A popular newspaper column lamented on Sunday (September 30) that while the punishment for murder is death upon conviction, the punishment for the murder of hundreds, i.e. a terrorist act, is “only” life imprisonment. Taking a critical stance of the recently Cabinet-approved counter terrorism bill for apparently soft-pedalling the issue of terrorism, the columnist opined that it “allows a mass terrorist bomber to get away with murder most foul”.
And yet, isn’t it even more ironic that when one man is killed, it is murder, and when a million are killed, it is deemed a heroic act? A cause for celebration? This was the powerful counter-point conveyed at the United Nations by Malaysia’s Premier Dr. Mahathir Mohamed who at 93, is the ‘Elder Statesman of Asia’ and remains deeply loved and respected by not just Malaysians, but by millions across the globe. Indeed, there is something wrong with the universally propagated way of thinking and with our value system, as the Malaysian PM so candidly put it, when he addressed the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly on September 29.
In the Sri Lankan context, the question that is not being raised yet – not loudly enough at least – by civil society is why do we need to enact fresh laws to deal with terrorism at this juncture? What is the justification? Everyone thought the war was over. Why are we then planning to enact laws to counter terror? Whose terror? Is that the right message for the foreign investors already on the run? Are the existing criminal laws not adequate? Is there fear mongering of far-fetched threats to justify the privileges certain institutions wish to continue to enjoy, even while some in this country are living or dying (?) on Murunga leaves? Without doubt, we should do away with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) altogether. So many have been locked up without sufficient evidence and their lives wrecked. Some of them had never heard of at least rehabilitation!
There are cases of suspects spending nearly 10 years without a charge in remand prisons as recently reported in the media. Are we not investing in radicalizing them and others who do not support measures which they see as unjust? While the PTA should be done away with, who is asking for a special law in this country to deal exclusively with terrorism especially at a time when Sri Lanka is enjoying relative (negative) peace since the war ended in May 2009.“Illang Kanawa”- ‘you ask for it and you will get it’!
What is equally perturbing is the colossal amount that is being earmarked for Defence expenditure. According to the Appropriation Bill for 2019, as reported in the Sunday newspapers, budgetary allocation for Defence will shoot to over Rs. 306 billion, up from Rs. 290 billion in 2018, whereas just Rs. 6.1 billion has been allocated to the very important subject of National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages. From the Rs. 306 billion, it is reported that Rs. 275 billion will go towards recurrent expenditure and Rs. 32 billion will be utilized for capital expenditure.
According to a report published in February this year by Strategic Defence Intelligence, which provides early market intelligence for the global arms industry, Sri Lanka’s defence spending will reach USD 2 billion by 2023, with a compound annual growth rate of 1.71% over the next five years. The report entitled ‘Future of the Sri Lankan Defence Industry – Market Attractiveness, Competitive Landscape and Forecasts to 2023’ anticipates that military imports will rise between 2019 and 2023.
Again, the question: why should military expenditure be on an upward trend in Sri Lanka, in the absence of a serious terrorist problem, and at a time, when we are neck-deep in debt running into trillions of rupees? There is no justification for such a bloated military budget; money that would be better spent on poverty alleviation, education, housing, roads and yes – peace-building. Why is Sri Lanka’s civil society silent?
Dr. Mahathir Mohamed succinctly summed up the crudity of big capital at the UN last week when he stated: “The arms business is now the biggest business in the world. They profit shamelessly from the deaths and destruction they cause. Indeed, so-called peace-loving countries often promote this shameful business. Today’s weapons cost millions. Fighter jets cost about 100 million dollars. And maintaining them cost tens of millions. But the poor countries are persuaded to buy them even if they cannot afford. They are told their neighbours or their enemies have them. It is imperative that they too have them. While their people starve and suffer from all kinds of deprivations, a huge percentage of their budget is allocated to the purchase of arms. That their buyers may never have to use them bothers the purveyors not at all.”
If we understand the root causes of terrorism and seek to address those causes in earnest, we need not worry unduly about the resurgence of terrorism in this country. The ugly acts of harming innocent civilians can never be condoned, irrespective of the attire of the agent. The crux of terrorism is the intimidation and /or harm to a civilian population, when resistance becomes the legitimate response.
Counter terror laws empower perpetrators to crush this legitimate resistance. Likewise, the problem of terrorism cannot be resolved without coming to terms with its drivers. That requires a broad mind-set; a mind-set that is ready to look beyond the legal framework, and into the hearts and minds of the people.
The arrest and detention of Sri Lankan Kamer Nizamdeen on flimsy grounds by the New South Wales Police in Australia, is a reminder to us all of how counter terror laws can be used to harass and intimidate people on the basis of their race and/or religion. The laws can and have been invoked to terrorize innocent people and cause untold agony. Do we really need such laws in this country? Are these the ‘international best practices’ we wish to emulate?
Despite being told otherwise, Sri Lanka showed the world in May 2009 that a military victory over terrorism was possible. The foreign and local pundits were proved wrong. Now they demand laws to prevent a resurgence of terrorist activity. It is time to prove them wrong again.
Little Sri Lanka can show the big world that we do not need harsh, repressive laws that can potentially harm the liberties of our citizens to address imagined security threats. If we showed the world our military might in 2009, then a decade later we can show the world our humane face, by putting into practice the compassion espoused in the noble religion of the Gautama Buddha professed by the majority in this land and the teachings of every religious leader. We need justice and political solutions; not laws that would be counter-productive and further polarize our regrettably fragmented society.