In any given week, Sri Lanka offers much to contemplate in a public column. Choosing what to focus on can be challenging. This week, whilst cyclonic conditions battered the North and East of Sri Lanka, rendering thousands of families destitute and homeless, most Sri Lankans knew far more about the devastation in and around New York on account of Hurricane Sandy. Poor language policies anchored to racial bias, and pathetic information delivery were the hallmark of the Disaster Management Centre’s online severe weather warnings and updates. Content was available in Sinhala and English, but not at all in Tamil, the main language of the areas hardest hit by severe weather conditions. Bizarrely, the President instructed the Sri Lankan High Commission in New York to take all measures to assist Sri Lankans affected by Sandy, but issued no similar proclamation to direct emergency relief and assistance to vast numbers of people, far less capable of meeting by themselves the destruction of their livelihoods and property, displaced by Nilam in his own country. If we are brutally honest, Tamils and Tamil, even post-war, clearly remain out of sight and out of mind for most of us. Also this week was the tabling of the impeachment motion against Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice, and the farce around that affair. The banal and supine excuse – putting one’s signature to an unknown document that turned out to be the impeachment motion – was employed by some MPs, providing a remarkable insight into the real nature of governance and government today.
However, what captured the attention of most, particularly outside of Sri Lanka, was scrutiny of the government’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. #UPRLKA was used as the primary Twitter hashtag by over a dozen human rights organisations and individuals, including your columnist, to flag significant and growing concerns over the Rajapaksa regime’s flagrant abuse of rights since 2008, and in particular, since the end of the war in May 2009. As part of an effort to archive all these tweets for posterity and as a more permanent record of promises, concerns and challenges, your columnist captured over 3,500 tweets in around a 48-hour period with just the primary hashtag mentioned. Hundreds if not thousands more would have focussed on Sri Lanka during the course of the week. It is unclear though, as a forward projection, what this really means. It is not as if those tweeting shared an identical opinion about how to hold the government accountable. Some celebrated comments by Sarath Fonseka to the effect that Sri Lanka was turning into a military dictatorship – which your columnist thought rich considering his own flagrant abuse of human rights and media freedom not so long ago. And yet, desperation to hold the government accountable compels some to latch on to telegenic hypocrites. There were also some submissions to involve Bianca Jagger in the campaign on Twitter over Sri Lanka’s UPR session, which bordered on the hysterically ludicrous.
But more seriously, over and above the fact that new media is more and more, naming and shaming more than any mainstream mainstream media can or will, what can tweets over a week achieve against such a powerful and deeply violent regime? Mahbubani’s essay on an Asian perspective of human rights in his seminal collection of essays, ‘Can Asians Think’, suggests an inherent and unfair asymmetry in international human rights accounting, brought out succinctly in Pinter’s poem, ‘The Old Days’,
Anyway all the democracies
(all the democracies)
were behind us
They said: just don’t
tell anyone we’re behind you
Just don’t tell anyone
just don’t tell anyone
we’re behind you.
Just kill them.
And back in 2009, we killed and how, with the full knowledge of the same international institutional human rights architecture that now seeks to hold our government accountable for what they did, and at the time, said. How fair this all is must be debated, but let not the semantics of such debate gloss over two central points. One, those seeking to hold our government accountable are often themselves unprincipled and expedient in their own activism and advocacy. This plays into and is often amplified through domestic rhetoric that harms those still within Sri Lanka, at great risk, negotiating accountability and reconciliation’s jagged post-war flourish. Two, without sustained international scrutiny and pressure, our government will have no qualms at all crushing Tamils and any dissent, with complete impunity. Twitter alone will not bring the dead justice, but combined with other new media and more traditional IHL, can hold accountable the government’s compact with outright murder for peace. This is not some technocratic ideal. The technology is out there, and cannot be easily shut down or censored.
What’s lacking is our moral imagination, and outrage.
Published in the print edition of The Nation, 4 November 2012.