Colombo Telegraph

Thought Control In A Failed Democracy

By Baron A Kumara –

Will the people vote for Rajapaksa again? Will he be able to take the country forward into a globalized modernity and further the values of democracy, justice and equality? If your answer is yes, then it may be that you are subject to modes of government control that you are as of yet unaware of.

Sri Lanka has no free press, and as demonstrated by the impeachment this January, no independent judiciary.[1] The last standing pillar of our democracy lies in our ability to vote and elect our leaders. Nation-wide elections have been on the tip of many tongues, and according to informed speculation are likely to occur in the near future. If a government’s ascension to power hinges on performance at elections, and if those elections are fair and free, it might seem sensible to argue that democracy is in full stride. It may seem plausible that the government is dependent on the people for their power, and not the people on their government.

However, although elections may be a symbol of expression of free will, there are ways that a government may exercise control that are extremely powerful and unethical during and prior to elections. Having no free press and no independent judiciary means that at its disposal, the government has the key instruments through which consent is manufactured. In effect Rajapaksa’s popularity has been meticulously and unethically fashioned in ways most ordinary citizens are unaware of.

Controlling the Media

As philosopher Noam Chomsky said, “propaganda is to democracy what violence is to dictatorship”. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, there is both munificent propaganda, as well as excessive violence. Discourse and dialogue is controlled, thoughts are conditioned, and explicit and subliminal messaging is utilized along a pro-government agenda. According to a study by the Sri Lanka Press Institute[2], the entities controlled by the Sri Lankan government have the greatest potential influence in the Sri Lankan media as a whole, and also have the greatest potential influence on every single major media group in Sri Lanka.[3]

What you see in the newspapers and on TV, therefore, is carefully selected according to guidelines laid down by the government. Rajpal Abeynayake, the editor of the Daily News says, “In the end, you gravitate to a place where the management views (read: Rajapaksa’s views) are in consonance with yours. And I have gravitated to that place.”[4] If this is the view of the editor of the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper, what hope does the Sri Lankan press have for independent objective journalism? In so far as the media is a means of conditioning individuals, generating emotions and directing dialogue, behavior and decision-making, then it is startling to think that in many cases these means of thought control are directly under the harness of the government.

Controlling the Judiciary

According to the International Bar Association, Sri Lanka is “facing a constitutional crisis”. The removal of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was extremely politicized and characterized by lack of transparency, as well as lack of respect for the fundamental guarantees of due process and fair trial. People opposed to the Chief Justice’s removal suffered harassment, intimidation and death threats. The impeachment is just one example of how our judiciary is compromised.

When the government controls the legislation passed and the outcomes of trials in a way that undermines the common good, they abuse an ordinary individual’s inclination to obey the law, and the embedded view of the law as moral authority. The use of the PTA in the arrest of Azath Salley, on the pretence of inciting religious hatred, displays the extent to which the law can be used to further political agendas. Salley, as a critic of the government, was silenced. Who will be next?

Fear Psychosis

Sri Lankans live in an environment dominated by fear. Criticism of the government is not tolerated. Dissent is not tolerated. Threats to the Rajapaksa’s unethical hold on power are eliminated. Emerging from a bloody civil war in which victory depended on the successful deployment of counter-insurgency tactics by the state apparatus, the government has developed a schizophrenic view of every citizen as a potential terrorist. What this really means is that as a citizen, you are a potential threat to the government’s monopoly on power, and if you chose to dissent you will be exposed as a threat to security (or sovereignty), and you will be silenced. Lasantha Wickremetunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, was silenced. Other countless journalists and activists have been disappeared. The black event that happened on the 1st of August, in the town of Weliweriya, where army officials openly fired at men, women and children demanding clean water, is a case in point.

Who will you vote for?

A government’s role is to work for the common good of the people. Post-war, Mahinda appears to have done well to consolidate his power, to make people believe that he is working for the common good. But can his popularity be expected to last? As Mandana Ismail Abeywickremera so aptly articulates – “cracks are beginning to appear”.[5] SLFP loyalists are frustrated at the allocation of patronage and overt nepotism, and the government is not as stable as its projected image may suggest. At any semblance of a strong opposition those frustrated with the current regime are likely to switch allegiances.

Perhaps you identify with Mahinda Rajapaksa. Perhaps you believe he is working for the common good. After all, he takes credit for ending the war and has built expressways and roads. He seems to espouse a certain vision of what it means to be Sri Lankan that is sometimes appealing. Start to distrust your thoughts.  Remind yourself that this pro-government view has been meticulously fashioned by a compromised media and judiciary and an environment of fear. Many who support the government today, have views that have been compromised by the oppressive environment we live in, or have been bought over through state patronage.

I am Sri Lankan too. I want to live in a country where people can express their opinions freely, and where they can be sure to receive a fair trial. I want to live in a country where people are no longer afraid and where one will be rewarded for meritorious and honest work. I certainly don’t want to have to doubt my own thoughts and the behaviours and intentions of the people around me. That is why come next elections, I will not vote for Mahinda.


[1] Sri Lanka ranks 162/179 on the Press Freedom Index

[2] Sri Lanka Press Insitute and Verite Research. The Advertising Landscape An Analysis. Rep. Colombo: n.p., 2013. Print.

[3] Advertiser’s potential influence on media groups was based on the portion of their contribution to the total revenue of the media group.

[4]  Harris, Gardiner. “A Sri Lankan Journalist Eagerly Toes the Line.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/19/world/asia/a-sri-lankan-journalist-eagerly-toes-the-line.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&/>.

[5] Abeywickrema, Mandana I. “MR’s UPFA Becomes A Simmering Pot.” Colombo Telegraph. N.p., 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/mrs-upfa-becomes-a-simmering-pot/>.

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