“Sinha-le”: Comment to media on implications

Was asked by a mainstream media newspaper to send in comments on the ‘Sinha-le’ phenomenon.

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“Sinha-le”, a campaign primarily promoted over social media both in Sri Lanka and abroad, can also be seen on stickers adoring three-wheelers and other vehicles.

The campaign is essentially racist, mixing elements of violent xenophobia, Islamophobia, racial slurs and hate speech in what is promoted as a campaign signifying love for country and patriotic zeal. Perusing through a Facebook group, one of many others, established in support of the campaign, one encounters outrageous content of a nature the careful observer will immediately recognise as exactly what was promoted by similar pages, groups and sites aligned with the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

Fringe lunacy has a place in a democracy, as precisely that. The danger under the previous government was that extremists, like the BBS, were allowed the space to thrive and operate in conditions of near total impunity. In comparison, the ‘Sinha-le’ movement is as yet nascent. Aside from inspiring one act of vandalism, it has yet to grow into the monstrosity that was the BBS and other chauvinistic forces aligned to it, especially online.

The enduring danger is that ‘Sinha-le’ and similar movements that crop up in the months ahead are black swan events – spontaneous mechanisms created to instigate communal unrest over a specific instance, individual or location, but go viral and develop a life of their own, ending up by spilling over into violence in the real world. Not unlike the appeal of the Islamic State (ISIL) through online social media, the racism, intolerance and violence of ‘Sinha-le’ is rendered invisible to its vocal proponents. The fans and followers create echo chambers, where radicalisation is fostered by the production, publication, dissemination and discussion of deeply racist material. Almost exclusively in Sinhala, this content passes under the radar of platforms like Facebook and policies in place against content that instigates communal violence, racism and hate speech.

The catch-22 is around how best to respond to ‘Sinha-le’. Also using social media and in Sinhala, the pushback has been very creative, sardonic, significant and widespread. It is unclear however the degree to which the more liberal, progressive and democratic voices are able to infiltrate the well-springs of the ‘Sinha-le’ movement, and engage with, to the extent possible, its proponents. Some propose strategic inaction – hoping these movements will die down after a period of time. The danger around this approach is that the opposite will happen, and by the time policymakers take note, adequate, timely responses are significantly more complex to generate.

As Sri Lanka embarks upon constitutional reform and other major projects this year, involving the whole of government and reshaping how we see our country, I expect ‘Sinha-le’ to be the first salvo in what will be many more movements, on similar lines, that attempt to deny, destroy and decry the essential diversity in our country. The litmus test will be around how we respond to extremism, and what measures can be proactively taken to combat the growth of these movements amongst young adults – the future leaders of Sri Lanka.

Books

Invited by Anukshi Jayasinghe to write for Ceylon Today’s Celebrity Bookcase section, these are five books I love and keep returning to.

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Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka
A compelling novel based on the indentured labour from Japan, mostly young women, who came over to the West Coast of the United States. This is the horrible, exploitative and violent flip side of the glitzy American dream – of women beguiled into a better life outside Japan, only to face hard labour, rape and utter deracination of self-respect, yet ultimately embracing a foreign land and raising their own children. A moving read.

Can Asians Think? by Kishore Mahbubani
First read in 1999 as an undergraduate, a book I keep coming back to. Mahbubani is currently Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. It’s a collection of essays on Asian identity. Mahbubani’s clear prose champions a fusion of Western and Asian civilisations and calls for “retooling the social, political and philosophical dimensions” of our societies.

Harold Pinter – Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948 – 2005
I picked Pinter in Karachi in my first visit to the city in 2006, weeks after the bombing of the Marriot Hotel. We were advised to not wander away from our hotel. I did, and walked into a bookstore amidst the wails of sirens. It was an apt context and backdrop to a book that so incisively deals with, inter alia, violence, human dignity, human rights and war.

Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers by Shashi Tharoor
Recommended by a close friend who was at the time in Iraq, I picked up the book many moons ago at Barefoot and finished it before I left its garden café. Just as Riot is for me Shashi’s best fiction, this tome captures, at a time the author was a UN Under Secretary General, some of his best essays on topics as diverse as film, literacy, diplomacy, myth and above all, the power of the written word even in the most despondent circumstances.

