How Decent a Society are we?

Editors’ note: This article was first published in the Daily Mirror on the 18th of March 2011. Groundviews invites its readers for further discussion and debate.

Avishai Margalit the Israeli philosopher wrote a treatise on the Decent Society from which I have quoted often. In it he defines a civilized society as one in which people do not humiliate each other and a decent society as one in which institutions do not humiliate people.  My reason for frequently citing this is that throughout the yet to be resolved conflict in Sri Lanka and in parts of the country that were not direct theatres of armed conflict, issues of human dignity and decency abounded and yet do so be it on the basis of ethnicity, religion, class and dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy.  Now as we are faced with the challenge of moving beyond the post-war to the post-conflict and with it an unprecedented opportunity to forge reconciliation and unity, Margalit’s treatise assumes a crucial importance and pertinence.

In response to international and national criticism of the inability and/or unwillingness on the one hand or the tardiness and lack of priority on the other to commence this process of reconciliation and unity, the regime points to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as proof of its commitment to effect reconciliation and unity.   The shortcomings of the LLRC process apart, there are incidents that continue, are allowed to continue or are committed, that fly in the face of the declared commitment to reconcile and unite and which negate the spirit and raison d’etre of the LLRC.  Moreover, attesting to and augmenting the cancer of impunity, nothing is done to prevent, deter and punish these acts of hate, of hurt and of harm.

The controversy over the national anthem is one.  As reported, the rank ignorance and prejudice as well as the servility and silence of those who do know better that was paraded at the cabinet meeting which addressed the issue notwithstanding, the Deputy Director of Education in Jaffna who spoke out on the issue was murdered in cold blood on Boxing Day.  More recently, the cremation site of the mother of Vellupillai Prabhakaran was desecrated with the carcasses of three dogs. This egregious insult and repudiation of out millennia of civilization and of the great religions that are practiced in this country was barely reported in the non-Tamil media.

The headquarters of the Army in Jaffna is to be relocated to the LTTE War Memorial in Kopay. The debate, such as there is on this issue is on the web. It is littered with arguments about whether LTTE cadre were actually buried in the grounds, the LTTE being beyond the pale, the legality of the LTTE”s use of the land in the first place and Allied treatment of Nazi memorials.  What is missing is the simple issue of the families of slain LTTE cadre treating the memorial as a space to remember and to mourn their loved ones, and the surely obvious question as to what this represents in terms of a demonstrable commitment to reconcile and unite?

It also begs the question of as to whether the denizens of the LLRC should take up these issues and remonstrate with the regime that incidents such as these – and there are many others which go unreported because of the fear of the victims and the fear and apathy of the media – undermine their work, impede reconciliation and send out the message that lessons are not being learned.

There is also a new Human Rights Commission, an institution one would expect to turn to in these circumstances.  It is the first of its kind post 18th Amendment and therefore sadly not one in accordance with the international standard of the Paris Principles pertaining to such commissions or one that could reverse the demotion of our national Human Rights Commission by the international coordinating committee for such bodies.  The collective expertise in human rights and record of the members of the commission may not be helpful in this respect, either.  Will they, can they, speak out and act to protect human rights in this country?  Will they, can they, speak out and act against such acts and ensure that the National Human Rights Action Plan will deter and deal with, acts of this nature?

All these nasty things- hurtful, hateful and harmful – stand. The hurt and harm and hate that spawned them unchecked become integral elements of public standards, ethics, morals, culture and sensibilities or yet more egregious examples of the lack of them.  Anything goes as long as it is does not contest but uphold triumphalism and majoritarianism in praise of the dynasty and its consolidation power.

Consider for example the Prime Minister’s remarks in the parliamentary debate on the extension of the Emergency.  Leave aside the farcical explanations of the source of his information, the message seems to be that the reason for extending the Emergency is that the LTTE though defeated is still around and still around as a security threat. The victory celebrations that we’ve had have clearly been premature and of the wishful thinking variety.  It seems that the LTTE will be around as long as the Rajapakshas are and with them the Emergency as the standard operating procedure for regime security.

