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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2589

Killings Out of Control: Sri Lanka’s Loss of Innocence

Dr. Siri Gamage, Australia

Sri Lanka had an eventful entry to 2009 creating a lot of emotions among the countrymen and women who live inside that beautiful island and those who have left the island and live elsewhere. Depending on the location of the people in terms of their ethnicity, political party affiliation, level of education, beliefs in terrorism, democracy, justice and rule of law, some enjoyed positive emotions and others very negative emotions. The victories by armed forces in the Northern Province against the LTTE generated positive emotions among those who believe that the country will be better off when the Tamil Tigers are annihilated and full sovereignty of the state re-established. The untimely death of a newspaper editor whose motto was to ‘detect, expose and dissent’ created negative emotions among many Sri Lankans, including those in the journalism profession and opposition political parties.

While we in a country like Australia were enjoying the peaceful and serene atmosphere granted to us during the Christmas-New Year holidays, taking a break from routine work, re-assessing the previous year’s work and future plans as well as re-energising the body and mind, those living in Sri Lanka and those with close attention to its public affairs went through such emotional turmoil. Quite deservedly so. The operations of killing squads so reminiscent of previous periods of turmoil in open daylight on a busy road killing an editor of a newspaper numbed many countrymen and women. The relative peace that usually prevail in the minds of people during festive season like the beginning of a new year (apart from those living in war-affected areas in the north) was shattered into pieces leading many writers in the media to question the order of the day and leading to deep reflection.

Many writers post-Lasantha Wickramathunge’s death and the destruction of Sirasa TV studio– have pointed out about 'lacking any tolerance of dissent' on the part of those in authority. They have also pointed out that 'ability to express dissent' is part of democratic governance principles. It must be said that the journalists-as a professional group- play an important role in a democracy or non-democracy. Many writers have recently pointed out this role in no uncertain terms. When other sections of the society or vocations have failed to express dissent, e.g. academia, journalists have played a crucial role informing the public on the affairs of the state, role of particular politicians and government agencies. One would say some of these expositions were made under fearless circumstances.

Can we assume the ability for expressing dissent as a universal right in all circumstances? For example, when a country is at war with a supposedly powerful enemy, what boundaries should be there for expressing dissent? There are examples from other societies around the world when the ability for dissent is curtailed during war times. Emergency powers are assumed by states temporarily until the situations at hand are normalised. For example, in Australia when a region or a state is severely affected by floods, fire or drought, special regulations come into effect in order to assist the people who are affected. Special provisions are made to consol the people materially and otherwise. While in Sri Lanka emergency rule has been continuous during the last few decades, only to be renewed every month by the parliament, the normal rule of law has been at a state of suspense. Within this context, and the increasing tempo of the military campaign in the north against the Tamil Tigers, tolerance of dissent by the authorities has been a low priority.

At war times, a lot of emotions are generated purposefully and otherwise. Emotions surrounding 'patriotism' can get boiled down to all sections of society in a positive or negative manner. Normal boundaries and etiquette that exist between various vocations/professions get diluted. The nation –or a majority of a nation – can be single minded in their efforts to eradicate the enemy. In such a situation, anyone expressing dissenting voices against the war agenda of the state can become a target. It seems the newspaper editor who faced a horrific death on a busy road either understood this reality well or misunderstood this possibility due to his political connections and misinterpretations. Some consider his ability to be critical of the highest power in the land as a brave quality of a fearless journalist. In the media others have pointed out about the futility of engaging in such a task at a time of war. Criticism in moderation rather than 'criticism at all costs'(naked criticism) is considered as the way to go.

Notwithstanding these considerations, the very fact that a civilian journalist was gunned down in broad day light by a gang with guns and other blunt instruments are disturbing to say the least. Along with many other incidents that took place in the country recently this trend toward a gun culture and killing squads should be a wake up call for those who admire democratic freedoms, ethics and principles. Under no circumstances a person's life should be taken unless it is a threat against someone's personal safety. Extra judicial killings of this nature can only hasten the fear among the civilian population, lead to an exodus of population to other countries, and destroy creativity within human mind. Dissent can often lead to creative works –whether in journalism, poetry, policy making or professional practice. Conformity on the other hand –even though labelled as loyalty by those in authority –lead to more of the same and heavy bureaucratic control.

