Columns - FOCUS On Rights

Did we have to leap at Oxford’s invitation?

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Certainly, the unholy glee displayed by this government when the Oxford Union invited President Mahinda Rajapaksa to address the Union for the second time around, sat oddly with its much vaunted homespun rule from Medamulana, not to mention the manifest dismissal of all things western with immediate contempt.

Wholly unnecessary exercise

Leaving aside the atrociously bad timing of the visit, such hasty acceptance amounted to genuflection at the ‘altar of western learning’, (as informed to us by the government’s propagandists initially), in its most classic sense. So did the government of Sri Lanka really need to leap so enthusiastically at the Union’s invitation, leaving itself open to the massive snub that it ultimately received? The cancellation of the address, apparently due to the scale of the protests that had been planned by the pro-LTTE segments of the Tamil expatriate community came as little surprise, given the political realities of the day.

All in all, it was a wholly unnecessary exercise. It reflected badly on the country which is the important issue at the end of the day, quite apart from the personal vainglory and gung-ho of its political leaders. And the customary extravaganza of the presidential visit was more fitting of a banana style dictatorship rather than of ‘one of Asia’s oldest democracies’, as the Minister of External Affairs keeps on characterizing Sri Lanka, albeit rather desperately.

A democracy is so not because its politicians raptly term it so; rather, a democracy is underpinned by the Rule of Law. And though the External Affairs Minister may prefer to bury his head in the sand, proverbially speaking, all the evidence is to the effect that the Rule of Law is conspicuously absent in this country.

Confusion as to our identity

From the sidelines meanwhile, we have former Presidential election candidate, General (Rtd) Sarath Fonseka informing us that, not content with attacking Sri Lanka’s universities, this administration is now attacking the ‘world’s best university’ (see, December 9 2010). As much as the government’s actions expose itself, such statements from the opposition exhibits its own state of utter confusion.
This confusion, on the part of the government as well as the opposition, distinguishes Sri Lanka from its other South Asian neighbours in a very peculiar way.

In 1989, when this columnist, (as a law student at that time), engaged in the first published conversation after his retirement with former President JR Jayawardene and asked him as to why Sri Lankans felt it necessary to regard English language as a status symbol rather than merely as a necessary method of linguistic communication, his riposte was whether we should then think of returning to the era of SriWickrema Rajasinghe, with baggy pants and all? But this was to avoid the point.

It is only in Sri Lanka, in the entirety of South Asia, that there is a singular absence of pride in our national institutions, whether they be educational, governance or otherwise. Nationalism is only there in its most visceral, ugliest and rawest forms. And it must be said that these reflections are not in the abstract at all in the current context. It is from this confusion and absence of true national pride and identity that such silliness that we saw recently over the Oxford Union address springs, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the ‘motherland’ by the Rajapaksa acolytes. It is difficult to think of such a fiasco plaguing India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or even Nepal.

This confusion is not limited to our politicians. Many of the country’s most fervent nationalists scarcely know the National Anthem, have dual nationality with children educated in western schools and even though their knowledge of Sinhala is less than perfect, are apt to rudely point fingers at the occasional grammatical mistake in English by those less fortunate. Their horror and outrage over the Oxford’s Union’s cancellation of the address by Sri Lanka’s President naturally knows no bounds.

Subversion and corruption of nationalism

Where nationalism has been subverted and corrupted in this way, government repression is underpinned by a chronic sense of insecurity which targets not only the minorities but all dissenters.

Thus, the Orwellian clampdowns are getting more obvious. A former Secretary General of Parliament is reprimanded on the floor of the House for her explanations in the media as to the law that pertains to parliamentary procedures. And a Vice Chancellor of a university refuses to allow a panelist to speak at an event celebrating of all things, Human Rights Day, on the apparent basis that she is an anti-governmental activist.

Meanwhile, smarting over the Oxford Union fiasco, the latest target of the government is apparently the UNP’s Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya who had recently called upon the government to properly investigate any alleged abuses that had occurred during the final stages of the conflict last year.

This is not a new call by any means and should be, in fact, the legitimate concern of an elected government without engaging in recommendatory Commission of Inquiry processes. However, the disproportionate fury that this call has provoked again demonstrates the chronic insecurity of this administration. Is this really the way that Sri Lanka wishes to head, post war?

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