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03 February, 2009

AHRC’s message on the occasion of Sri Lanka’s Independence Day

Tomorrow, February 4, is Sri Lanka’s Independence Day. The following is a message issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission in this connection:

The 61st celebration of the Day of Independence of Sri Lanka takes place tomorrow amidst almost universal complaints within the country of the failures of governance at all levels. In 1931 Sri Lanka had the privilege of being one of the first countries outside developed democracies to have adult franchise. What could have been one of the greatest treasures for any nation has turned out to be in Sri Lanka a massive disaster. For many years now all major political parties have tried to eliminate the possibility of free and fair elections. The fear of the people’s right to use their votes freely to elect their governments has naturally lead to the imposition of severe restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly. As such repression cannot be maintained within the framework of the law and the independence of the judiciary both of these have been sacrificed; the result being chaos at all levels and the abdication of state responsibility to maintain the authority of public institutions.

What freedom can any people experience when all of their public institutions have been brought to a level that can, without exaggeration, be described as dysfunctional? The clearest example of the state institutions being dysfunctional is the Sri Lankan police itself. Throughout the country the police force has degenerated into an undisciplined institution that engages in all forms of lawlessness whose members abuse their positions for their own benefit.

This chaotic policing is a direct product of the attempt by successive regimes in power to gain the support of the police in order to suppress free and fair elections and to use such restrictions on the freedom of the ballot to their advantage. An unholy alliance between unscrupulous politicians and the police that are willing to abuse their power has created a situation of oppression on all the people except for a few who enjoy unlimited power, which would make the medieval nobles and landlords green with envy.

Murder has become a normal affair and the expectation of competent and honest criminal investigations a pipe dream. All those who are willing to exploit lawlessness may do so without fear. Not only rights and liberties but also the properties of the citizens are under severe threat at all times. It is an ironic situation where the people have to celebrate independence without freedom and under repression about which they can do nothing.

While the entire nation suffers from this situation those who suffer most are the people living in the liberated areas in the north and the east. From the oppression of the LTTE there are now thrown back to the oppression that comes with complete lawlessness. There is no one to inquire into allegations of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, abductions, many forms of the harassment of women and endless other woes. Large numbers of them live as displaced persons who have lost their places of residence and who have also lost many of their loved ones. There is no move underway to create any semblance of hope for these people living in the north and the east. The end of the war has not brought them peace. They live in a situation of intense uncertainty and also insecurity. Whatever may happen to them, it will certainly not be inquired into by criminal investigating authorities since even what is happening in Colombo and the rest of the south is not investigated.

Independence in the sense of the external enemy, the colonial power having left, will of course be a matter to celebrate. However, when the very system of governance has become a people’s internal enemy and there are no attempts at all to reform this oppressive system of governance the people have no avenues of escape. The desperate cry heard from all parts of the country comes from the title of a drama, the translation of which is, ‘Child, we have no way out’.

Only those political and civil society leaders who are willing to abandon the Constitution of 1978, which created the accursed system of the executive presidency; which is unlike that of any other country in that it is a one man system with no checks and balances, can offer any hope to the people. Despite of almost everyone realising that the 1978 Constitution hangs like a noose over every citizen, whether the citizen be a private citizen or a public officer or even a judge or a politician, there is not yet sufficiently focused attention to get rid of this evil scheme. The challenge in making independence real is to work towards a political system that is rooted in the rule of law and brings its rulers to respects the law. The test of progress in Sri Lanka is the extent to which the supremacy of the law can replace the arbitrary form of governance that it has now. Until then the day of independence

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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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