Questions Without Answers: The World in Pictures by the Photographers of VII
Weighing over 1kg, this VII’s tome cannot be read reposing on a haansi-putuwa or bed. As noted on the publisher’s website, “what unites VII’s work is a sense that, in the act of communication at the very least, all is not lost; reparation is always possible; despair is never absolute”. From photographs that capture the visceral to the ephemeral, the outstandingly beautiful to the acutely painful, this book is impossible to ‘read’ in one go and is one of the best books on photography I own, and have perused.

A Royal – Thomian Family

A Royal – Thomian Family
Sanjana Hattotuwa

“A cricketing fiesta such as this is my idea of nirvana”
Into the passionate Soul of sub-continental cricket, Emma Levine

The setting: Big matches are as unique as they are similar. There is cricket of course, but no a big match is defined by the game itself. It is a far larger spectacle, a seething mass of humanity bursting with life threatening with every delivery to spill over the edges of the stadium, a heady, adrenalin driven and testosterone filled carnevale.

But I digress. I’m not writing about any big-match, but the veritable The Royal – Thomian, which at over 126 years old is a manic festival of cricket that is the second oldest uninterrupted test encounter in the world.

Imagine the heady intoxication of music, alcohol and greasy Chinese rolls. Imagine the coveted chilled beer, making its way from mouth to mouth, a sip of nectar. At first anyway – those at the end of the food chain got a mix of froth, a few dregs of malt, and a whole lot of saliva. Not that it mattered at the time. The empty bottle could always be thrown at the head of a particularly annoying opponent, or better still, a College Prefect attempting to bring order to what is perfect chaos. Imagine the colour, the sound, the sight, the smell all mixed into one hedonism that lay to waste the larger hurdles of term end exams, parental desires for prefectships and the favouritism of teachers. This was happy dust, the fanfare of the bands, stolen souvenirs to cackle at the caricatures of players in the field, ribald jests on the (alleged) secret (and not so secret) homosexual desires friends, players and teachers even, intoxicated brains conjuring up lyrical baila, waxing forth arguments in verse as to why to learn or to depart is quite a silly idea.

The cricket: Sadly, I can’t remember much of it. Apart from the players, the scoreboard and the Coach, it’s questionable whether anyone remembers in detail the details of the game, even those in the Mustangs tent. Of course, there were the not infrequent pitch invasions to volubly protest against a particularly damning decision against College. The umpiring in question that needed to be strongly denounced from the middle of the pitch was alerted by those several times removed from the actual protestors. These original informants often saw multiples of everything, under the influence of a motley array of alcohol, and were thus increasingly ignored as the match progressed. Pitch invasions were always accompanied by the strongest reprimands by the Prefects and stern warnings of dire consequences to one’s own balls if the act was ever attempted again. And though the pitch invasions continued history does not record whether the Prefects actually carried out their threats.

There was, to those genuinely interested, very good cricket. Some of the finest innings in cricket’s history are writ by the signature strokes of willow against leather over the past century at the Royal – Thomian. This was serious cricket and the firmament of so many dreams of making it to the national team and thereon to international fame. What one does remember slightly better are the boundaries – when the entire stadium would erupt is a riot that Tharoor would find hard to describe. Cheering, well jeering – loud, riotous and increasingly hoarse – were not really aimed to animate anything in the playing field, but at the far more noble enterprise of conscientiously challenging the “other” school’s faith, flag, virility and sexuality (or lack thereof). Getting drunk at the mere whiff of arrack was part of the foundation for lyrical arguments amplified by the ever present, alcohol fuelled and untiring papara bands.

