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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Sri Lanka’s children as ‘human shields’ and the president’s paradoxes – Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

When President Ranil Wickremesinghe uses gut wrenching imagery to equate Sinhalese mothers and fathers taking their children to protest sites with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) using Tamil children as human shields against state forces, it is deliberate and premeditated.

Two unsettling sides of the same coin

The President’s well aimed play is on the familiar theme of ‘protestors as fascists,’ used to excellent effect to frame his Office around twin motifs of stability and security. Well meaning responses by Sri Lankans have since hailed this Presidential response as worthy of praise. But there is a deeper context to this issue that must be critically looked at. If the President shows such heartwarming concern for Sri Lanka’s children, why did he not address the question of excessive police brutality practiced against them in the first instance?

That police response was against this week’s peaceful commemoration of those who had died during recent protests, at the Galle Face Green. Two small children were roughly manhandled, leading to one child being admitted to hospital. They were literally torn away from the arms of their parents. Is this action by the police to be condoned? Could not different tactics have been used by the police, where was the evidence of ‘minimum force’ that is parroted?

Equally to the point, do protestors not have the right to commemorate the dead, similarly to Northern mothers being stopped from mourning the deaths of their children during the Vanni’s war? In fact, the commonalities with which the State uses its tools to crush dissent are striking. There is nothing very new here. We have heard all this before, the rhetoric of the Northern terrorists/Southern insurrectionists and the besieged State. That dynamic was invoked in exactly that same way by the President.

The Constitution and the law

Piquantly, he went so far as to invoke the Constitution, to be more specific, the non-justiciable Directive Principles of State Policy. Thus, we are informed by an undoubtedly dimwitted media team that, to support his argument, the President had pronounced the full force and effect of Directive Principle 27 (13). This is to the effect that ‘the State shall promote with special care, the interests of children and youth, so as to ensure their full development, physical, mental, moral, religious, and social, and to protect them from exploitation and discrimination.’

But certain curiosities (if I may term them as such) arise at this point. Generally, the Directive Principles are a matter of mystery to Sri Lankans (and perchance many lawyers) who are more familiar with the detailed list of fundamental rights on which citizens may go to the Supreme Court alleging violations. As such, the President’s airy invocation of a (relatively) obscure section of the Constitution to prove his point is rich, to say the least. For this is the same President who, not long ago, declared High Security Zones under the Official Secrets Act which does not permit the declaration of such zones in the first instance.

So from whence comes this profound familiarity with the law (to go a step further, the Directive Principles no less) in one instance and not in (the far more obvious) second? Are we to uncritically accept claims that the President had ‘merely’ signed the gazette on High Security Zones put in front of him by his ‘clueless Minister’? Or was it that the President tried to dip his unwary toe in the boiling waters of the Official Secrets Act and had to hastily withdraw perforce when the heat proved to be too much?

The ‘cluelessness’ of Sri Lanka’s politicians

In other words, was this all part of the grand scheme to bring Sri Lanka’s ‘protestors as fascists’ under the control of the State? One speculates, inevitably. Such speculation is both fair and reasonable, given the extraordinary circumstances in which we live. In any event, this tripe about ‘clueless’ Ministers has its limits. This Friday, the Foreign Affairs Minister offered some priceless gems to bewildered denizens of this land. He declared with considerable panache that the entire Cabinet had been ‘clueless’ about the perilous state of the country’s finances till the crash happened.

The sheer stupidity of this claim by the Foreign Affairs Minister beggars imagination. This worthy was himself, Justice Minister in that same Cabinet, earlier he was the personal lawyer of former President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who once warned Sri Lanka’s Muslim communities that they must vote for his client or face the consequences. Not content with this explanation about the Cabinet, he then goes on to wonder about the ‘financial literacy’ of ordinary Sri Lankans if, (as he says), Ministers were so ‘clueless.’

On this point at least, he must be corrected. Suffice to say that the ‘financial literacy’ of a Sri Lankan child would be far better than his Cabinet colleagues in the main. Even so, the minister’s claim is as incredible as the President signing a gazette declaring sites in Colombo as High Security Zones in complete violation of the enabling law cited in the gazette. All these explanations must be dismissed forthwith. Put simply, criminal actions of the political leadership which have pushed the country into a morass from which it cannot extricate itself, are not due to ignorance or ‘cluelessness.’

Where is accountability for politicians?

Rather, these derive from deliberate, malicious and intentional violations of the Constitution and the law. It is as fundamental as that. So, for those of us apt to uncritically laud the Presidential warning regarding parents not bringing children to protests, a more reasoned response is warranted. By itself, that caution is perfectly understandable, whether it emanates from the Head of State or the genuinely concerned neighbour down the road. However, that does not, by itself, present the complete picture.

Children too have rights, under the constitutional rights chapter, which the President may also have addressed himself to, instead of turning only to the Directive Principles. Quite apart from everything else, it is also bizarre to say the least, to point to the State’s duty to ensure the ‘full development’ of children and youth when global warnings are sounded on child malnutrition in Sri Lanka as the economy collapses. The backsliding of a once lauded status for Sri Lanka in the global Human Development Index is entirely due to the robbery of the public purse by politicians.

But no accountability is yet evidenced in regard to those crimes while the President pontificates on the Directive Principles and use of children as human shields? In sum. attempts to equate the commemoration of ‘aragalaya’ activists as ‘unlawful’ acts is a cruel joke. While those who committed violence must certainly be dealt with by law, that does not condone the undermining of constitutional rights to peaceful protest, assembly and association.

On the cruel sins of the State against children

Neither can we bring in the indoctrination of children by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) during the nineteen seventies and eighties and stop at that. The State itself was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of children who were not involved with Southern ‘insurrectionists.’ One example thereto concerns the killing of close to hundred (Sinhalese) schoolchildren in Embilipitiya due to a private vengeance between parties with the connivance of state agents.

Similarly, we cannot invoke only the LTTE’s atrocities against children while overlooking the State’s raining down of shells on bunkers where (Tamil) children sheltered. Majority or minority alike, the Sri Lankan State’s list of grievous sins against its own children are many. Political pontifications on the Directive Principles of State Policy and orders to the police not to ‘permit parents to take children to protests fall ironically upon our ears in that context.

Maybe the President’s speechwriters can take these concerns also into account when next, they gleefully engage in propaganda spin?

(Sunday Times)

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