Colombo, Human Rights, Media and Communications, Politics and Governance

Hawks and hypocrisy in the Rajapaksa administration

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with some editors and senior journalists recently, he was asked about the attack on the Associate Editor of the Nation. His reply was,” You know me, I didn’t care about what is written against me but other people are not like that.” One can conclude that his comments are a dead give away on who he thinks was behind the attack on Mr. Noyhar. The newspaper and many others have not shied away form pointing the finger at those who they believe are the prime suspects in this cowardly attack but as things go in Sri Lanka, there can be evidence screaming in the face of the law enforcement authorities but if the accused belong to the all powerful and mighty class of politicians or their henchmen who have become the bane of this nation, you can be sure the culprits will go scot free.

The issue of media freedom in Sri Lanka cannot be looked at in isolation and has to be discussed in the context of the present situation in the country. The government is using its “api wenuwen api” anthem to brain wash the Sinhalese to being a partner to its own brand of patriotism while it liberally sweeps aside not only media freedom and dismisses the human rights violations as if they only occur in the figment of the imagination of “treacherous elements” in the country and continues to step on all the civil liberties of the people without reserve.

Many readers will jump to the conclusion that I am “anti-government” or worse, am in the pay of some NGO or a UNP agent, a Tiger sympathizer and what not but any writer who wants to air a different view from what the government wants us to do is by now used to being labeled with all these accolades.

There have been several comments with regards to my previous article on media freedom and it is clear that there are conflicting views on the matter. There were some who feel the media needs or act “responsibly” at this time because the government is engaged in a fight against terrorism and hence anything that is perceived as being supportive of the LTTE is unacceptable and could undermine the morale of the troops. There are others who, like me, feel that the media should be allowed to play their part as the watchdog of the nation and be able to criticize and expose misdeeds that are being committed by those hiding behind the shroud of the war. It is difficult to say exactly what the majority of Sri Lankans feel about the issue of media freedom without a proper survey but the two ways of thinking I have mentioned are somewhat illustrative of how people are divided on the importance they attach to media freedom.

I have noticed that many who say the Sri Lankan media is overstepping its limits when reporting on defense matters are those how are those living in western nations, far removed from the brutality of this war and they are the loudest when crying out for a military end to the civil war. I wonder if any of these proponents of the war would dare to speak up against the rights of the media in their adopted countries or send their children to the war front.

The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa and Army Commander Sarath Fonseka are both technically US citizens as is the all powerful brother of the President Basil Rajapakse. The Foreign Secretary Palitah Kohana is meanwhile an Australian citizen. While not challenging their right to have a foreign passport which they can easily use as an escape route from this country if and when the need arises, their attempts to inflict a new brand of patriotism on Sri Lankan, or should I say the Sinhalese, is not helping the country at all. In fact their ultra nationalist views stink more of hypocrisy than when it is aired by those Sri Lankans who have no such foreign soils to escape to.

There can be very few Sri Lankan who will question the governments fight to crush terrorism. Yes terrorism needs to be crushed militarily and there are no two words about it. The LTTE has proven time and again that their blood thirsty leader will not settle for polite means to get him to the negotiating table and President Rajapaksa, unlike many of his predecessors does not want to fall into the same trap that Velupillai Prabhakaran had laid for the country’s former leaders which resulted in a worse blood bath being unlashed on the people after very pause in the fighting.

But what is wrong is with the way that the President, who obviously influenced by the hawkish members of his “kitchen Cabinet” who seem to be pulling the strings, is forgetting that in the guise of fighting terror, he can’t comprise on all the other rights of the people of this country. He is a democratically elected leader and just because he is fighting one of the world’s worst terrorists, it does not mean he also begins to act like one.

What the Rajapaksa government has managed to do in its two and half years in office is escalate ethnic tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils to such a level that we are sitting on an ethnic time bomb with the nightmarish situation of a repetition of the ugly scenes of 1983 hovering over us. On top of that corruption has grown to unprecedented levels while thuggery and lawlessness are growing rapidly. Media freedom as well as human rights are being violated openly with the violators, instead of being punished are being rewarded. This might be the “Meda Mulene” doctrine of putting down dissent and asserting ones hold on office but it is unlikely the people of this country are willing to be shacked for long. The government would do well realize this reality and restore to the people their democratic rights which they shouted from the roof tops to uphold on their way to gaining power.

  • Geethu

    I agree broadly with what you say. Further,the attitude taken seems to be that certain people and institutions are above criticism of any sort which raises worries as to the totalitarian nature of the regime. The emergency equips the government with powers that if abused (as they seem to be) result in a totalitarian state.

    The possibilty of winning the war militarily is debateable, I personally feel the governement will run out money long before the Tigers can be crushed leaving the nation in a wilderness, but this is just my opinion.

  • Thirasara

    I totally agree with what Ruwanminee says. All credit should go to HE the President for the way he has been handling the war in Sri Lanka since his election to the post. I grant you that there have been some problems with “disappearances” and “assaults” of late.

