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Sri Lanka: Deportation of Bob Rae - Some Fundamental Questions for the future of Minorities and the Erasure of Democracy

by University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), 13 June 2009

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A statement issued by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Sri Lanka

Date of Release: 11th June 2009

The recent denial of entry to the Canadian Parliamentarian Bob Rae, a long time champion of democracy, requires particular attention by those who care about the future of Lanka. His deportation reflects the paradox of continuing internal repression and unhealthy xenophobia despite the end of the war. It reflects a mindset that bodes ill for the minorities and the democratic rights of Sinhalese. It is a government that wants everyone else to conform to its own agenda and is hostile to discussion of any kind based on rights.

In our recent report, released on 10th June 2009, we highlighted the character of present government and its leadership, which is using the euphoria following on military success against the LTTE to promote a majoritarian agenda along with increasing authoritarianism. If this trend is not challenged, the country will be hijacked by those who will do irreparable damage to the long term interest of the country. The UTHR(J) has experienced and challenged the negative aspects of narrow Tamil nationalism, which permitted the rise of LTTE and its ability to paralyse the community through internal terror and created an illusion of strength among the Tamil community founded on transient military success. In the absence of broader humanity, it failed miserably in uniting the people.

Many people from the all the different communities hoped that end of the war would bring goodwill to the fore. They hoped for reconciliation and reconstruction in the context of a just political process. It should also have been the time to restore democratic governance and accountability and bring an end to the culture of impunity. But during the last stages of the war, the bankruptcy of the political leadership and its majoratarian schemes were becoming clear. The dominant section of the government shows utter contempt for the emergence of a Tamil democratic culture and is only interested in using the armed elements within Tamil community that are willing to toe the ruling SLFP’s narrow interests. In this context the denial of entry to Bob Rae clearly exposes the mindset of the present government and those who control its decision making.

When entry is barred to a Canadian parliamentarian, a former premier of Ontario and one of the leading figures in the Opposition Liberal Party after being granted a visa with the full knowledge of its purpose by Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Canada, it is much more than a gaffe. It reflects the atrocious diplomacy into which the country is being driven by a clique that is usurping the due functions of other arms of the state.

How different sections of the state acted tells its own story. Daya Perera PC, High Commissioner in Canada was frankly apologetic. Controller of Immigration P.B. Abeykoon told the Daily Mirror, ‘We denied him entry to Sri Lanka and detained him after State intelligence services warned that Mr. Rae’s visit was not suitable’ indicating that he was taking instructions from the Defence Ministry. Someone at the Mirror tried to be clever by inserting a box item comparing Rae’s deportation to that of Charles de Gaulle from Canada in 1967 after his expression of support for Québec separatism. The state-owned Daily News in saying Rae was involved in pro-LTTE political activities in his home country, was repeating parrot-like something about which it knew nothing. The Island simply described him as an LTTE-supporting Canadian MP.

The Army spokesman as reported on its web site said not only that Rae ‘relentlessly supported Tiger terrorists and their supporters in Canada’, but went on to put words into the mouth of poor Mr. Abeykoon: ‘He was held by Immigration and Emigration authorities at the airport on charges of aiding and abetting terrorism while working against the interests of Sri Lanka.’ The related Defence Ministry web site was strangely silent or had on second thoughts taken down its posting. It is clear where the action came from.

To begin, we set the record straight. Far from being a supporter of the LTTE, Bob Rae played an important role in helping Tamil dissidents in Canada to find their voice. It was owing to active moral support from people like him, that the LTTE’s monopoly over the lives of Tamils in Toronto began to crack in 2004. In December 2004 he chaired a Human Rights Watch meeting in Toronto launching a report looking into the LTTE’s recruitment of children. It was his commitment to Tamil children that led him to take a strong stand on the child soldier issue even as pro-LTTE activists attempted to disrupt the meeting.

Bob Rae’s commitment to Tamil dissent and a united Sri Lanka is clear from his participation at a memorial meeting in London, UK in March 2007 for his friend and colleague Kethesh Loganathan, who was labelled a “traitor” and assassinated by the LTTE. Kethesh Loganathan, a long-time activist, spent the last months of his life working in the Government’s Peace Secretariat to take forward the political process. In his keynote address, Bob Rae stated: “This has been the central question in Sri Lankan politics for the entire 20th century. How to create a country that reflects pluralism, that reflects diversity, that reflects the differences, that reflects the collective personalities of Tamils, of Hill Country Tamils, of Muslims, of Sinhalese. And that gets rid of this pathology of an excessive nationalism which never recognises the dignity and the difference and the personality of the other.”

Bob Rae was firmly on the side of human rights, a committed opponent of violations by the LTTE and its conscription of children. Like most Tamil dissidents and many enlightened Sinhalese he supported a federal political settlement in Lanka and at no time supported separatism in Lanka.

It is a sad comment of the section of the elite in Lanka close to the President, that once the Government started on a no-holds-barred military course, they became nervous about any criticism of violations by the government forces and by minions of the Defence Ministry. Any criticism was branded as support for terrorism and hence for the LTTE. This was the route by which Bob Rae is being labelled a Tiger supporter in the minds of this clique.

The quality of intelligence on which the Defence Ministry deemed Bob Rae an LTTE supporter raises a very fundamental question. Beginning with the killing of five students on the Trincomalee sea front in January 2006 through the thousands of extra-judicial murders over which the Defence Ministry presided were based on the premise that the victims were LTTE supporters. These were heinous acts based on the intelligence of paranoid minds. They cry out for a thorough investigation that will never come from the Sri Lankan Police.

For the Press too there are some fundamental questions. This government has assaulted, threatened and killed persons in the media who refused to feed off its trough. It is hard for anyone to work under these conditions and keep their sanity. They know there would always be the next incident where a tragedy would befall a journalist whose understanding of patriotism does not conform to the norms set by those in the top rungs of the Defence Ministry. They must constantly worry about crossing the line unawares. Playing safe imposes a conformity into which people slip in by slow degrees. That is what the LTTE relied on. Its effect in the South is reflected in how even the independent media have covered Bob Rae’s deportation. Once facts cease to matter, journalism dies. One day perhaps, they would understand that Bob Rae was their friend and a true friend of Lanka.

Bob Rae’s deportation is reflective of the arbitrary abuse of power, clamp down on dissent and the lack of space for dialogue within Lanka. Such openness is particularly necessary for peace and reconciliation, and this attack along with recent attacks on journalists critical of the military and the relentless abductions are reflective of a continuing war mentality of the military establishment. Over the last twenty years we have documented the deterioration of the Sri Lankan state and its various institutions. Such deterioration was in many ways a consequence of the overwhelming role of the military leadership in the affairs of both state and society. At the current moment, the President in continuing to give unwarranted licence for his brother, the Defence Secretary and the military establishment, is undermining the international goodwill that is necessary for Sri Lanka to rebuild and more importantly inhibiting the ability for ordinary people to begin democratic life having suffered the onslaught of the war.

It is high time the Government, the President, the ruling SLFP and the other political parties stop acquiescing to the military leadership. The rank and file and many of the high ranking officers over the decades have shown considerable professionalism in the face of politicisation. The people of Lanka have a strong democratic ethos. Now, democracy should roll in the entire country. To delay movement towards peace and reconciliation due to the personal whims and ambitions of the Defence Secretary and the military establishment would be a historic tragedy.