The “boys”: The Royal – Thomian is primarily about boys (including those disguised as older and wiser men). The general melee of a Royal – Thomian in our day would guarantee two things. More booze. More chaos. More riotous dancing. And then more booze. So I lied, that’s more than two – but in those days, we never kept count of anything during the Big Match. With fists flying at no one and everyone, the pitch was not the only place to crack balls. There were fights over girlfriends. There were fights over the last dregs of coconut nectar. There were fights over lyrics, deemed heretical by those who sang no better and on no less heretical topics. There were, however, never fights over religion or ethnicity. These mattered little, and the only boundaries that matters were those that raised the score. And while there were fights over territory, these were not linked to traditional homelands. Anyone was a potential fucking-sperm-dog, arse(hole), mother-fucker, shit(e) or son of a harlot (or a heady combination of any of the above). Deeply confusing to an outsider, these seemingly derogatory terms were used with great affection amongst close friends and with bitter invective against those from the “other” College. Sure, there was caricature of ethnicity and religion, but never with mal-intent or militant animosity. Friendship crossed many boundaries that would in later years define who we were and were not. Arrack was a great leveller, and in our stupor, what was said in verse was replied to in verse (through vaada baila sessions that were sheer genius). That anyone could be insulted, and could insult in turn, created an atmosphere of strange equanimity, where everyone was united by that elixir of life and nectar of under-age alcoholism – Mendis Special.

The “girls”: Unmistakably and unashamedly, the Royal – Thomian is a male dominated affair. Females who attend are overwhelmingly the love interest du jour of male spectators, or their sisters, cousins and their friends. They presence is tolerated more than welcomed, though they indubitably added to the colour and gaiety of the event. They are huge fans of cricket and of each College, not infrequently as much as or even more so than their male lovers or brothers. Some are disdainful of the prods, pokes and pinches to boob and butt as they mingle their way through a throng of testosterone. Others accept the inevitability of such actions and move ever closer to the boundary, to callously divide attention of those behind between action on the pitch and their own lithe movements to the sounds of baila. Lyrical and ageless stories of cupping the insatiable Mary beside the flowing waters of the Mahaweli River and then encountering Mary’s mother and the ensuing drama, as well as Surangani’s travails with fish continue unabated, and were often given more colour by the subtle (and not so subtle) variations added in by females present. Braving catcalls, they walk around the boundary, waving College flags as staunchly as their male counterparts and often, with more aplomb and confidence – for history proves that not a single female has been entreated by an empty beer bottle to shut-up and get lost (as is the fate of many men who try the same feats) in over a century. In short, reluctant though they might be to admit it openly, they have fun.

Family: Surely, the Royal – Thomian deserves consideration as a venerable family that has not only endured two World Wars, but had for generations (re)kindled bonds of friendship and brought together far-flung members to celebrate a common interest in inebriation and cricket (not necessarily in that order).

Given the nature of other articles in this issue however, and from what the reader may gather from the bacchanalia described above, the Royal – Thomian may at first seem an impossible fit into a traditional definition of family, as a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household. But the lens of parenthood or progeny doesn’t necessarily define a family. Built on a common bond to the alma mater and loyal and strong allegiance to the College colours, it is not uncommon to find 3 generations of bucolic and irreverent old boys each enjoy the game in their own inimitable way. They come from afar to be together, to share memories of their time in College – De Saram, Buck, Stone, Wood and Copplestone exchanging ribald stories from when they too heard the belfry toll. For who have left College, there is a sense of nostalgia at a Big Match, a yearning for simpler times of misspent youth, when larger conflict could be forgotten in the afterglow of a day at the Big Match. Family, however defined, brings a security, a certainty, comfort and solace. It is a safe space, a place to escape, to retreat, to truly be oneself sans the heavy adornment of social responsibility, political office or officialdom, to be silly, to laugh, to cry, to love and be loved. Though not all these will be articulated verbally, look through the boisterous ruckus and you’ll find it in abundance. For here, flagrant paternalism and chauvinism exist cheek-in-jowl with a deep respect for the presence of females, to the extent that their honour, if in question, would give rise to all manner of aerobatic and acrobatic feats from which the “knight” would often be rescued by the “maiden in distress”. Men rescued by women, women fighting women, brothers fighting for their sisters, sisters fighting for their brothers, fathers, sons, mothers, lovers, grandfathers and more, all engaged in a ritualistic dance to the strains of a kaffringa, the Royal-Thomian brings with it a sense of strange togetherness – that the chaos has its own logic, the cricket its own pace, the spectators their own music, the females their signature cadence, the males their own rhythm. It is an equal music, a concert of diversity, which for 3 days in the ides of March makes the rest of the world fade away. The Royal – Thomian isn’t many things and never, hopefully, will be. It isn’t politically correct. It isn’t gender sensitive. It doesn’t respect privacy and social boundaries or norms, and has little patience with introverts. It doesn’t welcome outsiders, but should they find themselves thrust in the middle of the ruckus, it embraces them openly and warmly. It is thus a contradiction with its internal logic and modes of operation that cannot be easily explained; only loved. Hard to define it may be, but for the thousands who throng each year to worship an indefinable, indefatigable, destructively exuberant Kali we love and are part of, the Royal – Thomian is family – and ironically, sometimes much more than the dysfunctional social groups we grew up in.

