The ‘disappearance’ of democracy

There is a popular theory in local circles today that the whole world – from the Sri Lankan perspective – seems to have been turned on its head. Look around, all we see are people shaking their heads in disbelief at the rapid degeneration of a state and its people, ensnared in civil strife, prices that are rendering even middle-class citizens impoverished and the moral bankruptcy of the political leadership.
We live in an age when the powers that be blatantly engage in acts against an ethnic community, evicting its own citizens from the capital, issuing an apology, retracting the apology, justifying the eviction and apologising all over again – all in the space of less than a week.
If there ever was a world award, let’s say like the coveted Nobel Prize for right royal bungling by a government in power, we could be proud that ours will most definitely put to shame some of the most clueless administrations around the globe. While most of us are still wondering what moment of insanity made the elected and nominally democratic government of Sri Lanka resort to an unethical act of ethnic discrimination which can compare with some of the most atrocious acts of such nature committed since independence, there was a sigh of relief last week that at least the powers that be had realised their folly and rectified that great wrong. After the Supreme Court issued a stay order to halt the eviction of Tamils from Colombo that came amidst a deluge of condemnation from all directions, Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickramanayake, a perceived hardliner made an apology to the Tamil community and vowed that such acts will not be orchestrated by the government again.
Even if the damage was done and Sri Lanka as a nation was left contemplating on the cerebral capacity of our rulers, there was a sense that at least saner counsel prevailed that such acts were not acceptable in a democracy, however weak it might be at present. Yet that relief was short lived with two administration strongmen issuing statements contradicting and retracting the Prime Minister’s apology. Of these two, Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle did the most damage to his own credibility and that of the government while Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa chipped in by diluting even an iota of sympathy that the rest of the world may have had towards Sri Lanka as a country fighting a ruthless terrorist organisation.
Fernandopulle, in his warped justification of the eviction, not only sneered at the Prime Minister and let down his own people, but raised the question as to whether this government can at the very least speak with one voice on matters so crucial to national interest.
During his press conference Minister Fernandopulle also made a rather amusing statement which would be another first in the Sri Lankan conflict. For the first time since Velupillai Prabhakaran made his entrance to the Sri Lankan theatre of conflict, he has now been cited as a witness for the government. According to Fernandopulle’s argument, a parliamentary select committee will only be established to look in to the alleged transfer of money to the LTTE during the last presidential election, if and only if the Tiger leader attests to such a claim. Apparently the democracy of this country and parliamentary procedure are now dependent on the honesty of a terrorist leader.
Deepening the crisis, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in his interview to Reuters more or less acknowledged that the government is involved in abductions and human rights violations while trying to justify his position by likening it to US covert operations. Justifying the eviction of Tamil’s from the capital Rajapaksa is reported to have said “anything is fair in the fight against terrorism”.
While an argument along those lines might be permissible, if not correct, from a military perspective, there is no doubt that at a time when Sri Lanka is taking a beating on the world stage for her disastrous human rights record, Rajapaksa’s opinions were better kept to himself.
These seemingly directionless statements made by two high ranking officials of the government have helped to rapidly erode Sri Lanka’s image in the eyes of the international community. All the hard work done by the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and his dedicated officers, to build Sri Lanka’s image abroad and to convince the world that we are not a racist and chauvanist state is now being negated. In international forums, Sri Lanka is being cited along with countries like Sudan and Iraq for our human rights violations. It might be too much to hope for a reincarnation of Kadirgamar, but the people of this country are justified in expecting at the very least an iota of competence from their rulers.
In all this, the Sri Lankan citizen mourns one thing. The most tragic victims of the cycle of abductions, abuses, disappearances and crimes against humanity, are democracy and freedom.
Elsewhere in this issue, with reference to a former cricketer revered for genteel demeanour, both on and off the field, we quoted a little-known but well loved poem by American novelist and poet, Josiah Gilbert Holland. Holland was inspired to write ‘God give us men’ by the concept that the three agencies of family, church and state, each working efficiently in its own sphere would produce the best of citizens. We, the newspapers, humbly suggest that the proper working of all four agencies – with the media too playing a role – would go some distance in the fashioning of the model citizen. And this is why, threats and intimidation notwithstanding, it is our bounden duty to take on the irresponsibility and abuse of incumbent administrations.
Yes, Sri Lanka today badly needs model citizens. Her leaders are failing her – again. Only the power of the people will lift us out of the current quagmire. The country is well on its way to being listed as a ‘failed’ state and democracy, well she is proving very elusive. ‘God give us men’ indeed. As Holland so eloquently put it, “Men whom the lust of office does not kill, men whom the spoils of office cannot buy, men who possess opinions and a will, men who love honour, men who cannot lie” – they are the need of hour.