Fighting for democracy

“Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda, and in most modern conflict, the men of war prey on the ignorance of the populace to install fears and arouse hatreds.”
Sashi Tharoor, Bookless in Baghdad

Mark Whitaker captures well the perversity of Sri Lanka today in a compelling biography of murdered Tamil journalist Sivaram Dharmeratnam (Taraki) published recently. He writes that “…it is one of the peculiarities of Sri Lanka that a nation so lacking in effective political solutions has been, nevertheless, so replete with subtle, heartfelt and often accurate analyses of its own failures”. There is something terribly wrong when the politics of hate have and war have erased a wider appreciation of democracy and the vital cross-currents of debate that give it life and meaning. In winning the war against terror – or let me rephrase that, the war against the LTTE – we have lost what our constitution, warts and all, fundamentally gives expression to and guarantees – the rights of all citizens to live without fear. For it is fear that defines polity and society today – fear of writing, expressing one’s mind in public, residing where one chooses, traveling, living. We are fearful of what we know, frightful of what we might have to face and anxious about the terror we do not know and may not be able to avoid. The Germans have a phrase for it: Angst vor der Angst (anxiety for the sake of anxiety) – a situation created and maintained by repressive governments and terrorists alike, for they both benefit from citizens held in check.

We face such a situation in Sri Lanka today and this author and many others are often asked why they continue to write, invariably followed by well meaning comments to stay safe, take care and lie low. Frankly, it is quite an absurd response to at once critically appreciate writing that challenges the status quo and caution against such writing. But silence is not an option. The central character in the incisive and politically resonant film V for Vendetta suggests that “while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words are for the means to meaning, and for those who listen, the enunciation of truth.” Indubitably, writing – the expression of ideas and the exchange of information – exists in a symbiotic relationship with democracy. The thrust and parry of wit nourishes democracy, and a healthy democracy of which in turn creates a vibrant critical literary tradition. For long, one vital distinction between the South and the North-East of Sri Lanka was that the former supported (or at the very least tolerated) the freedom of expression, whereas the latter did not. Today, the distinction is sadly almost nonexistent. That we have a crisis of democracy in the South is a gross understatement – we are increasingly unable to express anything critical of the present regime and its actions without the fear of verbal and physical abuse against us. How does and can one respond to this growing crisis? Donors may be right in curtailing funds to Sri Lanka, but are misinformed or perilously optimistic if they believe that this alone will bring about a sea-change of public opinion against this government. It may well lead to the reverse, as a study of international sanctions against repressive regimes demonstrates. The government, cornered, isolated and bankrupt, will seek to convince the public that inflation, political instability and economic hardship is the result of pariahs in civil society who support and call for such sanctions for parochial gain. This is far from improbable – the past two years clearly demonstrates the animosity harboured by this government against NGOs particularly working in the areas of human rights, governance, humanitarian aid and democracy. It is unreasonable to expect a radical change heart or course correction merely on account of the increasing opprobrium of this government in the international community. The demented attacks against those who have expressed strong concerns about this government’s attitude towards human rights, epitomised by the obnoxious Defense Secretary, may only be the start of a deluge of vicious commentary that deeply influences the public consciousness through the Government’s rigid control of State media and the increasing coercion & censorship of other media. The resulting challenges to civil society and its ability to advocate for the importance of a political settlement based on the significant devolution of power cannot be underestimated.

Our appreciation of this government’s victories on the battlefield are dulled by the fact that the war against the LTTE seems to require the subservience of citizens and the marginalization of fundamental rights to a corrupt fraternal triumvirate and a regressive Chintanaya far more disturbing than the dynastic corruption it replaced. This government confuses dissent with disloyalty. Accusations however are not truth. In viciously condemning rights activists and even going as far as to suggest they are traitors, this government demonstrates the degree to which it is prepared to go in order to inhibit voices it feels are pitted against it. I noted earlier this year that there is no longer any real difference between the Government and the LTTE – sadly, this is becoming more and more evident. Both have a hysterical disregard for decency and human dignity and the rights guaranteed by the constitution. Both will, without a single moment’s consideration of the fallout, permanently silence voices that question its hegemonic bent or thinking. As Shakespeare notes, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. We do not need lectures by this Government to tell us how much we abhor, have suffered from and are in urgent need of a lasting solution to terrorism. Some now audaciously suggest that decisive victory now just weeks away will set the stage for a comprehensive political roadmap that holistically addresses the root causes of terrorism. We remain unconvinced. If all this government can muster towards a political process is captured in the SLFP proposal produced in May and all it has to show the world thereafter is the eviction of hundreds of Tamils from Colombo, we are still some distance away from any meaningful solution to terrorism and arguably, moving rapidly away from it. This government’s military victories are not unlike those of Hannibal, considered one of the greatest military commanders and tacticians in history and yet unable to bring about definite end to war in his lifetime. This President and his government will fail to bring about an end to terrorism despite military victories precisely because of their apathy towards the establishment of a new social and political contract through a progressive constitutional order – a vital building block of a just and lasting peace.

The point simply is this – for any definite end to terrorism, we have to stop being and feeling terrorized. It is an argument that Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek, persuasively makes in a special issue of the magazine on the US after the Bush administration:

“If one day bombs do go off, we must ensure that they cause as little disruption—economic, social, political—as possible. This would deprive the terrorist of his main objective. If we are not terrorized, then in a crucial sense we have defeated terrorism.”

It’s called developing one’s resilience against terrorism – the ability of the social and political fabric to return normalcy after an act of terrorism. We can’t stop terror, but we can stop being terrorised. Democracy is a central ingredient in cultivating this resilience and is a vital determinant in the legitimacy of a government in its efforts against terrorism. Even in the unlikely event that every single cadre of the LTTE is killed, Sri Lanka has to then grapple with other paramilitary & armed groups, not least of which is our strategic ally du jour Karuna, the hundreds of armed deserters and private armies of politicians and the thousands of unlicensed small arms in the hands of thugs and gangs. The real war against terrorism requires rationality more than rhetoric and the politics of inclusion and democratic governance more than authoritarian rule and repressive legislation. A government that promotes violence, harbours terrorism and viciously quells dissent not just impairs our resilience to terrorism but exacerbates its already great toll on polity and society. It is also true that while a war can be won single-handedly, peace emphatically cannot be established in the same manner. It is a lesson the US and the “coalition of the willing” learns every single day in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number of lives lost after Bush famously declared that the US had prevailed in its war on terror is a grim reminder for our self-styled patriots in Sri Lanka on the futility of using smoking guns to engender and secure peace. Must we follow the same wretched path?

To take on this government with nothing other than the simple truth can be deeply subversive and by extension perilous, yet increasingly necessary. Democracy today is defined by the banal monologues, tales told by idiots “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. In light of a monumental absence of progressive thinking, there has never been a greater need for ideas & information that critique the attitudes and approaches of this government that could be ultimately self-defeating. A vibrant democratic tradition recognises that such possibilities must be publicly and endlessly debated and the only question is whether we will ever experience it in our lifetimes.

Surely it is time to act to ensure we do?

Note: Published in Daily Mirror on 29th June 2007.

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One thought on “Fighting for democracy

  1. Nali says:

    Ideology:”a system of the ideas and representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, according to the
    case) which dominate the mind of a man or a social group”(Althusser 1977:158).

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