Groundviews

Lessons from a TV interview on the state of political resistance in Sri Lanka

These are revolutionary days, days of resistance. Especially in Egypt. Not in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the situation is different; the general practice, nowadays, is to hold placards with ‘SHAME’ written on them. Seeing such placards, however, cause confusion in our minds; because ‘SHAME’ seems to be encapsulating one of the principal feelings that runs through us when we think of the Government, and of those holding the placards as well. Therein lies the problem.

A Killing  

The brutal assassination of Baratha Lakshman Premachandra was a most unfortunate incident. The manner in which the relevant authorities initially handled the investigation was deplorable. His daughter, Hirunika Premachandra, has led the campaign which is aimed at raising greater awareness of her father’s brutal killing, exposing the politician who is alleged to be involved in the planning and execution of the killing. One sincerely hopes that Hirunika’s desire of seeing the law being properly enforced is realized, especially so after watching her interview with Sirasa-TV’s Kingsley Ratnayaka.

Support

She deserves support. She deserves encouragement. Just like any other movement or party which is genuinely interested in improving the situation within the country. But the question is: what sort of support? Surely, it’s not the kind of support which exaggerates the impact of what has been said or done. The effort should be recognized, acknowledged. But exaggeration or celebration should be avoided: not only because it exposes our own sad state, but also because such support doesn’t do good to those who are being supported. And it needs to be borne in mind that these are not personal issues, they are of national significance as well. If then, far more seriousness in the matter of acknowledgment is demanded.

An interview and the reaction

Let’s take the Hirunika-interview as an example.

That Hirunika felt the need to address a larger audience is understandable, and is indeed appreciated. Yet, given the nature of the killing, given the accusations that had been leveled against many people and politicians concerning the killing and given the wider implications of that dastardly act which has a grave impact, not only on our political culture but also the law and order situation within the country, and given the statements she had made to the press ever since her father’s killing, it was somewhat unsurprising to see Hirunika taking the extra step of addressing a larger audience. It was not the first time one saw her, nor the first time one heard about what she had to say.

But in addition to that, what is interesting here is not what was said by Hirunika during the interview. Rather, what has been most interesting, even entertaining, is the reaction and the manner in which the interview was received by the audience.

So what do observers, commentators and well-wishers say about this interview? Some say it was an interview which exposed the true character of Lankan society and/or its law and order situation under the Rajapaksa-regime; i.e., it exposed the real faces behind the killing, their nefarious background. They say that a most influential part of this political system consists of the corrupt, drug-dealing, murderous elements, etc. Some say that it was this interview which pushed the judiciary into issuing an arrest warrant against MP Duminda Silva. Some others say Hirunika’s was a damning critique of Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, as there was a pointed and critical reference made to the latter during the course of the interview. An interview, in short, which deserves applause and celebration.

Hirunika, undoubtedly, reflected the anger of some elements of the youth population within the country. It is an anger which has been growing for quite some time (or so, we like to think). Also, her decision to come before the media did represent, to some extent, the courage and determination, that passion, of the youth for forthright, critical, engagement. Furthermore, there’s no problem in applauding and celebrating. But we are dealing with an issue of national significance. A bit more seriousness in our assessment is expected.

Nothing new

Sadly, and contrary to (perhaps) popular perception, the interview did not tell us anything that we did not know. Nothing at all (except for the fact that Hirunika still has trust in MP Basil Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the Chief Justice).

Firstly, the interview did nothing new in terms of exposing the true state of the law and order situation in the country – since what Hirunika said was understood and well known for quite a long time (in fact, it was she who pointed out during the interview that her father’s killing was not the first such political killing or that it wasn’t the first time that a case had not been properly investigated). Secondly, it is rather sad if we are to seriously think that the interview had a significant impact on what happened in Court, for a number of reasons: on the one hand, it is amusing to imagine that a judge woke up from his slumber one fine day, watched the interview, realized what was happening, and decided to issue an arrest warrant; on the other hand, if we are to believe such a scenario, it tells us much about the pathetic level to which our law and order situation in the country has dropped (Note: this is not to say that the warrant is unimportant. Issuing the warrant was a most welcome development. But let’s consider the seriousness of the deeper problem we fail to acknowledge when attempting to argue that the warrant came about as a consequence of the interview).

