By Emil van der Poorten –
It seems like what used to be the yardsticks in allocating guilt in criminal and civil law respectively have now begun to play an increasingly important part in general public discourse with, it seems, an increasingly polarized Sri Lankan public choosing to use one or the other of those yardsticks as is convenient to them at any given point.
What has lent a significant element of irrationality to the use of the two terms has been the dearth of hard information in the public domain due to the deliberate suppression of information that might not project the Rajapaksa Regime as being one of absolute perfection. This has been achieved by two primary means: literally buying over the media or inveigling the decision-makers in that sector into unquestioning allegiance by threat or bribe.
There appear now to be two streams of public expression – the “bought and paid for press” and the elements under threat, on one hand and the “underground” media, “underground” for Sri Lanka, that is. Typically, the government has sought, with varying degrees of success, to block the latter which the public hitherto had free access to via the internet. Typically, the suppression of normal avenues of discussion and debate has led to information, sometimes wildly speculative and often times deliberately mischievous, reaching not only epidemic proportions but achieving a degree of hitherto-unprecedented credibility. To someone of my vintage, this comes as no surprise. In the days of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s efforts to crush dissent of any and every description during the first JVP uprising of the very early ‘seventies,’ something very similar occurred and the wildest of wild rumours achieved gospel-like credibility, bolstered by occurrences unheard of before then such as the disposal of piles of bodies under burning motor vehicle tyres. There was then also, for a time, the blocking of “trunk telephone calls” and the impact of this could be imagined in a day and age when a call to anyone outside a radius of a few miles had to go through an operator. For instance if I needed to call anyone outside the immediate Galagedera area, I had to call the “Kandy Exchange” and (hopefully!) have the operator connect me with whoever I was trying to reach. The modern equivalent of this was the attempt made to register every mobile phone to facilitate the easier interception of people’s private telephonic communications. I will desist from naming the individual who succeeded in having this done for the reason that it would be redundant!
Anyway, back to what happens, particularly, in rural Sri Lanka.
For a time now, my friends in the village keep informing me from time to time that there are individuals from “security organizations” lurking in mufti (“civil-pita”) at places that people tend to gather and chat while awaiting such as a bus. Apparently, it is very important to the security of one’s person that no anti-government sentiments be expressed at such places for the very good reason that people who have made that mistake have disappeared, never to be seen again. Of course, if one chooses to seek verification of this information, the teller of the tale takes offence at his/her honesty being questioned and in the interests of maintaining an acquaintanceship or friendship, the attempt to verify the story is dropped!
One individual, during the time that General Sarath Fonseka was running for President, told my better half and me that SF had been assassinated. Now, the person telling this story which could be (and was) exploded in very short order could not but have known that the truth would out soon. However, it seems to have been symptomatic of that time and the current one that melodramatic tales of that hue will be peddled around and achieve credibility of a long- or short-term nature depending on the verifiability of the content or even the lack thereof!
In the long run, those who are, no matter how indirectly, responsible for the emergence of this level of “information” and its dissemination are at serious risk of being victims of the negative fall-out from it whether or not it is accepted or exploded by the public at large because the overall climate of fear generated does serious damage to the emotional and mental well-being of the citizenry at large and ultimately, by some process of osmosis, leaves a significant residue of resentment against those directly responsible for the culture from which it emerges.
In evaluating the accuracy of word-of-mouth information dissemination, many would remember that old parlour game where you sat in a circle and one person passed on a story to his or her neighbor and the final story when recited by the last person to receive the narrative bore little or no resemblance whatsoever to what began the process.! That is precisely what happens in places like Sri Lanka where the state has effectively taken absolute control over information dissemination: the end result is never a glowing picture of what is in fact the case but something akin to a horror tale befitting a starring role for Boris Karloff!
Because of the polarization that is our Sri Lankan “reality,” the final opinion is rationalized by the application of either of the yardsticks of jurisprudence – “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “the balance of probabilities.” Given the fact that all the facts of any case are no longer in the public domain, the Hobson’s Choice is “the balance of probabilities” and this becomes, for very obvious reasons, completely subjective in nature where the prevailing culture says “you are either for us or against us!” Consider the fact that, more than incrementally, Muthubanda or Siyane Hamine or Selvamani are being subjected to astronomical increases in the prices of the necessities of life while those dishing out all the euphoric “good news” are, literally, riding around in air-conditioned comfort in upscale automobiles and it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize in which direction most people’s judgements are going to veer!
As they used to say, “As you sow, so shall you reap” and, considering what is being sown increasingly thickly in this country, retribution might well be in store for the perpetrators before too long. This might not be a revolutionary process but it is beginning to seem like a (swiftly-accelerating) evolutionary one if any of the recent acts of resistance by the general public are to be viewed in anything resembling an objective manner!