And the strains of Mary’s mother resound once again in the echo chambers of heart and memory…

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Rain

There is something about the rain that emboldens us to think more charitably about the world around us.

Something in the footfall of hasty droplets that reminds us of our childhood, of the siestas looking upwards at branches and green leaves bend with the fecundity of a monsoon, of the smell of rain upon gravel, grass and sun parched earth, of the overcast skies that compelled us into bed and into the arms of a spine that held within its arms words that transported us to far away lands.

It beckons us to remember a time of innocence, a time before the warts that coloured our worldview became evident amidst the wrinkles of wisdom we collect as we grow up.

I am most unproductive in the rain.

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Sri Lankan Peace?!

“One of the most persistent ambiguities that we face is that everybody talks about peace as a goal. However, it does not take sharpest-eyed sophistication to discern that while everbody talks about peace, peace has become practically nobodys’ business among the power-wielders. Many men cry Peace! Peace! but they refuse to do the things that make for peace.”

Martin Luther King,Jr.

Typing this in as news of renewed fighting, the first in the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka between factions within the LTTE, reach my ears. They’ve now declared a ceasefire – a magnanimous gesture indeed, somewhat dwarfed though by the idiocy that is behind the fighting. A monolithic hegemon brings grief upon itself – the LTTE, unable to accomodate change, diversity or plurality, counters with the one action it knows best – violence aimed at abject submission.

Jars somewhat with the work I’ve been doing all morning in drawing up a proposal to help set up a Peace Secretariat for the Muslims.

Walking down the street mid-afternoon, warmed by a lzy sun battling a cool breeze, it is easy to forget to the chaos back home and the hopelessness that every bullet fuels. I am perhaps more angry at those the ‘experts’ are domiciled here – who, from their vantage of leather backed armchairs or with arms akimbo, will proclaim that Sri Lanka is a country devoid of hope.

Plus ce change, plus ce la meme chose?

I was recently told by a Professor of mine that as peace builders, our primary goal is to construct hope. I would imagine that this would be a trifle difficult if you are more versed in ‘Footy’ rules than the dynamics on the ground in Sri Lanka, though of course, that doesn’t stop the Aunties and Uncles here coming up with very imaginative conspiracy theories.

Don’t see any easy path for peace in Sri Lanka – though through violent meanderings and setbacks, I do believe that in the years to come, through many lost opportunities, there is still a semblance of a promised land that for many of us is the one hope which keeps us going.

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A Very Short Story – Random notes taken by a mobile keyboard

A Very Short Story – Random notes taken by a mobile keyboard

It is the taste that gnaws you first. The taste of loveless sex. The mechanistic, greasy aftertaste of a meaningless meeting. To mate. The prostitution of a wonderful thing.

The emptiness. The disgust of skin on skin with a foul smelling stranger who has just sucked your cock. How even the strongest of brushing can’t take away the memories of the taste. Of the writhing supin body as it entered you. The frustration of an unfulfilled desire to have the one person you actually want to make love to only in an imagined presence. The want to push the blame on her. he waste of money. So easy it would be then.

