Since the crushing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan military in 2009, Many Tamils young people - both men and women - have languished in prison (remand custody) for years on end. Some of the more unfortunate have been in custody for a much longer period.
A large number of suspects have, despite being in custody for lengthy spells, not been charged with even committing a crime.
Tamil political parties represented in parliament - namely the TNA - have over the years, been raising the issue of political prisoners and calling for justice on their behalf. History however shows that either the government in power or those in the opposition shouted down the Tamil MPs and/or used the issue to rouse nationalistic fervor to garner quick political mileage.
Tamil politicians who kept raising the issue were labelled “LTTE supporters” for daring to focus attention on the plight of these prisoners both in and out of parliament.
For an even longer time mothers of the prisoners have been campaigning for information of their loved ones and calling for their release. Sadly, sometimes their campaigns were hijacked for political purposes rather than the cause of the political prisoners themselves.
Even international leaders of the calibre of an ex-British Prime Minister sought to enhance his own image, by arriving at one of the protest demonstration held by the mothers in 2013. While the then PM looked to garner votes for himself and his political party (Conservatives) in the distant British Isles, the mothers even today, continue to call for the release of their sons and daughters taken into custody many years ago
It was in this toxic background, MP and Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Namal Rajapaksa literally set the cat among the pigeons, when he quite unexpectedly raised the issue of justice to LTTE suspects, sometimes referred to Tamil political prisoners in parliament on June 22, 2021. Young Rajapaksa called for the cases against the suspects be expedited, and in the event of a lack of evidence, they be rehabilitated and released.
MP Rajapaksa pointed out that some of the Tamil political prisoners or LTTE suspects had been languishing in remand custody even prior to his birth. He demanded they be brought to trial immediately, or be released. He added that some of those who continue to be in remand custody had not even been charged with a particular crime.
Rajapaksa in an aside said it was solely due to his own experience in remand custody during the ‘Yahapalana regime’, he was able to not only to experience the harsh conditions prisoners were subject to, but to interact with the LTTE suspects held in custody.
MP, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka of the SJB speaking after MP Rajapaksa, emphatically backed Rajapaksa’s proposal. He reminisced on his own time in custody. MP Fonseka mentioned that on an occasion he was taken to Court, the fellow prisoner seated next to him was the man who had driven the vehicle carrying the female suicide bomber who attempted to assassinate him a decade and-a-half earlier.
MP Fonseka called for the release of the man and emphasized the need to bring closure to cases against other LTTE suspects. It appears the two major parties representing the majority community have at last found common ground.
TNA Jaffna district MP Dharmalingam Siddharthan commenting on MP Rajapaksa’s proposal said he and all right-thinking people were very happy that a member of a non Tamil-speaking community had courageously taken up the need for justice to be meted out to the LTTE suspects in custody. He added that his party had raised this problem over the years.
Referring to MP Rajapaksa, MP Siddharthan said, since his (Namal’s) release from custody, the MP had been visiting the previously mentioned prisoners regularly and had gained an intimate insight into their problems and concerns. For the country, MP Rajapaksa seems to have created a space where we, as fellow-countrymen and women can put aside our petty differences, rise above party politics, ethnicity and come together as a nation for a common cause.
That a young MP had the courage of his convictions to stand up in a racially/ethnically divided society and be counted bodes well. It shows the younger generation of politicians are beginning to take a more holistic view of Sri Lankan society, not coloured by ethnic biases
If the trend continues, perhaps we can leave behind our baggage of ethnic, religious and similar differences, and once again be Lankan first.