Image courtesy CNN

“To walk our way and keep our eyes fixed on it
Is mankind’s first and foremost obligation.”

Iphigenia in Tauris (Goethe)

It is a lie, beloved by the powerful, the rich, the privileged, that transparency is inimical to national security and public wellbeing. National security and public wellbeing suffer greater harm, where there is no transparency and no right to protest.

In Sri Lanka, whistleblowers and media played a critical role in revealing some of the worst Rajapaksa outrages, even during the time of Rajapaksa rule. Since waste, corruption, nepotism and other abuses of power did not end with the Rajapaksas, whistleblowers and media continue to have work to do. The latest round of revelations includes the possibility of another bond scam in the Central Bank and spending Rs. 31 million on hosting a farmers’ conference[i].

Without a media willing to tell truth to power and reveal truth about power, democracy will become nothing but a name. To protest, we must care. We can care only when we know.

The birth and the turbulent aftermath of the Panama Papers reveal the crucial importance of a free press and an involved citizenry in ensuring even a modicum of accountability and justice.

The 11.5 million files which make up the Panama Papers were leaked in 2015 to German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung[ii]. The leaking was done in batches by a whistleblower who called himself as ‘John Doe’. The documents were thoroughly investigated before they were made public, initially by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, subsequently with the participation of around 100 journalists and editors from around the world. Despite the involvement of such large numbers, secrecy was maintained. Neither governments nor intelligence agencies knew what was happening until it was too late to defuse the stink bomb.

The Panama Papers is a reminder that no country, no political class is immune to corruption. (Amongst those mentioned are three Lankan companies, though their names are yet to come to light.) The 148 politicians implicated so far by the files from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca span every divide, starting with race, religion and ideological persuasion. They also include economic heavyweights, sports and cultural icons and the head of the Chilean branch of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption watchdog. (He has since resigned).

Those implicated in the scandal have one common denominator – the possession of some kind of power; and a willingness to use that power to their own financial advantage.

Panama Papers demonstrate that in a functioning democracy there is a slight chance of achieving a degree of accountability, however minute or ephemeral; in a non-democracy no such possibility exists. The Icelandic Prime Minister was forced to ‘step down’ (he insisted he didn’t resign, seeking solace in semantics). No such fate is likely to befall Russian President Vladimir Putin, implicated in the scandal through close associates. Britain’s David Cameron is in hot water over his involvement in his father’s off shore fund. Families of several top Chinese politicians, including the brother-in-law of President Xi Jinping, are implicated but Beijing’s reaction was to dismiss the leaks as ‘groundless’ and tighten internet controls.[iii] Pakistani President has promised an independent investigation about the offshore accounts of his children while the Saudis and the Emirates haven’t turned a hair even though Emirati President and Saudi King are both implicated (Religious fundamentalism of the most puritanical variety is obviously no bar to corruption).

Active Citizenship

Media revelations alone cannot ensure accountability and justice. They must be backed by societal interest and public protests.

Unlike in a non-democracy, citizens in a democracy have the space both to gain information about wrongdoings and to protest against those wrongdoings. And in a democracy, when whistleblowers, the media and the public act in consort, it’s hard for politicians to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, however much they may want to.

That is one of the main differences between the Rajapaksa regime and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Then, information was hard to come by and the public was too vary to protest. Now, the flow of information is much freer and the public does raise its voice. Like the generality of democratic governments, the current administration is relatively receptive to public opinion. The best cases in point are the scrapping of an inane plan to increase subsidies to the already heavily subsidised parliamentarians and the shelving of VAT hikes.

Citizen involvement can vary. But irrespective of the issue, every sign of interest, every act of protest indicates a new willingness on the part of Lankan citizens to emerge from their personal spheres and play a role in the public square, in between elections. That is a trend which needs to be encouraged. Power not just corrupts; it also addles minds, kills basic commonsense and encourages deeds of self-destructive destruction. The involvement of the public would be essential to ensure that the Sirisena Wickremesinghe administration doesn’t go too far down the Rajapaksa path.

Take for instance, the new government’s akin-to-Rajapaksa inability to think beyond building more coal power plants as a solution to the country’s energy crisis. The embracing of coal power might have made some economic sense had we possessed coal mines. We don’t. And instead of turning to a source which we have in abundance, solar power, we are opting for a power generation method which is not just detrimental environmentally but also makes no sense economically. We will have to import coal, and given the status of the rupee, even if global coal prices plummet to record lows, cheap energy will remain a dream for Lankan consumers.

We currently have one frequently malfunctioning coal power plant, a gift of the Chinese. Another coal power plant is to be built, this one a gift of the Indians.

