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To Question, or not to Question

By Dr. Jagath Asoka

(March 09, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In my previous article Perdition or Paradise, I talked about our culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. Today, I want to talk about our “Right to Information,” the sacred heart of the body of all freedoms. Our right to information includes the right to seek, receive, and access informationheld by public authorities with regard to information held by government, and our right to convey information without fear of intimidation.

In the United States these laws are known as sunshine laws and in India as Right to Information Act. In 1766, Sweden established Freedom of the Press Act, and over 85 countries around the world have implemented some form of such legislation. In Sri Lanka, we are still waiting for such legislation. Why should you be interested in such legislation? Freedom of information legislation guarantees access to data held by the state. When you make a request, you should receive any government-held information. The person asking for information does not usually have to give an explanation for his or her request, but if the information is not disclosed, the government must give a valid reason. Our government can no longer use terrorism as an excuse to hide information from us. The arguments that are proffered—security and terrorism—are very weak and somewhat dishonest and jingoistic.

In a series of judgments, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has held that the Constitution does guarantee a right to information, but we do not have legislation to provide a mechanism through which the public can have access to information. In Sri Lanka, the Freedom of Information Act was drafted, but could not be passed through Parliament. So, the result is, for example, if you want to know what free medicines are available in a Sri Lankan government hospital, you can never get it because there is no mechanism through which the public can have access to that information.

In any democracy, people are the source of every political power, and the legitimacy of any democratic government is created by its people. According to Benjamin Franklin, "In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors and sovereigns." Well, what is sovereignty? The sovereignty of a nation or state is its supreme power within its borders. The sovereignty of an individual is his or her exclusive control of his or her body and life. So, when you elect a person to power, whether that person is your president or village headsman, you use your vote to elect a person to represent you, and you only vest your sovereignty—your power to control your life—in some degree, with that particular person to exercise it in a judicious manner. Your right to know is the only way that you can monitor whether politicians are exercising the powers vested in them in a judicious manner. And monitor you must because five or more years is a long time to trust someone with your sovereignty.

Does our culture support our right to information? Our culture still carries some remnants of our feudal system and does not encourage us to question our government officials. As a result, most Sri Lankans are reluctant to question their politicians. I have seen many politicians acting like monkeys who have eaten hot peppers when reporters ask them unpalatable questions.

Do we want greater transparency and accountability in our government? Can we handle the truth? The answers to these questions were given by Deepthi Kumara Gunarathne in a recent interview that I watched on Vimeo. During this interview Mr. Gunarathne said something that caught my attention. According to Mr. Gunarathne, Sri Lankans knowingly elect their corrupt politicians. To think that only an informed public can make the right decisions in elections or to say that voters are unaware of corruption and embezzlement of public funds is a fallacy. Our citizens know that our politicians are crooks, yet they elect crooks and give them the power to control their lives in an injudicious manner. The majority knowingly elect corrupt politicians because these politicians support their wicked and rapacious life styles.

Is this the denouement of our thirty year struggle? For thirty years, we struggled to eradicate terrorism in our country. For thirty years, we hated Tamil terrorists because they killed innocent people, flouted the law, and dragged all of us into hell. Now, Sinhala Buddhists are killing Sinhala Buddhists. Whether our political system will become a Leviathan, a totalitarian state having a vast bureaucracy, or not depends on our next election on 08 April 2010. The presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa is marred by his refusal to clean out the Augean stables of his own administration which is destined to become a Leviathan. I doubt that we will ever produce a Sri Lankan Hercules who is capable of performing the Augean task of clearing away corruption in our country. Democracy is the rule of majority, but it does not mean the majority is always right. The hypothesis—crooks elect crooks—will be tested soon: on 08 April 2010.

I still believe that the majority of Sri Lankans are not crooks. The hypothesis is interesting but too simplistic to explain the outcome of our elections.

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