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People’s Power and Authoritarian Regimes

By Shanie
Courtesy: The Island

"I have raised the questions, daughter.
which you and your kids must ponder.

I feel guilty I did not sooner,
in my lifetime urge them stronger.

And, now, ere I answers provide,
I may in cold blood lie buried.
Have I your futures compromised?"

(March 13, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is now fifteen years since the then Nigerian military government of General Abacha executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others after a sham trial by a military tribunal. Saro-Wiwa was the champion of the rights of the minority people, particularly of the Ogoni people who lived in the oil-rich south east Nigeria. His campaign led him to catalogue the abuses against the Ogoni people by the Nigerian federal government (with the silent backing of the oil multi-nationals) before the United Nations Commission on Indigenous Peoples. He was targeted by the military authorities, spent several periods in detention and was finally hanged in 1995. He wrote the above poem for his daughter Zina.

Saro-Wiwa had been a successful Nigerian businessman and civilian administrator before turning to writing and political activism in the eighties. His conscience did not allow him to live with the injustice being done to the Ogoni people. He was successful up to a point in that the multi-national oil companies abandoned their exploitation of the Ogoni farmlands but Saro-Wiwa had to pay with his life for that.

Saro-Wiwa’s lament is not unusual. Many of us feel comfortable in being silent observers of injustice, so long as that injustice does not touch our own comfortable lives. We are prepared to compromise the future of our children in the expectation that they too would lead comfortable lives away from the repression and injustice around them. Saro-Wiwa’s lament is similar to that of Pastor Martin Niemoller, the German clergyman, whose reference to the authoritarian methods of the democratically elected Nazis is now well-known:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech political dissident, who was repeatedly detained and imprisoned in the seventies and eighties, eventually became the democratically elected leader of his people. He was the last President of Czechoslavakia, elected at the first democratic election following the collapse of communism in East Europe. Then, after the break up of Czechoslavakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics, he became the first President of the Czech Republic. In 1983, while still a opposition dissident, he had stated in a newspaper interview: "For several years, I was forced to live in an environment where every effort was made to break people, systematically to get them to inform on others and to act selfishly: in an atmosphere of fear and intrigue, of mindless indiscipline and arbitrary bullying, degradation and deliberate insult, being at the same time deprived of even the simplest positive emotional, sensual or spiritual experience. Again and again, I became aware that prison was not intended merely to deprive a man of a few years of his life and make him suffer for that length of time; it was rather intended to mark him for life, to destroy his personality, score his heart in such a way that it would never heal completely. Prison thus seems to me something like a futuristic laboratory of totalitarianism."

All over the world we have witnessed repression of genuine dissent by authoritarian regimes that wanted to consolidate their own power. They feared the dissident voices but ultimately no regime, however authoritarian, can withstand people’s power. Throughout the world, we have seen this happen in one way or another. In the Philippines, people’s power drove Ferdinand Marcos into exile following, among other issues, a disputed election in which the tally by the National Movement for Free Elections gave his opponent Corazon Aquino victory by 800,000 votes, while the government’s official tally gave Marcos victory by over 1.6 million votes. In India, after a period of unprecedented emergency rule, it was people’s power that overthrew the Indira Gandhi government at a democratic general election; Indira Gandhi herself losing her own seat in Parliament. She accepted defeat gracefully and it was a chastened Indira Gandhi who swept back to power at the next General Election.

Justice for Sarath Fonseka

Sarath Fonseka is the former Army Commander . Not so long ago, he was being hailed as a hero who led the Sri Lankan armed forces to victory over the LTTE. Today, it appears that he will face charges that revolve around his engaging in political activity whilst still serving in the Army and to having flouted procedures in purchases for the Army. Irrespective of the validity or otherwise of these charges, can we honestly say that he would still have faced these charges had he not come forward as the opposition’s candidate at the last Presidential election? Further, it is rumoured that the Court Martial is to be headed by a serving Army officer who is a very close relative of a very senior government official. One of the hallmarks of a fair trial is that justice must not only be done but also seen to be done. To an independent observer, it does not appear that justice is being seen to be done in the case of Sarath Fonseka. One can only hope that the way the Court is constituted and the trial conducted, justice will b be oth done and seen to be done.

But justice for Sarath Fonseka should also mean that justice is both done and seen to be done for hundreds of lesser known detainees. Last week, this column referred to two well known individuals who had written recently about their incarceration for over three years by the UNP government of the eighties on a fictitious charge of plotting to overthrow the government through violence. There were hundreds and thousands who underwent harassment and violence then and now. How many of us are willing to hear the cry of the Ken Saro-Wiwas to raise questions , to seek justice for the oppressed and the powerless and to stand up for the truth.