    Rather than keeping on finding fault with the Govt. or the President, I think we had better urge them consistently to take necessary measures to halt these incidents. After all, HE the President, I am sure, could put a stop to all of these if he is really going to be tough with the the perpetrators no matter who or what they are.

  • I completely agree with this article Ruwanminee’s article. In my view, the role of the media is the subject of much confusion in Sri Lanka. Harsh nationalist sentiment bred to fuel a war and detract from corrupt activity has had a big part to play in this. As the article mentions, a “for us or against us” attitude prevails and thus many who support the war and administration’s efforts in this regard…are overtly critical of any “unpatriotic” criticism.

    I really wish people put these things in context. The assumption that HE or the rest of the supposedly esteemed cabinet that run this country …are altruistic is an exercise in naivety. Take a close look at where all of them have lead us, regardless of party and politics. Is there much debate required to establish that we are an example of “power corrupts, absolutely”. With a jumbo cabinet like Sri Lanka’s, Sri Lankan bureaucracy has been propelled to the levels that Kafka and Orwell envisioned in the nightmarish worlds of their fiction.

    The media is not faultless but its independence and its ability to provide multiple sources of information is crucial to the functioning of an informed society. If it plays lip service to a government agenda, a government press office would suffice. That is also indicative of this nation becoming a police state. “HE” might claim that he cares little of public criticism but do his actions reflect that? He clearly articulates that he knows the source of all thus thuggery, of course he does! He sanctions it…look at all the bed fellows he has made over the years in his bid for power. The very man who bellowed against nepotism…

    A government truly in control and confident of their policies would have no need t fear accountability and criticism that is left field. Given that this regimes notion of human rights is warped….it’s probably pointless saying this. But it’s our right to CHOOSE what to believe. I personally don’t want someone calling me unpatriotic simply because I choose to exercise my intelligence and constantly question. We don’t live in times of a monarchy (didn’t we as a nation supposedly speak against the British monarchy a few days ago?). We live in a supposedly democratic, civil society and in such a society we are entitled to our own opinions. Is it not clear that the Govt feels threatened by this? The rallying and propagation of minds capable of critical thought? If the Govt had more resources I wouldn’t be surprised if their levels of penetration into our daily lives were far greater.

    We speak ot the LTTE’s propaganda and brain washing but what of the same in our quarters. In London our president announced that the Govt was losing the international propaganda war against the LTTE (a response to human rights violations etc etc). But the truth cannot be said at home. This government has been able to finetune our pettiness and mobilize it into an utter distraction that divides, creates fear and most tragically…dumbs down society as a whole.

    When are people going to realize that all these politicians are taking us nowhere. They fill their pockets and gain access to every resource and opportunity. For that they will use the highest level of intellect and in corruption all races unite.

  • Secularist

    Ones who are humane enough to care for those who become victims of state terror know the brutality of it. A state becoming brutal to keep its power is understandable. What is unfathomable in the present scenario is the great great majority of the people squarely condoning state terror instead of opposing it and admiring President Rajapakse for the cunning way he unleashes terror. When President Premadasa unleashed terror in 1988/89 there was resolute opposition from the parliamentary opposition, religious organizations and many other people’s organizations. Where is that opposition to-day? There is a saying that religion is the opium of masses. Well taking a cue from this saying it is reasonable for one to think that presently all people of Sri Lanka are doped with the hope of a Sinhala Buddhist hegemony in Sri Lanka justifying any crime even murder to achieve that objective. Well according to Sri Lanka’s history waging war and killing the just Tamil king Elara by king Dutugemunu is the greatest Sinhala Buddhist achievement in its 2500 years old history. It may be history repeating itself. Where ever it is practiced religious fundamentalism is brutal. Christian fundamentalism has unleashed untold violence spread over a number of years. Even today Bush is unleashing terror in the West Asia in the name of Christian fundamentalism. Muslims have unleashed their own share of violence. In the same way the root cause of unopposed state violence in Sri Lanka one could without difficulty infer as Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism.

  • The NGOs were blamed not only today. If one reads the Jathaka stories, the Kulawaka Jathaka gives a good example. In that it says when “Maghamanavaka” started community development programmes in villages, using Shramadana concept, the Ministers were scared that he will be popular among the masses and they will loose their positions. So the Ministers approached the King and convinced him that Maghamanavaka and his followers are rogues that rob poor villagers. He was caught and about to be punished when the King discovered that they are pious people who do community development and they followed Pancha seela priciples. The King freed them and the Ministers were Jailed! This happened in a previous birth of the Buddha. So long ago……Fortunately for them there was a righteous king!

    It is the impartial and correct action that matters.

    “All That We Are Is The Result Of What We Have Thought” – Buddha ( 500 AD )

  • I broadly agree with you. But what about Tamil radicalism? Surely you can’t talk about one without the other. In essence, to put it rather simplistically…one feeds off another…

  • Well said Secularist…

  • Shanil

    When the oppressed fight for their rights it is not “radicalism”. You write so much about every one being taken for a ride but. you yourself have been definitely taken for a comfortable ride to believe that seeking self rule in the North East is “Tamil radicalism” !!

