Negating that which negates us: In support of democratic dialogue

Photo courtesy Sri Lanka Guardian

Hundreds are embarking on a perilous journey across the seas just so they can leave the country.

Asylum seekers, refugees: words relegated to the times of combat and conflict, have resurfaced, even though these are peaceful times. It might actually be fair to say that these words never resurfaced; instead, they have been here all along, floating under the radar of mainstream dialogue, only to be revived as issues of national importance when they became too big to ignore.

Missing: people are going missing.

White van: What may seem like an innocuous phrase in other parts of the world, comes with sinister connotations in a country where too many people have gone missing for us to be able to dismiss their disappearances as rare occurrences.

American speak”: Journalists are now subject to ‘American’ speak, based on the firm conviction that if Americans use inappropriate words to address people, then so can Sri Lankans.

Media freedom: Rankings on media freedom are appalling. Internet censorship, supposedly to prevent defamatory and baseless critiques of the government, is merely a tool to stifle free speech. With the proposed registration fees for news websites, media will become an elite tool restricted to a few who win the favours of government bureaucracy.

This is the Sri Lankan reality.

As the international community speaks about Sri Lanka’s descent into dictatorship, it is important for a local, homegrown dialogue to be fostered. A dialogue that cannot be tainted by accusations of neocolonialist or imperialist tendencies, but rather a dialogue that arises out of the frustration and repression of the citizenry. While recognizing the monumental importance of the end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, it is also important to recognize that we cannot forever live in the shadow of that victory, only to wake up to find ourselves firmly steeped in dictatorship because we were too busy celebrating to notice the grip of repression tightening around us. We must not fail to notice that the same tensions that caused the war have not in fact disappeared, but are very pressing issues that are likely to be revived.

And when that revival does happen, we will realize that we are ill-equipped to fight it, what with people fleeing the country, activists and progressive thinkers missing or in self-imposed exile, and media outlets, often instrumental in promoting democracy, silenced by strict, and often unjust laws.

It is a homegrown dialogue that will ensure that the majority actually claims the power owed to the majority. And majority here does not mean Sinhala or Buddhist, male or middle class, but it refers to the people who are, for a variety of reasons, dissatisfied with the status quo: people engaged in various and varied struggles, but whose solidarity strengthens them and makes them the majority, to borrow a leaf from the 99% rhetoric of the Occupy Movement. There are many issues that Sri Lanka is riddled with right now, and facing each of them in a public forum will ensure that it is not an elite few who are controlling the course of events.

What is needed right now, more than anything else, is a loud call for accountability.  A representative government, even if it is not responsible for every individual kidnapping, or assassination, as it often reminds us, is still responsible for maintaining law and order in a country. One of the key tenets of a sovereign state is the ability of its government to maintain a monopoly over the means of violence. Therefore, if there is some extra-governmental force out there, exercising violence and torture to kidnap people, then the government is clearly not maintaining a monopoly on the means of violence, which reduces its credibility, and this in itself should be reason enough for Sri Lankans to call for change. Now that the country is no longer engaging in asymmetric warfare with the LTTE or any other separatist groups, it is in a better position to use institutions such as the judicial system to ensure that those who have been wronged will receive justice. Just the potential of change is amazing. The prospect of a secure and stable environment where no one has to self-regulate their freedom of expression, where people are held responsible to a just legal system, is strong enough to serve as motivation to resist a regime that is perpetuating oppression.

The lack of accountability that is manifesting itself in Sri Lankan society right now is making rhetoric, and not factual evidence, the basis on which decisions are made. An example of this is the storming of the Dambulla mosque in April this year. While the excuse of the perpetrators was that the mosque was not legally permitted to be in its location, the whole event can be viewed as nothing but an attack on another religion. Even though this incident did not reach the magnitude of the Babri Masjid destruction of 1992 in Ayodhya, India, one can draw many parallels between the two incidents, and the emergence of right-wing Hindu nationalism in India should serve as a chilling warning against the development of right-wing Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The public outrage against the Dambulla incident stemmed from a sense of disbelief and incredulity at the violence, at the fact that a few people were claiming to act on behalf of one religion to defame another. The most important issue arising from the evidence was that a hateful act was committed against not just every Muslim who was associated with the mosque, but also against all the Muslims of Sri Lanka, and all the peace-loving Buddhists of the country. In the post-event rhetoric however, this defamation of inalienable rights was turned into an issue of legality. A group of voices criticized the authorities of the mosque for setting it up in a place on illegal grounds, suggesting that this supposed defiance of the law warranted the event that happened in April.

