By Jehan Perera
The arrest of parliamentarian and leader of the Tamil National People’s Front Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam highlights two areas of particular concern. The first is the high level of surveillance that continues in the former war zones of the north and east. The visitors to those parts of the country would not fail to see the large presence of uniformed personnel in these two provinces, even at tourist sites. They remain as a visible reminder of the unsettled and violent conditions that prevailed since the late 1970s and which ended in May 2009. The failure on the part of the country to overcome the legacy of its violent past despite the passage of 14 eventful years is epitomised by the large spending still taking place on the security forces even in the midst of the general economic collapse.
The latest update by Verite Research has shown that according to the 2023 budget estimates, of the total state salaries, the defence sector claims 48 percent. The military takes up 32 percent of the total payroll expenditure and 16 percent goes for other defence services. According to World Bank (WB) data, the size of Sri Lanka’s armed forces was at its highest between 2017 and 2019 with 317,000 personnel. According to a publication by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), 2021, Sri Lanka’s military force is the 17th highest in the world, exceeding even that of the United Kingdom. The largest contingents of the military would continue to be deployed in the north and the east which provides a fertile ground for anti-government sentiment.
One of the strong public sentiments in the north and the east is that the security forces are involved in various schemes of undermine the Tamil people, including through being supportive of land grabs and encouraging drug addiction in youth. The problem of high levels of drug addiction and criminality are, however, not limited to the north and the east but are to be found in all other parts of the country, especially the capital city of Colombo. Unlike in the north and east, the root of suspicion in the south of the country is that the main problem lies in the venality of all-powerful politicians who may be using the security forces as their tools. It was this sentiment that popularised the widely used slogan during the time of the Aragalaya that all 225 in parliament should go.
The incident involving parliamentarian Ponnambalam centres around the issue of surveillance in the north. According the parliamentarian, he was having a meeting with some of his constituents from a sports club numbering about 20 in a public park. When he was talking to them, two unknown men on a motorbike had come, stopped their vehicle 10-15 feet away and, when challenged, declined to provide their identity cards. It later transpired that these were plainclothes policemen who had come to collect intelligence for their reporting purposes. This is a common occurrence in the north and the east, but also takes place in other parts of the country as well, much to the discomfort of participants at those events.
Sri Lanka is unfortunately today a post-war country that has still failed to find a political solution to the war that would address the roots of the conflict. It is also a post-Aragalaya society in which the economy has collapsed and continues to slow down, imposing immense hardships on the general population. Making matters worse is the government’s refusal to conduct elections that would permit the people to express themselves and what they want from their rulers. In these circumstances, surveillance in the north and east also exists in other parts of the country to ensure early warning to the government of potential points of unrest. The difference is that it is more blatant and overt in the north and east. It is unlikely that police intelligence officers would come on their motorbikes to within 10-15 feet of parliamentarians in the south addressing their constituents to eavesdrop on their conversations.
The second issue that arises from parliamentarian Ponnambalam’s arrest was the lack of deference shown to him as an elected member of parliament. It confirms to the Tamil people that the security forces in the north and the east are acting like an “army of occupation.” The incident itself took place in the north where the police wanted him to come and make a statement at the police station. He did not wish to do so on account of his concern that the environment in the police station would be hostile to him, as he had alleged that a gun had been taken out during the altercation in the park. The police had thereafter come to Colombo to where the parliamentarian had returned home, arrested him and taken him all the way back to the north to make a statement and to produce him before the court. An invidious comparison could be drawn between the differential treatment meted out to other parliamentarians in the recent past who have not been treated in a comparably harsh manner by the police despite their provocations.
The strong Tamil nationalist stances the TNPF leader has stood for, including having close links with more hardline sections of the Tamil Diaspora, has estranged him from the south and the Sinhalese polity. The Hindu newspaper reported, “Few MPs from the southern, Sinhala majority areas commented on the development.” However, the manner in which parliamentarian Ponnambalam expressed himself in the Sinhala language at the point of being arrested was an indication of his commitment to fight for justice for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. This should be encouraged and not suppressed. Jaffna parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance M.A. Sumanthiran said in a tweet: “Police insisting that @GGPonnambalam should go to #Maruthankerni today itself to make a statement or threatening to #arrest him is totally #illegal and violates his #privilege as an #MP. He is being prevented from attending the ongoing #Parliament sessions today. #repression.”
The solidarity that TNA spokesperson Sumanthiran showed to a rival Tamil parliamentarian is a positive development. There is a need for unity among Tamil political parties if they are to achieve a reasonable bargaining power in their negotiations with the government. Contradicting Tamil media reports that there had been relatively little support for parliamentarian Ponnambalam from his fellow parliamentarians was the response of Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa to the arrest. He said, “We have differences with the ideology and standpoints of MP Ponnambalam but he is entitled to be treated as any other MP in this House. He was taken into police custody today while he was on his way to attend Parliament. That is illegal as per the law. We urge the government to respect the law. This is an illegal arrest.” The opposition leader demonstrated the spirit of national unity and equal citizenship that is necessary to make Sri Lanka the common home of all communities.
The present period in which President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition leader Premadasa are at the helm of national affairs, though on the opposite sides of parliament, offers the best chance to correct the problems of the past as well as existing problems. With the next session of the UN Human Rights Council set to take place next week in Geneva, President Wickremesinghe summoned a meeting of senior state officials where they discussed a reconciliation action plan. During the meeting the President had instructed the relevant departments to expedite the drafting of legislation necessary for the plan’s implementation. The progress of initiatives within five key areas of legislation, institutional activities, land issues, prisoner release, and power decentralization were also reviewed. So far little has happened on the ground though much has been said in words. The manner in which the government deals with the issue of parliamentarian Ponnambalam’s arrest will be one evidence of change.