The goose bumps of disgust. The cold shiver – of an anonymity broken. The yearning for an irreverence that does away with public face. Too young – a conservative at heart.

This is my last. The opprobrium of myself is too much to bear. Silly, but perversely necessary. The feelings of inadequacy, the glances, the looks, th gestures towards an alien, will have to be managed another way. Somehow. Not this. Again.

Feeling cheated. This Mephistophelean bargain of an insatiable desire. The words which clamour within which cannot be told aloud. Thoughts which have no words. The layers of self repugnance. Of thoughts yet to bear, in the light of day, the lacerating truth, which will inevitably be shafted into a corner. The lesson that is hoped has been leant. The tired acknowledgement that this is not good.

She was ugly. Drunk. Stiff. Why? Is it the money? She knew my countrymen – the added burden of a stereotype. Of being a nobody is a generalisation of somebodies. The ejaculation – truncated by the robotic nature of the movement. The log beneath.

The constant drone of voices I love from back home. Of voices I want. Now. To prevent this descent into a hell I must not plunge into.

Have half descended.

This hole. This moral uprightness of somebody in the public and another in the private. This Janus duality.

Of her back home. Petite. My love.

I need her. I miss her. Even now, it is in every sinew of my body. That I can’t live without her. Disgust of the preset weighted against the hope of the future.

Hope. That is all I have.

I hate myself.

Hope. That is all I want.

I need her. This instant. To cherish, to hold, to breathe, to touch, to feel, to sense, to connect. All of her.

This is a half moon night. Back home, they would say that anything begun now would bea fruit.

Waning moons are bad. Perhaps the Full Moon is too.

This is madness.

I love her. I. love. her.

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The Right to Information

“Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” – UN General Assembly Resolution 59(I), 1946 –

In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, there has always been some tension between the need for openness and the desire for secrecy. The public has a legitimate interest in being kept informed about the activities of government, while government has a legitimate interest in withholding information in certain circumstances. Every government must indeed maintain a level of secrecy, but the contention has always been on the fulcrum that balances secrecy and civil liberty.

Globally, the advent of Information Communications Technology has led to diminished public tolerance of government secrecy. With this greater awareness of the public in the affairs of government comes the realisation that in a parliamentary democracy such as ours, those elected to office to represent constituencies often do not fulfil their mandate. Voters who are tired of feeling left out of important policy decisions that fuel present moves towards a culture of voluntary disclosure by government and public authorities.

The importance of the Freedom to Information Information is power. It is predictable, therefore, that those in authority will seek to manipulate others through the control of data. However, all information in a democratic society should be freely available unless there are specific, well-formulated reasons for withholding it in the interest of security.

The importance of freedom of information functions at a number of different levels: in itself, for the fulfilment of all other rights and as an underpinning of democracy. The importance of information is especially pertinent in Sri Lanka, where a protracted ethno-political conflict has created a body politic that is sceptical of information (because so little of it can be trusted) and yet blindly ascribes to communitarian hagiography that passes as history (for the want of better, more accurate information).

It is as an underpinning of democracy that freedom of information is most important. Information held by public bodies is not only for the benefit of officials or politicians but for the public as a whole. Unless there are good reasons for withholding such information, all interested parties should be able to access it. More importantly, freedom of information is a key component of transparent and accountable government. It plays a key role in enabling citizens to see what is going on within government, and in exposing corruption and mismanagement. Transparent and open government is also essential if voters are to be able to assess the performance of elected officials and if individuals are to exercise their democratic rights effectively, for example through timely protests against new policies, or by using their vote against candidates who have indulged in undemocratic activity.

Freedom of expression and access to information is a fundamental right and must be held as a cornerstone of democracy. In its absence, government can, and often does, behave with impunity. It is argued, however, that it is not an absolute right – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) for instance, specifies certain permissible constraints. One of these is the right of the state to withhold information ‘for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health and morals’. This is irascibly vague and provides many loopholes for governments to use this wording as a basis for restricting information that is inconsistent with their ambitions. For instance, it is now widely recognised that the Asian financial meltdown of the late 1990s was due in part to draconian censorship that prevented reporting on government corruption. (Indonesia and Malaysia are two good examples).

