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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sumanthiran’s maiden Speech in Parliament



[Mr. M. A. Sumanthiran, a prominent lawyer in Colombo, Sri Lanka is Member of Parliment of TNA(Tamil Natinonal Alliance)]

Honourable Deputy Chairman of Committees, I wish to first thank you for affording me the opportunity to participate and to make my first speech at the very first debate that is being taken up at this 7th Parliament.

The word ‘debate’ envisages deliberation, exchange of opposing ideas and the ability for one to convince the other and try to change the view point of opposing positions. Unfortunately at this debate, even before the debate begins, this assembly - even this country - knows what the result would be. We deliberate, but at the time of voting it goes on party lines. However this particular motion to extend the state of emergency by the Hon. Prime Minister has another aspect to it, and that is, even if by an overwhelming majority vote, the state of emergency is extended for another month, there are regulations that are made under those emergency powers and the Honourable Minister for External Affairs in his detailed speech listed the changes that were being made to the emergency regulations that have been in force until the 2nd of May 2010.

Therefore with the hope that whatever suggestions that are made at this debate, will be taken into account even in the future when the emergency regulations are amended, I venture to point out three aspects and respond to three matters that the Honourable Minister for External Affairs listed yesterday. He said this is a progressive step. “We cannot do away with state of emergency once and for all; we have to do it step by step”. And in that process he listed around 12 items that have been done away with in the emergency regulations of 2005. Unfortunately there are a dozen emergency regulations that are in extant and only one of those has been amended. I wouldn’t say that the amendments are cosmetic, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they are substantial either. It is true that powers to impose curfew and various other extraordinary powers that had been granted have now been taken away, but more importantly, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that another set of emergency regulations, namely, Emergency (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and specified Terrorist Activities) Regulations No.7 of 2006 of December 2006, has been left untouched. The Emergency Regulations of 2005 are the set of regulations that ordinarily have to come into force when a state of emergency is declared, and those are substantially the same as that we had from 1995. But the one that I am referring to now, of 2006 is an extraordinary set of regulations that were brought in, perhaps due to the fact that at that time there was a ceasefire agreement in force; conceded by the government that it was in force at that time, because in January 2008 the government acted under that agreement and gave notice of abrogation. So in December 2006, matters that were declared offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were brought in, through the backdoor as it were, by these emergency regulations of December 2006. There is heavy criticism by various persons on the content of those regulations. They are overbroad, vague; even having dealings with somebody who has dealings with a terrorist is an offence. Advising a person who is involved in terrorist activity is made an offence. That even touches then, the privilege of Attorneys at Law even to advise somebody to surrender.

And that takes me to another regulation, the regulation that provides for rehabilitation of surrendees. I think that it is another draconian piece because it says that when a person surrenders - and the act of surrender is clearly his own confession in content - he is taken for rehabilitation or what is called ‘rehabilitation’. Now that goes against all norms: that a person must first be pronounced by a competent court to have committed an offence. Even the Prevention of Terrorism Act has safeguards as to how confessions are made admissible. There are safeguards: you have to make it to a person not below the rank of ASP and so on. Now where it involves surrendees that regulation has been left untouched, and it was stated in this House yesterday that there are over 11,000 surrendees kept in an undisclosed place. That is why I say, that although the Honourable Minister for External Affairs stated that a big step has been taken in removing various powers under the emergency, I’d like to think that that is not correct because one out of about 12 regulations has been slightly amended. Now, the power of the armed forces to exercise police powers is another matter which is specifically stated continues to be in force. Now that again is one that is fraught with serious dangers, serious dangers of abuse, even the power to carry out investigation by armed forces, generally the powers that are only left with the police are given to the armed forces and those are to still continue.

The second issue that I wish to highlight is a very unfortunate one and that is this: we can discuss and debate what is printed in Emergency Regulations and what is given to us. But I will give two examples of instances where even the powers given in the Emergency Regulations are not utilized. One is the High Security Zone in Valligaman in Jaffna, the other is the forcible internment of displaced persons in Vavuniya. Neither of these two examples that I cite come under any Emergency Regulation whatsoever. These are two examples only, of flagrant violations, of total illegality. So what is the point, I ask Honourable Deputy Chairman of Committees, of framing regulations, then pruning them down, making announcements that we have done away with draconian provisions, when the Government acts totally outside of even those powers that are given under the Emergency Regulations. There is not a single detention order for those 80,000 odd persons that the government says are still in the camps. An application has been filed in Supreme Court and the Supreme Court perhaps is so embarrassed that for months no order has been given even with regard to Leave to Proceed. Ordinarily, on the very first day of support order is given either to proceed or it is dismissed. Several dates have been given for the Order and now there is no date at all. It is the first time in the history of this country that the Supreme Court has not given a date to make an order with regard to leave to proceed. Same with regard to the High Security Zone in Jaffna. An application is pending in the Supreme Court for the last six years. There has been even a judicial pronouncement that it is illegal and several consequential orders have been made for persons to be resettled in those areas. But apart from a few who were permitted to be resettled in the outer periphery, six years ago, not one single person has been allowed inside, and that is not a prescribed High Security Zone. There are many areas that have been declared under the emergency Regulations as High Security Zones, but not Valligamam, in Jaffna. And over hundred thousand persons are displaced as a result. The point that I am making is that it is well and good to discuss what powers are being removed, how we are going step by step, but all that is irrelevant and all that becomes useless when the government acts totally outside of the powers that are given even through the extraordinary powers of emergency regulations.

