“A device that is regularly exploited is the fear of imminent destruction by an enemy of boundless evil. Such perceptionis are deeply rooted in (Amercan) popular culture, coupled with faith in nobility of purpose – the latter, as close to a universal as history provides. … Whatever the roots of these cultural features be, they can easily be manipulated by cynical leaders, often in ways that are hard to believe.” – Noam Chomsky in ‘Failed States’ – The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy’
In his latest book ‘Failed States’, Professor Noam Chomsky, the distinguished academic and writer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was of course referring to the United States. But his insightful analysis is true not only of US but of many other countries as well. Among the hardest tasks that anyone can undertake, and one of the most important, Chomsky says, is to look honestly in the mirror. If we allow ourselves to do so, we should have little difficulty in finding the characteristics of ‘failed states’ right at home. That recognition of reality should be deeply troubling to those who care about their countries and future generations. Often we find ourselves unable to differentiate between what we preach and what we practice. Take terrorism for example. We wax eloquent about the terrorism of our opponents, about their terror against us while our terror against them does not exist. We claim that our assaults on the democratic rights of our opponents are entirely appropriate. These are the double standards that many nations, big and small, employ.
Nelson Mandela spent twenty seven long years as a prisoner having been convicted after trial in the South African courts under the then prevailing South African laws. The world thought the apartheid laws were unjust and violated the democratic rights of the people. But the South African state, like many other tyrannical governments, wasn’t bothered by what the world thought. The laws were what was needed for South Africa and the world had no right to interfere in what the government thought was best for the country. Many white South Africans, the only category of people who had the franchise to elect the government, thought so too. There were, of course, many within the country who were opposed to the tyranny of the government but they were intimidated into silence and if they continued to be outspoken were forced out of the country. Many foreign governments had ostracised South Africa and driven them out of the comity of nations. There were, of course, the odd groups who defied the ban on links with South Africa – remember the group of cricketers from Sri Lanka who embarked on a tour of South Africa?
But tyranny cannot prevail for ever. There comes a breaking point for tyrants who violate the rights of their people. So, unable to continue with the isolationism and sanctions that were imposed on their country, the government of South Africa quite unexpectedly announced on 11th February 1990 that Mandela would be freed within twenty-four hours. This was the moment the world had been waiting for. The ITN in Britain quickly scrambled a team to cover this momentous event. Veteran journalist Jon Snow was selected to anchor the coverage. Although Snow writes that live coverage of Mandela’s walk to freedom from the Victor Vorster Prison was to be restricted to South Africa Broadcasting Corporation, he had brought his own somewhat crude and unreliable satellite dish. Obviously, the international media had not yet escaped the clutches of the very people who’d detained Mandela for over twenty seven years. Snow writes: By mid-day crowds began to gather on the streets, the people on one side of the street and uniformed representatives of the white South African law and order machinery on the other side. A little after one o’clock, there was a buzz and a movement of cars and people at the far end of the long drive from the prison gates. “And suddenly, there was Mandela, somewhat taller, slimmer. greyer, but still vital despite his seventy-one years of age…And all the time, a presence, an assertive presence. It was spell binding, and I found it hard to control my own emotions as I reported. I didn’t have to speak now, the pictures said it all. tears were streaming down my cheeks and down every cheek around me. Mandela was displaying unimaginable dignity, and great restraint at the moment of his complete victory over those who had wished and the rights of the black majority dead for over two generations. It was the same dignity and restraint that Gandhi and Nehru had shown in India earlier snd which Aung San Suu Kyi was to show in Burma later. It is such great men and women who will be remembered by posterity. Lesser men and women, the likes of Idi Amin. Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot, will end up the way poet Shelley wrote in ‘Ozymandias’
Rulers when in power rarely are mindful of the lessons of history. They continue to abuse power in the hope that the voters will also have a short memory. Prime Minister Erdogan, considered popular among the voters, is now facing growing unrest in several cities of Turkey. The protests began peacefully enough against the government’s plans to redevelop a part of the city by felling 600 trees to make way for a new shopping mall. There has also been criticism of Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic style of governance. He has tended to use the Police and military in a heavy-handed manner. This harsh reaction to a peaceful protest added fuel to the fire and on two successive nights, the Police were forced to withdraw from Taksim Square. The danger for rulers who seemingly enjoy reasonable popularity is that they can easily be alienated from the people by their inability to read accurately the mood of the people. This is what seems to be happening to Erdogan in Turkey now.
