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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2706

Towards an Anti-Democracy?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector”- Plato (The Republic)

Lankan democracy survived a quarter of a century of war and the threat of the LTTE. Post-war, it may face a greater peril from patriots who dream of eternal rule and dynastic projects. At what price the victory over the LTTE has been won, whether this is another case of exchanging ginger for chillies (that classic Lankan proclivity), only time can reveal.

Terrorists are not born; they are made and they make themselves. Terrorism is not the patrimony of any organisation, ethnic or religious group; it is a malady that can affect even legally constituted governments (especially when they are determined to stay in power at all costs). When critics and opponents of the powers that be are targeted and the perpetrators of these crimes are never caught, it creates a ripple effect of fear and uncertainty across a society. Consequently such selective targeting can obviate the need for generalised repression or even repressive laws, compelling citizens to stay away from politics.

As Sri Lanka has experienced over and over again, few well targeted killings/attacks can act as discouragement or deterrent to a much larger populace, making them inactive and silent. The killing of Lasantha Wickremetunga impacted not only on the paper he edited but on Lankan media in general. This negative impact grew, as it became obvious that the perpetrators will not be caught. Other attacks on other media personnel (from arbitrary arrests to abductions and killings) have similarly contributed to the erosion of media freedom, from within. The task once performed by Competent Authorities and formal laws is being accomplished today by a process comprising of selective targeting, self-exile and self-censorship, plus the unofficial obstructing of websites. In previous times, with official censors in place, large white spaces in newspapers served as symbols of resistance. Today there is no room or need for such empty spaces, because, as Gordon Levy said about Israel, ‘Soldiers, journalists and news-consumers automatically refrain from asking questions’ (Haaretz – 6.7.2009). Very few questions questions; hardly any answers; often just bland acceptance of whatever the official version, even such colossal, inane lies as the ‘increasing consumption of luxury food items’ by the displaced Tamils in the Northern internment camps (as a minister informed the parliament – incidentally the roots of this ‘displaced Tamils living in luxury’ myth are sourced in another, older myth – that of the ‘plantation Tamils cosseted by the state’).

The Danger From Within

The LTTE killed political opponents and dissenters, politicians and academics, the well known and the anonymous, to spread terror and turn the Tamil community into mindless adherents of its deadly project. The fate of those who dissented served as a potent deterrent for any who wanted to travel the same path. The JVP followed a similar strategy during the Second Insurgency, murdering political opponents and compelling even ruling party politicians to resign. The best case in point was the killing of Vijaya Kumaratunga, the most strident critic of the JVP within the mainstream left; his brutal assassination symbolised the dangers of opposing the JVP and cowed many actual or potential critics of the Second Insurgency into silence.

Almost seven months ago, Lasantha Wickremetunga was murdered in broad daylight, in a crowded junction, as he headed to his workplace. Two weeks ago, the Leader of Opposition of the Galle Municipal Council was gunned down in front of his two young children, as he stepped out to buy some food from a wayside bakery on the way to school. Here too the murderers came on motorbikes (two); here too they completed their gory task and vanished into thin air; here too the police are investigating; here too the murderers will not be caught; here too there is a frightening lesson in permissiveness and impunity.

The killing of a leading opposition figure, in the run up to a crucial regional election, cannot but have a politico-psychological impact on oppositional activists and activities in the province, and even beyond. The Southern Provincial Council election is expected to be held within a couple of months. Had Dushyantha Seneviratne lived, he would have played a key role in that contest on behalf of the UNP. His killing, and the manner of it, is likely to further discourage the UNP, already debilitated by repeated defeats and burdened with a leader whose sole concern is preserving his place at the top, at any cost. And just as attacks on media personnel reduce the vibrancy of the media, attacks on opposition politicians will reduce the competitiveness of any multiparty election. (After all, if politics is life threatening, how many would want to engage in such a dangerous pursuit?) Taken together both processes will serve to make the Lankan democratic system less free and less democratic. Terrorism from without may be easier to withstand than terrorism from within. The first is at least easier to recognise; the second not so, because it is covered by seven veils and more.

The LTTE killed and terrorised Tamils, for ‘Tamil liberation’; the JVP killed and terrorised the Sinhalese to ‘liberate’ Sri Lanka from Indian occupation. Successive Sinhala supremacist regimes discriminated against, attacked and repressed Tamils and adopted a permissive attitude towards Sinhala on Tamil violence; but it took the LTTE to deprive Tamils of every last vestige of freedom and free will, presenting them with an unequivocal choice between mindless obedience and traitor status. The JVP’s criminal intolerance made the Southern left realise the qualitative difference between an authoritarian regime and a Polpotist movement; the Jayewardene regime repressed its opponents as a norm; the JVP killed its opponents as a norm.