And the third issue is with regard to an announcement that again the Honourable Minister for External Affairs made yesterday that His Excellency the President has decided to appoint a Reconciliation Commission, and he added that this Commission would be in the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. We welcome this move. Truth must be told. After all it is truth that will set everyone free. But for truth to be told, as was stated this morning in this house at this debate, there needs to be a change of attitude. For true reconciliation to take place, one must first understand, accept the fact that this protracted war that went on for over 30 years was not merely with a rag-tag army, a group of armed men. The very fact that the Honourable Minister states that reconciliation is necessary is enough proof that the government concedes that as a result of this protracted war communities in this country have been alienated from each other and we need processes for reconciliation. Now for that to happen attitudes must change as I said and I want to highlight one issue with regard to the announcement that there is going to be a week of commemoration or victory celebration, to mark what happened last year, beginning 12th of May. Last year when there were victory celebrations I happened to be walking on the street when busses from various parts of the country came to Colombo for the victory celebrations and we were taunted on the streets, like how they do at big matches. I was told ‘Eke thamai Appi kiuwe, Apiththeka baha kiuwe’ That was the attitude. That was the attitude that hurt, that alienates people. That is not in the spirit of reconciliation that the Honourable Minister of External Affairs stated yesterday. And I hope that even when this week is taken to mark this occasion of the end of an armed conflict, that it is done sensitively. And that the commemoration is as much for the soldiers who died and who were maimed and lost various other facilities, as for every other Sri Lankan citizen who died and lost. Because all those who died in this war are Sri Lankan. All those who lost their limbs, their loved ones, their homes and various other things are all Sri Lankan. And we need to address this occasion with a sense of grief. It is not a sense of triumphalism, of one over the other, but a sense of grief that our country has had to go through this kind of spell, and perhaps a sense of relief that we are now coming out of it. And unless our attitude changes in that direction, we cannot even think in terms of other processes of reconciliation.

Honourable Hisbullah detailed a story yesterday in this House. He told this house that there was a 13 year old person taken into detention, 14 years ago; that for more than half his life he has been in detention and that he has not committed any offence. He doesn’t even know why he is in detention. Now this is not an example that I am giving you, it is an example that has been given to this House by a Member of the Government bench. So I take it, that he knows what he is talking about. That must be one of hundreds, or even thousands, that are languishing in detention. How can we then say that we are truly free, when a teenager who is taken in does not even know, according to the Honourable Minister himself, as to why he has been kept behind bars for 14 long years. And the Hon Member stated this but did not say what remedial measure had been taken by the government for this. And unless we are able to address these issues, we will not be able to move forward in this process of reconciliation.

War is a bad thing. After all, in this country and the majority of Buddhist adherents in this country, have a connection with Emperor Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. And if one thinks about that, his conversion to Buddhism was after a war that he won, but through grief that so much was lost during that war. And if Emperor Ashoka’s offspring brought Buddhism to this country, and that is our history, as true Buddhists and others who follow various religions who also believe that killing is bad, to simply put it, must grieve over the hundreds and thousands of persons, perhaps, who lost their lives during this 30 year war.

We oppose the extension of the emergency for the reasons that I have stated. Because even the assurance given by the Honourable Minister for External Affairs that these are substantial changes don’t convince us. I highlighted some of the provisions that still exist and must be done away with as quickly as possible. I hope that the government will take steps to look at the other emergency regulations in force, particularly the one that was promulgated in December 2006 and take steps to repeal those provisions as well.

Therefore Honourable Deputy Chairman of Committees, while the government takes those steps, I urge the government to not act outside the pale of law, not to act outside the strict provision of the law. The rule of law must prevail. And it was only two examples that I gave where large numbers of persons are affected. And that must be remedied forthwith. If we are to say that we are taking definite, concrete steps to return to normality, then these are some of the essential steps that must be taken, and I hope that the government will do that at least in the future.

And I end with my third point repeating that the process of reconciliation and truth-telling must commence with changes of attitude. And when people do start telling their stories it must be received in the spirit that we ask them to tell their stories. Thank you very much.

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