Northern Provincial Council Election
The problem is compounded by nondescript advisors to popular leaders who are prone to promote their personal agendas rather than that of the ruler or that of the country. This is what seems to be happening in Sri Lanka over the promised election for the Northern Provincial Council. Powerful and influential personalities close to President are calling for the cancellation of the election while the President himself seems more inclined to compromise with these elements by diluting the 13th Amendment to render it toothless. Either action will be a disgrace and a complete let down to all the commitments the government has made towards the Tamil-speaking people and the international community towards a mutually acceptable solution to the National Question. It is also a let down in terms of thw LLRC recommendations which President Mahinda Rajapakse has publicly pledged to implement. The 13th Amendment was already part of our Constitution when the government pledged to hold the election to the NPC. The Defence Secretary and the racist bandwagon cthat seems to gather aound him called for the cancellation of the NPC election only when they realised that the Tamil National Alliance was likely to comfortably win the election despite any intimidation of the Tamil voters. They tried the same intimidatory methods in the Eastern elections but failed there, But post-election, they managed to persuade some Muslim parties to change sides and get the sole Muslim Counsillor from the SLFP elected as Chairman. But this type of ‘gerrymandering’ (used in the wider sense of voting for party lists rather than for individuals) always leads to problems and that is exactly what is happening in the Eastern Provincial Council now.
Faced with the near certainty of a TNA dominated NPC, constitutional amendments are being proposed to take away powers that Provincial Councils currently enjoy. It is only because the NPC is going to be ruled by the NPC aqnd Tamils are not exercise power. There is possibly a case for making it more difficult for two Provincials Councils to merge after the election is held. That will be outside a specific mandate given to a Council at the election. Perhaps the democratic right to merge must remain with the Council, though the conditions for people to exercise that right could be made stricter to ensure that Councils exercise it in a responsible manner. Particularly in Councils that have significant minority religious or ethnic groups such minority groups must not be made to feel that their rights are being compromised by a merger. But in a future set up, where racial and religious balavegayas have been voted out by the electorate and fade into political oblivion, it is possible to conceive of a situation when two Provinces may feel it in their mutual interests to merge. But the powers, including land and police powers, presently vested in Provincial Councils must remain. It is ludicrous to suggest that such limited powers can lead to a separatist move. The powers vested with the Government of Sri Lanka will not permit such a move. In all countries where genuine devolution has taken place, limited police and land powers (limited as in the 13th Amendment) have been devolved and that has resulted in better governance. India is a clear example where devolution of powers to the periphery works with a strong central government. It will be good if an all-party group of parliamentarians are sent to countries where such powers are devolved. They cannot then be fooled by charlatans who deliberately poison the minds of the public by falsehoods and imaginary fears nd planting the seeds of communal hatred among an innocent public. They will also be rid of exploitation, as Chomsky wrote, by those who speak of the fear of imminent destruction by an enemy of boundless evil.
A Post Script
As this column goes to the Press this week, we must pay a tribute to the Sri Lanka cricket team for the magnificent victory against England on Thursday evening at the Kensington Oval in London. It was an all round team effort, though the brilliance of Kumar Sangakkara, who carried the Sri Lanka innings almost from start to finish was clearly evident and needs to be acknowledged. The flourish of Nuwan Kulasekera when he batted stunned players and spectators alike at the ground. We can only wish Angelo Mathews’ team well for continuing with their all round performance for the rest of the ICC Champions Trophy Tournmant,