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Debating CEPA or destroying the debaters?

by Dr Rohan Samarajiva

(June 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Economic policy is not so much debated in Sri Lanka, as it is declaimed. The 2004 election campaign claim about removing the plug that connected Sri Lanka to the world economy is an example. The English media both print and electronic show some interest in economic matters, though much less than their Indian or Thai counterparts. The Sinhala and Tamil media focus on the political, almost to the total neglect of the economic.

The past few weeks have been an exception. The esoteric subject of trade in services has attracted considerable attention, even among the Sinhala media. I participated in live talk shows in Sinhala on both radio (drive time) and television (late night). The leading Sunday Sinhala newspaper carried three substantive articles on the subject.

I wish I could claim responsibility, but the credit must go to the leaders of the campaign against the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India. They grabbed media attention by framing a complex topic in language that leveraged the potent discourse of nationalism that had been brought to the fore for the defeat and decapitation of the LTTE.

The pity, however, was how quickly the focus was shifted from the substance to the debaters, with the honorable exception of one leading industrialist who disagreed with the CEPA but never descended to personal attack. The Sri Lankans who drafted and supported the CEPA were Indians with Sri Lankan names, it was said. Those supporting it had undisclosed motives it was stated. The fact that I was Visiting Faculty at an Indian university was “discovered” and attempted to be used against me in a TV debate, as was the fact that an Indian diplomat sat next to me at a trade seminar.

In the best traditions of Sri Lankan television debate, I smashed that one out of the court, pointing to the absurdity of imputing motive from seating arrangements. The person seated on my other side served as Sri Lanka’s representative to the UN at the height of the war. Why suppress that fact, and why not try to draw conclusions from that too, I asked.

Unbound by the constraints of the Administrative Regulations and with long experience in debate, I am more than capable of looking after myself and where necessary taking the fight to the foe. What is sad is what these vicious attacks do to the morale and motivation of officials within the government system and even to the business community who take positions different from those of the demagogues. Examples are:

“Director Commerce was designated as the overall leader of the Sri Lankan negotiation team. However for some undisclosed reason the Executive Director of Institute of Policy Studies has been the person heavily promoting CEPA with the help of another person who is a head of a NGO. . . . . . . . . . . The Indian team and IPS promoting CEPA use few business chamber officials to promote the benefits of CEPA, but one must be careful as these chamber officials are employees of Multinational Corporations that have their headquarters in India. Therefore it is worthwhile if the Government of Sri Lanka conducts a proper study of Indian connections of the above said Government and chamber officials before accepting an agreement negotiated by them.

CEPA is a very adverse agreement that could even lose Sri Lanka’s political independence and must not be signed in its present context. Further the government should investigate why some of its officials have proposed to the government such an agreement and take corrective measures if necessary.”

Emphasis added) http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2010/06/03/beware-of-men-economic-hit/
In sum, no room is allowed for honest difference of opinion. All who support CEPA have ulterior motives; they are traitors who must be investigated and drummed out. The virulence of the attack is intended not only to harm the few who speak but also to silence those who may wish to join the debate.
This is perhaps explained by the use of the emotional weaponry of nationalism by the opponents of the CEPA, which then causes them to demonize as traitors all those who take an opposing position. So the fault is perhaps in the invocation of nationalistic rhetoric more than anything else.

Policy debate almost always is about what is likely to happen or not happen if X instead of Y is done. It’s about the future. The future is, by definition, not fully knowable. Opponents will naturally draw the bleakest picture and the supporters the rosiest. They will draw from rational arguments and evidence, but will also include emotional appeals.

Depending on where one stands, certain evidence will appear wrong and certain conclusions appear unsupported. When dealing with the future and with imperfect knowledge, room must be left for honest differences of opinion. Demonizing opponents, calling for investigations and inquisitions, and such should, where possible, be eschewed. These are forms of rhetorical violence.

Motives are, for the most part, unknowable. Imputing motive is common practice in certain forms of political debate, but it plays little useful role in policy discourse, unless the objective is to kill the debate. One cannot totally avoid imputing motive, but being mindful of its dangers is useful for all. For example, one could have speculated that the passion driving the anti-CEPA campaign was fuelled by another big power’s desire to sour Sri Lanka’s relations with its big neighbor. But thankfully, no one did that.

From the play of reporting in the government-controlled and influenced media (TV) it could be inferred that the internal debate on the CEPA was live right up to when the President left for New Delhi.
Open policy debate in the media supports good decision making within government. Calling those who hold different positions traitors and asking for investigations does not.

The country is better served by open debate, not by accusations that seek to destroy the debaters and deter voices from joining in. Irrespective of the outcome of this debate, one hopes that this lesson is carried forward into future policy debates. Silence in the face of these attacks is never the right response.

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