Plus - Letter to the editor

Democracy in peril: Big Brother is watching you

I am an ordinary concerned citizen, with no particular hard political affiliations. As one who has always nurtured a firm belief in the inherent right of an individual to freedom of thought, and above all, a belief in the right to privacy, I was shocked and profoundly disturbed to read the views expressed by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (Daily Mirror, Monday, March 1, 2010).

For the benefit of those who may not have read this report or merely skimmed it, in view of the wide and deep implications of the DS’s firmly expressed views, I reproduce the relevant section of that interview.
Q: ‘As an IT expert, do you think that it is ethical for a government to infiltrate into the online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens by gathering information with regard to their political affiliations.’

A: ‘Actually if we could do that it would be good, however as a Third World country we don’t have that facility. But in all other developed countries they monitor emails, telephone conversations, SMS’s and people in the streets. So they have a lot of monitoring systems and also their systems are integrated. All security agencies in these countries could, by simply giving a number, obtain all the details of a person. But we don’t have that facility. In fact we have to develop such a system. We don’t have a Closed Television (CCTV) surveillance system.’

It was only recently the ruling party boasted of upholding Sri Lanka’s strong democratic traditions by holding a free and fair election without abuse of state power or voter intimidation overt or subtle.
The DS made it clear that not only does he think it perfectly ethical to encroach on the private lives of the citizens – in short, to snoop and act the ‘peeping Tom’ -- but he also regrets the fact that the State is in no position (at present) to do so, and without apology, insists that ‘we have to develop such a system’.

So the powerful DS of this democracy firmly claims that the State has every right to invade the private lives of its citizens, read personal communications and eavesdrop on private telephone conversations, citing the prevalence of this practice in other developed countries to bolster his assertion.

The excuse offered is indeed strange for a man who repeatedly has proclaimed that Sri Lanka is not interested in what others (particularly in the developed countries) do and say about it, but, will continue to do its own thing!

The DS does not name these developed countries fit for emulation. Yet, nearly all Sri Lankans know that, for quite some time now, Sri Lanka has got very close to a very powerful (economically and militarily speaking) country which is internationally recognised for using a highly sophisticated and fine-tuned system of secret citizen surveillance, which has successfully curtailed the citizens’ right to information, the right to its receipt and exchange through personal correspondence and other means, and thereby, has effectively stifled all dissent.

It would be in the interest of this country for the DS to consider this other side of the coin. It needs emphasising that a military dictatorship (as in Myanmar) and a one-party civilian government (like China) that indulge in secret surveillance of their citizens, both maintain themselves in power by stifling dissent and criticism of the state, however honest and conducive to good governance that criticism may be.

This emphasis is particularly relevant at this juncture because, it seems evident that the President’s rival at the presidential poll lost a huge slice of votes, by the government consistently warning the people of the certainty of a military dictatorship, if the challenger were voted into office.

The Sri Lankan people have always clearly rejected dictatorship, uniformed or not. Now, the question for us all is: Do not the sovereign people of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka have the right to ask? Is this merely the opinion of, and a future scenario envisioned only by a DS, well known for his forthright, public utterances, or is it an opinion and vision shared by the governing party of which the undisputed head is the President?

Only the President has the power and the moral authority to provide this answer, and he owes it to the people to do so.

This obligation is now greater still, since from the time he was given a mandate for a second term, our President has repeatedly gone public, quite rightly, sending out signals that are the very converse of those sent out by his DS; namely, that he is the President of all the people of this land, regardless of ethnicity, class, caste, creed or political affiliation, and that he urges all the people to unite to form and develop a united and progressive SL. Surely, electronic and other forms of secret surveillance of the people, particularly of political opponents, is no way to achieve this laudable and urgent goal.

It is a matter of urgency that the people receive an answer to the vital question raised, before the forthcoming Parliamentary Election, since the President is asking the people to give the governing party a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament, so that he could go ahead with his planned programme for the development of the country and the betterment of the lives of all its people.

In view of the possibility, in the future (if the DS has his own way), of the introduction of this clearly unethical system (unethical from the viewpoint of the large majority of all communities) of secret surveillance of the people, all citizens have a right to know, from no less a person than the Head of State himself, what to expect if his party comes into power once again.

Dr. Mark Amerasinghe, Kandy

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