9th January 2000

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Magnanimity in victory

Rulers who feel that God is on their side tend to get carried away with the notion that everything they say or do is right, and that everyone who has an opposing view is somehow wrong. This tendency seems to be manifest in the behaviour of our current leaders especially after their fortuitous survival from a suicide bomb attack.

In what was labelled as a three hour "interview'', the President last week made a vituperative address, rather, on particularly perceived critics in the press. The speech could unfortunately unleash the forces of terror in the manner it was made. The same could possibly have been said without heaping invective on her critics.

We must say here and now that President Kumaratunga has by and large, allowed criticism to pass her by. She has used the legal provisions available to her to strike back at her critics. We may disagree with at least one archaic enactment which she has used most, but that is her legal right.

She has not issued contradictions at every turn preferring rather to preserve a disdainful silence in the face of mounting criticism. What President Kumaratunga can justly take credit for is that for the better part of her Presidency, the media was free of that indefinable sense of menace, so alien to a free thinking, free speaking democracy, and which had prevailed before.

There are commentaries appearing in this newspaper which are critical of what the President said. That may not be a universal perception. There were parts of her long discourse which may have aroused sympathy and even agreement.

But she has singled out the media in the harshest possible terms and in a matter of hours returned us to that dank atmosphere of years gone by.

If this country is to continue as a democracy, a de-escalation of hate speech is imperative on all sides. The country is tottering on the brink of anarchy, and the acrimonious politics that we see today is a good indication that this state is locked in a spiral of hate.

The President showed for a fleeting moment at her inauguration that she may be able to rise above this wave of hatred that seems to be engulfing this land. But, two weeks later, the hopes of a new beginning of conciliatory politics, of democracy with all its faults have faded. Some of the Government's Ministers, just one or two of them mercifully, unleashed this hate speech soon after an election victory, with unguided missiles fired from State TV. It was anything but magnanimity in victory.

Is this the Vision for the 21st Century in this once paradise Island? If 51 percent of the country voted with this government however questionable the vote may be at least 49 percent have voted against it. And still, this remains the legal government. It administers the State which comprises 100 percent of the people.

This government characterized the Premadasa era as one that was marked by an ever prevalent fear psychosis (bheeshanaya) in which human freedoms and fundamental rights were in a state of abeyance.

The Publisher of this newspaper was berated from public platforms by President Premadasa himself. The Editor had the CID visit him. Its Political correspondent was grilled by the CID and nearly roasted by the goon squads of the day. The Defence Correspondent was sent wreaths by the top brass of the security forces.

Through it all, we did what we did believing it was our duty to keep the flickering flames of democracy alive. We played our part in preventing Sri Lanka deteriorating to a Sierra Leone about which you can read elsewhere in this issue.

Prominent members of this Government, including the President played some role towards the latter stages of those dark days of not so long ago, but we ask from them today as we asked from those who were at the helm yesteryear "Whither Sri Lanka?"

In a week of an assassination of a political figure, of a military effort to flush out suicide bombers hiding in the capital city and a bitter attack on the legitimate critics of the Government, the public mood is discernibly one of despondency.

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