- It need not compromise citizens’ rights at every turn
The Western Province Community Police Division recently launched a three-day operation to gather information on all temporary residents living in Colombo City hailing from various parts of the island, with the aim of securing national security and eliminating crime and the narcotic trade in Colombo.
Carried out under the theme ‘Protect National Security, Eliminate Crimes and Drugs,’ the Police gathered information on all temporary residents residing in houses, business premises, institutions, State or private premises, construction sites, etc. within the Colombo Municipal Council area.
‘Protect National Security, Eliminate Crimes and Drugs’ is simply one example of such initiatives taken by the authorities in the interest of safeguarding ‘national security’ in the recent past. One memorable initiative that was recently implemented was when Registrar General W. M. M. B. Weerasekera stated that it was mandatory for foreigners to obtain security clearance from the Defence Ministry if they wished to marry locals, as per a circular dated 18 October 2021, which came into action on 1 January this year. This requirement was met with vehement opposition, in light of how it infringes on personal liberties.
As we are all well aware, Sri Lanka is not doing so well; even in a personal capacity, individuals are feeling the shift – we cannot afford to keep going without some major reform, unless a saviour descends to pluck us out of financial ruin.
The implementation of somewhat haphazard initiatives like ‘Protect National Security, Eliminate Crimes and Drugs,’ despite the incredibly precarious nature of our economy and the suffering that people must endure in their daily lives, gives rise to several questions:
Are they misguided but genuine efforts to protect the public from a great unknown danger?
Is the Government unaware that it is inadvertently violating people’s freedoms and liberties by imposing these regulations?
Or, is it all a ploy to distract us from the real problems and the damage that’s being caused by terrible mismanagement through faults of our leadership?
To take stock of what is going on here, Brunch reached out to a number of individuals who shared their thoughts on the matter.
Violation of citizens’ liberties
Attorney-at-Law Thishya Weragoda addressed this most recent initiative where temporary residents of Colombo are required to give their information to the community police (all in the name of national security) by noting that they did this very thing during the height of the pandemic, in 2020, just after the first lockdown.
“The first time around, Police arrived and gathered information under the Police Ordinance. They produced an S. 76 Notice and we provided the necessary information. However, in 2021, they returned asking for information, but this time with just an A4 sheet letter, and I refused to share any information,” he said.
Weragoda drew attention to a Supreme Court decision in 2007, where, citing security concerns, Police forcefully evicted Tamils from Colombo and took them to the Northern District of Vavuniya, the frontline of the then-ongoing civil war, following which the Court issued an order to the Government to stop evicting minority ethnic Tamils from the capital.
Weragoda noted that what was seen here was profiling of homes and it was a simple fact that the State could not go on a voyage in the name of national security in this manner. However, he added: “The reality of the matter is that people are not going to always oppose this; they will not keep going against these decisions, eventually they will tire of it, and they [the Government] think that they can get away with it because of this.”
It’s a distraction, an illusion of control
Meanwhile, Member of Parliament Dr. Harini Amarasuriya termed the move “a desperate effort to convey a sense of control in a situation where they are losing control”.
Amarasuriya said that as all were well aware, there were far bigger issues at stake and the Government was continuing to try and hoodwink the public, in a “feeble” effort. She noted that these decisions being brought up by the Government were simply to distract people from the real problems – problems that are largely due to continuous mismanagement and administrative fumbles, which the Government itself is responsible for.
“The Government continues to not address these issues at hand; instead our reliance on other countries for financial support continues to grow. In order to not attract too much attention to these things and to distract the public, it has created this feeling of immediacy around national security,” Amarasuriya said, adding that what we were being shown was a faux national security crisis when the real issues were quite different. “Our energy security is compromised, our food security is compromised. We are in a position where we have to barter off our resources to supplement our incomes. These are the major threats to our security.”
Amarasuriya pointed out that we were just “along for the ride as the Government attempts to create a sense of being in control”. However, in the process, it is infringing on the people’s rights, like in the case of requiring Government clearance to marry a foreign national, she asserted.
“Foreigners who are marrying locals are not threatening our national security. In the case of marriage, apart from the legal need to register, the Government cannot dictate how we should get married and whom we chose to marry. It is a personal choice that people must be free to make,” she said.
Similarly, Amarasuriya addressed the matter of registering temporary residents of Colombo and noted that these initiatives lacked sense. “Colombo is a large city with a constantly moving population. People come and go to Colombo for education, for work, for entertainment. There are lots of immigrant workers, Chinese, Indian, and others.”
Amarasuriya further said that this idea of restriction and monitoring people and getting people to seek State permission to do anything was very narrow-minded. She noted that it was a mindset that only understood control as a way of governing, added, “It is narrow, uninformed, and petty – and very much a reflection of the leadership.”
The mindsets of the people
Thishya Weragoda also addressed the people’s response to “national security,” saying that many of the adults in this country had lived through a three-decade-long war and therefore were naturally inclined to view national security as the height of protecting a population, since it was something they had been conditioned to believe in, in line with their experiences.
“Nothing to eat, nothing to drink, at least we have a country to live in – this is a popular mindset that people have,” he said, adding that because of this mindset, the Sri Lankan people, the masses, were ready to sacrifice anything in the name of national security. However he said that the Government had taken advantage of that for long enough.
Weragoda also noted that concepts like ‘freedom of expression’ were not priorities for the masses, noting that as long as their basic needs were satisfied, they did not seem to care if freedom of expression was stifled. People not being able to say what they want, when they want, which is their right, has become a matter of insignificance – “this is the reality,” he emphasised.
Weragoda also noted that only a handful of civil society groups continued to push back, but the attention of the masses was easily diverted with issues surrounding milk powder, gas, and fertiliser.
While much of this message may fall on deaf ears, Weragoda stressed that the general public must be educated about their rights and should learn about and stand up against injustice. “Incidents where people are dragged to the CID in the name of national security at the drop of a hat need to stop. The Police apply the law very selectively and much of the nuances of the law are lost on them because the public is willing to turn a blind eye or they don’t know any better themselves,” he said.
Sharing his views on why people were not educated on their rights, Weragoda attributed this to people’s lack of awareness of their fundamental freedoms and the fact that they don’t know about their right to information – that you can question the Government, ask it what it is being done with public funds, and so on.
Sri Lanka is now experiencing the consequences of being governed when people do not hold those who govern accountable.