There is a difference between 'ontrol'and 'overnance' In Sri Lanka, politicians and bureaucrats have been accustomed to exercise 'control' over its subjects rather than 'overnance' Governance involves management of the affairs of the state with 'cnsent' Even though one may argue that periodic elections signify the democratic nature of the system, critical observers of the way the system operates detect the heavy handed nature of the system of governance in the country after the elections. Given the fact that the period of government is six years –considered long and excessive by western standards – and there has been a centralisation of power via the Presidential system since the late 70s, those who gain power via elections tend to consider the power thus gained as 'a personal gift from the people to the rulers'.

Thus, even when there is no consent or there is a reduced consent, rulers can continue citing the power of the constitution. Apparently at this time of the country’s history rulers are very popular due to the war victories.

Countries around the world are opening up their physical space, markets and professions to others from the world. Intercultural experiences coming through migration, work in other countries, education abroad etc. are highly valued by those who experience such activities. Creative energies are put into action in a range of vocations in peaceful environments. Sri Lanka also has had this opportunity. Unfortunately, the unresolved conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers over the decades ruined the country preventing many of its citizens such opportunities –even though a minority had been able to enjoy the fruits of such global links.

If the war is proceeding well as reported in the media, the leaders in the country needs to reflect on the best society and its foundations required for another millennium –not the next 6 years.

This is where there seems to be a difference of opinion. Some tend to believe that Sri Lanka ought to be a multi ethnic, multi cultural, liberal pluralistic society. However, others point out the recent war victories and unlimited patriotism created by such victories are creating 'a hegemonic society'where the ethnic minorities will have to live as second class citizens rather than people with equal rights. This is a debate that needs to be further advanced in coming months and years.

Rights of the citizen in comparison to the politician and the bureaucrat need to be conceptualised in a more forthright manner and promoted via the education system and the media. General powerlessness of the citizens –unless connected to powerful figures via kinship, caste, class, regional loyalties or old boys and girls networks – has been a characteristic feature of Sri Lankan society during the colonial times as well as the post colonial period. The vision of large crowds of young, old, men and women seeking solutions to their day-to-day problems in the inner walls of Buddhist temples and deity shrines (devale) - when they cannot secure justice through political and bureaucratic system - is a sign of this general powerlessness.

The fact that war is coming to a close with large sacrifices on all fronts –a recent report indicated that there were 300 deaths of soldiers in the last 3 months – is only part of the story. Sri Lankan leaders, intellectuals, journalists, academics, poets and others need to galvanise their energies in order to seek a just and fair system of governance in the whole country within which all citizens are able to achieve their goals in life –whether it be education of children, building a new house, safety and security in the street, ability to express dissent, or indeed move around the country with ease. Organs of democratic governance such as the independent commissions for police etc. need to be set in place. People, irrespective of their colour, creed and shape, need to be able to look at each other as human beings who have to make a living in a small island and enjoy the fruits of globalising world rather than enemies who are bent on destroying the other.

Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Islamic ethics have to be enshrined in every sphere of society and the court system needs to be left for rare cases. Unless all Sri Lankans take a deep breath and strive to create a better and just society by devising a system of governance where the citizens have certain well defined rights when the rulers fail them by trying to ‘control’ rather than ‘govern’, the country’s future will be doomed. Local institutions and groups need to be strengthened against centralising tendencies coming from the Centre. Sufficient resources, freedoms, and space need to be provided for the far flung localities to achieve this aim.

The mythical state that the Tamil Tigers attempted to create, will perhaps remain as an ideology. Eelam, to my understanding, is not a multi ethnic, multicultural, liberal democratic one. Rather it is ‘a communal state’ where Tamils are accepted and non-Tamils are excluded. Even though constructed around powerful notions of discrimination, prejudice etc. such a state limited only to one ethnicity in a small island like Sri Lanka (the size of Tasmania in Australia) has not been acceptable even to the opponents of government. Therefore the overwhelming support received for the war against Tamil Tigers. The destruction created in human and material terms in the country, particularly North and East, has been considerable. Now it is time for the leaders of Tamil Tigers to reflect equally on the correctness or otherwise of their project.

Rebuilding a devastated country is no mean task. It will take decades. Rebuilding the minds of people who were subjected to trauma, loss of limbs and eyes, etc. will even be harder. In these circumstances, those who are defeated in war should also have a place in a tolerant and victorious society –unless they are a threat to the country, people and the state. Unparalleled patriotism has to be replaced by unparalleled drive for truly democratic governance and citizenship rights.

- Asian Tribune -

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