While in this fight to guard our rights
and our country to defend,
Here grim and gay we mean to stay
and stick it to the end.
adapted from a schoolboy song, quoted by Francis Wheen in ‘Strange Days Indeed’ (first published 2009)
The freedom to hold an opinion and to express them is a fundamental right of an individual in a democracy. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the member states of the United Nations in 1948, makes this clear. However, like all rights, this right too is not an absolute one. If free speech infringes on the rights or dignity of any other individual or group, then it has to be tempered. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does this when it states that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence should be prohibited by law. In our country, unfortunately, ever since independence, many of our people, including politicians, havbe been doing just that. The target has generally been the minority communities, racial and religious, but there have been minority groups which have indulged in indiscriminate hate speeches and action against the majority community and even against another minority community. With the ending of the latest and long bout of violence, followed by the admirable recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the country was presented with an opportunity to turn its back on discrimination, hostility and violence. But alas! That opportunity is being lost not only by the non-implementation of the LLRC recommendation but, worse, by the support being given to the purveyors of hate.
The post-apartheid Constitution adopted during the Presidency of Nelson Mandela is one of the best examples of the protection given to the several racial, religious and tribal groups that form this ‘rainbow’ nation. The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 2000 contains the following clause:
No person may publish, propagate, advocate or communicate words based on one or more of the prohibited grounds, against any person, that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to:
be harmful or to incite harm;
promote or propagate hatred.
The “prohibited grounds” include race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. Intentionally and seriously impairing the dignity of another may and has been used to prosecute hate speech. ome years ago, the Courts banned a song that was termed demeaning and offending the dignity of the minority Boers.
Commonness of our shared culture
In Sri Lanka, the purveyors of hate seem to enjoy a charmed life. Dr Liyanage Amarakeerthi, the well-known academic who teaches Sinhala at Peradeniya,in a recent essay stated that he recently heard speakers at a Bodu Bala Sena rally in Kandy make ‘savagely racist’ speeches. Amarakeerthi further stated: “Groups like BBS are too dangerous to ignore but too parochial to take seriously. While watching what they are doing, it is better for us of all communities to understand our shared history and shared everyday life. The week Bodu Bala Sena came to Kandy I started my lectures on Comparative Literature at Peradeniya, and my first reading assignment was three stories by Sri Lankan Muslim writers from the collection Asalawesi Api, edited by Professors Carmen Wickramagamage and M. A. Nuhman. In those stories, the feelings of attachment to certain villages, soil, farmland and so on in those Muslim villagers were very similar to ours. Those students who read them rejoiced in the discovery of commonness found in them. Yet again, I heard there were so many university students at the BBS rally, cheering the racist speeches. It is very easy to instigate communal feelings and it does not take a whole lot of learning to do so. To understand how communities collectively create cultures and civilizations, one needs some effort and learning. We can either take up that challenge or sadly observe a country that has a great cosmopolitan history and culture to disintegrate into fragments from which we will never find our cultural or human wholeness and wholesomeness.”
Arrest of Azath Salley
It is this context that we find another blatant abuse of power in the arrest of Azath Salley, a former Deputy Mayor of Colombo. The Asian Human Rights Commission has called the arrest the result of paranoia by the ruling family. The government is alarmed at its growing unpopularity A drowning man will clutch at any straw but he must beware of clutching instead at a serpent which will sting him back. Mahinda Rajapakse must realize that consorting with racist elements may lead to short term gains for himself and his coalition but he will be throwing away an opportunity to re-build our country as a rainbow nation, similar to what Gandhi and Nehru in India and Nelson Mandela in South Africa attempted to do for their countries and succeeded to a large extent.
We do not believe that Mahinda Rajapakse is a racist or authoritarian in his mental make-up. We believe he was sincere when he was a champion of human rights and went to Geneva to expose the excesses of the then government and to plead for justice for the victimized youth during the UNP regime. But the same cannot be said of some of those close to him. Mahinda Rajapakse obviously has a limited vision and he finds it convenient to go along with those who boost his ego but at the expense of the future of our country. He has been vested with undemocratic powers but does not see or is unwilling to see that the abuse of such powers will ultimately lead to the downfall not just of himself but of the SLFP that he represents. In this, he is like his counterpart in the UNP today, who will not let go to re-vitalise the Grand Old Party of the Right.
