Columns - FOCUS On Rights

This country is not a political plaything

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

A couple of years ago, engaging in a chance conversation with an avowed defender of the government’s foreign policy, his insistence that Sri Lankan democracy would improve once the war ended, provoked a most contentious argument.

My response was that once the Pandora’s Box is proverbially opened and politicians are given virtual blanket power to bypass the law, to subvert the courts, to manipulate the media and public opinion to frightening levels, it is myopic to assume that such intoxicating power would be voluntarily abandoned once a war is won. These responses were of little avail however.

Benevolence abandoned for authoritarianism

I wonder what this ardent conversationalist thinks now, one and a half years after the end of active fighting, with Sri Lankan democracy being conceivably at a worse point than it has ever been for decades. Indeed, the very concept of democracy appears to have been abandoned for a home grown version of a (once hopefully benevolent but now increasingly authoritarian) virtual monarchy.

Where the 17th Amendment to the Constitution has been abandoned in favour of an 18th Amendment to the detriment of the independence of the judiciary and the strong functioning of constitutional oversight bodies, including the Bribery and Corruption Commission, now reportedly bereft of even its senior investigating officers who have been transferred out.

Where have entities such as the Department of the Attorney General been directly brought under the Office of the President, with the attendant unfortunate perception of the lack of independence, quite apart from the reality of the same?

And should we also disregard the former Army Commander languishing in a jail at the dawn of a New Year, whatever his faults, real or imagined may have been? Or the fact that public sector corruption has reached dizzying heights, the rich are taxed less and the poor are not only taxed more but also (to add insult to injury) called upon to make more sacrifices, but for whose benefit, we can only marvel at?

Pushing against reconciliation

Meanwhile, what better example than the recent Cabinet decision to the effect that the National Anthem should be sung in Sinhala even in the North and the East, to underscore that the government’s much hyped Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is all so much hypocritical eyewash? If one were to search for emotive topics, inclined to lead to anything but reconciliation if used deliberately to fan hatred and divisiveness, the National Anthem would head this unhappy list. As our history has shown us, this has been conveniently dragged out of hibernation at every point that a xenophobic government seeks to cover up its own failings.

But do we care? A reader who wrote to the newspapers recently, pointing out that the sound of the National Anthem being sung in Tamil, (despite his not fully understanding all the words), was one of the most heartening sights that he had ever witnessed, is to be commended. But apart from a few rationally motivated individuals, many among us fall into the passive category and would not be moved except to wonder in passing as to why, after all, the National Anthem should not be sung in the ‘majority language’ as surely must be the practice elsewhere in the world? When a query of this nature was put to me recently, it was not difficult to explain that this is, in fact, not the case, the most beautiful example in this regard being South Africa. Yet, these queries and explanations invoke only passing interest in any event.

Unpleasant voices of the ultra-nationalists

In contrast to this uncaring passivity, the vocal voices that we hear are of the ultra-nationalists, in unpleasantly full flood, as it were. Ironically, many ultra-nationalists on this side of the divide who are most passionate about the need to sing the National Anthem in Sinhala will probably be reduced to murmuring or muttering the last few lines when called upon to sing it to a finish, as I witnessed at a function recently. These are the same ultra-nationalists who hold dual passports, send their children to Western schools to study and shudder at the thought of their progeny marrying a simple village school educated child from this country’s rural environs who would be more comfortable speaking in Sinhala rather than in English.

They are now revitalized by this most unnecessary controversy about the National Anthem brought to the fore by an administration which has the gall to deny initial newspaper reports on the same but then stays quiet in the face of credible and astoundingly outrageous reports that girls in a leading school in Jaffna had been compelled to stumble through the National Anthem in Sinhala at a recent public function.
On the other hand, there are the ultra-nationalists on the other side of the ethnic divide who persist in their blind obeisance to a now deceased Supreme Leader, who ultimately left his unfortunate people worse off than even at the start of his struggle for a separate state in Sri Lanka. Both these ultra-nationalists feed on and are (financially as well as emotionally) nourished by the same ideology. Naturally, they are apt to fiercely resist attempts to redefine Sri Lanka’s problems as going beyond the ethnic paradigm.

Not limited to simplistic choices

Perhaps in this New Year, we will see that the choices before the people in this country are not simplistically limited to two options, depending on what side of the ultra-nationalistic divide that one happens to be on. One choice, as the Sinhalese ultra-nationalists would tell us, is that of supporting President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his regime against sinister international conspiracies to the extent that we abandon all our democratic freedoms on the spurious argument that he gives the best political leadership that we could have currently. The other choice, as Tamil ultra-nationalists would have it, is that of somehow dragging this country before an international war crimes tribunal. Conceding that Sri Lankans are limited to either one or the other of these two choices is to resign this country to an unfortunate fate indeed.

This is not to deny that powerful forces are at work, motivated and compelled by the diaspora pressure of the remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. On the contrary, these pressures are best met not by condoning the majoritarian and authoritarian coercing of a minority, of which the best example is this unfortunate controversy over the Tamil version of the National Anthem. Rather, it is by insisting on ordinary democratic freedoms and choices constitutionally available to the people, whether of the majority or the minorities, insisting on the strengthening of our institutions of justice and the reversal of this lamentable politicization of the public service.

In sum, this is a commendable resolution that should encourage all rational minded Sri Lankans to call this government to immediate and effective order. Assuredly, this country does not belong to one political family or to ultra-nationalists sustained only by their own xenophobia, to play with, much like a nicely wrapped New Year’s toy. It is not a political plaything. We have as equal a right to live on its soil as any other and should assert that right in full force.

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