Consider the report about the political appointments to the Foreign Service.  Those being appointed are friends and relations of the regime and with, on all accounts, little or no particular educational attainment or experience befitting a member of a once proud and professional service. It is indeed a national tragedy that the highly educated minister appears to be presiding over the disintegration of our foreign service.  With these appointments along with a pet Poo-Bah to oversee the ministry and the sidelining of the service professionals by the Bells and Bates’, Pottingers and Potts at lavish cost and little success, our foreign policy has been reduced to knee-jerk jingoistic reaction, ill-informed, indiscreet statement in the interests of self-preservation and some bordering at times on paranoia.

Indeed we are at a point at which in any healthy, vibrant functioning democracy both the prime minister and the foreign minister would have had to go, nay, would have gone them-selves without prompting because their position in office was untenable.

Not at this court; not in this country.  Perhaps it is the case that under this dispensation and equality of sorts applies. Margalit’s point about humiliation holds for citizens, be they average, ordinary or extraordinary. Be they even ministers.

 

  • eeurekaa

    Decency in our current society is very much influenced by the decency of the leaders/rulers of the last six decades since independence – they impart an idea of decency in the minds of the children grwoing up to be farmers, fishermen, carpenters, builders, market stallholders, teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, technical persons of all sorts, administrators and parliamentarians, ie. the conceptual ecology of the society. The conceptual ecology of the society keeps changing with the changing interactions between the various players who are also affected by the changing conceptual ecology of those outside the country in the wider world.

  • eeurekaa

    Emergency ’58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots, Tarzi Vittachi(195):

    When a government, however popular, begins to pander to racial or religious emotionalism merely because it is the loudest of the raucous demands made on it, and then meddles in the administration and enforcement of law and order for the benefit of its favourites or to win the plaudits of a crowd, however hysterical it may be, catastrophe is certain.

    At the risk of losing the monumental support of the anti-Muslim Congress sympathisers, Mahatma Gandhi once said: ”No cabinet worthy of being representative of a large mass of mankind can afford to take any step merely because it is likely to win the hasty applause of an unthinking public. In the midst of sanity, should not our best representatives retain sanity and bravely prevent a wreck of the ship of state under their care?”

    Can anyone doubt that if this glorious principle of statesmanship had been applied in Ceylon the bloodbath of 1958 could have been avoided?

    The GalOya race-killings of 1956 and the ugly episode of Little Rock in 1957 should have warned us that the Fifth Horseman took no notice of time, place, literacy or standard of living.
    But these episodes did not wake us up in time. It couldn’t possibly happen here. ……
    It couldn’t happen in Ceylon. That is what we all thought………
    It couldn’t happen here. ………
    So it couldn’t happen here. But it has happened……

    The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse rode into Ceylon in May 1958, without fuss or warning. No one recognised the hoof beats on the dusty provincial roads where they were first heard. People knew about War, Pestilence, Famine and Flood – these were disasters they accepted as part of their human heritage…………….
    Slight though our acquaintance with these disasters was, it was still acquaintance. But for most people in 1958 the Fifth Horseman – Race-Hate – was hardly even that. We had heard about the attempts of the Australian settlers to decimate the Aborigines ….; … the Red Indians had been corralled into reservations; …..the Nazi gas chambers, Buchenwals and Belsen: and the tribulations of the Jews ……; Hindu-Muslim massacres in the partition of India. ….

    What are we left with (in 1958)? A nation in ruins, some grim lessons which we cannot afford to forget and a momentous question: Have the Sinhalese and Tamils reached the parting of ways?”

    (The manuscript of the book was smuggled out of SriLanka and printed in the UK and the book was banned in Sri lanka. The following year Tarzi received the Magsaysay Award for the book).

  • Out of the Almirah

    Eeurekaa,

    How decent were the people of Sri Lanka – Ceylon- six decades ago? Did the rulers work for the betterment of the people prior to “independence”? Did our ancestors have equal rights then?

    Rulers and terrorists leaders are a product of society. They didn’t just magically appear from the sky. They are in no position to show us right from wrong when they too were shaped by the very values that we all cling to without question. If we are not decent, our rulers are going to reflect that. We can conveniently sit in judgment, but the onus is on the individual to change existing patterns of behavior. Self-responsibility and civic-mindedness goes a long way. On a positive note, one civic-minded act was that people bought Tarzi Vittachi’s Emergency ’58 when it was first published. I know this as a fact because my father, like his friends, bought the book, and it was widely circulated.

