A language of hate and harm

I find the language of choice in politics today to be utterly disgusting and at the same time fascinating. It’s the first because so much of what is articulated is bitter invective, baseless allegations, wild imaginings or useless polemics. It is essentially nonsense – like conch shells, our politicians and public servants today simply produce noise from an emptiness that intelligence and integrity usually reside. It is fascinating because when the tables are turned, such as the recent post-budget invective against the JVP by sections of the Government and the JHU in particular, the very same sentiments expressed by the JVP against NGOs and civil society activists become in their minds baseless allegations fuelled by partisan agendas.

If what is expressed by those in government are to be believed, everyone opposed to it and its favourite apparatchiks du jour, the JHU, invariably support the LTTE or worse, support both the “West” and terrorism in Sri Lanka, there by posing a grave threat to our territorial integrity and national security. This includes UNICEF, which finds itself in the media limelight not for the vital humanitarian efforts they support in Sri Lanka, which the State simply cannot and will not do by itself, but for ostensibly harbouring members of and supporting the LTTE. This bizarre ad absurd allegation made by those great patriots, the JVP, have resulted in emergency food supplies for its staff and for those displaced in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka are now held up with Customs at the Colombo Port under the guise that they were intended as food rations for LTTE cadres.

It gets even more bizarre. Posters that came up on walls before the JVP voted against the budget by the “SLFP Youth Front” effusively thanked the party for standing up against the unholy UNP – LTTE alliance, indicative of what the government thought would be JVP’s ultimate decision even though it is a rabid and vociferous whistle blower on some aspects of Government corruption. Clearly, the JVP’s decision took them by surprise and it fell on the likes of Champika Ranawaka of the JHU to accuse the JVP of “pretending to be a patriotic force”, which was the unkindest cut to a party that defines itself as the original protector of the Sinhala-Buddhist State.

Though very tempting, it is essentially pointless to gloat over the JVP getting a taste of its own medicine. The post-budget invective is far more instructive to be observed dispassionately, for example, the SLFP – JHU alliance. It is through the adoption and assimilation of the JHU ideology to its own, that the SLFP has been able to completely undermine the appeal of and public support towards the JVP. Speaking with the generally affable JHU spokesperson Udaya Gammanpila towards the end of 2006, I asked why the JHU party mobilization and propaganda was not as visible when compared to the lead up to the Presidential elections in late 2005 and also in comparison with that of the JVP. His response was quite telling. He said that the JHU felt no need to promote its party any more since the President and his government had fully incorporated the ideology of the JHU into their policies. When our flag has been hitched to the President’s mast, he said in Sinhala, there is no need for us to fly it ourselves. Clearly, it is not just the ideology but also the JHU’s singular extremist argot that the Government has bought into. This for instance includes the repeatedly calling United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Sir John Holmes a terrorist in the pay of the LTTE. It includes the public defence, by various Ministers in the government and also by the Chief of Police, of the eviction of hundreds of Tamil civilians from their lodgings in Colombo, branding them all as threats to national security. It also includes sickeningly numerous and well documented instances of government ministers as well as the President making wild accusations against civil society, human rights activists, donors, humanitarian organizations and various UN agencies in a bitter, spiteful language.

Quite simply, it is a language used to terrorise and seen this way, is no different to that which is employed by the LTTE or by its bête noir, Karuna in the East. It is a vocabulary specifically geared to incite hatred, exacerbate fear and anxiety, breed insecurity, foment disunity, undermine reconciliation and increase the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka.  It is the expression of a regime intolerant of critique or dissent. Competing narratives are immediately branded as coming from or being partial to the “enemy”.

It is a vicious cycle.

In a context where government ministers have regularly threatened to kill and physically harm journalists, obscenely hateful language has become both a result of and a vehicle for outright racism and systemic violence. It is a cancerous symbiosis that ultimately and inevitably leads to what we saw happen with Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) in Rwanda, just before the genocide in the early 90’s.  

It wasn’t always this way in Sri Lanka. Even a cursory look at the Hansard from the early years of our independence demonstrates a higher level of debate, where the thrust and parry of wit in Parliament is a joy to read even today for those able to appreciate that it is possible to disagree strongly without being disagreeable. I don’t believe it is merely a question of education, the lack of which many point to as the root cause of the drivel that is recorded in the Hansard today and reported by the media. It is also decades of violence that has robbed Sri Lanka of its finest minds from all communities. They have been killed, silenced or have left the country. Politics seen as a winner takes all approach coupled with rampant corruption, nepotism and a clientelist party political architecture ensures that no one with a modicum of integrity and self-respect enters the electoral fray, leaving only those with parochial and dynastic ambitions to enter Parliament.

The result is plain to see. On the Sri Lankan blogosphere was this comment by someone who goes by the name Jack Point (http://www.indi.ca/2007/11/crossovers-corrupt-parliament):

“The degree of paranoia, evinced by the posters that came up before and after the budget vote is something I find very disturbing. The vote was-in my opinion, a walk over that the government was in no danger of losing – if they are this worried about a comparatively easy vote, then only god knows how they will react when under real threat.”

It is a sentiment this author wishes to associate himself with completely. 

Article published in Montage, December 2007 


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