Colombo, Elections, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

The Slide in Sri Lanka

The 24th of February marked the first month anniversary of the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, the Lanka E-News journalist. Two special Police teams are said to be on the case.  They have however, not come up with any information as to Ekneligoda’s whereabouts.

Ekneligoda’s disappearance is yet another statistic of shame in the long list of disappearances, abductions and extra-judicial killings that have targeted the media in particular over the last four years.  His disappearance, it should be noted, took place in the course of a presidential election campaign the first post –war island-wide electoral contest in this country for two decades.  The war – the one that it between the GOSL and the LTTE is over and cannot be cited as it has been in the past and continues to be cited, shamelessly and unthinkingly by some as an alibi, justification or explanation for human rights violations.  There appears to be another war, a persisting, menacing violence that perpetuates human rights abuses with impunity.

Should the Ekneligoda disappearance be treated as a clear sign along with others of a sure and steady slide into authoritarianism?

The arrest of Fonseka – no paragon of virtue for sure, its motivation and manner, indicates that either fear and paranoia or seething revenge have replaced respect for the rule of law and the norms and procedures of democratic governance.  The charges to be framed against him notwithstanding, Fonseka’s fate, probably hinges on what he has, might or will reveal on the issue of war crimes.  Whilst the debate may rage about whether justice is being done and seen to be done, assurance will be made doubly sure to deny him any opportunity to make such allegations again or elaborate on those he has made already.

Add to the Fonseka arrest and impending court martial the attempt to seal the Lanka newspaper, the arrest and subsequent release of its editor Chandana Sirimalwatte, the allegations of moves afoot to block access to certain websites and the suspension of the Tissamaharama Pradeshiya Sabha.

Most alarming in this series of events must surely be the convening and subsequent postponement of the meeting of the Sangha Council to discuss the state of governance in the land. That such an event was to take place was in itself an unprecedented and historic move by the clergy who have been conspicuous by their silence over the treatment of IDPs and the state of human rights in general.  That the momentous event was postponed on the grounds of the security of the monks and of the Tooth Relic is nothing short of shocking.   Whose responsibility is it to provide security?  How come if security could have been provided for the Independence Day celebrations in Kandy, it was not forthcoming for the Sangha Convention?  We are in a post-war situation after all. According to our constitution Buddhism has the foremost place and there is a cabinet ministry to deal with these affairs.  Is the state admitting, conceding that it cannot provide security to the venerable monks?  Who would dare threaten them and even begin to hope that they could get away with it?

The answer is the regime itself as reported by some of the monks involved in convening the Council. It has been reported that monks supportive of the regime were dispatched to warn that if the Council went ahead the Sangha would be further divided and that bombs could even be exploded in the vicinity of the Temple of the Tooth!  A clear triumph of unfettered secular thuggery!

What is the regime after? – the steam rolling of all dissent and criticism? And what use will the two third’s majority sought be put to?  Do we not have a right to know and what better occasion than the general election?

There is the danger as some have warned of further unrest, even violent unrest outside of the north and east if the regime persists with these tactics.  It is time it took comfort and security from its electoral majorities and got on with the task of seizing upon the opportunity provided by its defeat of the LTTE to move the country from a post –war to a post conflict situation in which the challenges of peace, reconciliation and unity are addressed in earnest.  This is essential for good governance and economic take off.

The 18th of February was the 20th anniversary of the murder of Richard de Zoysa.   There was a theatrical tribute to mark the event comprising entirely of the work of Nobel Prize winning playwright, essayist and political activist Harold Pinter.  This columnist took part in the proceedings as the Minister of Culture in Pinter’s short 2002 sketch entitled The Press Conference. At the press conference, the Minister has this to say:

Let me make myself clear. We need critical dissent because it keeps us on our toes.  We do not want to see it in the marketplace or on the avenues and piazzas of our great cities. We do not want to see it in the houses of our great institutions. We are happy for it to be kept at home so that we can drop in at any time, read what is under the bed, discuss it with the writer, pat him on the head, shake him by his hand and perhaps give him a minor kick up the arse or in the balls and set fire to the whole shebang.  By this method we keep our society free of infection.  There is always, however, room for confession, retraction and redemption.

Have we come or are we coming to this?

The Bar Association election was a glimmer of hope.  Not every professional association and civil society body will succumb to the dispensation of the day.  The general election offers all of us an opportunity to play our part in ensuring that the bases for good governance and economic take off are firmly laid within a solid democratic framework of effective checks and balances on the exercise of executive power.  It must not be yet another exercise of going back to the future.