By Amila Muthukutti –
It reminds us of the saying “Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold” by Thomas Jefferson, when we see how rulers of an economically bankrupt nation are preparing themselves to celebrate their independence from the British colonialism. Even though it is true that the independence which is a process contributed by lots of men and women in the country should be celebrated and appreciated annually, the value of its financial cost is questionable at this crucial juncture where citizens are unprecedentedly taxed, inhumanely ignoring the capability of fulfilling even their basic needs. On the other hand, independence remains important and celebrate-worthy, given the fact that independence is gained from what or whom, especially how big the threat is. It is in that sense that we are able to figure out that the independence to be gained is more important and valuable than the one that our forefathers fought for.
The Oxford dictionary defines independence as freedom from political control by other countries and freedom as the right to do or say what you want without anyone stopping you. As it is less common in the world’s context, except for the most conventional example – Israel-Palestine conflict, and less relevant in Sri Lankan context to see that nations are militarily conquered by super-powers like in the past, what is the most applicable to us, as citizens of this tiny island, is to focus more on freedom, in lieu of boasting of the already gained independence.
It is easier to define the freedom that Sri Lankans are currently enjoying, by putting it into the four-freedom goals articulated by US president Franklin D Roosevelt. Moreover, even though it was intended to articulate threats to the United States and other nations during the world war, it is still applicable in Sri Lankan context. They are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech, which can be defined as the power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, and legal penalty, is a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sri Lanka, as a democracy that lacks basics of democracy, has a history of journalists being killed, media stations being set on fire and many more, refraining people from expressing their views freely or depriving them of the opportunity to hear from others.
It is needless to go that far to bring some examples into the discussion, regarding freedom of speech. The online safety bill that was recently passed in the parliament as an act was heavily criticized by human rights activists, as it opens a can of worms in the sphere of freedom of speech. Even if the act states as its objectives to protect persons against damages caused by communication of false statements or threatening, alarming or distressing statements and prevention and safeguard against misuses of online accounts so and so forth, it can create fear among the public, mainly due to unawareness, indirectly restricting the right and due to the possibility of the act being misused by politically motivated groups, directly restricting the right.
Freedom of worship
It refers to religious liberty, meaning one’s own freedom to choose and profess one’s religion without being a victim of any kind of oppression and discrimination. Sri Lanka’s constitution recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, while giving Buddhism “foremost place”. However, the fact that religion is over-blended with politics in South Asian countries like Sri Lanka has posed a serious threat to freedom of worship, resulting in a state of affairs where politicians can benefit by discriminating against religious beliefs.
A report named “2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Sri Lanka” issued by US Department of State clearly reviews religious freedom in Sri Lanka. It cites several recent examples where freedom of worship was seriously violated. The Easter Sunday attack in 2019 can be identified as an incident that unprecedentedly put this freedom in jeopardy. It is more than the other kinds of freedom already mentioned and to be mentioned that freedom of speech can be violated by government’s involvement as well as civil involvement which is, people discriminate each other based on their religions.
After the Easter Sunday attacks, people themselves started discriminating against Muslims in the country, as it was an attack on a group of Catholics following their religion at several churches by a group of extremist Islamic youth. The report citing local Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) states that local officials and police responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated discrimination and violation against minorities. Furthermore, it states that in 10 cases of intimidation or attacks by Buddhists groups on Christian churches, the police said, the pastors were to blame for holding worship services and in three additional cases, police accused a pastor of breaching the peace. Moreover, the government implemented mandatory cremation policy for COVID-19 victims, which denied Muslims the right to bury their dead. Later, the government chose a location in the Eastern Province as the sole burial ground for COVID-19 victims. However, Muslims complained of the hardships in traveling to this location and in adhering to strict and cumbersome government burial procedures.
Freedom from want
Freedom from want can be defined as a situation where people can fulfil their basic needs such as food, clothing, housing, and medicine etc. The inability to fulfil this leads to dire poverty which people of the country are struggling to cope with, as the heat of the economic crisis is on the rise day by day.
Needless to say, from the point of people having to be in ques to get their essentials to the point of people having no money in their pockets to buy them, even when they are available at shops, freedom from want is badly violated. It is not because of the fact that people have mismanaged their household income, but because of the fact that the government has mismanaged resources and ruined the relevant infrastructure, that people have been put out of the frying pan into the fire.
Recent increase of VAT has made essentials like education, clothing further away from human consumption in Sri Lanka, increasing inflation expectations which is targeted to be 5% over the medium term by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Although economic growth is projected to be 3%, it is likely to be very challenging, given the fact that exports went down by 11.8% in November on a YoY basis, while it marginally increased by 0.4% in December on YoY basis. All this says that people in the country lack freedom from want.
Freedom from fear
Freedom from fear can be defined as a situation where people are not in fear of their government, its armed forces, police who act undemocratically or even their neighbors. In other words, it is the feeling of safety that not only their lives but also their properties are protected in the legal framework of the country. When properties which are claimed to be illegally earned are dismantled in lieu of prosecuting against them, the public cannot attain the freedom from fear regarding their properties. When people are followed and shot on the road by police officers in civil attire, people cannot attain freedom from fear regarding their lives.
Moreover, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which came under severe criticism by human rights activists, mainly due to its lack of protection for human rights, enabling the perpetration of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and other human rights violations is expected to be replaced by the Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB). However, it is also criticized that the latter has not rectified former’s flaws. It must be noted that these laws, if properly used, may safeguard the lives of the public and if misused, may increase the public’s fear.
There is no doubt that it is high time for the people to be independent of the system that looted and bankrupted them. Furthermore, people of the country should be independent of politicians who made the nation indebted for centuries and impoverished even the unborn. For that purpose, people’s right to be ruled by leaders who are both constitutionally as well as democratically elected, must be respected.