By Namini Wijedasa
The defence ministry has denied permission to a group of 37 parliamentarians to visit camps for internally displaced persons in Vavuniya, raising a vital question: Can a government prevent elected representatives of the people from travelling to any part of the country?
It is also being asked what criteria are applied when selecting who may gain access to certain areas of the country that the government considers “sensitive”.
The controversial UNP parliamentarian Jayalath Jayawardana is the secretary of the 37-member Parliamentarians for Human Rights which was formed in December 2008. The equally controversial Mano Ganesan is its president while Hassen Ali is the treasurer.
Jayawardana is now taking his protest abroad and has already written to Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief. His strategy is not likely to bother a government that has ignored criticism at shutting out media and humanitarian organisations from the conflict zone. Nevertheless, the defence ministry’s refusal to let even MPs access the Wanni has caused concerns that such limits on personal freedoms will become more widespread in future.
The Parliamentarians for Human Rights first applied for permission on 12 February 2009 in a letter addressed to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Jayawardana was informed by his Military Liaison Officer Gen Palitha Fernando that the security environment was not conducive to such a visit.
Jayawardana wrote several more letters, none of which received a reply. In a final missive on 3 April, he pointed out that Buddhist monks and other religious dignitaries had been allowed to visit the Wanni. There have been guided tours for heads of diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka while visiting foreign dignitaries — including John Holmes and Yasushi Akashi — were escorted to IDP camps.
Parliamentarians like the Tamil National Alliance’s Vino Noharathalingam, Basil Rajapaksa, Douglas Devananda, Rishard Badiudeen and former MP Veerasingham Anandasangaree have also had access. “Anandasangaree is under severe threat from the LTTE but he was allowed to go,” complained Jayawardana last week. “Why is the security situation used as an excuse to keep us out? There is clear cut discrimination.”
Is it a violation of parliamentary privileges for MPs to be barred from visiting a certain part of the country? Acting Secretary General of Parliament Dhammika Kitulgoda has held that the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act only applies to MPs who are proceeding to or leaving parliament — they must be given unfettered passage. This was confirmed by Priyanee Wijesekera, former secretary general of parliament, who said that visits to IDP camps could not be interpreted under the Act as “parliamentary duty”.
But Rohan Edrisinha, head of the legal unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, differed strongly. “My argument is that visiting IDP camps is the work of parliament,” he insisted. “MPs have to inform themselves of the reality to be able to contribute towards the proceedings of parliament. How can MPs discuss the situation in IDP camps if they cannot visit them? MPs are members of the national legislature, which is not only supposed to pass laws but serve as a forum where national issues and national challenges are discussed.”
Edrisinha contended that the basic purpose of the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act was to protect the freedom of parliamentarians to perform their functions without inhibition or restriction. “They have special responsibility to focus on what is happening in the country,” he stressed, adding that the parliamentary authorities earlier quoted had delivered “a very narrow, legalistic interpretation of privilege”.
A variety of other persons have also been kept out of selected locations. For instance, journalists can visit Trincomalee but not interview injured civilians in hospital. TNA MP R Sampanthan, too, has been denied access to the Trincomalee hospital. Jayalath Jayawardana, a doctor registered with the Sri Lanka Medical Council, is prevented from visiting the Mannar and Vavuniya hospitals. And so on.
Asked why the movement of MPs was being restricted, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said he did not know anything about it. “But I’m willing to look at the matter, to see what can be done so that visits can be facilitated in future,” he quickly added.
“In principle, if there is no security issue, access could be given,” he continued, cautiously. “It is also important to remember that IDPs have suffered enough at the hands of the LTTE and that they should not be used for narrow political agendas. This is why certain restrictions have been placed. Even the media going in there constantly would be a nuisance for them, really. Whenever politicians go, it does result in political agendas being played out subsequently. That needs to be avoided, in my opinion.”
The TNA wants access for their own political agendas, he pointed out, so did the UNP. What he failed to add was that the government had a political agenda in keeping both these groups out. The only people who get to go are the ones who would come back saying what the government wanted them to.
A defence ministry official confided that some of those denied permission were “mad fellows”. “Very frankly, everybody has their own agendas and we are sandwiched in between,” he complained. At the same time, there were serious security constraints to be addressed. “If something happens to an MP or a human rights guy, we will be in trouble,” he said. “We can’t take a risk because everyone will be on our head.” He admitted that Anandasangaree had been permitted to go but said he had been accompanied by a “brigade of troops”. “The situation in those areas is not settled and things are still happening,” he elaborated. “IDPs are moving, LTTE cadres are moving with IDPs, registration and screening is still ongoing. There are dangers and to be quite frank it’s a damn nuisance when these people try to go up and down frequently.”
Ultimately, many factors are considered when the defence ministry considers requests for permission to access the conflict zone. While security concerns may be cited, they ring hollow when they appear relevant only to opposition MPs or others whom the government does not “trust”. There is also no reason why group visits cannot be organised on particular days for which security is arranged. The government cannot be confident that people like Jayalath Jayawardana will not return with tales of horror that will arm the Tigers with material for propaganda. Nevertheless, forcibly restricting MPs from the war zone may not be the answer.
It is the responsibility of a democratically elected government to be answerable to the public — and part of that process is to permit detractors to see the truth, whatever that truth might be. After all, the president has appealed patriotic Sri Lankans abroad to return and help rebuild the country. Such individuals may initially be fired with patriotic zeal but this enthusiasm will flag if they find themselves penned into a motherland that has turned into a closely monitored police state. [courtesy: Lakbima News]