But what needed to happen was a legal resolution to the problem. If in fact the mosque is not legally permitted to be in its specific location, then the method to counter that is not to storm it and destroy it. There are lawmakers and law-defenders in the country whose purpose is to do this, and that task should have been left to them. If they had not lived up to their duties, then a movement to redress that issue should have arisen. The legality of the issue, while being extremely important, is not an excuse nor justification for racism or hateful rhetoric of any kind.

Events such as the above serve as a reminder, a reality check, to remind Sri Lankans that democracy is a participatory process. Merely voting for the best amongst the worst candidates at elections is not sufficient participation. We cannot merely assume that the representatives we have elected will always act with our best interest in their heart, and when they fail to do so, when they negate our rights and freedom, then we have to resist. As the famed critical theorist and philosopher Herbet Marcuse said, people have to engage in struggle against an oppressive status quo, refusing to accept the oppression imposed by the political elite. The citizenry has to negate that which negates it, by engaging in a refusal of everything it deems to be oppressive. As Marcuse famously said, “The Great Refusal can take a variety of forms,” and unifying all the people who are dedicated to various social justice causes in our country is important in ensuring that the majority’s voice is heard.

Something is negating Sri Lanka.

While no empirical study has been carried out, conversation is a good way to gauge public sentiment, and whether this conversation is in the public or private domains, there is a sense of intensified dissatisfaction that extends beyond the famous phrase that many Sri Lankans are wont to use: “this country is going to the dogs.” People are feeling the proverbial noose tighten around the neck of freedom and democracy.  Assassinations and kidnappings can slowly be relegated to the margins of society and its history, but it is only a sense of outrage on the part of the entire country, on the part of the majority, that can ensure that these sacrifices have not been made in vain.

A political consciousness is important. There are examples of Tamils in the country who tried to hide their identity, send their children to Sinhala medium schools, and lead very ‘Western’ lives, but who were still sought during the 1983 riots, because voter registration lists did not put them on a spectrum of how ‘Tamil’ they were, but merely stated if they were Tamil or not. In that same way, some of us may not feel the need to rise up in opposition or indignant dialogue because we feel that there is nothing in it for us, that we are doing okay, or that by somehow concealing certain elements of our identity, we can get by unscathed. Some of us may even believe that because we are benefiting from the government’s policies, the status quo is favourable. But it takes only a sweeping glance at history to realize that it takes little for a regime to abandon its supporters and allies if that alliance is no longer serving its own interests.

We may not feel this issue is important to us. We may not feel invested, threatened or frustrated. We might think, “I am ___, I have no reason to be worried.” But really, we should be thinking, “I am Sri Lankan, I should be worried.”

In the words of Arundhati Roy, who writes about India, but whose observations serve true for Sri Lanka too:

Fascism is about the slow, steady infiltration of all the instruments of state power. It’s about the slow erosion of civil liberties, about unspectacular day-to-day injustices. Fighting it means fighting to win back the minds and hearts of people… It means keeping an eagle eye on public institutions and demanding accountability. It means putting your ear to the ground and listening to the whispering of the truly powerless. It means giving a forum to myriad voices from the hundreds of resistance movements across the country which are speaking about real things.

Fighting it also means not allowing your newspaper columns and prime-time TV spots to be hijacked by their spurious passions and their staged theatrics, which are designed to divert attention from everything else.” 

It also means allowing alternative forums, such as this, to continue to provide a setting for the exchange of ideas, opinions and reflections.