Power and Violence

In the aftermath of the southern insurrection during the last years of the 1980s, Regi Siriwardena wrote the play which he titled ‘The Blinding’.The play explores the theme of power and violence particularly in relation to the terror, disappearances and killings of that time. This is done by using the device of the Shakespearean scene of the blinding of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear. The play was staged in 1995 directed by Haig Karunaratne and Siriwardena’s note for the production will interest any creative playwright who writes a play for production: "Though my name stands as the author of the play, I am not its only ‘begetter’. ...It was developed collectively through rehearsals – so much so that during the first weeks I would go back home each evening after a rehearsal and re-write part of the script. It was very exciting for me to work on a play in this fashion."

It is not easy to capture the structure and beauty of a play with selected extracts, but for our purposes, the theme of power and violence comes out in some incidents. Two of the characters in the play are discussing how a scene should be portrayed. The exchange goes thus:

Sushila: Well, it is, as you said, a scene where we see human beings behaving like monsters. The only person in the scene who openly resists is the First Servant. But he gets killed ... But when the two other servants are left alone, we learn that they are appalled by what they have watched. But they aren’t like the First Servant; they don’t have the courage to resist openly. But what they say between themselves shows that inside them they are not corrupted.

Ajith: And that’s important for you?

Sushila: Yes, of course, because in any situation where human society has been degraded , where unjust power prevails, there’s only one hope. That there’s still goodness in ordinary people that will ultimately turn against it.

Another exchange is in respect of the extra-judicial killings:

Ajith: For that matter, the equally gory public executions in the Kandyan Kingdom – impaling , trampling by elephants and so on. We are too civilised for that kind of thing now, or so we thought. But that was in normal times. Just think of all the people whose bodies were displayed in public places here a few years ago....The people who died in that way were also branded as traitors by one side or the other – supposed enemies of the state or supposed enemies of the people.

Tilak: So when you’re regarded as a traitor in somebody’s eyes, killing alone is too good for you; your dead body must be degraded.

Ajith: Well, there were two violent forces engaged in a fight to the death – for the state and against it. And monstrous acts of injustice and cruelty were done on both sides. I’m not concerned now to ask who was right and who was wrong – if there can be right and wrong in such situations – who was better, who was worse – that’s not my point at all. But at the time those horrors were committed, how many people resisted them?

Sushila: Some people did stand up.

Ajith: Yes, and they were destroyd, like Richard de Zoysa, Fr Michael Rodrigo, like Rajani and Kanthasamy in Jaffna. But I’m talking about the mass of the people – across class. And I don’t think in that respect class made a difference at all. I’ve granted your earlier point, Sushila: the lives of the poor are cheap and the lives of the rich are dear. But when it comes to standing up in the face of violence, I don’t think it is a matter of class at all. Whether it’s the working class or the peasantry or the middle classes or the capitalists, the great majority in those years of terror, just wanted to survive. They didn’t want to stick their necks out and get them chopped off.

After each of the performances on the three evenings, Regi Sirwardena engaged in a discussion with the audience, taking in reactions, comments and criticisms. One of the comments was about too much emphasis on state violence. Siriwardena’s response is published in an Afterword: "There are two good reasons for that emphasis. One is that historically, the violence of the State against protesters, demonstrators and others using legitimate methods of oppression preceded – and indeed laid the ground for the violent insurrection.

The second reason for concentrating on the State terror was that writing in English, I was inevitably addressing an urban middle-class, relatively well-to-do audience. I didn’t need to spend as lot of time telling them that the JVP (and this columnist may add the LTTE) were ‘bad guys’; that was an assumption they would have started with. And nearly all of them would have breathed a sigh of relief when the JVP (and LTTE) insurrection was defeated. So did I, with one part of my mind. But, unlike many people, I’m unable to repose in the thought the horrors (of those insurrections) were like a bad dream which can be forgotten as if it had never been, so that we can resume our comfortable existence again. It was part of the purpose of ‘The Blinding’ to remind the audience that the continuance of that comfortable way of life was made possible by horrendous State violence – not just the murder of Richard de Zoysa, which indeed, did shock many middle-class persons for a time – but uncounted tens of thousands of unknown young people. Some of them were, no doubt, killers; but some, equally surely, had committed no greater crime than attending a study class or pasting up a poster, and some – not even that.

There are perhaps those who can reconcile themselves to the necessity of a blood bath every fifteen or twenty years to preserve the stability of the social order. I am not one of them.

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