One Thank You, How About You?

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SRI LANKA [image, unknown] The Tamil question

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One thank you, how about you?
‘If I may say so, they are talking through their hat...’ President Jayawardene replies to international criticism on the Tamil question.

For six long years, the period when we were in the Opposition, this country was governed by emergency legislation and dreadful happenings took place: people were imprisoned without trial; some of my Colleagues in the Cabinet were imprisoned but were never charged with a single offence; elections were not held, everything that went on, one can say, pertained to a dictatorship period. Not once were we allowed to discuss the emergency in Parliament.

Today it may be necessary to govern by emergency legislation. We found it necessary in Jaffna two weeks ago. The declaration of emergency must be brought before Parliament, debated and voted upon, and if the emergency lasts for more than three months there must be a two-thirds majority to sanction it for the government to operate it. We have therefore secured that the country cannot be governed by emergency and dictatorial powers except by the consent of the legislature.

There is one district in our country in which we are having some trouble with terrorists. I am mentioning this because I am receiving a sheaf of telegrams and letters — all seem to be composed in similar language, similar figures, similar names — sent up especially from the British House of Commons.

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Jaffna market after a visit from the police in June this year.
Photo: Peter Marshall

We have members here from the British House of Commons. I welcome you. We follow a parliamentary system of government. We have deviated from it to some extent, but we recognize you as the Mother of Parliaments. These telegrams and letters accuse this Government of imprisoning people without trial, even murdering them. I cannot release people who have been put into jail under the normal laws of the land. If I may say so, they are talking through their hat. When you meet your colleagues, please tell them that I said so.

Do they know that during the last three years, since we assumed office, there have been 300 acts of violence in the Jaffna District — murders, assassinations, intimidation, abduction, gang robberies — 300 acts of violence, and 16 of them were against public officers. Policemen in the course of their duty were murdered in cold blood — every one of them shot in the head or shot in the back. A terrorist does not face you, he shoots you in the back. What do these Hon. Members of Parliament want me to do? We had to pass special legislation to deal with terrorism. We copied some of the laws passed by the British House of Commons, some passed by the Canadian Parliament, some by Australian Parliament — all democratic countries — to deal with terrorists, not to deal with the Opposition. We are operating that primarily in the Jaffna District — one out of 24 districts.

We had elections throughout the Island in 24 districts. There was peace in 23. A general election like that is a difficult undertaking, and I must compliment the Elections Commissioner and his staff for carrying it out successfully, except where there was trouble in one district, the Jaffna District. We found in the Jaffna District that there were 400 polling booths, each booth with 10 officers. 4,000 had to be recruited to conduct the elections in addition to police and the staff. I will not deal with the details of that election. The election was held, the votes were counted, and the Tamil United Liberation Front, which wants to separate from the rest of the Island, won every seat. I congratulate them and welcome them to help in our development programme.

But one week before the election the leader of our party in the Jaffna District, a Tamil gentleman, was shot dead. He had just finished his meeting, it was dark, and he was shot in the head. A week later, four days before the election, at a meeting of the Tamil United Liberation Front, four policemen who were on duty were asked to sit on a bench and were shot at. One died on the spot — a Sinhalese and of the majority community. The second one, a Tamil, died a few days later. As a result of this, there was an uproar in the Jaffna town. Shops were burnt, a house of an MP was attacked, a valuable library was burnt to the ground. Investigations are going on to find who did it

I referred to this because these British Members of Parliament are asking me, in other words, as the chief executive responsible for law and order ‘take your hands off those who committed these acts of murder, violence, arson, rape, highway robbery.’ Please, Hon. Members of the House of Commons, go and tell these gentlemen to mind their business closer home, because I think the United Kingdom has enough problems. In Britain itself, in Ulster, the House of Commons has quite a lot of work to do without bothering about us.

There is no tribunal anywhere in the world which we cannot face with confidence and with the knowledge that what we are doing is for the benefit of every man and woman in this country who likes peace, who wants an orderly government, who wants democracy to survive, who wishes to see that 50 years of universal adult franchise is followed by another 50 years of universal adult franchise. We are dedicated to that process, and we wish you will give us your help and co-operation.

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New Internationalist issue 105 magazine cover This article is from the November 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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