By Emil van der Poorten –
The slogan that is the title of this column is one that was very popular many years ago at the time of the first awakening of North Americans to the need for attention to the environment, global warming and acid rain.
It comes to mind in a Sri Lankan context for two very different reasons, the first of which is the predilection of those supporting the most violent and corrupt government in Sri Lanka’s history for trotting out the “They did it first!” rebuttal every time some international or even local agency concerned with human rights points out (yet) another horrendous incident where, once again, the rule of law is treated as a dead letter rather than the cornerstone of democratic practice and civilized conduct which it is in any civilized, democratic country. It’s yet another excuse for inaction.
The fact that the western democracies have a bottomless well of hypocrisy into which our sycophantic horde dips its collective bucket for fresh supplies of material to throw at those critical of the regime they serve so assiduously should not, in any way, impede the need to continue to draw attention to the parlous condition of quasi-democracy in Sri Lanka.
I will never tire of saying that just because Hitler visited genocide on a minority group does not give us and ours the right to do so. Just because Mao and Stalin murdered millions of people in pursuit of some irrational scheme for economic modernization or because of paranoia or megalomania doesn’t give us an excuse to overlook something similar in our circumstances.
We need, as Sri Lankans to fall back on a (Buddhist) culture that completely rejected violence in any form, leave alone the exercise of brutality as the prime tool of governance. What is being suggested here is not some form of simplistic Judaeo-Christian precept of “peace to all mankind, love thy neighbor” and “we are one nation,” but a rejection of violence in any and all of its forms, particularly in the matter of governance of this country’s population. That calls for honesty in examination of of what has transpired, particularly in the history of this country since independence in 1948 and a public acceptance of the crimes and injustices that have been perpetrated, no matter by whom. South Africa’s reconciliatory rather than retributive model is the obvious one to follow. Until and unless we do this, we will not even begin any kind of national healing process, leave alone create a nation united as it goes forward to the economic success that is a sine qua non for its very survival. If we lose or further delay the opportunity of following that model, we are courting nothing less than disaster.
The other fall-back I have kept hearing ever since my return to the land in which I was born is “they” are soooo.. powerful and we are so few in numbers that we can do nothing about their behaviour. Let me, for the umpteenth time, fall back on the timeless words of Margaret Mead which are more than appropriate in rebuttal: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
With the advent of means of communication as fast as the speed of light, it seems, the tools are available to a wide swathe of the community to get the word out that the pillaging of this country is simply not acceptable, must stop and, in the event that it does not, that the community at large will ensure that it does. Standing up against the banditry in our country is not the daunting task it was when I was first involving myself in political activism and (need I say it?) even up to 15 or 20 years ago when there were very few media outlets in Sri Lanka: remember that, when one spoke of “mass media” in Sri Lanka it used to mean government-controlled radio and daily print publications you could count on the fingers of your two hands and have a few digits left over? All of these were also completely controlled by those whose class-connections left no doubt as to what they wished printed (or not printed!)
I have had the opportunity to be politically active on two continents over many years (sometimes more than I care to remember!) and I do know what it means to canvass support in villages in the hinterland of our country, served by little other than footpaths, and in single constituencies larger than all of our Resplendent Isle with populations smaller than the total Voters’ List in a Municipal Ward in Sri Lanka.
Times have changed and the nature, extent and reach of media has grown exponentially, but the basic factors have remained the same.
In circumstances where it is still “one person, one vote,” the bottom line is getting as many as possible to the polling station on election day or to mass public protests as share the beliefs I am talking about: basically that the rule of law should prevail and there is transparency in all the actions of government and the private sector. “Good governance” cannot but follow on the heels of the establishment of those principles.
In the matter of the practicalities of what we are talking about, you need to ensure that the beliefs just mentioned are shared. That should present no challenge because they are as basic as “kavun and kiribath at New Year” as one might say in this country. However, this is obviously a process that needs to precede the any actual campaign leading up to an election or organizing mass protests and needs to be approached on the practical basis of “applying the resources available to the maximum effect.”
One of the primary excuses for inaction advanced by the “They are soooo powerful” brigade is the corollary claim that “They have control of the media and have the money and muscle to make all our efforts futile.” Take a good hard look, my older friends in particular, wasn’t this the “reality” way back then as well? Lakehouse used to be the dominant newspaper group and Radio Ceylon the only game in town insofar as the ether was concerned. Both were dominated, if not absolutely controlled, by the United National Party, and espoused the philosophy and policies of that party in unmistakable terms. Among the advantages that they held, the wealthy political parties (read again as “the UNP!”) were the only ones with the ability to provide transportation to voters to the polls, in addition to the money to print and distribute paper publicity in a variety of forms.
Yet Wijayananda Dahanayake, running, if I remember right, for the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in that first election, a doctrinaire Trotskyist party, with not so much as a bicycle, leave alone buses, at his disposal, asked his supporters not to hesitate to get to the polls in free transportation provided by his UNP opponent, H.W. Amarasuriya, and vote for “Daha.” You’ve guessed right: W. Dahanayake beat one of the UNP’s giants in the Southern Province.
Among the others performing similar “giant-killing feats” (in the Central Province) at that time of our history was T. B. Ilangaratne and his wife, Tamara, in Kandy.
When Mrs. B seemingly bestrode the Sri Lankan political field like the proverbial colossus, not hesitating to use State resources to advance her party’s cause, and Tamara Kumari Illangaratne had metamorphosed into the Amazon of the Galagedera electorate, a lowly small-village mudalali called Tikiri Banda succeeded in defeating her by dint of hard work and determination on his part and that of his unpaid volunteers, in 1965.
Times might have changed, the means of “getting the word out” have doubtless been revolutionized, but as long as the will is there, political change can be affected.
In all reality, the massive exercise of the current militarized Sri Lankan state’s power has changed the old democratic equation significantly. But new challenges simply call for new responses.
We have the means of “getting the word out” even in a country where the media falls into one, two or all three categories not conducive to expression of opposition or dissent: it is directly owned by the government, it is completely controlled by government sycophants or paid lackeys, it self-censors to the point where its “news” falls into one or more of the categories reading “irrelevant,” “garbled,” or “untrue.”
We need to go over or around this travesty of “free media.” We have the means to do it and we need to exercise those means. The massive, revolutionary capacity of communication methods outside what used to be the “mainstream” were more than amply demonstrated in the Maghreb, irrespective of whether the outcome was completely desirable or not. We can do the same in Sri Lanka which certainly has far deeper roots in democratic practice than Libya, Tunisia or Egypt EVER had.
Make no mistake, the present regime, through its minions in such places as Deraniyagala and Rathupaswela have provided ample evidence of what it is capable. But, nobody said you could make omelettes without breaking eggs and some of us could well end up being the “hen’s fruit” in this equation! Considering that the alternative is a living death under the dispensations of this regime, the status quo doesn’t offer too many alternatives for the future, does it?
We need to look outside our shores and outside our time for historical precedents to ensure that decency and democracy return to our land. The first stirrings of such a movement have begun from among those considered least likely to show resistance: the rural poor of the Sinhala heartland. It is our responsibility to build on this and return Sri Lanka to what its democratic foundation promised not so long ago.