    One more thing, how do you apply ‘conceptual ecology’ to what is being discussed here?

  • eeurekaa

    ”Did the rulers work for the betterment of the people prior to “independence”? Did our ancestors have equal rights then?”

    We can go far only so much. End of WWII and beginning of UN Charter are a rough guide for the present Global Community and coincides with our ”independence” from external colonialism.

    I don’t have to repeat here and now what has been discussed zillion times in this website and a multitude of other websites what has been happening since 1948. The product of that is our present conceptual ecology that is so detrimental to the ethnic minorities without any resentment of sorts among the majority in the ethnic majority. The minority among the ethnic majority has a very limited room for manouvering and yet they are the people who can do something by primarily changing the education in formal and informal places. That hopefully changes the present conceptual ecology so that it demands fairness for ALL.

    • Out of the Almirah

      Eeurekka,

      It took a while for your comment to sink in.

      Won’t the current conceptual ecology take a turn for the worst when the ethnic majority really starts behaving like a majority so that the minority in the ethnic majority is made to feel like an ethnic minority that is perpetually persecuted? That is the problem with the ethnic majority; they make a simple thing unnecessarily complex. Hope the ethnic minority of the ethnic majority will affect change in the conceptual ecology so that the minority in the ethnic majority and the ethnic minority will be able to challenge the dominance of the majority in the ethnic majority.

  • TT

    SL society is a decent society when compared against developed and devloping countries. Of course there are short-comings. Execution of the Couter Insurgency operations should not in any way make the country “indecent”. In fact it makes it all the more decent! These must continue.

    Political appointments are diplorable. There can be no justification of these.

    Implementation of law and order has been poor (not very uncommon compared to many other countries though, especially LDCs).

    3 colonial rules, 2 insurgencies, 1 war of 26 years, a foreign military involvement (1987-90), a number of rioting incidents, 2 genocides (Sinhalese and Muslims were totally genocide from the districts of Jaffna, Mulaitivu, Kilinochchi, etc.) have contributed a lot to the residue indecency in the society.

    The game of constitution making is another problem. I personally prefer SL going back to the 1947 constitution which in the view of many is the most democratic of all constitutions this country had. Any better constitution is an illusion.

    • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

      TT, we’re still waiting for you to provide even one piece of evidence to prove that your fantasy genocide of Sinhalese and Muslims took place. Since you’ve been unable to do so for over a month now in spite of repeated requests, I think it’s pretty clear that no such event occurred.

  • TT

    Talking of riots, etc…

    Unfortunately the north has a long history of rioting before any riots anywhere else. And caste and race intolerance.

    1847: Arumuka Navalar (1822-1879) leaves Jaffna Central School because of the admission of a low-caste (Nalavar) boy by Peter Percival.

    1871: Caste riots between Vellalar, dhobies and barbers in Mavittappuram, because the dhobies refuse to wash the barbers’ clothes. Vellalar are blamed for the conflagration.

    1915 riots – 44 years after this. 1958 riots – 87 years after this.

    1876: During a famine in Jaffna Arumuka Navalar helps with collecting and distributing food to starving Vellalar only.

    1907: In an article for a British publication P. Arunachalam defends the caste system as benevolent and necesssary.

    1908/ 1910/ 1912: During ‘Durbars of Tamil Chiefs in Jaffna and Batticaloa’ the British governor is told that the inhabitants of the two districts are not interested in the ‘Settlement of the Vanni’, though the latter was of the opinion that the Tamils had the right of first refusal in this area. Tamils do not want to go into the Vanni because of the unhealthy climate, but they do not want to admit Sinhalese or Indians there either.

    1923 (16th Sept.): P. Arunachalam founds the Ceylon Tamil League (Ilankai Tamil makkal cankam) to ssafeguard Tamil Culture in the Tamilakam (Arunachalam’s speech in the ‘Morning Leader’ of that date). In a caste revolt in Sutumalai Vellalar attack Paramba who had hired drummers for a funeral.

    1929: Catholics from Mannar complain to the Donoughmore Commission about caste repression and injustice and demand to be acknowledged as an ‘ethnic’ minority. Protestant Tamils denounce the move.

    • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

      But your list has only two riots in it, TT; hardly a long list of riots as you pretend. And of those two, the 1915 riots were by Sinhalese against the hapless Muslims. So in fact you’re able to show just one solitary riot instigated by Tamils, and that too was against other Tamils. Whereas the Sinhalese have regularly rioted against the foreign colonisers as well as minorities.

  • Rodger

    So much(independent strands of religions, literature, customs, etc which did and didn’t care for ”others”) have been happening for millennia around the world. But for the world(and member countries) reeling under huge problems presently UN, its instruments and International Law(and some other instruments developed by some organisations and individuals)have come to be accepted as a rough guidance to solve problems.
    Humanist societies are growing(to me they need to grow much faster)- more and more people have been exposed to different religions and find that they are nearly about the same in their cores and thus adopting humanism.
    Let’s talk about the positive recommendations in LLRC submissions and take them forward.

  • rodger

    We are as decent as the ”Database Debacle” in: http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/2044

  • luxmy

    Banda-Chelva pact and Dudley-Chelva pact couldn’t take off the ground.

    But for a government to tell the other side(TNA) of the ”talks” to go and look up the database of a government department instead of publishing it ??

    For the department to tell the desperate families that it’s the gimmick of TNA ??

    Isn’t it the gimmick of the government ??

    What on earth is going on in this country ??

    Can we go and ask any government department to show us their database ??

    Are these the dimensions of our decency with Buddha statue under every known Bo tree ??

    http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/2044

  • silva

    ”The game of constitution making is another problem. … Any better constitution is an illusion”

    Not so. Don’t despair.

    Now that we’re here, there are options:

    http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/Justice__C_G_Weeramantry_-_29.11.2010.pdf

  • silva

    Not only politicians and educators but also the legal profession has a very important role to play.

  • silva

    Who is to bell the cat?
    Now that Justice Weeramantry has spelt out so much, why is the legal profession waiting? The rest of the society has a responsibility to ward them off from white vans – NOT AT ALL a joke.

    Talking about the ineffectiveness of the Commonwealth and the UN, some have been speaking of the responsibility of the civil society on the international arena.

    Tamils including the TNA have the least protection against the government ”squads”.

    Hope Justice Weeramantry is prodding/pushing/pulling the legal profession behind the scenes.

  • ward

    my children and their friends have found a few Bo trees on their nature trek – they do’t yet have the protection of ”Oral Buddhism” (as opposed to Moral Buddhism).

    i don’t mean it’s a joke.

    i’m calling all to support ‘Religious Studies’(studying the main features of several religions) as opposed to anyone religion in secondary schools (let the individual religions take care of their particular religion on weekends if they wish) – i’m told many countries have begun to do so.

    In the hope of increasing our decency.

  • ward

    as TT is a very active citizen, it may benefit the society if s/he departs pre-WWII era and concentrate on post-WWII era.

  • silva

    ”it may benefit the society if s/he departs pre-WWII era and concentrate on post-WWII era” reminds me of :

    http://transcurrents.com/tc/2010/08/outline_of_submission_made_to.html
    ”The lessons we have to learn go back to the past – certainly from the time that we had responsibility for our own governance on 4 February 1948.”

  • Davidson

    How decent a Society are we??

    As decent as telling ICRC to close down offices in the North and to operate from Colombo when thousands of people need artificial limbs, etc.

    http://transcurrents.com/tc/2011/03/we_strongly_believe_there_is_s.html#more
    ”In November 2010, the Sri Lankan government asked the ICRC to close its offices in Jaffna and Vavuniya and to conduct its operations exclusively from Colombo ……..
    ……………….

    People who have lost limbs will of course require artificial limbs for the rest of their lives. The ICRC will continue to support the Jaffna Jaipur Centre for Disability Rehabilitation until 2014. The centre is looking after about 2000 people, mainly in the Jaffna Peninsula.
    ………..
    ……………….”

