The willing suspension of disbelief

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first coined the phrase, and I use it here to loosely describe what is an enduring condition of the Sri Lankan polity and society. What the phrase means is to pause one’s critical faculties to enjoy what is clearly incredible or unbelievable. Suspending critical questioning, it can be argued, could be out of choice – for example, no one who sees any big-budget alien flick from Hollywood questions why all extra-terrestrials seem to only target Los Angeles or the White House, or why it takes an undeniably all-American hero to save the rest of the world from an existential threat. The film is entertainment, and for the sake of being entertained, we accept the fiction – from premise and plot to the computer generated special effects. In contrast, the suspension of disbelief for the majority of voters in Sri Lanka isn’t a conscious choice to rest what is otherwise a keen ability to critically question and analyse. It is their default state of being. The average voter isn’t concerned about learning more about what politicians say or do. Gossip has more traction than news, and worse, is believed by more. We see this in the media – anonymous or single-sourced stories litter newsprint and broadcasts, and front-pages, without an iota of irony, prominently feature gossip, as gossip. We see this during elections – where promises, no matter how incredible, sway voters and manifestos are at best documents uploaded to short-lived campaign websites. Politicians know this. Voters who forget, and supinely accept what is told to them, benefit those in power and those who seek it.

It matters that we strive to change this. Two very different examples highlight why. The first is the issue of ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen’s murder. The investigations are still on-going. In December 2015, Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Rajitha Senarathna very clearly told mainstream media that CCTV footage captured not just his murder, but the involvement of individuals from highly-placed families in Sri Lanka – a reference directed at the former government. In January 2016, a report submitted to court by the Department of Computer Science of the University of Colombo recommended sending the CCTV footage to a foreign agency for further review as the Department did not possess the technology to carry out further investigations. Several months later, in June, news media reported that the AG’s Department had informed the courts that the CCTV footage had been referred to British Colombia Institution of Technology in Canada for forensics analysis, which could be expected by early August. News reports late August suggest that the courts had only then given permission to the CID to send the footage to Canada.

The on-going saga of analysing the CCTV footage, when looked at in perspective, is hard to comprehend as anything other than an attempt to stall a murder investigation. But this speaks to more than Thajudeen’s murder. When Channel 4 released their ‘Killing Fields’ documentary on Sri Lanka, the greater furore was around trophy footage captured on video, allegedly showing members of the Sri Lankan armed forces abusing and summarily executing blindfolded prisoners. This was just a few years ago, yet readers may struggle to recall the detailed opinions of the number of experts called upon to examine this video, from UN Special Rapporteurs Philip Alston and Christopher Heyns, to Dr. Chathura de Silva from the University of Moratuwa and finally, as directed by the LLRC, Professor E. A. Yfantis from the University of Nevada. In October 2015, Channel 4, which reported it had received an advance draft report of the ‘Missing Persons Commission’, led by retired Judge Maxwell Paranagama and ordered by former President Rajapaksa, noted that ‘the video footage [was] genuine’, supported by ‘forensic pathology and other corroborative expert evidence.’

Thajudeen and the Channel 4 video showcase the awful politics of forensics, where CCTV evidence or trophy footage from war – independent of what they depict, are anchored to and the need to investigate them thoroughly – become for politicians convenient and emotive agitprop, to malign and misinform. No one today asks how it is that for Thajudeen’s CCTV footage, courts were informed that there is a lack of forensics expertise in the country, but for the Channel 4 video, there was plenty of it around, and moreover, believed. No one questions MP Senarathna’s assertions from just under a year ago, and the basis for the claims he made at the time.

Why?

The second example of the willing suspension of disbelief comes by way of the PM’s recent trip to China. The trip came just after allegations made MP Harin Fernando, followed up by independent newspaper reports, around surveillance equipment brought to Sri Lanka by the former government just months prior to the January 2015 Presidential election. The equipment bought by SLT, according to these reports, was to intercept voice calls and high speed data, and clearly, with zero regard for any judicial oversight or legal framework. The exact same company that sold us this equipment hosted the PM on his visit to China and signed an MoU on ICT cooperation with our Ministry of Telecommunications. No questions have been asked in Parliament on the importation of this equipment, and under whose authorisation. The company itself has not come out in the open with any clarification. And yet we have a PM who without any due diligence or hesitation, goes to the same company for a technical agreement on backend infrastructure that will undergird our urban development. Imagine a food processing company that tries to poison you. This is akin to going to that same company to deliver food supplies, without any inquiry whatsoever around past practices, to an entire city’s inhabitants.

The PM will get away with this, as will the Chinese company, MP Fernando, SLT and the others involved in these deals, past and present. The Attorney-General won’t have to answer questions around revealing delays in the Thajudeen case. MP Senarathna won’t have to explain why he said what he did in December last year. Dr. de Silva won’t have to explain why video footage he found doctored, the Paranagama Commission found important and credible enough to warrant robust inquiry. No one remembers. No one questions. No one, sadly, really cares.

The willing suspension of disbelief may help us enjoy a book or blockbuster, but leads to disastrous consequences in the domain of democratic governance. Thing is, it is the status quo in Sri Lanka that neither government nor voter really want to change. And that is, in a nutshell, why even under yahapalanaya, impunity will reign.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 28 August 2016.

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