SB Dissanayake

I do not suppose it is essential to write much more about the 2010 US Report on Human Rights in Sri Lanka. I hope I have shown that, while details of particular cases are of interests, and these should be gone into by government, and redress provided where appropriate, the bulk of the report is emphatically political in nature. It seems designed mainly to throw suspicion onto government, primarily with regard to treatment of the Tamils.

There are however a few other areas which are particularly worrying, which I should mention. Most surprising to me was the implicit critique of S B Dissanayake, wrongly described as the Minister of Education. Only two Ministers are named, Wimal Weerawansa and Douglas Devananda (also wrongly described), obviously two individuals the Americans would love to hate, for very different reasons.

There seems no obvious reason to hate S B, but he is the only other Minister whose actions are criticized, inasmuch as there is a paragraph in the section on ‘Arbitrary Arrest or Detention’ of which he is the centerpiece – ‘Some arrests appeared arbitrary. In September several university students were detained for hooting at the Minister of Education during a public event. These arrests contributed to a wave of student protests in September and October, resulting in additional arrests and detentions of students. By year’s end 76 university students were banned from attending lectures because of participation in protests and related incidents. The government blamed the protests and incidents on left-wing opposition parties’

The impression sought to be created is that hooting at SB contributed to protests that led to mass arrests and detentions, as well as banning of students from lectures. Such denigration is strange. SB is not anti-American like some of his fellows  but, given his independent approach, in a context in which the obsequiousness to the West of a Wickremesinghe is preferred, it is understandable that he is seen as an irritant.

But there is also a more sinister possibility. I have been deeply worried by the flirtation with the JVP of some elements in the American Embassy, characterized as ‘old fashioned CIA’ by an independent observer. This seems a reference to the habit America had of treating the enemies of its  enemies as its friends, often with disastrous consequences, as was seen most obviously in the case of the Taleban. In Sri Lanka, the exaltation of Sarath Fonseka into an icon of democracy by some elements is of a piece with this naïve – or perhaps ruthlessly cynical – approach.

It is no coincidence then that the main JVP backed student union, resenting both the development of private universities (not privatization as the claim) and the prevention of ragging, have recently publicly sought international intervention. If you have the Americans on your side, you might as well exploit this. But this only makes clear what has been known for a long time, the inclination of some Americans to use dangerous elements to foment dissent against governments they are nervous about.

Thus the student issue comes up again in an even more strange incarnation. It is basically the only bone of contention in the section on ‘Freedom of Assembly’. Here again language is used in a perverse fashion – ‘The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right in practice; however, some restrictions existed. For example, the 2005 Emergency Regulations gives the president the power to restrict meetings, assemblies, and processions. The law states that rallies and demonstrations of a political nature may not be held when a referendum is scheduled, but the government generally granted permits for demonstrations, including those by opposition parties and minority groups. A number of university students were detained in October following demonstrations at several universities in protest of plans to develop private universities in the country. The government alleged that these demonstrations were unauthorized and deliberately set up with the help of leftist political parties to disrupt classes and clash with police.’

The claim made is that there are some restrictions in practice, but the example given refers to possible theoretical restrictions. This is followed by reference to restrictions with regard to a referendum, but the qualification refers to permission in general. Then comes the crux of the matter, whereby it is suggested that the detention of students was in violation of the right to freedom of assembly. The obligation of the state to forestall disruptive and destructive behavior is not noted.

All this is particularly sad, because student opposition to SB is due to his determination to transform the university system into a modern one that ensures productivity. His capacities are indeed recognized by the more enlightened elements in the American Embassy. It is a pity therefore that disruptive and destructive elements in that Embassy regurgitate the hysteria of their JVP acquaintance so as to denigrate government further.

To get back to the section on arbitrary arrests, it is noteworthy that the allegations about the students are just one of three instances cited. The first paragraph of the section is merely a complaint about Emergency Regulations, with claims that they contribute to arbitrary arrests, even though ‘ Data concerning arrests made during the year under the Emergency Regulations  fragmentary and unreliable’ while the usual ‘Observers stated that, although many were released within two days if no official detention order was produced, others were known to be detained for much longer.’

The second paragraph cites Amnesty for the arrest of ‘more than 300 persons, most of them Tamil’ in March. I do not have details about this, but I remember that, with regard to a similar search operation earlier, essential in the context of vicious and violent terrorists (as the Americans know well, though for them incarceration for much longer periods in Guantanamo is not deemed a problem), most of those taken in for questioning were promptly released. It is highly irresponsible I feel to mention the Amnesty accusation without checking on when those taken in were released.

Finally – except for the student story – an allegation of AHRC is reported, about one individual ‘violently arrested…. He was released on the same evening without being charged, although his eardrum was damaged in the assault and he was hospitalized for a number of days’ Presumably this is noted here rather than in the Torture section because ‘The victim was not told the reason for his arrest’ but, while again what happened should be checked on, the inclusion of this incident here suggests that we do not need to worry unduly about arbitrary arrests. If we allowed the JVP student unions a free run, and tolerated ragging, the Americans might allow us a free run on this one.

The Island 18 May 2011