The dual reality of the present time

Reuters Pictures:
Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa (C), Governor of Central Bank Ajith Nivard Cabraal (L), and Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa (R) speak during the presentation of the 2010 Central Bank of Sri Lanka annual report, in Colombo April 11, 2011. Sri Lanka's central bank on Monday forecast economic growth of 9.0 percent for 2012, and said it expected foreign exchange reserves this year to climb 21 percent to $8 billion. The central bank in its 2010 annual report also forecast post-war credit growth to cool to 18.8 percent by the end of the year versus 25.1 percent at the end of 2010. The speed of credit growth has raised some inflationary concerns.
by Jehan Perera

(April 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The country heads into the traditional New Year season on a reasonably upbeat note. Despite the increase in the cost of living, the shops are crowded. The government has won another big election victory, at the local government polls, ensuring that political stability continues. The prevailing national vision accepted by the majority of voters appears to be one in which the government leadership is entrusted to decide on what is in the country’s best interests. This may be why even the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that concentrated further power in the institution of the presidency was approved by Parliament without much agitation either within Parliament or by the people at large.

The government has justified the concentration of power as based on the need to engage in rapid economic development after the war. The government has evidence from the institutions under its political control to back its claim. Recent data put out by the Central Bank points to an 8 percent growth rate in the economy, the highest in twenty years. Demonstrating higher economic growth through the centralization of power is not a new ambition of governments. Previous governments have also justified the concentration of power on the same basis, even though the end results were quite the reverse. The key architect of the last constitution, promulgated in 1972, claimed one of its purposes to be for the state to capture the commanding heights of the economy.

Since 1970 government leaders have also engaged in periodic bouts of repression to ensure that their diktat prevails. The peacetime use of Emergency Law which is the reality today epitomizes this undemocratic reality. Usually governments have used their powers, and emergency laws, to suppress the opposition parties. This has been done by disqualifying political opponents, locking them up in prison or appointing commissions of inquiry to investigate into them. However, at the present time, the opposition has effectively negated itself as a force by its refusal to countenance the need for change. The political weakness of the opposition had made it possible for the government to totally dominate the political debate. Sometimes it seems that only sections of civil society are prepared to dissent.

Heightened vulnerability

There is a common misconception that NGOs and civil society are interchangeable concepts and mean the same thing. But this is not the case. Civil society is much more than NGOs. On the contrary it also consists of all those social entities that are not part of the state, party political or commercial sectors. Therefore, civil society encompasses journalists who work to create public opinion as well as religious clergy who seek to represent the sufferings and aspirations of the people whose spiritual and temporal interests they serve. It is important that a government that wishes to protect democracy must ensure that the targeting of one or two leading figures from each sector does not lead to the entire sector getting anxious, cautious and engaging in self censorship.

A recent example is the arrest of the editor of Lanka E News, Bennet Rupasinghe. This website was unusual in the vigour of its anti government posture and its support of the political opposition. A year ago one of its journalists, Prageeth Eknaligoda, disappeared without a trace. This served as a deadly reminder and a warning to many others in the field that even the end of the war had not ended the disappearances that multiplied during that terrible period. At the beginning of this year, the website’s office was burned down. This was then followed by the arrest of the editor himself on the implausible basis that he had conspired to burn down his media office to discredit the government.

When the case came before the court last week it was only a small group of journalists and civic activists who gathered outside the court house in silent protest. The group was smaller than groups that had gathered in the past when similar problems had arisen. Several of the free media leaders who used to organize the more high profile protests of the past have sought asylum abroad as they have not felt safe remaining in the country. The low key and small gathering in support of the arrested editor showed the dispirited state of civil society and their sense of vulnerability. However, their faith in one of the key institutions of the state, the judiciary, was vindicated when the bail application submitted on behalf of the arrested editor was accepted by the court.

Limited Freedom

Another example of the problem of dissent in civil society comes from Jaffna. A high-powered inter-religious delegation from Colombo recently visited the north where they met with the war-affected people. Although there is no more a problem of terrorism, the delegation was given military escort when they traveled into the interior. This would have dissuaded the war displaced people of those parts from being too open in their expression of dissatisfaction for fear of displeasing the military officers who wield great control over their lives. However, when the delegation met with their religious counterparts in Jaffna, they were able to hear a frank and critical expression of views. Specific issues raised included the militarization of governance in the north.

The following night some men went to the residence of one of the outspoken clergymen, called him out and flung cow dung and other excreta at him. They had also thrown chillie powder at the face of one of his assistants and assaulted him when he went there to find out what was happening. The assailants dropped a mobile telephone with phone numbers on it that would assist in finding out their identity. Although this valuable piece of evidence has been given to the police, no action appears to have been taken so far. The message that freedom of expression has its limits in the north was very clearly made. On the other hand, to the majority of the population, the situation they experience would not reflect this grim reality that impacts upon dissenters from the established order.

There is today a dual reality in the country. To the majority of people, the difference between the time of war that existed up till two years ago and the present is a very positive one. They are relieved that they can travel on buses without fear and enter into shopping malls without being worried. In their day-to-day operations in police stations across the country, the police act as family counsellors and peace makers amongst the people. It is where political dissent enters that the situation deteriorates. But even there, it is a mixed story as Bennet Rupasinghe’s arrest demonstrates. Hopefully, those who are in positions of responsibility will be true to the high offices they occupy to uphold democratic and liberal values in the year to come.

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