By Niranjan Rambukwella –
Flipping through newspapers or scrolling through Colombo Telegraph, absence is as significant as presence. Absence of discussion, that is silence, often points to areas where society has arrived at consensus. Lack of debate on slavery can either signal broad societal agreement that slavery is wrong, or the counter-consensus that slavery is right. In either case, silence points to consensus.
Studying silence can reveal a society’s most fundamental beliefs, those beliefs that are so deeply entrenched that they need no articulation. For many years Sri Lankans believed in the success of our education system. Debate and discussion were limited to fixing peripheral problems like the Scholarship Exam. Newspapers and political discussion never questioned the fundamental structure of educational institutions – everyone agreed that the basic structure was sound, no debate was needed, and silence prevailed.
Silence is also sinister – signifying ignorance, taboos and outright oppression. For many years public debate ignored the necessity of education reforms. While teaching standards fell and graduates struggled to find work, Sinhala and Tamil speaking society complacently accepted the comfortable consensus of Sri Lanka’s educational success – persisting till FUTA’s iconoclastic strike. These strikes razed the idol, and now collective inquiry into Sri Lanka’s educational problems slowly emerges as debate expands. Teachers, parents and students starting to comprehend the gravity of the issue, are beginning to talk and question. As the embers of discussion are fanned, understanding grows further and virtuous cycle is set in motion.
Over the last year the government’s foreign and economic policies, which for a couple of years commanded virtually universal approval, are now the subject of considerable debate. Why did the silence break so suddenly? These policies have not changed much over the last few years – then why the sudden shift.
Disruptive interventions destabilize consensus. When an infallible truth is credibly questioned debate emerges. Consensus and certainty give was to debate and doubt. Existing critical voices become credible, the disheartened encouraged and defenders roused. A war of ideas then emerges, and while the battle rages certainty is dead and doubt reigns.
Public debate (by this I mean Sinhala language debate) on foreign policy over the last year is an excellent case in point. Dayan Jayatilleke’s arrival in Sri Lanka marked the start of the skirmish – his weekly television appearances, regular writing to the Sinhalese press criticizing the government’s foreign policy and formidable speaking schedule all played an important role in destabilized the conviction that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was well handled. Over the last few months that skirmish has become a pitched battle with many commentators and political parties joining the fray. Regardless of their view of the government’s ends, faith in the government’s policy is shaken, debate is emerging and consensus and certainty are slowly slipping away. Silence on foreign policy management is now replaced with sustained criticism and the Sri Lankan people now know that all is not quiet on the Western Front (or the Southern for that matter). The UNP and JVP and even the nationalists are all questioning its efficacy. Newspaper editors are increasingly publishing critical voices and the government is forced to defend its record.
The same can be said of the economy: the JVP’s sustained and informed critique in the Sinhala sphere was almost as successful as Dayan’s in foreign policy. While a year ago the multiple Nagumas and the photos of infrastructure deluded that masses very few now believe that the government will win the ‘development war’ as it won the other war. Tales of corruption, evidence of economic mismanagement and widespread waste, combined with criticism from commentators and politicians has put paid to certainty.
The Next Idols
The Foreign Policy and Economy idols are dead. Now the National Security Idol must be extinguished.
Radio silence is imposed when ships want to sail discreetly, without others knowledge. Sri Lanka’s national security policy is a ship on radio silence. No one knows how big it is, where it going, why etc. The tax payer knows precious little about how the nation’s security is being protected, and how the defence forces plan to prevent the phoenix like rise of another violence conflict. Even in policy circles there is virtually no debate, discussion or even conversation on Sri Lanka’s national security objectives, its strategy and its operational methods. There is no Dayan challenging the Defence Idol.
We, the people, have no choice but to assume that the current strategies, tactics and operations are the best for us and our country. We have no choice but to assume that we need a 300,000 strong army. We have no choice but to assume that we need a totalitarian intelligence apparatus. We have no choice but to assume that we need military rule and colonisation in the North.
The people of Sri Lanka need debate and discussion on national security. Silence means we will have to believe that the methods that won the war will win the peace, we will have to believe that extraordinarily calling out the army every month protects the Sri Lankan people and not the government, and we will have to believe when we are tortured and executed without trial that it is for our own protection. This is the price of worshiping the National Security Idol.