Compassion in a time of hatred: What’s wrong with our society today?

The murder of Sivaram Dharmeratnam reminds us that Sri Lanka is far from a democratic state. It is even further removed from a polity and society in which journalists and citizens enjoy the under-girding of freedoms that are the bed-rock of a functioning democracy without fear of persecution, torture or death.

Sivaram Dharmeratnam, 46, also known as Taraki, was a columnist for the Daily Mirror and a senior editorial board member of the online news service, TamilNet. He was abducted of 28th April 2005 in front of a restaurant in a suburb of Colombo and his body, riddled with bullets found the morning after dumped in a paddy field close to Parliament, located within the perimeters of a High Security Zone.

Sivaram’s murder is more than a severe indictment on the incumbent government, which has miserably failed to its pledges to strengthen the safety of journalists and uphold media freedom in the run up to the General Elections in April 2004. Sri Lanka’s Hobbesian zeitgeist is also symptomatic of the severe corrosion of democratic mechanisms in the country, giving rise to what a friend recently aptly termed a culture of ‘cudgel and club conflict resolution’.

A recent report by the Free Media Movement (FMM) attests to the corrosive media climate that has prevailed for the past 12 months. In recent weeks, we record the blatant hate speech of the JVP, in open efforts to incite efforts to incite violence upon journalists they consider are unpatriotic, biased and all manner of other evils. In an interview given recently to Business Today, the leader of the JVP Somawansa Amarasinghe stated that “There must be balanced reporting, we must not forget that people have given us a mandate to do that.” This statement however, is severely undermined by the vicious attacks on private media by the JVP and the actions of its Propaganda Secretary, Wimal Weerawamsa, who in meetings removed recording equipment of media organizations and asked the audience to spit in the faces of journalists he identified as traitors.

All said and done, the JVP is part of the incumbent government. As such, even though its democratic credentials can be called into question, it is nevertheless bound by the very processes of democratic accountability that it flagrantly prostitutes in the pursuit of parochial gains. When censuring the JVP, we must also give it the space to reform, recognising the importance of their political voice.

It is dangerous however to conflate the inviolable right to one’s opinion with the promotion of lesser opinions geared to incite violence. The recent condemnation of Sivaram as a ‘terrorist journalist’ working for the LTTE by the JHU is even more dangerous than the rhetoric of the JVP. In effect condoning the murder rather than using it to engage with the Tamil national question writ large, the JHU dilutes the importance of looking inside our societies for an explanation for intolerance. The very fascism they accuse the LTTE of is displayed in abundance in their own attitude towards democratic pluralism. Surely, our ability, at the very least, to tolerate diversity of opinion is what sets us apart from the lack of open dissent to the diktat of the LTTE in the North-East? The pronouncements of the JHU corrode the fundamental basis for a principled approbation of violence by its inability to engage with socio-political forces that resulted in the murder of Sivaram. While it is recognised that engaging the Sangha on issues related to ethnic diversity is notoriously difficult, it would also be a grave mistake to assume the JHU speaks for all. The rich diversity of opinions that lie within the Sangha stand to be diluted in the face of high profile coverage of the voices of its extreme fringes – more needs to be done to engage with progressive elements within the Buddhist clergy.

Hypocrisy is also shown, by the LTTE’s own condemnation of Sivaram’s murder. Lest we forget, the LTTE is not known for its openness for diversity and pluralism, much less democracy. Conferring titles posthumously does little to uplift an image of intolerance to voices within the Tamil community that questioned its modus operandi in addressing legitimate Tamil aspirations. Again, while censure is easy, and the reasons for it are many, more difficult is to ask ourselves how to engage, without appeasement, the LTTE in dialogues that prise open democratic debate and weakens its role as a hegemon in the NE. While acknowledging the difficulties involved in a transition from sub-state secessionism to the democratic mainstream we cannot condone the LTTE’s intolerance of opinions contrary to its own set of beliefs – put simple, it’s self-definition as the sole representatives of the Tamil people is as dangerous as accepting the JHU’s voice as the voice of the Sangha, or the JVP’s rhetoric as that of the majority of people in the South.

What role is left for civil society if the apparatchiks of successive governments are unable to address the accelerated decay in the socio-political fabric of Sri Lanka? Firstly, we have to seriously ask ourselves whether any reform is possible in the present context of a blatant disrespect for the sanctity of life and the violent suppression of voices that constitute a vibrant democracy. Goons and murderers, the author contends, may be less than receptive to reconciliation and the celebration of diversity.

If our redemption lies in an interminable effort to entrench values of diversity and a celebration of multiculturalism in Sri Lanka, we need to ask how best civil society can engage with the garrison nationalism as promoted by the elements identified in this article – the government, political parties in the South, segments of the Sangha and the LTTE. The solution does generally not lie in exclusion or isolation, even though a careful study of spoiler dynamics, beyond the scope of this article, may necessitate the isolation of some fringe opinion in certain instances. To see the humanity of shared ideals and forge covenants for the construction of a better Sri Lanka requires tenaciously under-girding peace processes that encourage diversity of opinion and voices. To hold these voices accountable is one possible role for civil society. In order to do so, it needs to radically change its engagements with the very constituencies that rabid nationalism plays to. If we are desirous of a vibrant Parekhian multi-culturalism, we cannot do so from the mere publication, translation and distribution of English reports, the odd journey into the hinterlands of garrison nationalism to engage with the socio-political processes that give rise to cultures of intolerance, or with ‘workshop peacebuilding’, which is useful, but perhaps a tad ineffective.

As the authors of The Sri Lanka Peace Process at Crossroads, published in 2004 by a number of leading NGOs identify “…there (are) no sustained efforts to build a sound social capital around the peace process by means of public participation mechanisms and media strategies. Civil society initiatives in this regard have been promising, but are also hampered by poor coordination, resource constraints and the challenge of building civil participation within a highly politicised society. Meanwhile, individual civil society groups and individuals who promote values of pluralism and tolerance have come under increasing attack in the South as well as the NorthEast” (pg. 11)

If the battle against the rabid nationalism, intolerance, and fascism is to be effective, it must shore up support with those who have hitherto been marginalised in civil society outreach efforts. This requires more than just the occasional road trip into the field to conduct workshops, but the creation of self-sustaining mechanisms that take civil society research and translates it into a language that those on the ground find accessible, useful and educational. The author is not necessarily arguing for peace trucks / trains / saama thavalamas around Sri Lanka but rather, methods that are more meaningful to remote communities and stay with them for far longer.

Tolerant societies that eschew violence and hatred in favour of non-violent conflict resolution are not created by top-down approaches, but by sincere efforts at uplifting the conditions within which all communities, irrespective of their identity group or political affiliation are able to see themselves written into processes of governance.

‘Pity a society that needs heroes,’ said Bertolt Brecht, ‘pity even more a society that delights to see them sacrificed.’ We celebrate Sivaram Dharmeratnam’s life and his contribution to journalism in Sri Lanka. We remember his commitment to journalism and his contributions to the political discourse in Sri Lanka. We note that his voice, now silenced, will only give rise to more voices clamouring for the very same ideals he once espoused, in an interminable effort to bring democracy and peace to our motherland.

Sivaram, however, was no hero. He was a man and citizen of Sri Lanka. His murder compels us to explore the reasons that gave rise to it and challenges us to tap the fuller humanity that resides in our country to fashion answers to such heinous acts. Our response is larger than a single individual since it addresses the trauma of victims on all sides, those whose voices have been silenced by State and non-State actors in a conflict that has robbed us of our innocence.

Let us work for peace. Together.

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