The government spokesperson has said that there were charges against Azath Salley, including that of financial irregularities. Like in the case of Shirani Bandaranayake, against whom we were told that there were twenty-four charges, also including financial irregularities, we can confidently presume that there will not be a trial in terms of the rule of law. In the case of Shirani Bandaranayake and Sarath Fonseka before her, they were tried by hand-picked tribunals. A special tribunal cannot be set up for Salley. If he were to be tried in the normal courts, God only knows how he can be convicted, in terms of the law, of charges which have yet to be disclosed. The more likely outcome would be the President ordering his release saying that he was responding to appeals made by the family. The state media will no doubt hail this as another instance of the humanitarianism of the President.
One of the finest statements that have come out in connection with the arrest of Salley has been from the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, an organization that has been consistent in its efforts for over forty years to uphold democracy and human rights in our country, The CRM statement dated 8th May and signed by Suriya Wickremasinghe, its Secretary, states: “Of extreme concern is the context in which this arrest of a prominent member of a minority community has been made. We refer to the alarming hate campaign against this same minority currently conducted by elements claiming to represent the majority Buddhists, which campaign has reportedly at times been accompanied by highly inflammatory actions and speeches which in some instances have resulted in violence. The law enforcement agencies have been conspicuously absent or ineffective. On some occasions they have simply remained bystanders. A vigorous and principled counter-campaign by the government emphasising values of tolerance and inter-religious harmony has been called for by many but remains no more than a fervent hope.
To now use the inhuman provisions of the PTA against Mr Salley is not merely an act of injustice perpetrated on one individual. It sends a most dangerous message to a community already feeling unfairly under attack, and may act as encouragement to the extremist forces mobilised against minority groups, raising a spectre some of us fondly dreamed had been laid to rest.”
LLRC and Reconciliation
It is now exactly four years since the security forces killed Prabakaran and thus ended the conflict. The country’s hope was that we would then have peace and the government would initiate positive steps towards reconciliation. The government-appointed LLRC, under the chairpersonship of former Attorney-General C R de Silva, pointed out that the ending of the protracted and bloody conflict had opened many opportunities for bringing about reconciliation between the different communities, especially among the Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims. The Commission urged the necessity of promoting a common vision of an inter-dependent, just, equitable, open and diverse society. The development of a vision of a shared future required, the LLRC said, the involvement of the whole of society. Acknowledging the losses and suffering of the past and providing mechanisms for recompense, social justice and for restoration of normalcy and expressions of empathy and solidarity, are steps aimed at redress. Relationship – building following violent conflict, addressing issues of lack of trust, prejudice, and intolerance whilst accepting commonalities and differences, is the essence of reconciliation. The culture of suspicion, fear, mistrust and violence needed to be removed and opportunities and space opened up in which people can hear each other and be heard. A culture of respect for human rights and human diversity needed to be developed creating an environment where each citizen became an active participant in society and felt a sense of belonging, of being Sri Lankan. For this purpose the social, economic and political structures which gave rise to the conflict and estrangement needed to be identified and addressed.
The LLRC report further stated: “The Commission however wishes to emphasize that the responsibility for being the prime mover of this process lies squarely with the Government. Since reconciliation is a process and not a onetime event, the efforts towards that objective should be continuous and broad based whilst being fully supported by the elected Government.”
Mahinda Rajapakse and his advisers did not need the LLRC to adevise on these steps for reconciliation. It was common sense and every thinking Sri Lankan would have shared the sentiments of the LLRC. It did not need the Azath Salleys to tell them that ignoring the steps recommended towards reconciliation by the LLRC was opening the doors towards another conflict. The purveyors of hatred towards a minority community should be reminded of another observation in the LLRC report: “The political leaders and the country as a whole should take a cue from the disabled soldiers who expressed their sentiments that they have no hatred or rancour against the LTTE combatants who attacked them. If the political leadership on all sides do not shed their parochial interests, electoral or other, and find a consensual way forward towards achieving these objectives of critical national importance at this juncture of unprecedented opportunity, the country will regress and future generations might be called upon to bear the brunt of another crisis ”
In the course of Sri Lanka’s long history, various communities – racial, tribal, linguistic and religious.- have contributed to the richness of our history and culture. Each of them has retained its own identity and its own distinctiveness of language, literature, art, culture, beliefs and institutions. All Sri Lankans need to be proud of their contribution to the richness of our diversity.