By Kusal Perera | The Sunday Leader
"The right to privacy is our right to keep a domain around us, which includes all those things that are part of us, such as our body, home, thoughts, feelings, secrets and identity. The right to privacy gives us the ability to choose which parts in this domain can be accessed by others, and to control the extent, manner and timing of the use of those parts we choose to disclose.” - Yael Onn, et. al., Privacy in the Digital Environment, Haifa Center of Law & Technology
“According to him (Nadim Habbash, a retired senior civil servant), there were seven different institutions for surveillance. The Mukhabarat was the first one and its function was to keep a tab on every citizen. It had a dossier on every Iraqi citizen. No Iraqi was permitted to shift into a new home, unless he had taken permission from the Mukhabarat. In many cases, permission was withheld. Every Thursday, each person was required to pay a visit to his or her ‘minder’ and give information about neighbours, employers, colleagues, friends and even family members. This was one country where a son spied on the father and the siblings and the father spied on him!” (page 14)
That was “privacy” in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Here in Sri Lanka, it is uncertain how a majority of the citizens expected their privacy to be respected and honoured. May be the urban middle class consumer does expect a certain “privacy” status defined for his/her life. Whether they do or not, personal privacy remains a “Right” in this Democratic world. Privacy is benchmarked in its most general terms by the UN Human Rights Charter under Article 12, as [quote] No one should be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honour or reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interferences or attacks.[unquote]
Added are provisions in The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 17, the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, Article 14 and the UN Convention on Protection of the Child, Article 16, that adopt “privacy” as a “Right” of an individual.
Privacy and information have a tight co-habitation. There are restrictions for all parties in gathering or collecting information. Citizens are not allowed access to information classified as “national security”. Governments are not expected to infringe on personal information that compromise individual privacy. This compromise between the citizen and the government s/he elects, is one serious factor that decides the depth of democratic life in a society.
That “Right” for personal privacy is one which is now at stake under this regime. If the report in the Daily FT of December 09, 2011 is right and no doubt it is, considering the source quoted as official, a digital “personal information” database is to be established under the authority of the Ministry of Defence, called the Geo Citizen Information System Project. Explaining the project, Colonel, Dr. Thiran De Silva, IT Advisor to Sri Lanka Army and Head of IT Centre for Research and Development of the Ministry of Defence had claimed, this digital data base would include all SL citizens living in the country and would include “even a month old child”.
Said to be the first of its kind in South East Asia, Colonel Dr. De Silva had said, a pilot project was concluded in Gampaha district, with grama seva officers trained for 12 months with divisional secretaries. This project is not just a personal information gathering effort. It would have family background of the individual and even details such as the road network, electricity, water and even the drainage system to compile a comprehensive data book. It would include satellite image of the person’s residency as well. Latest media reports say, when residents of Gampaha district queried from soldiers who visited to collect information, as to why such information is collected, the reply had been, “Go, ask the Defence Secretary”.
This without doubt, is a clear trespassing of individual privacy. The most valid question therefore is, who gave the MoD the authority to start such a project and under what law ? There is apparently no Cabinet approval for such a project and even if there is, that does not make trespassing on privacy, any legal. All what is known is that Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa had thrown the idea for this project and that perhaps made Gampaha the pilot project district. What makes this project appear rather dangerous is not Basil’s idea, but its implementation under the MoD. Its relation to the militarisation that this country is now subjected to.
There is a very intimidating military presence the government had collected by waging war. That was justified during the war in the South, as necessary power in defeating “separatist, Eelam terrorism”. That has left a very heavy militarisation in the North and the East, the Sinhala South is not willing to accept. But sadly, they are now grudgingly falling victim to this same militarisation, gnawing their lives.
Today, there are notice boards in Colombo that inform “This land belongs to the MoD”. Why there are no such notice boards by the Social Services Department or the Education Department may not be, because they don’t have land in Colombo. This new MoD cult in post-war Colombo stands menacingly firm, to tell the people, it now authorises citizens’ lives.
That is what had given the military the arrogance to even ignore Supreme Court determinations. The assurance the AG gave the SC over a FR petition filed against illegal registration of persons in the North in February this year, was not adhered to, leaving the SC blinkered on an apparent contempt of their judicial authority. It is this arrogance of power that had the Commanding Officer of the Central Province making a statement on 14 December, the army would provide security to all lorries transporting vegetables, whatever way they are packed and will not be allowed arrest, while the government was yet to suspend the prohibition imposed on transport of vegetables other than in plastic crates.
With all civil institutes that need not be with the MoD, clustered under it, the security forces have thus come to play a significant role in civil administration and in the life of people, even in the South. Militarisation under this regime does not end, just there. To note a few, most would know,
• Security officers of high rank has been posted top positions in foreign diplomatic missions
• Security officers have been appointed to high administrative positions that should be held by persons from the Administrative Service (Ministry Secretaries, District Secretaries, etc.)
• Land in North and East has been brought under military supervision
• Fisheries in the North is still dictated by the navy
• Leadership training for university entrants have been brought under the military
• All security of universities and some State institutes are now with the “Rakna Lanka” security organisation listed under the MoD
• All major stadiums built with massive public funds are under the security forces
• Urban planning and development is now under the MoD
• A gazette notification allows establishment of STF camps in all 24 districts
• Security forces are given the opportunity to establish their own independent
economy through businesses (direct investments on five star hotels in Colombo and restaurants, cafes, farms run often by proxy in the North-East)
Regardless of the ignorant mood in the Sinhala South, it isn’t a joke when the SC is ignored by the police and the security forces, though in the North. It isn’t a joke when a Commanding Officer makes his own decision, irrespective of government policy. It is no joke either, when the military with the police launch their own search operation of resident areas without Emergency Regulations and without a search warrant obtained. Media reported that both the military and the police spoke persons confirmed they did search houses together in Colombo Modera on 06 December, on a tip off that some houses in that area had illegal “stuff”. But why did not they go for a search warrant and do it legally ? They don’t think they have to. That is the mind set of militarisation. In almost all countries where militarisation roles on regardless, the normal civil law is done away with. That thus allows for a gestating period where no law and order is kept by enforcement agencies. That is reason why there were so many custodial killings and murder in police cells. That is also reason why there were nine abductions reported during the last eight weeks. That also explains how a person abducted from a location in the West coast was taken across the country to finally drift dead to the beach in the East coast. The roaming of the “Grease devil” from Pottuvil in the East, via Kantale and Vavuniya to Putlam in the West had the police and the military accused, for that same reason. The most recent abduction of two youth activists in Jaffna on International HR Day and now, reports of death threats on Jaffna university student leaders and two in the academic staff through public posters put up around university precincts, is unchecked ghostly violence in a militarised society.
Subjecting the society to such violent assaults is a common path to militarisation. Military authority can not be asserted with normal civil law allowed to prevail. This necessitates much more detailed information of citizens, than required by a civil administration. That was what the Saddam Hussein regime proved in plain. They suspect every citizen and thus need as much personal information as possible, to keep a tab on social activities. Society after all, is a collective of citizens. That is precisely why, this digitisation of personal information with all such details, carried out by the army, reminds me of a quote, attributed to Bob Dylan – “The army does not start wars. Its politicians who start wars. The army only goes marching o’er them”. Not only o’er politicians, but o’er people as well.
© The Sunday Leader