The process that started with the easy passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, seems to continue without any break towards a certain death of democracy and freedom. The right to information is acknowledged as a universal right of each and every human being.
Of all SAARC countries, only Bhutan and Sri Lanka do not have a Right to Information Act in place. Even Pakistan, which does not have a tradition of democratic governance, but for a few short years under the Bhuttos, father and daughter, and Bangladesh that came into existence as recently as 1971, have Right to Information Acts.
With all its infamous corruption, nepotism and scandal, India has an exemplary Right to Information Act, thereby establishing her credentials in transparency and accountability in the art and science of governance. Even Nepal, which was a monarchy until recently, can boast about such an Act.
Sad saga continues
Where does this leave Sri Lanka? The proud country that encapsulates the Sinhala ideal of ‘the land, the race and the faith’ (rata, deya, samaya as most prominently quoted in Jeyaratnam Wilson’s ‘Breakup of Sri Lanka’) has chosen to suppress the very passage of the Bill that was introduced in Parliament way back on 21 June, 2011, by a private member of Parliament. The sad saga continues.
This nation that very proudly claims the glories of King Dutugemunu’s war victories and his subsequent magnanimity, illustrated by his decree that required all citizenry to pay respects to the fallen King Elara whenever they passed through his tomb that claims ownership of the purest form of Theravada Buddhism, and boasts of magnificent stupas and dagobas that stand as colossuses penetrating the clear blue skies, representing the very essence of Buddha’s teachings of Metta (compassion), Karuna (kindness), Muditha (love) and Upekha (equanimity or impartiality) and also that keeps pontificating about the practice of universal tolerance and charity and that sometimes thunders to the empty skies, clamouring for equality in the community of nations, today finds itself dumbfounded, but for a few government propaganda lackeys, when struck by the mere allegations (yet to be proved) of atrocious crimes committed against a segment of its own people.
The concept of ‘The land, the race and the faith’ trio has driven the country into a corner, from which it seems extremely hard to come out. The pictures that came out of the so-called ‘humanitarian operation with zero casualties’ claimed the good name of ‘The land, the race and the faith’ as the biggest casualty. Imprudent statecraft, idle threats, grandiose personality cults, all these paved the way for a very sorry story of a fast-vanishing phenomenon called ‘transparency and accountability’ on the part of the rulers, who were democratically-elected.
The anguish of those parents whose sons were sacrificed at the altar of this humanitarian operation might inevitably fade away with the passage of time. Nevertheless, the living soldiers, who are responsible for committing these crimes, if in fact, they were committed, will be kept away from the arms of the law, for their exposure would ultimately lead to those who gave any such illegal orders.
In such a context, the prevention of the passage of a Right to Information Act is of critical importance. It is crucial because the very existence of such a law would compel the government and its officers to release whatever, information that is requested by the general public, subject, of course, to the constraints imposed by the Act. The shameless way the introduction of this Bill was stopped by the Government Parliamentary Group is unparalleled in our Parliamentary history.
Government Whip, Dinesh Gunawardena yelling at the top of his shrieky voice with the rest of his ‘gang’ adding to the cacophony of voices, reminded one of an ill-trained orchestra playing to the tune of a third-class conductor. The venom and anger with which the government greeted the introduction of the Bill overwhelmed both the spirit and seriousness of the substance of the Bill. The intensity and perseverance that should be a hallmark of seasoned Parliamentarians, was also lacking in the UNP contingent. What is even more appalling is the total absence of follow-up action. The misfortune is that as much as the people deserve the governments they get, they deserve their oppositions too.
Not a rhetorical question
What is really wrong with Sri Lanka? It is not a rhetorical question. Is it in the DNA of the average Sri Lankan to passively accept autocratic rule and go after only the unarmed? During the ’87-‘89 insurrection, the JVP tortured, maimed and killed unarmed civilians.
But when the Sri Lankan security forces closed in on them, and with the capture of the first and second-tier leaders, the rest of the leadership caved in quite ignominiously, thereby displaying their cowardice more than anything else. This was the case in the ’83 ethnic riots too.
When the Tamil militants led by Prabhakaran and his LTTE cadre of six or seven men ambushed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers in the thick of the theatre of war in Jaffna, our ‘Sinhalese heroes’ in Colombo and elsewhere went after innocent Tamils and engaged in an orgy of murder, rape and looting, which caused a point of no return, not only for Tamil militants but also for non-militant Tamil civilians in the country. Some of these despicable ‘vengeance-marches’ were led by well-known Buddhist monks.
So much for the compassion and love preached by the Great Teacher! That turned the international opinion against Sinhalese majority and branded them as barbarians, resulting in Sri Lankans being subjected to ethnic-profiling, especially in western countries. It took more than a couple of decades to erase that stigma from many minds.
The quagmire the government is in, does not relate to the substance or the authenticity of the Channel 4 video of ‘Sri Lanka Killing Fields’. Firstly, the imprudent and flawed stance that it took during the war that there was ‘zero casualty’ and calling a bloody war a ‘humanitarian operation’ and secondly, the incarceration of the then General Fonseka, who was primarily responsible for directing the battle operations, were the dual factors that inevitably led to its grossly foolish position.
That coupled with sheer incompetence on the part of the Ministry of External Affairs, had a compounding effect on igniting the world opinion that was being created just at this time. This placed the Sri Lankan regime led by the Rajapaksas in a defensive mode; they were too confused to compete for a spot in the international arena of media blitz and more than one voice was heard in the various international debates, G. L. Peiris was sent to India, Mahinda Samarasinghe headed to Geneva, Sarath Amunugama somewhere else and for local consumption, there were ever so vocal Sinhala chauvinists such as Champaka Ranawaka and Wimal Weerawansa.
And when the UN Human Rights Council commenced in Geneva in March this year, the writing was on the wall. And when our closest neighbour and ‘big brother’ India voted with the United States, the diplomatic collapse was total. This time, there was no Mahinda Samarasinghe or Sarath Amunugama at the scene. Yet, the humourous way, the Ministry of External Affairs handled the debacle displayed the futile amateurishness of our Foreign Office.
Sword of Damocles
All politics is local. After President Premadasa, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only leader who played everything to the local populace. During an election, this seems a very lucrative tactic to win votes.
This was done in the recently-concluded Provincial Council Elections in the Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provinces. But in the context of the current and unprecedented international atmosphere, this very tactic can turn into a Damocles’ sword.
The prevention of the passage of a Right to Information Act can be marked as a significant misstep as is the passage of the 18th Amendment of the Constitution. It is another nail in the coffin of freedom.
Dictators in history always thought their power would last forever; some who grabbed power by way of coups and through military means as well as those who were first voted into power and then turned screws on the very people who gave them that power, never paused to think this power would not last forever.
Hitler’s much heralded ‘1000-year Reich’ lasted only 12. There is a reason for it. When in power, a wall is built around them to keep the people out of it. Those outside do not see what’s going on inside and vice versa. Into this morass are wormed the court jesters, who for their own parochial ends see nothing but the strength and sweetness of their lokkas. This is the universal phenomenon of power.
The present regime enjoys a lot of it. It is precisely in that context, that a constitutional piece such as the Right to Information Act could have played a crucial role in checkmating their inevitable march into the valley of death of freedom, and democracy.
It is not too late to start the process once again to introduce the Right to Information Act. The pressure so employed by the Opposition might cause a change of mind in the government ranks, especially against the background of diplomatic crosscurrents that are sweeping the Sub-continent at present.
The present regime has many shortcomings, lack of transparency and accountability, corruption, nepotism and so forth But incompetence may well be the cause of its ultimate demise. courtesy: Ceylon Today