By Vishwamithra1984 –
“Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you ALIVE.” ~Sid Vicious
Chaos, they say, is order undeciphered. Such undeciphered order is what is prevalent in Sri Lanka. All attempts by any quarter to decipher that disorderly ‘order’ is being met by extreme measures. And these measures could be discerned against the harsh realities of self-imposed censorship, intimidation of independent-minded journalists and free-expressing academics, stuffing any and all worthwhile jobs with blood relatives who have proven to be absolute nincompoops and imbeciles and distorting and camouflaging truths about the economy, war-victory and any and all sundry achievements.
From the impeachment of the then Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake to the harassment of attorney Upul Jayasuriya, the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the alleged assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunga, disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and the assault on Upali Tennekoon, Poddala Jayantha and the editorial staff of the Jaffna-based ‘Uthayan’ newspaper, tell a very sordid story of sinister hands at work with diabolical aims in mind.
Every dictatorship wants to have control over its subject population. In ancient Rome they restricted knowledge and information but gave entertainment, bread and circuses to the populace. They limited education and they censored any means of self-expression. This is a pattern that repeats itself in every dictatorship, throughout history.
What started, with the easy passage of the draconian 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2010 Presidential Elections, seems to continue without any break towards certain death of democracy and freedom. The right to information is acknowledged as a universal right of each and every human being. Of all SAARC countries, only Bhutan and Sri Lanka do not have a Right to Information Act in place. Even Pakistan which has not had a democratic system of government except for a few short years under the Bhuttos and Bangladesh that came into existence as recently as 1972 have Right to Information Acts. With all its infamous corruption, nepotism and scandal, India has an exemplary Right to Information Act, thereby establishing her credentials in transparency and accountability. Even Nepal which was a monarchy until recently can boast about a Right to Information Act.
While we are on the subject of Right to Information, it is pertinent to quote, Eran Wickramaratne, the United National Party (UNP) National List Parliamentarian, from an interview given to the print media recently:
“The first reason for such missions is that the people in Sri Lanka do not have the right to information. Sri Lanka is probably the only country in South Asia where there is no written law, providing its citizen with the Right to Information.”
He goes on:
“The countries in South Asia have given a right in law, allowing citizens to access information. What that does is beyond having the right, it also gives us teeth on how to access right. For example, the law will say what official or which authority we should approach to obtain information. The public official is bound by law to provide the information within a stipulated time period. If not, the public official can be held responsible for not providing that information. That’s the bit that we don’t have because we don’t have a specific law, which gives meaning and effectiveness to the inherent right we have. Therefore, as legislators, we have the responsibility to make effective the right to information on behalf of the citizen.”
Words worthy of commendation.
Where does this leave Sri Lanka? The proud country of “the land, the race and the faith” (as most prominently quoted in Jeyaratnam Wilson’s “Breakup of Sri Lanka”) did choose to suppress the very passage of the bill that was introduced in Parliament on June 21, 2011 by a private motion by a Member of Parliament. The sad saga continues.
This nation that very proudly claims the glories of King Dutugemunu’s war victories and his subsequent magnanimity of decreeing to all citizenry to pay respects to the fallen King Elara whenever they pass through his tomb, this nation that claims ownership of the purest form of Theravada Buddhism, this nation that boasts of magnificent stupas and Dagobas that stand tall, penetrating the clear blue skies and representing the very essence of Buddha’s teachings of Metta (compassion), Karuna (kindness), Muditha (love) and Upeksha (equanimity), this nation of ours that keeps preaching about the practice of universal tolerance and charity and which sometimes thunders to the empty skies clamoring for equality in the community of nations, today finds itself dumbfounded but for a few government propaganda lackeys, when struck by allegations of atrocious crimes committed against a segment of its own people. “The land, the race and the faith” trio has driven the country into a national cul- de- sac from which it seems extremely hard to extricate itself.
In such a context, the government’s resistance to a Right to Information Act is of critical importance. It is crucial because the very existence of such a law would compel the Government and its officers to release whatever information that is requested by the general public, subject of course to the constraints imposed by the Act in particular and the Constitution in general. The shameless way the introduction of this Bill was sabotaged by the Government Parliamentary Coalition is unparalleled in our parliamentary history. The Leader of the House, Dinesh Gunawardene yelling at the top of his squeaky voice with the rest of his “gang” adding to the cacophony of voices, reminded one of an orchestra playing out of tune and the conductor gone berserk. The venom and anger with which the Government greeted the introduction of the Bill overwhelmed both the spirit and seriousness of the substance of the Bill. The intensity and perseverance that should be a hallmark of a seasoned parliamentarian was lacking in the UNP contingent. What is even more appalling is the total absence of follow-up action. The misfortune is that as much as the people deserve the governments they get, they deserve their oppositions too.
All politics is local. After President Premadasa, Mahinda is the only leader who played everything to the local populace. During an election time this seems a very lucrative tactic to win votes but in the context of the current unprecedented international scene this very tactic can turn into a Damocles’ sword.
Prevention of the Right to Information Act can be marked as significant a misstep as the passage of the 18th Amendment of the Constitution was. It is another nail on the coffin of freedom. Dictators in history always thought that their power would last forever; some who grabbed power by way of coups and military means as well as those who were first voted into power and then turned screws on the very people who gave them that power never paused to think that this power would not last forever. Hitler’s much heralded ‘1000-year Reich’ lasted only 12. There is a reason for it. When in power, a wall is built around them to keep the people out of it. Those outside do not see what’s going on inside and vice versa. Into this morass come worms in the form of court jesters who for their own parochial ends see nothing but strength and sweetness in their “lokkas”. This is the universal phenomenon of power. The present regime enjoys a lot of it. It is precisely in that context that a constitutional piece such as the Right to Information Act could have played a crucial role in checkmating their inevitable march into the valley of death of freedom and democracy.
The present regime has many shortcomings such as lack of transparency and accountability, corruption, nepotism etc. The demons of the 18th Amendment are slowly devouring the body and soul of our nation, leaving only the skeleton to be visible to the naked eye. Even the marrow has been attacked and a free people may be gasping, waiting for the inevitable.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org