A Very Long Engagement

With the release of the line up of writers and speakers for the Galle Literary Festival 2012, we can expect in the coming weeks voices from outside Sri Lanka, supported by some within, reiterate a call to shun the event as a gesture of solidarity with journalists and writers killed, abducted and missing in Sri Lanka. The country’s record is not pretty. This is well known and documented. Over 2011 alone, the government’s censorship of critical web content has significantly worsened. Arbitrary demands of website registration, with absolutely no basis in the law, are brandished as threats to conform, comply and censor. Recent and damning video of highly placed Bell Pottinger officials in the UK reveal the extent to which the present government has gone, and will go to whitewash its appalling human rights record. When first brought to light in print, the President’s media chief said to the BBC that the news reports were ‘scurrilous’ and intended to ‘create trouble’. However, no comment yet on the video. Prageeth Eknaligoda is still missing. Few expect Prageeth to still be alive, and the question now is what really happened to him as opposed to where he is. Pitchai Jesudasan, a key suspect in Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, died under mysterious circumstances in October, further debilitating the progress of what was already a half-hearted investigation. Confidential cables accessed Wikileaks provide ample evidence of how incredibly violent the context was for independent journalists during and immediately after the war.

Though acutely cognisant of and publicly standing up against this disturbing context, I publicly disagreed with a joint statement by Journalists for Democracy and Reporters Without Borders against the Galle Literary Festival earlier this year, which noted inter alia that it was “not the right time for prominent international writers… to give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech by attending a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country”. Similar boycott appeals followed this year against various junkets organised by government, the country as the venue for commonwealth governments to meet and as a venue for international sporting events. More broadly, there were calls to boycott cricket matches, lingerie and other goods manufactured in the country and Sri Lanka as a tourist destination. That last call is the most spectacular failure. Tourism arrivals to Sri Lanka till November stand at a record breaking 758,458. 153,919 of them came from India, which exceeds arrivals from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Northern America combined. Clearly then, attempting to flag the awful human rights record of the government by boycotting the country and all events held in it or supported by State apparatus aren’t really taken seriously or gaining traction.

And yet, there is the submission by many outside and a few within of an enduring need to alienate and embarrass Sri Lanka into more meaningful accountability mechanisms. It’s genuinely hard to see how this will work. As inward bound traffic from India clearly demonstrates, targeting North America and Western Europe for boycott campaigns and sanctions has little or no impact on Sri Lanka’s growing tourism markets. It’s infeasible to think the human rights campaigns that, in the manner they do, highlight Sri Lanka in Continental Europe, the UK or the US will have an iota of impact in India. More fundamental though is the negotiation of accountability and the wider acceptance of hard, and indeed valid questions over, for example, war crimes. Post-war Sri Lanka is, as it should be, a melting pot of competing politics, ranging from the partisan and parochial to the ideational and trans-national. War was an easier theatre of operation – you had obvious ground realities, you had specific geographic demarcations to focus concern and attention, you had key actors and there were humanitarian concerns that couldn’t easily be hidden. It’s all rather murky and convoluted now. The genuine relief over the end of war is powerful, and overrides for many in the South the need to question how it exactly ended. For sure, meaningful closure for many who went through the unimaginably horrific experience of being sandwiched between the Army and LTTE in the final weeks of war, those who have suffered the brunt of war for in the North and East for years, the relatives and parents of those missing, remains elusive. There is violence against Tamils even today, particularly in the North, simply because they are Tamils. But the submission that their interests are somehow best met and guaranteed by international campaigns to boycott Sri Lanka, and sanctions against the regime ring hollow since doing so will overwhelmingly result in a majority more embittered and feeling under siege, a consequent rise of the worst kind of Sinhala nationalism which in turn is a guarantee of re-enacting a tragic, bloody history.

How best to address Sri Lanka’s democratic deficit is an open question, and very likely answered by a combination of locally designed and driven advocacy and international support that is led and informed by, but never seeks to define or appropriate, domestic activism. Lajja remains a powerful, effective tool. Public shame or the loss of face is more feared than censorious statements and diplomatic knuckle raps. Utilising it requires strategic engagement, not the contrary. The more entwined Sri Lanka’s economy is with global markets, the less it can manoeuvre away from international scrutiny. The more entrepreneurship is encouraged in Sri Lanka – and this is aided, not impeded by the development of high-speed roads and other infrastructure – the more people will participate in markets, as producers or consumers of good and services. No guarantee, of course, any of this will address legitimate grievances of the Tamil community, or that economic development is alone able to address festering racism and violence. But unless advocacy and activism for democratic reform in post-war Sri Lanka grasps the potential of strategic engagement instead of strident dismissal and sees this not as a some supine cop-out, but as an effective means to champion dignity and human rights, carrying on in the same mould of yesteryear will at best remain marginal and at worst, even contribute to the kind of polity and society it seeks to move away from. The art of the long view can help us see beyond what is an almost heady desire for regime change in the near future. It requires a fundamental and, importantly, honest re-evaluation of strategy, form and content in initiatives designed to strengthen democracy, by both domestic and international actors. The Survey on Democracy in Post-War Sri Lanka, a social survey conducted by the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives is instructive in this regard. Reading it, most will pick up on how divided post-war Sri Lanka still is along ethnic lines. In responding to this, fewer will notice – largely because they are so convinced of how right they are – just how little traction there is for projects and programmes, including boycotts and sanctions that attempt to change a regime and dominant mind-sets by somehow hurting citizens.

This is a hard nut to crack. A majority community impervious to the wrongs still committed against Tamils need to be shown a callous nonchalance that condones indignity will sow seeds of another bloody war. This cannot be done in the short-term. There is no pre-determined recipe for it even over the longer term. This advocacy and activism cannot be externally imposed or driven, but it needs international support. It’s going to be hard to grow and sustain domestically, but it needs to be locally rooted. There are no guarantees of success, but it stands a better chance only if and when committed activists really embrace how much context and country have changed, and is changing, post-war.

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Published in The Nation, 11 December 2011.

One Comment on “A Very Long Engagement”

  1. shaahima
    13/12/2011 at 4:18 pm #

    Fantastic. Wholly concur.

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