  • Davidson

    How decent are we????
    We ”devolve” power and then pass legislation to curtail it !!

    http://www.southasianmedia.net/cnn.cfm?id=672603&category=civil%20society&Country=SRI%20LANKA
    Perspectives of devolution evaluated, 20 January 2011:
    A publication of the Institute for Constitutional Studies, ‘Twenty Two Years of Devolution – An Evaluation of the Working of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka’, launched on 21 December 2010: Sri Lanka certain powers have been devolved to the provincial councils, but the Central Government curtails those powers by enacting its own legislation and also by way of Cabinet decisions in the guise of making National Policy.

  • eeurekaa

    We are as decent as:

    http://groundviews.org/2011/03/17/jaffna-and-the-vanni-today-the-reality-beneath-the-rhetoric/
    The paradoxically named Civil Affairs Office (CAO), which is ‘manned’ by the military, is the best example of the entrenched presence and participation of the military in civil affairs in the North. Created during the period when residents of the peninsula had to obtain passes to travel to the South, this office has now morphed into a one-stop monitoring and surveillance unit of the army. For instance, all those who were held at the ‘rehabilitation’ centres are now being asked to register with the CAO and then report back to sign in every week, fortnightly or monthly, depending on the edict of the local commander, which is not based on any law or regulation.

  • VG

    What decency are we left with when we are like this to our fellow beings?
    http://groundviews.org/2011/03/17/jaffna-and-the-vanni-today-the-reality-beneath-the-rhetoric/
    The dictates of the army seem to run far deeper in the Vanni with excessive scrutiny and surveillance, not only of community and non-governmental organisations, but also of any gathering of more than a handful of people. For instance, every inhabitant of the Vanni knows that the local SLA office/post has to be informed even if a handful of persons wish to gather to discuss a neighbourhood issue. In some cases the military personnel attend these events and observe the proceedings. Without denying the need to ensure beneficiaries are chosen from amongst the most vulnerable and needy, or that corruption is prevented, one fails to understand how the involvement of the military in this process can be justified in a ‘democratic’ country that is no longer at war.

  • VG

    It isn’t decent to tell that you aren’t aware of what’s going on in the country, esp. after adopting the 18A:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2011/03/110328_media_jaffna.shtml
    President questions blocking media from north, 28 March 2011

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2011/03/110328_vasu_boossa.shtml
    Govt ‘not aware’ of LTTE detainees

  • VG

    It is not decent to imply that the conflict started with the emergence of LTTE:
    http://www.ices.lk/futuresec.shtml
    Dr. Deepika Udagama(former Head of Department, Faculty of Law, University of Colombo): ”…. Now that the armed conflict is over there is a need to heal the wounds between the different ethnic groups who have suffered as a result of it for 30 years. ….”

    How can we solve the problem if the cause is not known?

    We would not be talking about healthy food but would be gobbling up multivitamin tablets all our life?

  • sr

    How decent are we in choosing a narrow view on a ’roundtable’ in:

    http://www.ices.lk/futuresec.shtml
    Future Security & Implications of the PTA/ERs in Post-War Sri Lanka

    Dr Gunaratne and Dr Jayasekare, the two main speakers concentrated on the LTTE. They didn’t discuss what the government has been doing and what has been going on in the country. Dr Udagama counteracted them partially.

    Internationally the idea of human security has taken the central position previously held by state security, the result of a great deal of research.

  • roger

    How decent are we if we cannot post the written submissions on the website of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission? From the Q&As in oral submissions it can be seen that there are very important points raised in the written submissions.

    Sharing the written submissions will very likely increase the constituency of understanding and recociliation among the population.

    Aren’t we looking for all to move in that direction?

    We also know that it is an extremely slow process in post-independence Sri Lanka. The written submissions are a new source of strength to move in that direction.

  • roger

    Dear all

    We are not decent enough if we don’t give as much publicity as possible:

    http://transcurrents.com/tc/2011/03/friday_forum_deeply_concened_a.html#comments
    Friday Forum deeply concened about recent appointments to Human Rights Commission

  • eureka

    many very decent retired diplomats who gave oral submissions referred to their written submissions. it would be a great pity if the people don’t know the full texts which can be of great use to those persuing peace studies and other courses. all categories of people will gain by it.

  • luxmy

    Dear LLRC Commissioners
    Increase your decency. If the written submissions are put out on LLRC website, it will contribute towards slowly changing the peace consitutency in the South which is the most crucial factor in resolving the conflict.