The yearning for new thinking and a new Sri Lanka

by Jehan Perera

(March 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The forthcoming local government elections on March 17 are being keenly contested by the government and the opposition. President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself has taken to the campaign trail. There is more at stake at these elections than control over local authorities or the victory of individual candidates. The local government elections have become another opportunity for a referendum on the government’s performance. The government has taken care to ensure that these elections will first take place in the areas where it is stronger. It has postponed elections where it might be less strong. The elections to local authorities in many urban areas will take place later in May.

Needless to say when the President of a country takes to the campaign trail the issues discussed will necessarily be national in scope and not only local. The government has been emphasizing economic development as the panacea to the country’s problems. But it has still far to go before the peace dividend gets transferred in economic terms to the electorate. The large investments it has been making on power plants, harbours and highways will tend to prove their worth in the future. In the meantime, the government has fallen back on its nationalist and security-related strengths. A lead strategy of the government seems to be to keep the memory of the LTTE alive and with it the justification for the prevailing state of affairs including the rule by Emergency Law that was used during the war.

Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne’s statement in Parliament that the LTTE continues to be active and having training camps in India may be a part of this strategy. Pointing to the dangers posed by the LTTE and its supporters, despite its decimation in the war, has become like second nature to the government. The past is like the present where the war and LTTE is concerned. The Prime Minister was speaking at the debate on the extension of the State of Emergency for a further period. On the one hand, the government is removing the walls that surround the police stations saying that there is no more a security threat to them. On the other hand, it is beefing up the military and keeping Emergency Rule going. Emergency laws deprive the people of the protections they are entitled to under the regular law of the country.

Other enemies

While the government has retracted its Prime Minister’s assertion about LTTE training camps in India due to strong Indian government protest, it has now sought to focus the people’s attention on another set of enemies. These are the western governments, UN agencies and NGOs that are taking up the issue of human rights to international forums. Instead of being forward-looking in the post-war period, the focus is on the period of war and on the past. It is an unhappy coincidence that meetings of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva have coincided with the dates that the government fixed for local government elections. The opposition has been utilizing the reversals of the government to embarrass it politically and call its competence into question.

In the past fortnight NGOs that work on human rights, peace and justice related issues have come in for much criticism. The information provided by these organizations to the government, especially about their funding, is being used to discredit them and thereby to discredit the message they seek to disseminate both locally and internationally. One criticism that has extended to western governments is that even after the war, they continue to fund these organizations. This has evoked a response by Ambassador Patricia Butenis of the United States. In a letter published by The Island, she pointed out that the role played by civil society groups, which includes journalists and NGOs, needs to be recognized and appreciated.

Ambassador Butenis has written, "Civil society by definition is the collective body of journalists, domestic and international NGOs, religious leaders and other individuals and entities who work to improve the lives of citizens in a democracy. Their work can take many forms. Civil society can bring individuals together to respond to natural disasters as in Haiti following last year’s devastating earthquake. Civil society can act as a watchdog to ensure that governments act responsibly such as in the United States during the Watergate scandal. Civil society can also be an advocate for important social issues such as in the United States during the civil rights movement."

Improving democracy

Another important point that Ambassador Butenis made was to point to the US government’s own acceptance of the role of civil society to improve democratic practices within the United States itself. She says, "We allow foreign NGOs to operate in the United States and permit US entities to apply and receive funding from foreign sources, including foreign governments." The example given was Handicap International, a French-based NGO that was part of the coalition of NGOs that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for their efforts to ban the use of landmines. So far the United States has not joined the Mine Ban Treaty because of military pressures and concerns. But this foreign-funded NGO, and others like it, are permitted to function on the basis that they enliven debate and enrich American democracy.

With the second year anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s war fast approaching, it is an opportune time for the government to reconsider its old strategies and ways of thinking. The slogans of national security, traitors and patriots needs to give way to less divisive ones that unite, generate trust and heal rather than continue to cause fear, aversion and hatred. This requires finding solutions to problems in which the leaderships of all ethnic and religious communities participate as equals by finding consensus. It would be tragic if Sri Lanka were to continue to be a country from which people are trying to leave as boatpeople, emigrate legally causing brain drain or find jobs abroad even as menial labourers due to the continuing conflicts and lack of opportunities for their career advancement within the country.

I had a glimpse of this yearning for another Sri Lanka when the National Peace Council, an NGO for which I work, helped to facilitate a series of workshops sponsored by the US embassy on the non-violent life and work of the black American civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King. These workshops were held in universities including Colombo, Rajarata and Peradeniya. The response of the students was remarkable. The classrooms in which the discussions were conducted were overflowing and students had to be turned away due to lack of space. They were the future of Sri Lanka, looking not for the stale old thinking dished out by the propagandists in power, on war, traitors and patriots. The government’s local government election campaign too relies on these strengths of the past. But the younger generation is looking for something beyond.

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