Thirdly, while it initially appears that a pointed and critical reference to the Defence Secretary amounts to a bold and damning critique, what was said about the Defence Secretary was not what many may have wanted (and expected) Hirunika to say. Her complaint concerned the Defence Secretary’s statement about the necessity of getting the support of politicians irrespective of the politician’s background. Rather, what many people perhaps expected from Hirunika, but that which was not stated by her, was this: that the Defence Secretary was clearly involved in protecting Duminda Silva! Now, that would have been a damning critique. Whether she believes that to be the case, one does not know. Whether she has evidence to substantiate such an argument, we do not know. But the fact remains that the criticism made by Hirunika was not something which the regime would consider as overtly threatening or damning.

Lessons

If then, what does Hirunika’s interview tell us?

In the final analysis, it did not reveal much. Rather, it was the reaction to the interview (almost jubilant in certain quarters) which revealed that even the re-stating of the obvious, as Hirunika did, is considered to be an act of great resistance in the mind of Sri Lankans in particular. Why? Because the kind of resistance coming from the political parties seems hopelessly inadequate and puerile. Where one hopes to see hope there is hopelessness. Where one expects to see some certainty there is uncertainty. Intra-party bickering and squabbling continue unabated. Looking at all this, we, the poor and helpless, leap, embrace and celebrate as resistance and critique that which merely highlights and reaffirms what is known and what is understood.

Does this mean that Hirunika’s recent intervention is insignificant? Not necessarily, but one might need to hasten to add that in the larger scheme of things, it is most likely to end up as something insignificant – or as an event which was not as significant as one would have liked it to be. Why: because time passes, and things are in a constant flux. Like the following:

Firstly, no sooner the interview gained popularity, there came the news that a warrant was issued against MP Silva. We imagined that it was the interview that did it, but we never imagined that this could have been what the Government was secretly expecting. And if we think that the warrant seriously hampers the return of Silva, we need to think a bit more on the following lines: that it is precisely this arrest warrant that enables the Government (which might, by now, consider Silva to be a political burden) to put the blame on the judiciary, if in case Silva complains (confidentially) about his inability to return. What happens in the future is to be seen, but at present, all parties seem to have won. What seems to be the case at the moment is this: the judiciary appears independent, the Premachandra family is somewhat satisfied, the Government has got rid of Silva, and Silva is, for the moment, safe in Singapore.

Secondly, where does the Hirunika-interview stand in the context of what happened in Parliament a few days ago, in front of the President’s own eyes? Would an interview condemning the action of the MPs of the ruling party simply do the trick? The Hirunika-interview pales into insignificance when compared with the broader lawlessness that the legislators seem to be exhibiting before the President as well as what needs to be done to prevent our confidence in the legislature from taking a serious nose-dive (that is only if it has not happened, already).

What sort of resistance?

There is then a broader question too: What sort of ‘resistance’ would have any impact? The answer is unclear. The Opposition (the UNP and the JVP in particular), for instance, talks constantly about the Tahrir Square (where revolution strikes twice), but cannot get a few thousands to Sri Lanka’s own Lipton Square. And what is far more serious is this: for a fleeting moment, we seemed to have thought that the Hirunika-interview was of greater impact than the entire Opposition put together. While later developments showed this was not so, that very thought tells us what we consider to be resistance today, and there’s nothing much these political parties can do about it (and it is perhaps well to remember here, that the only significant impact in terms of resistance came in recent times not from Hirunika or any other individual, but perhaps from the University teachers).

The point is quite simple here. If one is not serious about it, one can and should avoid the language of resistance. If one is serious, then let there be a serious discussion about what those forms of resistance are, or ought to be. And that obsession about regime-change should be put to rest a bit, too; especially because any movement or party needs to be honest about its abilities too.

For the moment, there is some helplessness. Little acts of resistance, let there be no doubt, are important. But celebrating little acts of resistance does not further the cause of political resistance and critical engagement at a national level, especially under current circumstances. It only causes amusement. That’s what our own reaction to the Hirunika-interview should teach us before long.