China heads the list of coal producing countries, globally; India occupies the third positions. Interestingly China and India are also top solar power producers. Why are the two countries building coal power plants in Sri Lanka while they embrace solar power? Are they using Sri Lanka as a dumping ground for their unwanted coal?

Environment is not some esoteric issue which concerns Colombo’s well-fed and well-heeled minority. It is something which affects the entire country, especially those at the lower end of the income ladder. It is they who will be forced to pay a disproportionately greater price for environmental degradation.

According to the UN, 2015 was the hottest year on record. Already February 2016 has broken all previous global temperature records, according to NASA. Global warming is a fact, a burning reality, and of particular relevance for countries like ours. The challenge cannot be met by invoking divine intervention; gods of whatever religion, even if they exist, are unlikely to involve themselves in the matter, since the problem of global warming is mostly a manmade one.

The Deadweight of Tradition

In 2014 the Rajapaksas tried to mark another milepost in their ceaseless effort to march Sri Lanka back to the past by enacting a Rape Marriage Law. The law would have enabled a rapist to escape prosecution by marrying his victim. That was the Rajapaksa solution to the growing menace of child rape. Its advocates included the Minister of Child Development and Women’s Affairs Tissa Karaliyadda, Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Speaker Rajapaksa opined that women and not men were responsible for rape. “My opinion is that nobody can make men responsible for the violence against women. Women are responsible for it…”[iv] President Rajapaksa went a step further and said that statutory rape is not really rape if the child victim consents. “If under aged girls are statutorily raped and the sexual act was however with consent, it may be good to have legislation that allows the perpetrator to marry the ‘victim’ with her consent.”[v]

A Lankan cannot vote, drive, smoke or imbibe alcohol until the age of 18. Such limits are imposed globally because until a certain age is reached, human beings lack the capacity to make mature and informed choices about important matters. Statutory rape provisions too belong in same category. Their main purpose is to prevent adults from exploiting the ignorance, the trust, the inexperience and the terror of children.

Fortunately, Sri Lanka’s forced march to the past ended when the electorate rejected Rajapaksa rule, twice. But the very idea demonstrates that fidelity to archaic practices which violate basic rights and harm children is often found among conservatives of all societies and all religions. It can come from anyone rejects Enlightenment values and who in their minds live in some far off century when most men, all women and all children had no rights.

Child marriage (which is nothing more than the legalisation of child abuse and rape), like torture or arbitrary arrest, is a relic of our common past. It was a practice most of humanity regarded as normal for millennia, in times when life expectancy at birth rarely exceeded 40 and marrying young – as young as possible – made demographic sense. Societal attitudes also played a role. Children were considered chattel and in most cultures from Occident to Orient, parents had the right to sell or kill a child.

Child marriage has no objective reason to exist in the 21st Century. Yet it does, justified by religion and tradition, bolstered by poverty and ignorance, war and insecurity. Contrary to public perceptions, it is a global problem, and not a problem limited to Islamic nations. High levels of child marriage persist in those African countries where tribal practices remain deeply ingrained. According to UN sources, it is also prevalent in South America and the Caribbean, with highest incidences reported in countries with no/negligible Islamic populations, such as Dominican Republic, Honduras, Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Ecuador. That is why the issue of child marriage needs to be decoupled from religion and addressed as a matter of basic rights.

Child marriage is a problem in Sri Lanka too. It is on the decline amongst the plantation Tamil community but remains a significant problem among Lankan Muslims.

Muslims have been exempted from the 1995 law which lays down minimum age of marriage in Sri Lanka (16 for girls). This exception is incomprehensible, since a number of Islamic countries have minimum marriage ages for girls compatible with UN guidelines. For instance, according to UN sources, in Algeria, Bangladesh, Jordan, Iraq, Malaysia and Morocco, the legal marriageable age for a female is 18; in Tunisia it is 20[vi]. In Sri Lanka, it seems as if a girl child from a Muslim family can be married at 12, or even below with consent from the Quazi courts.

Perhaps this horrendous anomaly can be ended in the new constitution and Lankan Muslim children assured of the same rights as their non-Muslim brethren. After all, if Islamic majority Indonesia has set 16 years as the minimum marriageable age for Muslim girls, why not Sri Lanka?

Often laws are not enough to combat age old beliefs. Afghanistan has a high prevalence of child marriages side by side with a minimum marriage age of 18. Laws work when they are backed by awareness and incentives. The Indian state of Haryana and Ethiopia both have made some roadway against child marriage by providing families with financial incentives to keep their daughters in school.

Child rights, like all basic human rights, are universal; so are the forces opposing those rights, in the name of tradition, family or god. The right to care and the responsibility to protect Lankan children belong to all Lankans, irrespective of ethnicity or religion.