Prageeth Eknaligoda, Sri Lanka, public domain, SLC file

Sri Lankans’ Insensitivity to Violence

February 10, 2010 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

BASIL FERNANDO Column: Burning Points, UPI Asia Online – HONG KONG, China, February 5, 2010

The disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a political analyst, journalist and visual designer attached to Lanka E News; the arrest of Chandana Sirimalwatta, editor of the Lanka newspaper, and the assassination of Chandaradasa Naiwadu, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party Urban Council member at Ambalangoda, are among the acts of violence reported during the election for the executive president in Sri Lanka last month.

All of these people supported the opposition campaign of retired army commander General Sarath Fonseka. The government has made no attempt to investigate any of these incidents, or any other acts of violence.

The issue of election violence was raised at a press conference organized by the commissioner for elections this week. His explanation was that since the adoption of the 1978 Constitution this type of election politics has been normal, and that even in future elections a similar pattern of violence will continue.

The three people named above are intellectuals that represent different points of view and dared to express their opinions even in the midst of a very intense political battle. It is sad to see the suppression of voices that rise against a climate of violence and demoralization and try to develop a discourse on politics by expressing their own views for the consideration of the electorate. The case of the journalist and political analyst Eknaligoda clearly demonstrates the kind of violence used against the voices of reason.

Eknaligoda wrote several articles in Lanka E News in the months prior to the election on Jan. 26. He tried to engage his readers in a public debate on election issues. In November 2009 he wrote an article entitled, “Sarath? Mahinda? Or us?” in which he tried to demonstrate that the election was not about incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse and Fonseka.

Eknaligoda tried to highlight that the election was about the people and tried to reason out what was at stake for them and the best ways of serving their interests through the election. He tried to raise the discussion beyond personalities to issues that concern people.

He brought up the issue of dictatorship; some people had expressed concerns that Fonseka, as a former military general, could turn into a dictator if he came to power. Eknaligoda did not dismiss the argument lightly. He cited political experiences from around the world to discuss the issue of dictatorship. He spoke of two types of dictatorship: one where the military establishes a direct dictatorship and the other where an elected government through democratic means adopts the practices of a dictatorship. The issue for the people, he said, was to avoid the actual practice of dictatorship.

By examining dictatorships in Burma, Iran, Indonesia, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia, he highlighted some of the practices of dictatorial regimes. He identified the following: the lack of respect for public opinion and the law, lack of respect for the Parliament and the judiciary and lack of space for people to express and organize themselves as trade unions and other organizations that further the interests of people and the freedom of civil society.

Having identified the factors as common experiences in countries that are ruled by a dictatorship, whether they are brought about by the military or by governments initially elected democratically, he pointed out that all the features of a repressive society are present in Sri Lanka.

He pointed out that there is no respect for public opinion or the law within the country. He further pointed out the absence of space for parliamentary democracy and went on to enumerate the repression against people who engage in furthering the interests of trade unions, opposition political parties, civil society organizations and human rights work.

Thus, he returned to the original question of what was at stake for the people. He argued that these practices should be defeated, and freedom brought back to the people, giving them space to participate in political life, enjoy media freedom and engage in resolving social problems.

In this manner he distinguished between military dictatorships and democracy, not purely by those who claim to be democrats but on the basis of policies they advocate, and the policies presently needed for society. As an analyst and an intellectual, he was trying to engage society in an intelligent discourse on issues they should try and resolve through the election.

He concluded his article by stating that Sri Lanka does not need a wretched dictatorship like Burma and other countries that have similar regimes, nor does it need policies like those suggested under the “Mahinda Chintanaya” – Rajapakse’s vision.

In an article last December, Eknaligoda discussed a television advertisement that stated that people should vote for the “sensitive leader” Mahinda Rajapakse. In his article Eknaligoda analysed the meaning of “sensitive leader.”

First, he elaborated on the concept of sensitivity and insensitivity in political life in terms of the sufferings of the people. He began with the issue of the 2006 tsunami, which affected Sri Lanka badly, and pointed out that during that time one of the most saddening aspects was that there were people willing to steal from victims. He said that exhibiting such a tendency during a very tragic time pointed to a tremendous insensitivity to suffering, which had become part of the Sri Lankan psyche.

He saw the capacity to rob people during a natural calamity as an exhibition of tremendous moral breakdown in Sri Lankan society. He went on to discuss serious illnesses such as dengue fever, swine flu and other epidemics that affect the young. Accompanying such tragedies, he said were fraudulent means and attempts to earn commissions from the sale of medicines and other basic needs of the people.

These too are manifestations of an enormous moral breakdown in society, which is also reflected in the behaviour of ministers and others who engage in such practices on behalf of the government. Dealing with such questions of insensitivity was very much needed in the country.

Eknaligoda also discussed news items that appear often of suspects killed in custody under the pretext that while taking police to show where they stashed their loot, they attacked the police, who then killed them in self-defence. Such blatant police violence and society’s tolerance of it was a clear manifestation of insensitivity, he said.

He then went on to examine the killings of media personnel on orders from those in power and the government’s fake condemnations of such killings without taking any steps to ensure justice was done. Mentioning the assassination of the well-known journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, he commented that the behaviour toward the media and critics is almost like that of Caligula in the Roman Empire. Journalists are killed or assaulted in broad daylight or otherwise intimidated – and this was not a climate of sensitivity.

Despite complaints and media intervention, no credible action has been taken by the government to investigate Eknaligoda’s disappearance.

Basil Fernando is director of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong. He is a Sri Lankan lawyer who has also been a senior U.N. human rights officer in Cambodia. He has published several books and written extensively on human rights issues in Asia. His blog can be read at https://web.archive.org/web/20100210151404/http://srilanka-lawlessness.com/