of government property and employees under their control were:
• R. Premadasa, who was Prime Minister at the time; he probably was not physically involved, but his power base was the lumpen elements in Pettah and its environs;
• Siresena Cooray, Mayor of Colombo and a protégé of Premadasa who filled the Ceylon Transport Board with his thugs; and
• Ranil Wickremasinghe, the Minister of Education and Youth Affairs. In his guise as Prime Minister he recently invited all refugees back. While there is no direct evidence of his involvement, his right-hand man Gonewela Sunil and members of Sunil’s gang did participate. Who do we believe — the unreformed and unaccountable organs of the state of Sri Lanka that perpetuate these human rights abuses or those escaping their pernicious reach? To characterise them as ‘economic refugees’ is grossly unfair and to deport them is manifestly unjust.
The key issue, as A. Sivanandan argued and as my narrative shows, is the refusal of the institutions of power to evolve into something that is accountable, transparent, multi-religious and multicultural. In recording human rights abuses it is just as important to record why these abuses took place and who not only committed them but also who benefits from them. This requires a focus on the social, ideological and economic system that produces and replicates these “deformities”. In Sri Lanka’s case it is an inedible stew of Sinhala exceptionalism, corruption, casteism, patronage and free market theology. Let me illustrate this as follows.
The top 20% of the population enjoy 42% of the island’s income while the bottom 40% make do with 17.8%. Compounding this is the undeniable fact that too many (including the wealthy) pay little or no tax. For example, around 80% of young people working are in the informal sector and I am not sure if they fill out a tax return.
The budget for defence, eight years or so after hostilities have ceased, still swallows the largest chunk of government revenue, while spending on vital areas like health and education is miniscule. If the government was serious about reconciliation and reforming its judiciary and security apparatus (it is not), this would require a reallocation of resources from the military and of course a fairer taxation system. At the moment it cannot even deal with the backlog its criminal justice system generates — 3 to 4 years of incarceration before a case is heard. There is also a backlog of cases requiring police investigation, as evidenced in our report on the small number of rape and assault cases being brought to the courts, and the unacceptable fact that many members of parliament have not been investigated, let alone prosecuted, for their criminal acts.
An aside: Let us not forget the endemic corruption, 100 odd ministries (most of them superfluous in a small country) and the attendant perks.
Human rights activists should not be in the business of maintaining the status quo, as evidenced in the Australian government’s harsh and illogical refugee policy or the erroneous platitudes voiced by the representatives of the so-called Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
We should resist, cajole, persuade, agitate, object and in all instances try to make the inadmissible admissible. How we do this should be the key political and moral issue facing us — not conforming to the rules of the game that are stacked against refugees.