Sri Lanka: Democratic freedoms cannibalise democracy

The mass hysteria now being whipped up by sections of the media against this doctor does indicate the problems involved in holding a fair inquiry

by Gamini Weerakoon

There were only a few adherents to Voltaire’s avowal , ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to death your right to say it’, standing by it, after Mangala Samaraweera dropped that hybridised ethno- religious bomb about Sri Lanka not being a Sinhala-Buddhist country.
Defenders of democracy are dime a dozen in Sri Lanka but these loquacious defenders developed a chronic tetanic locked jaw when Samaraweera dropped the bombshell. The reason could be that even the most liberal democrats did not go along with the potentially incendiary view or that it is not prudent for survival to support such views when angry mobs are being rallied against such a view.

Galileo and Mangala

But to those believers in democracy, Samaraweera was well within his rights to express it even though it was contrary to the opinion of an overwhelming majority in the country. History has many examples about those who expressed opinions that were contrary to widely held beliefs of the people taking grave risks. Galileo Galilei the legendary Italian astrophysicist was condemned by the Inquisition to life imprisonment for propagating the Heliocentric view—the earth and other planets revolve around the sun—as against the previously held view that the earth was the centre around which the sun and other plants revolved. We leave it to readers to compare Mangala Samaraweera of Matara to those like Galileo Galilei of Pisa, Italy. Many of those, who dared to venture off the traditional tracks and go their own way, have often gone into oblivion but there are others who changed the world.

Samaraweera, it will be recalled, when Media Minister in the Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike Government, claimed that ‘journalists could be bought for a bottle of arrack’, forgetting the fact politicians, too, out of power is of the same retail price. Nonetheless, this writer, at that time, in another journal, gave publicity to his profound thoughts and told him many things in plain black and white. The issue in this instance is not so much the personality involved but the right and the freedom of an individual to express an opinion that runs against popular belief, which is rare in this country and praiseworthy.

Saffron power

While a preponderant majority breathing nationalistic fire were considering the forms of torture of ancient Lanka that Samaraweera deserved, free, unrestrained and perilous thinking was gushing out elsewhere. There was Athuraliye Rathana Thera staging a fast before the Dalada Maligawa, demanding that a Muslim cabinet minister and two provincial governors be sacked alleging that they had supported or had links with the suicide bombers who killed around 250 innocent people by bombing churches and hotels on Easter Sunday. Visiting him was Galagoda-Aththe Gnanasara Thera, who was recently convicted on a charge of Contempt of Court but released on a presidential pardon of President Maithripala Sirisena, the reasons for the release we are still not aware.

The monk, Gnanasara Thera, too, demanded that the sacking of the Muslim minister as demanded by the fasting monk or else he predicted countrywide ‘Senakeli’ would begin.

The usual Sinhala meaning of ‘Senakeli’ is carnival. It could also be used to describe fireworks display (gini keli) and rhymes with ‘guti keli’ or fisticuffs. Whatever the monk meant, a hidden force seemed to be at work as town bazaars around Kandy put up shutters in support of the demands, and the closure of Kandy town was also threatened.

The two monks had their wishes granted when all Muslim Ministers resigned. Was this democracy or theocracy at work? It certainly demonstrated Saffron Power. Only Samaraweera’s comments stood out and were not in consonance with the general trend of prevalent heated political opinion.

In Kurunegala, a new jurisprudential principle is being implemented: A person is presumed guilty before an inquiry or trial is held, contrary to the principle of civilised societies: a person is presumed innocent until found guilty after an inquiry or trial. A government doctor, a Muslim, has been suspended from service on allegations that he had conducted illegal abortions on a vast numbers of women without their consent or knowledge. Over a thousand complaints have been received so far, since a newspaper sensationally splashed it across its pages. An inquiry has been ordered but how long will it take to make a final determination, while a parallel trial by the media is on each day? It is pertinent to note that the doctor was first accused of being unable to account for his assets he holds? How many doctors and other professionals are called upon to account for their assets they hold? Is it a matter for the police or the Inland Revenue Department?

The mass hysteria now being whipped up by sections of the media against this doctor does indicate the problems involved in holding a fair inquiry.

This new variety of despicable terrorism that hit Lanka on Easter Sunday needs to be investigated in all aspects with the assistance of the public. But mass hysteria whipped up by racists and their political patrons will only assist the spread of this deadly social virus.

All political and social leaders have a significant role to play—not only the government. However, with elections round the corner, it is evident that the opponents of the UNP view this bout of terrorism as a knock-out punch. The Pohottuwa opposition has a multi-pronged strategy of attack on the UNP, one of which is for its leaders to preach reconciliation with the minorities, particularly the Muslims, while getting their racist compadres to accuse the UNP of protecting the terrorist extremist Muslims to win the hardcore Sinhala vote. Another is to proclaim from roof tops that ‘Hatred does not cease by hatred’ but direct all the hatred and sentiments of extremist Sinhalese at the door of the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The UNP is caught in a bind, being held responsible for four years of erratic governance and the failure to act on information that was provided to the government about the impending terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, the squabbling between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have descended to kindergarten levels and the institutions meant to protect democracy such as the police, the legal departments, the Constitutional Council and the Office of Speaker of Parliament were under attack and threatened. Even the Cabinet of Ministers was non-functional at vital moments.

It is ironic that the Yahapalana government, whose one achievement was restoring democracy and freedom of expression, particularly that of the Opposition, is now being destroyed by its own creation. Democratic freedoms are cannibalising the institutions of democracy.

The government and the Opposition comprising the Pohottuwa are all splintered groups of the UNP, SLFP and a minuscule faction of the former leftist parties—now called the Dead Left.

Quest for power

Where is the Dead Left now? Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the veteran Trotskyite, last week was reported speaking on his future alliances. He would support Chamal Rajapaksa, brother of Mahinda and former Speaker, to be the next presidential candidate, instead of another brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was anointed as the presidential candidate at a recent Rajapaksa family dinner.

There is much vacillation in the Pohottuwa camp about who should be its presidential candidate. But one thing certain is that he should be from the Rajapaksa family, though Pohottuwa has enough fire breathing revolutionaries who had sworn by the dictum of world revolutionary leaders like Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro: Power grows from the barrel of a gun. The Pohottuwa revolutionaries appear to have revised their revolutionary thinking to ‘Power Grows from the Canopy of the Medamulana Family Tree’.

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