By Emil van der Poorten –
The title of this column might seem like a strange juxtaposition of terminology but I hope the rationale for it will become apparent as the reader goes through the body of this short submission.
I have recently been assailed by some, on whose intelligence (and motivation) I do not seek to cast aspersions, about my alleged lack of fairness and objectivity in not recognizing the good work being done by certain prominent members of our ruling junta who are, at the same time, acknowledged as seriously undermining democracy such as it is in Sri Lanka.
For instance, they have sought to impress upon me the need to recognize the enormous value of the beautification of Colombo and its environs and the effort, equivalent to Mussolini’s efforts to drain the Pontine Marshes, directed at the low-lying area around Battaramulla and the Parliament. Any suggestion that the issues of the destruction of democratic freedoms, elements of ethnic cleansing, the selling off (literally) of large swathes of prime real estate in our capital city etc. are related to these very initiatives is met with the argument that the ejection of families with legal title to their habitations in Slave Island cannot and must not be juxtaposed against what happens around Battaramulla and the Jayewardenepura complex. I am accused of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when I choose to place all the initiatives of one group of ultra-powerful people in the same basket and say that one has – if seeking to bring any morality to the exercise – to decide whether one is for or against those responsible for the entirety of what is happening. My response is, simply, “Do you think, you should support a group or individual guilty of plainly undemocratic and dictatorial conduct because they might have done something “collaterally constructive” as part of the same initiative?”
Whatever happened to the concept of moral imperative? Or has that concept simply disappeared from the religiosity of a nation whose publicists never tire of extolling its virtues as some kind of “land of the master race, inhabited by those who can do no wrong?”
What I am most bemused by is what I see as the rationalization of malicious conduct by seeking to find a “redeeming feature” in the narrative.
There have been “redeeming features” in the history of practically every repressive regime. Does one need to catalogue the “collateral constructions” of Stalin and his Five Year Plan, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s attempt to re-direct the history of an ancient Cambodian civilization, Hitler’s attempt to cleanse the world of those he claimed were genetically inferior? The list could go on. And pardon me if I am not prepared to countenance any of that because, in half a century Mao created change that meant China no longer had annual famines, Pol Pot raised a new awareness of the quality of life in rural Cambodia, or Stalin ensured a social and economic equality for the vast majority of the Soviet Union’s citizens something which disappeared after the Iron Curtain was rent asunder, or because Hitler built autobahns and was responsible for the creation of the world’s first “People’s car.”
My concern is that, perhaps unwittingly, this push for “fairness” in evaluation of behaviour of this kind is a justification for putting one’s own ethical and moral principles on the back burner in order to survive and continue what is seen as an acceptable or tolerable way of life. One constant I observe in this group of people is the fact that they are certainly not knocking at poverty’s door and that they lead a life of relative ease and comfort which they, probably and very justifiably, claim to have achieved by pulling themselves up by their proverbial “bootstraps.”
The scenario I have just described is certainly understandable and seems to have its roots in the reaction of a larger part of the Sri Lankan nation to the violence and disruption that has been its lot for the larger part of our country’s post-independence history, where a whole nation tired of violence without end and, seeing no light at the end of that particular tunnel, want an end to strife and a return to “order,” whatever that is! But, for that very reason, I would submit that what is our status quo ante is not deserving of defence by anyone who realizes that this country is well on its way to becoming that which is the antithesis of democratic governance and that state of affairs is not going to produce what is fondly hoped for!
What is the alternative?
Every faith and philosophy opposes hypocrisy and cant and it should certainly be a “no brainer” for anyone who believes that the overall conduct of a person or a group should ultimately determine whether they are deserving of support and encouragement or require opposition. It is unacceptable and unrealistic to accept such behavior by falling back on the “curate’s egg” description that it is “good in parts!”
Changes of government and the re-establishment of democracy in a nation do not necessarily have to begin with revolt in the streets or an “Arab Spring.” It certainly begins with the acceptance of the fact that you cannot have your cake and eat it too and that, at some point, you have an obligation, as an thinking human being, to show which side of this particular fence you choose to occupy! To quote, unfortunately, the very people who are in the business of suppressing democratic freedoms and never tire of chanting their particular mantram: “There is no middle ground in this business because you are either for us or against us!”