Under Rajapakse rule the war against the LTTE was premised on the intolerance of dissent, and of alternate viewpoints, on impunity and permissiveness, of the belief that ‘anything goes’ in a ‘just war’ (which has been the basis of religious and quasi-religious wars throughout history). Just as the Tigers used the banner of liberation to tyrannise Tamils, the regime committed human rights violations with impunity behind the façade of a ‘humanitarian operation’. Just as the LTTE justified any excess, any crime in the name of Eelam, the regime used patriotism as an effective cover for words and deeds beyond the norms of democracy, legality and basic decency. The Northern internment camps are an outcome of this policy - just as the Sinhala supremacist outlook of the regime that underpinned the war effort is likely render impossible a political solution to the ethnic problem based on a reasonable degree of devolution. Having won the war by treating the Tamils as less than Sri Lankans, the regime is unlikely to see any reason to change tracks once the threat of the LTTE is over. After all, for any Sinhala supremacist, the war was not just about defeating a terrorist threat to Sri Lanka’s unity; it was also about putting Tamils in their place and keeping them there, by defeating their ‘political pretensions’ decisively.

The decision by the Justice Minister to appoint a Special Advisory Panel consisting of 30 Buddhist monks “to advice as per the Buddhist philosophy to the ministry in performing its responsibilities” (Colombo Today – 34.7.2009) denotes a blatant attempt to further infuse the state and the majority religion, to the detriment not only of the values of secularism but also of religious pluralism. The recent controversy over the abduction of two baby elephants from their mothers for religious purposes, in blatant violation of the laws of the land, demonstrate the danger of placing religious needs over and above secular laws made to protect not just citizens but also animals. That there is no justification in the Buddhism of Gautama Buddha for this brutal separation is obvious to anyone who is even marginally conversant with that philosophy based on universal compassion. But Sinhala Buddhism is quite another matter, because it is a distortion which is based on inequality, exclusivity, intolerance and the absence of compassion. This latest fusion between state and religion is not only a violation of the principle of equality which is the basis of any real democracy; it can also be abused by powerful religious leaders to their advantage and the detriment of everybody else, including fellow Buddhists and baby elephants.

A Place Of Less Freedom

In her recent essay, ‘Hollow Language and Hollow Democracies’ Arundathy Roy reproduces the slogan in a placard carried by a Kashmiri protester: ‘Democracy without Justice = Demon Crazy’. The defeat of the LTTE has not led to any significant relaxation of the extraordinary rules and regulations created to defeat the LTTE. The arbitrary road closures for the convenience of power wielders are only the most visible manifestation of this unjust continuance. The PTA and the Emergency are still in force, and will be used against unarmed opponents of the regime whenever necessary. The extra-judicial killings and abductions (and the impunity with which these are carried out even in high security areas) are the illegal corollary of the legal restrictions. The possibility of post-war Sri Lanka becoming a place of less openness and less freedom than Sri Lanka during the war is a very real.

The government in its many proclamations sound both abrasive and nervous, triumphalist one moment and paranoid the next. Behind the bluster there seem to lurk a curious uncertainty. For instance there is little doubt that the government would have won every single provincial council, even if elections were held simultaneously. Though there is no constitutional provision requiring it, having all the provincial election on one day would have been both logical and cost effective. The fact that the government did not, that it held the elections on a staggered basis and kept the Southern province election till the last demonstrate a degree of nervousness quite at variance with its public bragging.

This curious lack of confidence is probably one of the reasons for its many excesses and abuses. And their victims include others apart from media personnel and politicians. Take the case of General Parakrama Pannipitiya for instance. Gen Pannipitiya (now retired) headed the Lankan offensive against the Tigers in the East. He reportedly fell foul of the defence authorities and had to file a case in the Supreme Court asking for security (withdrawing the security of opponents/non-friends is a favourite pressure tactic of the Rajapakses). Several weeks later he was suddenly arrested by the police on a charge of illegal treasure hunting and kept in remand for six months. Last month he was released by the Gampaha Magistrates Court, obviously because the state either did not or could not charge him. What exactly happened? It is hard to believe that this was a bona fide mistake in a country where the police make a habit of looking the other way when the powerful or the well connected commit a crime (in the words of Colombo High Court Judge Kumudini Wickremesinghe ‘some policemen do not have a backbone and shiver at the sight of certain people’ – Daily Mirror – 1.8.2009). Was Gen. Pannipitiya arrested on a trumped up charge? Was this an attempt to discredit him and silence him and in a manner that serves as a deterrent to other potential dissenters? If this can happen to a decorated senior army officer, what cannot happen to an ordinary citizen who advertently or inadvertently falls foul of the government? What protection can such a citizen claim or expect? If these unjust and iniquitous trends are not impeded, what will be their logical destination?

- Asian Tribune -

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