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SRI LANKA: Savage years - The nineteen seventies

SRI LANKA: Savage years - The nineteen seventies

Basil Fernando
January 30, 2013

In the seventies Sri Lanka's descent into savagery took a qualitative plunge and since then things have become even worse.

By way of explanation I should say that by 'savage' I do not mean the noble savage that Jean Jacques Rousseau spoke about, but rather a person living without a civic sense and responsibility. It also means savagery by the government, meaning the disrespect for the civic rights of the citizens and the abandonment of the government's duty to promote and to protect civic rights.

Here, I am talking about a form of alienation that the citizens suffer when a government descends to the use of violence without limitation and without any sense of proportionality. In this instance, the government's use of violence is not to protect the overall framework of the decent living of the population but rather to protect itself from the people.

When the government is no longer the expression of the general will, meaning the will of the people as a whole, who have entered into cooperation with it to create a way of life that is best for everyone, but becomes a destructive force acting to devastate the very fabric of society itself, a citizen cannot feel being a part of that society. There is a rift between the citizen and the government.

The decisive point at which this happened was in 1971 when the then ruling coalition government used violence without any restriction to crush a rather insignificant rebellion. The main opposition party expressly gave its fullest support to the government to use any sort of violence on the very people of the soil. According to statistics which emerged at the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) the JVP was responsible for 41 civilian deaths and the killing of 63 and wounding of 305 members of the armed forces. In retaliation, the government allowed the security forces to kill as many as 5,000 to 10,000 persons and arbitrarily detain 15,000 to 25,000. The killings were done, for the overwhelming part, after the security forces secured arrest or persons surrendered to them.

Thus, a practice was established which legitimised killing without any legal process after arrest. This is one of the greatest acts of savagery.

The governments, meaning any of the government that has existed since then, have never made a public apology for these killings.

The lack of the public apology implies the legitimation of these killings and by such legitimation, permissiveness towards such killings by the security forces was established. Such permissiveness is nothing less than savagery.

With this arose the mentality of the security forces being regarded not as protectors of the people but as mercenaries that could be used against the people. This change had a tremendous impact on the psychology of the security forces as well as that of the people. Above all, it had a tremendous psychological impact on those who held power, the ruler. The ruler felt that it was permissible to kill its own citizens without any regard to any convention or law. That also led to the rulers to regard every person who held a different view as an enemy and a traitor. The word traitor began to be used loosely.

It was not only the weapons that were used against people but also the government's propaganda machinery. When it comes to anyone that is labeled a critic, the state media was allowed to use whatever language and engage in whatever kind of propaganda it wished. The use of bullets and the use of the state media thus, were combined and no rules or conventions were observed.

I offered my own apology to my fellow citizens who were so barbarically killed by my poem 'By the Wayside'.

By the wayside

(Translated from Sinhala)
This wreath
with no name attached
is for you
who have no grave.
As the place of earth
which embraced you
could not be found,
this wreath was placed by the wayside.
Forgive me.
Forgive me
for placing a memorial for you
by the roadside.
(Published in 1972)

By 1972 the government went further to attack the very thought process of the nation and incorporated its rights to violate the people into the constitution itself. Thus began a constitutional form of savagery. The constitution abused the phrase 'peoples' sovereignty' to mean the very opposite of what it originally meant when Rousseau used it in his social contract. The people's sovereignty meant a collective form of governance where the best interests of the people were served through conventions which assured the common good. But in contrast, in Sri Lanka, the word was used to break the conventions and to give arbitrary power to the government under the name of the supremacy of the parliament. The supremacy of the parliament was a displacement of the supremacy of the law. To use the word 'peoples' sovereignty' to enable the capacity of the government to ignore the rule of law is not sovereignty but slavery. The people get together to form a government not in order to destroy their freedom but to protect their freedom. When the idea of the 'peoples' sovereignty' was used in 1972 to take away the entrenched rights of the minorities and to take away the power of judicial review from the judiciary it was not the peoples' freedoms that were protected by the ruler's power to enslave the population.

This constitutional savagery took an even more absolute form in the 1978 Constitution. Here a single man called the Executive President emerged as the master. The power of the legislature was trampled under his foot including whatever remained as the independence of the judiciary. This also was named as the 'peoples' sovereignty'. A funny conception was developed to say that by voting, the people have alienated their power and given it to the Executive President and now the power of the Executive President is what was meant by the 'peoples' sovereignty'. That the people of Sri Lanka allowed this to happen will remain a slur on their political intelligence. Such use of words was nothing but pure bluff and this bluff is at the core of the supreme law of the country, its constitution. It is a constitution where the people are supposed to have voluntarily enslaved themselves.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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