The public’s right to know is an intrinsic part of informed public debate, which has traditionally been dependent on the freedom to receive and impart information without government interference. However, it may also be argued that this does not mean a right to receive any type of information from the government. It is of paramount importance that any restrictions on information or expression regarding security matters must designate in law only the specific and narrow categories of information absolutely necessary to protect a legitimate national security concern. A threat to national security can be defined as ‘any expression or information that is intended to incite imminent violence, or is likely to incite violence. In addition, there must be a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence’ .The public interest in having information at all times must remain a priority consideration in any FOI Bill, and that any denial of this right be subject to independent review.

Along these lines, in a seminal judgement in 1982, the Indian Supreme Court held that, ‘The concept of an open Government is the direct emanation from the right to know which seems to be implicit in the right of free speech and expression…disclosure of information in regard to the functioning of government must be the rule and secrecy an exception justified only where the strictest requirement of public interest so demands’. In this particular case, the Supreme Court held that where the non-appointment of an additional Judge for a further term was challenged, correspondence between the Law Minister, the Chief Justice of the High Court, the State Government and the Chief Justice of India should be disclosed.

Peace and the right to information Media reportage of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is often tragi-comic. Accurate reporting of the conflict is hampered by restrictions on access to the Northeast, and a reliance on statements by the government, military or LTTE, which are most often misinformation or propaganda. This is comic to the extent that the public, whilst realising the questionable veracity of news on the conflict, nevertheless continue to digest biased reportage as the ‘Truth’. It is tragic to realise that it is this very inability to investigate the true nature of events that has led to an ever widening schism between the communities of Sri Lanka.

While recognising the need for confidentiality in some respects, the peace process in Sri Lanka must be a transparent one. A peace process enshrouded in secrecy will only serve to fuel extremist opinion. The plethora of conspiracy theories in Sri Lanka also stem from a dearth of accurate information regarding the peace process.

“The Sri Lanka people bear the human and financial cost of the conflict, but government and military policies and practices regarding the conflict are inaccessible to the public and remain largely shielded from public scrutiny and challenge, precluding citizens from participating in a meaningful way in promoting a solution to the conflict. The Sri Lanka people are thus unable to pursue their legitimate right to monitor the peace talks, challenge either party for lack of political will or commitment to peace, or even to form opinions and political loyalties in an informed manner.”

It is also important to recognise that the freedom to information must not be a tool that is manipulated for the gain of one stakeholder. For instance, during the 1994-1995 peace talks, despite the fact that the letters exchanged between Prabhakaran and Chandrika Kumaratunge were confidential, they were often printed in Sri Lankan newspapers or in LTTE publications. When the government felt as though the LTTE was stalling or spreading false information about the talks, letters that vindicated the government’s stance would appear in newsprint. Similarly, the LTTE published some letters that portrayed its sincerity in the peace process. In the end, the exposure of the correspondence to the media only served to undermine the efforts to build trust between the two parties. As expectation began to overshadow the progress of the talks, letters were drafted and released to pre-empt and to counter potential public backlashes. In this way, the letters and the peace process became increasingly polemical, and drained the peace process of urgency and importance.

The freedom of information, coupled with sound media ethics can buttress the peace process in Sri Lanka by nurturing journalism of a stature that encourages the process of healing and reconciliation. While the process of negotiations and future peace talks must be as transparent as possible to allay any fears and doubts of the legitimacy of the process, stakeholder opinion and interests must be portrayed in a dispassionate light that lends itself to critical examination. The public’s right to know is predicated upon the belief that the free flow of information helps inform public opinion and debate. The government must, in the present instant, make sure that its interests are made public and its position regarding the future course of a resolution to the conflict made clear. The government must also encourage the process of inter-communal understanding by highlighting the real needs and aspirations of those affected by the conflict.

