Shanie, in Island, 5 February 2011
What is democracy for –
If we wish for kings
And military rulers?
Why speak up against oppression –
If we ask for laws of emergencyc
Why fight for freedom of expression –
If we ask writers to ‘know the limit’?
Why ask for commissions on corruption –
If we don’t forget to bring
The corrupt to power?
The above is a translation of a poem written by Mahesh Munasinghe, a young Sinhala poet and posted in a literary website ‘Boondi’. This was quoted in a recent essay by Liyanage Amarakeerthi, the Peradeniya academic. The poem becomes very relevant to us today as we celebrate the 63rd anniversary of our independence from western colonial rule. In many spheres of our political, economic and social life, we seem to have gone backwards rather than moving forward. The recent destruction of the offices of the Lanka e-News website at Malabe, not very long after the destruction of the MTV studios at Pannipitiya and the attacks on Sirasa Head Office at Slave Island, is indicative of the insanity and the abuse of power by those in authority. The Asian Human Rights Commission has in a statement issued this week listed the large number of journalists killed, abducted or disappeared over the last four years. All of them were prominent critics of those in positions of authority. But this is not to say that these killings and disappearances are only of recent origin. Governments in power have over the past few decades targeted journalists, no doubt because the media is the most effective tool to express ideas contrary to what those in authority want the people to know, as well as to expose corruption among those in authority. As we celebrate our freedom day, let us not forget that democracy cannot exist without the unfetterd freedom of expression and the right to express new ideas and opinions and to the right to expose any corruption in the functioning of public institutions. Subject to the laws of libel, the freedom of expression can have no restrictions. As the young poet states, don’t talk of freedom of expression and at the same time talk of writers ‘knowing their limits.’
Culture of Violence
The culture of violence and intimidation is not directed solely against journalists. The LTTE introduced the culture of eliminating or driving underground anyone challenging their hegemony. The establishment in the South has turned that into a fine art with complete impunity for these criminal elements. No one has been convicted for any of killings, abductions and disappearances of those politically opposed to those in authority. Is it enough to issue public statements calling for investigations when in reality not one person has been indicted and convicted, say, for the attack on MTV studios, for the killing of Joseph Pararajasingham, Raviraj and Lasantha Wickrematunge or for the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda. The LTTE was also undoubtedly responsible for many other killings but it was a shadowy organization where their operatives presumably disappeared into the Vanni as soon as they committed their crime. But compare the speed with which Sarath Fonseka has been indicted and convicted by a Court Martial, a competent court according to the judgement of the Chief Justice and three other learned judges. Compare also the speed with which ruling party politicians are being pardoned or discharged for crimes of murder, no less.
There were several cases of mysterious abductions and killing in Jaffna during the month of January. This was raised in Parliament and the immediate reaction of the military and political establishment was to dismiss them as something not out of the ordinary. The Prime Minister even stated that similar incidents were taking place in the South, not perhaps realising that he was in effect admitting that there was a breakdown in law and order throughout the country. But, even at this late stage, it was good to hear reports of the northern military commander stating at a meeting in the Jaffna Secretariat that such incidents needed to be investigated and stopped.
It is not uncommon for our politicians and their apologists to dismiss all those challenging the threat to our freedoms and upholding of the rule of law as ‘traitors’ of ‘friends of the tigers’. This is also the mindset of those clones of the LTTE in the south. Writing on the Sinhala literary scene, Liyanage Amarakerthi in that essay referred earlier writes: “Even after the demise of the LTTE, the Sinhala nationalists continue to talk of ‘Western conspiracies’ and the like. For them, all NGOs are pro-Western, and anyone speaking of freedom of expression, devolution of power or simply ‘peace’ is automatically to be considered a paid agent of the West. From this we can see that if ‘mental colonialism’ did not end with Independence in Sri Lanka, that mindset is today being propagated by nationalists (this despite most of these intellectuals themselves being Western-educated). By continuing to place such emphasis on the West, the key players of the Sinhala nationalist discourse are in fact the main propagators of Western dominance in Sri Lanka, simply by over-emphasising the boundary between the purported West and East.
The dominance of nationalism in the Sinhala literary scene now seems to be ending and a new discourse seems to emerging, largely powered by youths both in Sri Lanka and the diaspora. For the last few decades, the Sinhalese diaspora was mainly nationalist, as much as the Tamil diaspora was mainly separatist. Now, however, some Sinhalese creative writing coming out of the diaspora attempts to imagine a new, cosmopolitan Sri Lanka.”
The need for a new political will
Bishop Duleep de Chickera is one religious leader who is bold enough to make very perceptive statements on current issues. In his message issued for our National Day yesterday, he has stated: “The end of the war provided an excellent opportunity for healing the wounds of the past. It was also an opportunity to include all those who had been excluded, economically and socially, to build systems of social vigilance which would protect the dignity and rights of our people and to search for a shared life style of forgiveness and unity. The end to the war also brought a challenge to put an end to violence and confrontation as problem solving methods.
It is however most unfortunate that in spite of possessing the necessary human resources to make these changes, we have delayed for too long and have now lost sight of these goals. We have failed to address the pressing crises of displacement and poverty, corruption and waste, good governance and national integration. There is consequently a growing discontent with the indifference to the people’s needs, rights and aspirations, and impatience with endless excuses that inevitably blame others. The old order is incapable of, or reluctant to replace unjust systems and discriminatory trends with a more just order for the good of all our people. What the country consequently needs is a new political will that will restore the sovereignty of the people and bring about true national integration.”
Warning Signs from North Africa
What the country needs is not only a political will to restore the people’s sovereignty but also the political maturity to realise the need to do so. Hosni Mubarak is an elected authoritarian ruler of Egypt wielding immense political power. In “elections”, he has crushed all opposition. In the disputed Presidential Election of 2005, he obtained some 85% of the vote. He promptly had his principal opponent in that election convicted on some charge by an Egyptian court and sentenced to five years hard labour. He was grooming his son Gamal to succeed him at some stage. In the parliamentary elections, also disputed, his party again won over 80% of the votes. Everyone thought he was secure in his position; the events of the past week have therefore come a complete surprise to friend and foe alike. The even more surprising element in this uprising is that it is taking place with no visible leader. It has been a spontaneous uprising of opposition to this elected ‘dictator’.
Last week, we wrote of Vaclav Havel, a comparatively unknown national figure who emerged as the President of Czechoslavakia following the ‘velvet revolution’ in that country. Last month, a ‘jasmine revolution’ ousted the Tunisian dictator. With Mubarak’s total dependence on military support, his future, even for the next few months, will depend on the stance of the Army in this revolutionary uprising by the masses of Egypt. These uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt mean one thing – opposition and dissent when suppressed by an authoritarian regime will one day erupt into a popular uprising. This is not a parallel for Sri Lanka but a warning that democratic freedoms of expression must not be suppressed; and political opposition cannot be wished away by imprisoning opposition figures, even if they were once war heroes but are no longer so.