Regrettably, the continuing tragedy of violent conflict in Sri Lanka is further compounded by the increasing emergence of all manner of conspiracy theories. Because of their risqué sensationalism with scant regard for verifiable facts and a marked disdain for accountability, those who promote such conspiracy theories are out to get media attention and through it, further a parochial agenda that otherwise, in their perception, lacks the gravitas to command public attention and support. The most recent cause célèbre are allegations of a secret deal between the President and the LTTE during the Presidential Elections in 2005 that guaranteed through nefarious means Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ascendancy to power. There have also been conspiracy theories regarding the recent spate of abductions and disappearances of citizens, particular in the East but also in Colombo. Mysterious armed groups equipped with Houdini techniques to escape detection and maligned forces out to tarnish the good name of the government have been blamed. We do not know much more. Ironically, sharing conspiracy theories make for strange bedfellows – Sripathi was one of the most vocal critics of Ranil Wickremesinghe and at one time even hinted at a secret pact between the LTTE and Ranil. Save for the occasional titillation of purportedly damning new information on the alleged deal from Ranil Wickremasinghe, Mangala Samaraweera and Sripathi Sooriyarachchi in the media, Mahinda Samarasinghe’s tired but resolute voice calling for a full and open investigation into all abductions and disappearances, the President’s repeated debunking of any allegations of a secret pact, credible, non-partisan and independently verifiable evidence that helps the resolution of any of these mysteries remains elusive.
What is important to recognise here is that media coverage for these conspiracy theories overwhelm investigative and incisive reportage from the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka. Sensationalism, hearsay and triviality overwhelm and undermine a higher journalism that seeks to secure a better understanding of the cost of war and the need to revitalise the peace process. This is not to suggest that strong evidence of a document that places the President and LTTE in a pact to secure electoral victory would be trivial, or that the Government’s proven complicity in abductions of children and adults would be inconsequential. Rather, it is to highlight that through recent headlines and news reports, the media are willing co-conspirators of fictive stories that seek to capture public attention through outlandish statements and allegations instead of reporting the visceral realities of the displaced and deracinated on account of the on-going violence in Sri Lanka. Conspiracy theories are easy laxative for a restive public, and a useful means through which other more pressing social, political and economic issues can be shafted aside.
The LTTE, for its part, has denied the existence of any pact with the incumbent President. Clearly, it would not be in its best interests to say otherwise, given the current ground realities in the North and East. Military offensives in the East in particular, and continuing into the North, have secured tracts of land and placed the LTTE at a clear disadvantage. The recent attack on the Katunayake Air-force base indicates that while they be emaciated, they are certainly no less dangerous, and as they are increasingly cornered, perhaps even more so than before. Clearly, the distant battlefields of the North-East are once again in danger of becoming a gruesome reality for those in or near residential areas in Colombo, financial and tourism hubs, vital infrastructure, utilities and public meeting places in the South of the country. We have been down this road before – many times – and the bloody results guaranteed by violence that begets more violence is regrettably a clarion call for peace by peaceful means that the LTTE and the Government still damningly impervious to.
By why endeavour to understand & respond accordingly when escapism through conspiratorial fiction is so much more scintillating? It is evident that the fertile & effervescent minds of Mangala, Sripathi and Ranil can only, within the political context today, capture public interest by calling attention to the incredible. Personal stories of the imminent naming and shaming of the President and his merry-men by “documents and tapes” (as noted by Sripathi on the BBC’s Sandeshaya in late February) that clearly indicate evidence of a deal that resulted in the enforced boycott in the Presidential Elections in 2005 are disingenuous for a number of reasons. Firstly and obviously, it is a damning and indelible stain on the public standing of these individuals that they are only now coming out with this information. High public office is founded upon an inviolable accountability and responsibility to act on behalf of the public interest. Clearly, any deal with the LTTE for parochial gain is not in the public interest. To have credible evidence of such a “pact” and to withhold it from the public gaze for so long is a clear indication that it is only when one’s own political fortunes are rent asunder that such information is brandished as a Damoclean threat to mitigate the repercussions of a rapid fall from grace. Secondly, and equally obvious, is that we are still to hear or see any real evidence of a pact. It is almost as if the President and his government are so powerful and unstoppable today that absurd phantasms take the place of reasoned argument and debate in an effort to command public support. Of course, the nature of such allegations is that one needs to keep them alive – it is only by stoking the imminence of a monumental scandal that an excited public is temporarily satiated. Thirdly, and in a slightly different vein with regards to the disappearances & abductions in the East and elsewhere in the country, everyone in the Government maintains that it is a problem that really does not exist to the degree that some in civil society make it out to be.
A vicious circle develops. The debate on facts, allegations and secret pacts soon loses is initial heady temperament, descends into bathos and bitter personal invective. If going by the violent history of partisan politics in Sri Lanka, such a process will possibly only ever come to a definite end with the violent silencing of one or all the voices involved in the promotion of these conspiracy theories by mysterious forces that then become the fodder for more conspiracy theories.
What is missing from public debate today is the corrosive effect of all these allegations on the fabric of governance and democracy in Sri Lanka. Clearly, those who parade conspiracy theories can’t honestly claim to act in the interests of democracy if they cannot base their allegations on fact. Sri Lanka today faces an unparalleled crisis of confidence in its avowed commitment to fundamental rights and constitutional governance. Everywhere, aside from the propaganda of the Government matched by the rodomontade of the LTTE, the political, social, economic and cultural rights of citizens are not just ignored, they are viciously suppressed. The gratuitous violence in the North and the East place the human security of hundreds of thousands of civilians, once again, at high risk. The humanitarian conditions in these areas continue to worsen with road, air and sea access cut off or severely limited, supplies running out, and the number of displaced and rendered destitute by the on-going violence increase daily. Resettling IDPs in UXO infested and insecure terrain against their wishes is a prostitution of the essential idea of liberation and the “honourable peace” that the President is vaunt to proclaim volubly of late. The erosion of media freedom and its close corollary, democratic dissent in the South coupled with the rise in hate speech are stark indicators of the challenges facing rights, democracy and governance at a time when war rhetoric and nationalist fervour ridicule any opinion-makers who seek to establish alternatives to violence. The 17th Amendment remains an idea in need of urgent implementation. Rising inflation, the result of a year on year exponential increase in military spending and the economic burden of on-going war, vitiates the growth of the economy. The very President who instituted the All Party Representatives Committee process enervates its thought-leadership by dismissing its forward thinking constitutional blueprints to secure a political settlement to Sri Lanka’s variously called ethnic or national question.
Clearly, these challenges that stand in the way of securing a just and lasting peace render conspiracy theories that have no factual basis as trivial indulgences that we can scarce afford in a socio-economic and political context that shows no signs of significant improvement in the near future. The question is whether those who parade conspiracy theories hold any alternatives to the policies of this President and his government. If they are to be taken seriously to be in favour of securing and strengthening democracy and in principled opposition to the policies and actions of those currently in power, it is vital that they promote a war of ideas, based on a compact with the peoples of Sri Lanka, to engender a just peace that holds to account that which is currently carried out in their name by this government under the aegis of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Without such a clear and reasoned agenda that eschews sensationalism founded on conspiracies, denials and allegations ad nauseum, ad inifinitum, Sri Lanka under the reckless brinkmanship of narrow-minded politicians, with eyes wide open, is heading to even more violence and misery.