Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

Wigneswaran and current approach

M. S. Amir Hussain

Sri Lanka should not try to go back to the 1956 era

The Ninth Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka was convened on August 20, 2020. The new government, which came to power on August 5, 2020, has begun its journey with the policy statement of the new government, the throne speech of the President of the Republic, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

  1. Vigneswaran who was elected to Parliament to represent Tamils from the North made his maiden speech in the new Parliament. In his speech he spoke about the demand for the rights of Tamils and the fact that those rights have not been granted for the last 70 years and are being dragged out. He also spoke on the pride of the Tamil language.

Vigneswaran’s speech has now created a kind of furor and anger among the Buddhist patriots in the country. He has been accused of speaking out as the voice of the LTTE, which was defeated in 2009 and inciting racism. Further, there are calls for expelling him from parliament and to include a provision in the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to that effect.

Some of the national mainstream media in our country are in the habit of giving prominence to such (hate) speeches of the racists and racial slur from such patriots from different corners projecting them as more powerful national heroes, thereby creating a public opinion that these extremist patriots are on the right and Tamils are on the wrong. Of course there is freedom of expression in the country but the media sometimes fail to understand what will benefit the people and what will not and they indulge in irresponsible reporting. This is an unfortunate situation in the country.

  1. Vigneswaran was an eminent lawyer and had served as the judge of the Supreme Court. He was the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council and is one of the most influential Tamil leaders in the North and the East. He commands the respect and affection of the Tamils. He is certainly aware of what he is speaking.

Anagarika Dharmapala, a well-respected ideologue in the Buddhist community spoke for Buddhism and Sinhalese in the country during the 1900s, Vigneswaran, who hails from the north, is also doing the same things. Similarly, today’s Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, Athuraliye Ratna Thera, and former Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa have spoken on the same line in the past garner to preferential votes of the Buddhist community. Political leaders of the Muslim community in this country are also raising their voices for the rights of the community they belong to. This is quite natural.

Why can’t Vigneswaran, then, publicly proclaim the rights and ethnic-based pride and talk of the economic and political needs for the community to which he belongs to? Doesn’t this country have that democratic right? How that right can be limited to one race only?

In the context of today’s Sri Lanka, patriotic or chauvinist-minded parties consider since the government has won 145 seats in parliament or close to a two-thirds majority in the last election it could make any change in the political system. They have started to think that if the government wants, it can suppress the political, economic or religious rights of the Tamil and Muslim people living in this country and push them into ethnic oppression and turn them into a slave society.

Such thinking is in no way fitting to this country in modern times. The country has seen the worst recession economically. While countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are making rapid progress, we are still thinking of how to trample on and usurp the rights that have been constitutionally granted to the fraternal race that still lives in this country. These so called patriots, government, and rulers must realize that while these kinds of thoughts could have been relevant to the pre-19th century period, it is in no way relevant to today’s situation.

We cannot forget the past history of Sri Lanka and plan for the future. The Sinhala-only law passed in 1956 had a massive negative impact on the country. As a result, Tamil youth from the north began to take up arms in their struggle in 1976 to demand the rights of Tamils. As a result, our country had to pay a heavy price due to the civil war that prevailed in the country until 2009. We must not forget that for the last 40 years we have been losing over 250 billion rupees a year in defense expenditure. All the money we lost for the civil war should have been spent on the economic development of this country. Not only that, but the people of this country also experienced massive devastation and bitter experience.

So it would not be such a big deal for a government with a two-thirds majority to expel Vigneswaran from parliament for speaking out for the rights of the people he represents. This was what the then government did to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) after the massive ethnic riots in July 1983. We must not forget that such actions caused the country to face massive international stigma and isolation. The two-thirds majority currently enjoyed by the ruling party in parliament is not for racial oppression. It has to be considered an opportunity to lead the country forward on the path of development. Whatever the so called patriots in this country say, the rulers must think wisely.

Slogans are being raised that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution enacted to decentralize powers should be abolished by the 20th Amendment and concentrate all powers on the Central Government. During the period of 1987, decentralization came into force as a solution to the Tamil problems. It is not democratic to take steps to usurp the granted rights in the name of constitutional reforms. We should not go back to the 1956 era.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution should include the necessary amendments to achieve economic development, progress, and prosperity paving the way for all races to live in unity and peace with political stability and earn the status as a country of international standards. It should not pave way for another racial oppression.

The need of the hour is to protect the country from the reactionary thinkers who claim to be patriots and try to push the country back into a state of crisis by trampling on the rights enjoyed by the fraternal races living in this country.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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