    One can understand when the oppressed get angry against the oppressor. Why are the Sinhalese angry against Tamils from 1958, from a time when they were not even using any arms for resistance. Sinhalese are not oppressed by the Tamils but the anger is coming out of racism and with the intent to exterminate a people. The evil tendency Adolf Hitler had. To this day this evil exists.

    The reason why MR feels shaken when the truth is published is because racism would fade away when the truth about Tamil grievances and self rule are explained to the Sinhalese. MR wants chauvinism to exist in order to make his war machinery move and Tamil genocide to be accomplished.This is also the reason for frequent terror threats to journalists and the NGO’s, making Sri lanka the second most dangerous country for journalists in the world next to Iraq.

    The anti Tamil occurences from 1958 to date suggest that there are two nations in the country. They must have their separate governments and self rule. Otherwise, even you will be asked the question “Sinhalada” when you go to a police station. They will try to ascertain as to whether you are from Sinhala country or from the Tamil country of the island !!

  • Don Camillo

    Well said Shanil.
    Ruwanminee, I agree with your article in part – however to I think it is fair to say that neither the government (previous regimes included) or the LTTE have been sincere in the quest for a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict. It would make an entertaining read if someone would care to make the case for past or present GOSL sincerity. 😉 My apologies however for digressing.

    As far as the state terrorizing of the media and its irrational intolerance of the expression of diverse views is concerned, the GOSL has clearly sought to take a page from the LTTE handbook (i.e. their consistent repression of Tamil voices other than their own and the elimination of Tamil intellectuals and moderates). Perhaps some might see the sense in this ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ government strategy for crushing the LTTE, but I urge those who feel this way to consider two things:
    (a) The GOSL vision is solidly based on the amount of money its leaders can squirrel away before the next election (or the total collapse of government) – to them the war is a distraction. To the LTTE it was about the fight for a separate state and now it is just about the fight.
    (b) Once the wealth of Sri Lanka has been siphoned off into sustaining the war and filling individual coffers, living under a regime that is as suppressive and tyrannical as the current GOSL will make life in Colombo just about as much fun as life (cowering in a bunker during indiscriminate air raids) in Killinochchi.

  • Justin,

    When these grievances are addressed through terrorism, it IS very much radicalism. By that same rationale, many terrorist factions in the world aren’t really terrorists but freedom fights. I do not disagree that the central blame lies with the successive Sri Lankan governments…in fact the problem is stitched into the fabric of its politics.

    I just don’t agree with it being a justification for the horrendous acts that the LTTE engages in. Even against their own people..something I have personally witnessed. Yes they are oppressed and yes their rights need to be addressed but I see this terrorist struggle (because that is what it is….) is and continues to fuel a battle that will never end. You make mention of all the atrocities of the government, point taken. What of the hundreds, nay thousands of innocents killed by the LTTE? yes they may be arguably ignorant, they too might be duped into swallowing prejudiced “nationalist” agendas. But does that justify the taking of their lives from them? To argue that one life is more valuable than another…

    It may come across that I am taking sides but the truth is i’m on neither. I am against an armed struggle by either side and in my view nothing justifies terror on either side. All i’m saying is you can’t naively call one a struggle against oppression when the efforts of that group fuel oppression on the other end (attacks on civilians in the south further consolidate the war effort)…there is also clear evidence that the LTTE oppresses its own people. How is that in any way noble or justifiable.

    My point was not to justify anything the Govt has done but to acknowledge that the LTTE too…is a propagator of terror. To say “its because we are oppressed” and “we tried peaceful solutions” so now it’s up to terrorism….think hard about what kind of hypocrisy that presents. Terrorism perpetually weakens the cause in reality.

    Call me a hopeless idealist but rights won at either end of a gun are not rights at all. It’s a very contradiction of the spirit of human rights and dignity.

  • ordinary lankan

    To overlook the way violence – (and here I mean violence including deception because you cannot use violence without deceiving yourself that the victim of violence is somehow separate from you ) is mastered and used in a feudal system – to overlook the fact that we are also part of that system is to fail in our basic duty of understanding what violence is.

    Do you think you can defeat violence like this by ranting against people who seem to have mastered an art – however dastardly? To them people who simply use the staright bat and oxford English and use the rigid logic off human rights and right and wrong is not even worth a glance. These people actually blame others and not themselves – and blame keeps the whole game running forever.

    Can you see how this keeps happening? But the moment someone says – look this is my fault – I also have a responsibility here and henceforth that will be the centre of my attention – not what others say or do – then you stop playing the game defined by others. then you play your own game ……

    in short you cannot meet violence effectively until you work at and tread the path of non-violence 100%. When I say 100% it means 100% effort not 100% perfection. So start listening – to your own hearts

    stop this meaningless self indulgent and egoistic chatter