The need of the hour As much as the right to information is a cardinal principle of a functioning democracy and a principle tenet of good governance, the present government must be under no illusion about the difficulty of introducing FOI legislation in Sri Lanka. The Law Commission in its Report on Freedom of Information in 1996 pointed out, ‘the current administrative policy appears to be that all information in the possession of the government is secret unless there is good reason to allow public access.’ In light of a public administration predicated on a culture on non-disclosure, the very nature and quality of public discussion is significantly impoverished without the nourishment of information from public authorities. To guarantee freedom of expression without including freedom of information would be a formal exercise, denying both effective expression in practice and a key goal which free expression seeks to serve.

Timidity has no place in the formulation or the enactment of an FOI Bill in Sri Lanka. The via media between the art of the possible in the realm of politics in Sri Lanka and a proactive, imaginative and forward thinking FOI Bill should be weighted in favour of the latter and not the former. Donald Horowitz writes of moderates, who time and again, in having their moderate opinions attacked and shouted down by extremist fringes, becoming extremists themselves in a bid to make their voices heard. There is another facet to this observation. Many of those engaged in intellectual endeavour in an atmosphere of protracted ethno-political conflict are often shackled by their own fears to propose strategies that creatively engage head-on with the status quo. In this light, it is important to remember the words of the mission statement of ‘The Economist’ – ‘…to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing…progress’.

The need of the hour is for government (and indeed civil society) to realise the undeniable importance of the freedom to information. It must also enact the proper legislation that enshrines this right. At the same time, it must not allow such legislation to exist merely on paper. The existence of rules that establish mechanisms for obtaining information cannot be assumed to work, even if they have constitutional status. The problem is not what the law says, but the extent to which it is being implemented. To animate the culture of any such legislation will require great political courage and skill, especially in a country not used to a free-flow of information. If one of the stated aims of the present government is good governance, the right to information has to be recognised as a cornerstone of any such reform. It is necessary to promote a culture of accountability, and also to expose malpractice and corruption. There is no guarantee that the mere introduction of FOI legislation will overnight change the political culture of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the accessibility of information pertaining to public authorities is a guarantee that public authorities will be held accountable for their decisions.

Final Thoughts There is some consensus, even among those who most vigorously support the right to information, that there are categories of information that will always require protection and will never be part of the public domain. But this only makes up for a small portion of the data that is part of government. A key issue in this regard is how to determine the criteria that will guide decisions on what data will remain classified and what will be publicly released. A change of mindset is necessary here – from a militaristic possession of information, to a more benevolent government, which treats all information as a catalyst that informs public debate and opinion.

However, the mere creation of websites of various arms of government will not help in access of information in Sri Lanka. Even if we ignore that many of these websites have very little information on policy making or on the decision making processes of tenders etc, such websites cannot be accessed my the majority of Sri Lankans, who neither have the connectivity to do so nor the language skills necessary to read and understand a webpage in English. What is needed in Sri Lanka is the right to information entrenched in every single ministry and public authority – a culture that facilitates the disclosure of information by handing out relevant information to citizens in the vernacular. The public in turn must learn to translate information into knowledge, and thereafter, how to use this knowledge to best effect.

Also alarming is the belief that the West is a tabernacle of faultless government, where FOI legislation has been passed without any hindrance. This has not been the case in the US, where many Federal authorities have been very reluctant to declassify documents despite efforts to expedite the process by former President Bill Clinton. In the UK, Tony Blair, though overtly in favour of the Freedom of Information has nevertheless made the actual application of legislation difficult. These should not be taken as excuses for Sri Lanka to be pessimistic or lackadaisical in its own legislative thrusts for the Freedom of Information. While lessons must surely be learnt from the experiences of these countries, the government must realise that there really is no alternative to the introduction and application of FOI legislation.

What the present government must also realise is that democracy is quintessentially about the adherence of government to the will of the people. This basic accountability is impossible unless the present government not only champions FOI legislation, but also commits itself to open and transparent governance. What is needed now is a spirited, informed public that creatively and constructively engages with government in policy making and a government which treats the right to information as the bedrock of good governance working together to forge a better future for Sri Lanka.

Sanjana Hattotuwa 4th February, 2002

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