A revealing comment was made to me by an infuriated social justice activist last week in relation to disturbing trends that have surfaced in public debate. As he said caustically; ‘when we raise criticism of government policy in discussion, the immediate response within some civil society groups is that of unmitigated fury.’ We are asked [...]


The ends cannot justify the means in nation-building


A revealing comment was made to me by an infuriated social justice activist last week in relation to disturbing trends that have surfaced in public debate. As he said caustically; ‘when we raise criticism of government policy in discussion, the immediate response within some civil society groups is that of unmitigated fury.’ We are asked immediately; ‘do you want the Rajapaksas to come back?’

Rejecting unacceptable choices
The question that he posed thereafter was as follows; ‘choosing between keeping quiet in face of what may be disastrously wrong and wanting the former regime to come back should surely not be the stark alternatives before us?’ And as my conversationalist remonstrated; ‘why should compromised groups which clearly have an agenda in riding along on the ‘yahapalanaya’ bandwagon as it were, be allowed to drive these debates?’

Here, the discussion concerned the earlier maligned Port City, now renamed in the optimistic eyes of its proponents as the ‘Colombo International Financial City.’ Despite the official trumpeting that all concerns have been dealt with, the quality and content of the environmental protection process commissioned thereto remains contested.

That said, such broad concerns are not confined to the Port City issue alone. Indeed, it would be somewhat amusing if it was not so reminiscent of the past that even more than government parliamentarians, ‘yahapalanaya’ cheerleaders lead the hysterically angry charge when legitimate queries are raised in regard to aspects of the Government’s economic policy, constitutional reforms or the transitional justice ‘package’ now being unveiled.

Recalling familiar trends
There is a trace of unsettling familiarity in this. Not long ago, propagandists acting under the long arm of the Rajapaksa regime gleefully affixed labels of ‘traitors’ to critics, including this columnist among others. But what must be understood is that intolerance to opposing points of view can be manifested not only through such obvious sledgehammer tactics. So for the benefit of those wet behind the ears at the time, let us look back even a little earlier in time for illustrative lessons in that regard.
During the United National Front (UNF) government for example one and a half decades ago, proponents of the short-lived ‘ceasefire’ between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) looked aghast at even the slightest criticism of the LTTE. This was despite the LTTE’s crushing of dissent within the Tamil polity ranging from targeting the intellectual crème de la crème to brutal local crimes exercised in reprisal against ‘defiant’ Tamil civilians.

Percipient civil society voices in Colombo outraged by these happenings were marginalized by their one time colleagues, some later losing their lives to the LTTE in the process. Not surprisingly as a result, those who critiqued both the Sinhala State and the LTTE with the same even-handedness were miserably few.

Need for internal and external critique
And there is a larger point here. The abject failure to encourage substantial critiques and to respond to the same by the government in power was a primary reason why the UNF regime collapsed at the time. As we may recall unhappily, its flag bearers retreated in disorder while the Rajapaksa Presidency took over control of the reins of State, leading to a most degenerate period in this country’s recent history.

These same warnings apply even more forcibly now. The ends certainly do not justify the means. Thus, the complicity of the Bar Association in the dangerous precedent of declaring of a Chief Justice as if he had ‘never been’ by executive fiat was disgraceful. Commendations for having stood up against Rajapaksa ravages may be in due order only if the Bar acquits itself of the allegation of merely encouraging political ‘regime change’ without any genuine desire to actually see governance structures improved in Sri Lanka. We may remember this salutary warning even in midst of effusive self-congratulations that have become the norm.
And it is unfortunate that missteps are evident even in regard to sensitive aspects of the transitional justice package. For example, why is the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Bill being identified by government ministers as ‘something promised to Geneva’? The issue of the missing is of crucial import to all Sri Lankans, across all ethnicities. The Bill should therefore have been substantively taken to the South on that basis rather than by framing it as an external demand.

A redundant ‘public consultation’
Proper public consultations should have first been carried out before the draft legislation was brought before the national legislative assembly. But what we saw was an interim report on the OMP Bill by a task force on reconciliation being rendered redundant in a context where the Bill has already been enacted.

Further, the exclusion of the Right to Information Act, No 12 of 2016 to information received by the OMP ‘in confidence’ remains problematic. This question was discussed in these column spaces last week. In the minimum, the terms ‘in confidence’ and/or ‘confidentiality’ should have been specifically explained and interpreted in the Bill. Its absence thereof leads to potential legal issues that do not bode well for the health of the legislation.

Indeed, if it was thought that the existing protection relating to personal information which would cause ‘unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual’ contained in Section 5(1)(a) of the RTI Act did not sufficiently cater to cases coming before the OMP, radically imaginative legislative options may have been considered, drawing best lessons on comparative similar laws around the laws.

Eschewing counter-productive exclusivity
As of now, we have hesitantly stepped back from the abyss which once yawned perilously before us. But as clearly illustrated in opinion polls which indicate public dissatisfaction with the status quo while acknowledging certain positive aspects, the transition is at its most fragile. Ironically, the best ally of the Government is the chaotic chauvinism of the Rajapaksa led Joint Opposition from which many pull away in disgust.

But in this tug and pull of opposing forces, where almost every legal step taken by the coalition Government from the VAT Bill to a range of other proposed laws is challenged, robust public questioning compelling a more accountable process is precisely what is needed.

And those simply too naïve to realize this fundamental truth may perhaps be advised to look at the lessons that Sri Lanka’s turbulent history teaches us on how counter-productive a blinkered and exclusivist approach could be to nation-building.

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