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Unity among communities key to country’s development: Major General Darshana Hettiarachchi

  • Robust national awareness programme needed

By Yoshitha Perera

Sri Lanka was in the process of establishing rehabilitation centres for religious extremists, under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA), as a way to combat extremism.

Recently, the Supreme Court (SC) issued an interim order suspending the implementation of such de-radicalisation programmes under the PTA. Critics raised concerns that these centres may be used to promote human rights abuses, particularly against Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim population.

In an interview with The Sunday Morning, Commissioner General of Rehabilitation Maj. Gen. Darshana Hettiarachchi shared his views on the proposed de-radicalisation programme.

He said the Government planned to expand the participation of religious scholars and community leaders in the proposed programme and pointed out the need for a robust national awareness programme on radicalisation and extremism, and the importance of helping those who have been de-radicalised to reintegrate back into the community.

Following are excerpts of the interview.

What is the difference between de-radicalisation and rehabilitation?

There is a slight difference. For example, during a rehabilitation programme conducted for drug addicts, we’d try to show them a way out of the addiction by using different techniques. In the case of de-radicalisation, we must pay special attention to the person’s ideological beliefs. As such, the programme would take a psychological approach.

We must convince them and make them understand that what they believe in will lead them down a wrong path. We must also guide them to find the correct path. In the de-radicalisation process, we would involve experts who are thorough with the subject matter – e.g. moderate scholars – and get their help to guide radicalised persons towards the correct path.

While there is a slight difference between rehabilitation and de-radicalisation in that sense, both go hand in hand.

Can you briefly explain the proposed de-radicalisation programme for Sri Lanka?

At one point in time, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was known as the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world. After the civil war ended in the country, we conducted a rehabilitation programme for ex-LTTE cadres who had been trained and motivated to commit suicide. We were able to conduct a rehabilitation programme for them and reintegrate them back into society. With that experience, we formulated a similar programme, but with support from some Muslim scholars and community leaders.

These scholars will talk to the radicalised persons whilst conducting counselling sessions, and they will try to convince these persons of the necessity of peaceful co-existence, harmonious living, and unity. We will try our best to inculcate such things in them while conducting the rehabilitation programme. While common approaches have been included in the rehabilitation programme, we are also involving moderate religious teachings in this de-radicalisation programme.

My opinion is that unity among communities is most important to develop this country. Without unity, we cannot expect development in our country. We are a diverse country. We have to pay special attention to make them (persons with extremist ideologies) understand the importance of unity and diversity.

In this proposed de-radicalisation programme, we will focus on that particular aspect. We already had discussions on this with several academics attached to the University of Colombo and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. As I mentioned earlier, we will take the psychological approach through this programme.

Unlike most (of the former) LTTE cadres, most of those radicalised with Islamic extremist ideologies (in Sri Lanka) are educated; but they were misguided. We are planning to guide them and convince them of the correct path.

What de-radicalisation strategies and procedures were examined and incorporated into the local programme in Sri Lanka? Are they compliant with international best practices?

We have studied rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programmes followed by a few countries – for example, systems adopted in Bangladesh and Indonesia – and we have also incorporated certain aspects from the (programmes in) the UK and the UAE. However, we have formulated our own system considering the cultural backgrounds of our people. We have studied the best practices of other countries and created a programme that is appropriate to the Sri Lankan context.

How does the Government plan to introduce de-radicalised persons back into society?

Reintegration. During the rehabilitation programme, we have a specific component to give them necessary vocational training. However, in the current situation, as I said earlier, most of those radicalised with Islamic extremist ideologies are educated and they have been employed; the only concern is that once they go back into society, they have to maintain a peaceful relationship with others.

Due to the acts of a few people, the entire Muslim community was put through a difficult situation. In this context, we must implement a robust programme to convince the whole community and educate them to accept de-radicalised people back into society and the community. If not, there would be a tendency for the de-radicalised persons to turn to violence again.

We must continuously conduct community awareness programmes. We will design a programme to convince society about the importance of accepting rehabilitated and de-radicalised persons and working with them.

When a person is being reintegrated into society after de-radicalisation, what kind of support will the Government offer?

I will explain this through an example. After releasing the rehabilitated ex-LTTE individuals, we established our branch offices in areas in the North and East. The main task of these offices was to co-ordinate on the socioeconomic requirements of these rehabilitated people and to look into their welfare management. We will implement a similar system for de-radicalised persons as well, and we will have our offices in the respective areas.

So, will there be a monitoring process after the rehabilitated persons are released?

We will not conduct any sort of monitoring. That is not our part. That is up to the intelligence agencies or other designated authorities. Our prime objective is to assist these people to develop their lives in socioeconomic and other aspects. There is no monitoring process from our side.

What is being done to raise awareness among the public, particularly youths, about extremism and how to identify extremist traits?

We have not implemented such a national programme to raise awareness among the public about extremism. However, I think the Government has to initiate such a programme from the top, and it is a requirement of the day. I’m positive that the Government will implement such a programme in the near future to educate the public, especially youths.

In your opinion, do you think the education sector should raise awareness about misinformation, hate speech, radicalisation, and extremism among schoolchildren?

Definitely. We should formulate a system from the school level to create awareness on misinformation, hate speech, radicalisation, and extremism. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be separate Buddhist schools, Catholic schools, Muslim schools, or Hindu schools – every school should accommodate children from all communities. Only then can they understand how to respect other communities and cultures. Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country, and we all have to accept that.

How would the Government ensure due process is followed in the de-radicalisation programme?

That part will be done by the Attorney General’s (AG) Department, law enforcement authorities, and intelligence agencies. Our responsibility commences once persons enter the rehabilitation programme. During the rehabilitation process, these individuals will live in a friendly environment, and their family members will be allowed to visit them. So, they have some degree of freedom; it is not a punishment. It will be a setup that is completely different to the prison and remand system.

Trust and transparency are important to win community support for the rehabilitation or de-radicalisation programme. How would the Government achieve this?

I think we have to develop unity and diversity among all communities, and strict laws have to be implemented to punish people who are spreading misinformation and hate speech.

What about those with entrenched extremist views, who remain a threat to society and are being held in the rehabilitation centres? Will they be held separately where they cannot indoctrinate others?

When they first join a rehabilitation centre, we “profile” those in need of rehabilitation. Profiling is done by counsellors and clinical psychiatrists. These experts have the ability to understand the level of radicalisation of these individuals. Subsequently, we will group them, and we will monitor them daily, while there will be an evaluation process each month. Through this programme, we will monitor their level of radicalisation, whether there is an increase or decrease, and we will provide treatments for them accordingly.