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Friday, March 1, 2024

Stopping The Rot

”This bigotry and intolerance is untenable. It is wholly detrimental to the free thought, free speech and the advancement of society. Why in this day and age is a government afraid of a diversity of views? Why do they feel so threatened by detractors and critics that they feel it necessary to classify them as conspirators or traitors?”

Namini Wijedasa

Keynote speech delivered by journalist Namini Wijedasa at the Annual General Meeting of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance  held in the auditorium of the Organisation of Professional Associations, Colombo.

Members of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance and friends,

This is an honour indeed. And yet, I am more than a little daunted at having to speak before an audience whose experience and memories stretch so back into the past. When Dr. Visvalingam invited me to address you, I was delighted. But as the days flew by, I became more and more uncertain of what I could say to people who already knew so much more than I do. And who have lived much longer than I have.

So I stand before you as an ordinary journalist who makes no pretence about the depth and extent of my knowledge or insight. I present to you my views based on what I have learnt of my country through the exercise of my profession.

It is the practice today that when somebody presents a view contrary to that which is held by the government and its henchmen, that person and his opinions are loudly denigrated. He must have an agenda, they say. And the word ‘agenda’ is almost always used negatively.

If you criticise the way foreign relations are conducted, you’re being bribed by the West. If you speak about human rights abuses, you are a grasping NGO agent. Either way, you are embroiled in a certain conspiracy to topple the government.

If you oppose the mass ordination of Buddhist children because you think it is not the healthiest way to alleviate poverty or to protect the Buddha Sasana, you’re part of an international religious plot to destroy Buddhism in Sri Lanka. If you eat bread or noodles, you’re a slave to those evil multinational companies—despite the fact that the person making this claim is a noodle himself.

If you criticise your rulers, you’re just downright ungrateful because they won the war—and that should suffice for the next several decades. Indeed, “if you are not with us, you are against us”. Still. Three years after the war ended.
This bigotry and intolerance is untenable. It is wholly detrimental to the free thought, free speech and the advancement of society. Why in this day and age is a government afraid of a diversity of views? Why do they feel so threatened by detractors and critics that they feel it necessary to classify them as conspirators or traitors?

As journalists, we have to avoid all these labels. And yet, you could still be sold out by colleagues who have aligned themselves so closely with this government that they are irreversibly indebted to them. If there are stooges in all other sectors, so it is also with the media. Carrots are certainly more powerful than the stick.

This is not a phenomenon unique to the prevailing regime. Ranil Wickremesinghe had media lackeys who treated as heretics those colleagues who did not blindly follow the leader. So did Chandrika Kumaratunga and no doubt those before her. I may be mistaken but it feels so much worse now. If there is one change I would like to see in the media industry, it is that we do not let our political preferences erode relations among ourselves to the extent that we are unable to tolerate each other in a room.

I have an agenda. That agenda is set by me, based on certain principles, and is not financed by anybody. It comes from wanting a better life for my children. It comes from having made a choice to stay in Sri Lanka when leaving was an attractive option.

As with any journalist, I have had access to many policy and decision makers over the years. I have observed how politicians think, how they work and the difference between the two. I have been able to compare how systems, and the attitudes of those that run them, have changed. I have witnessed half-baked attempts to introduce some semblance of independence to our public institutions through the 17th amendment. Then I saw how easily, and flippantly, even these efforts were reversed through the passing of the 18th amendment.

Having covered the story from the day the law was passed, I will be the first to admit that the 17th amendment was flawed. I remember writing that the law was riddled with more holes than a string-hopper. But it could have been improved for the greater benefit of this country’s citizens and its public officials. Instead, the opposite was done. Our public institutions have lost every semblance of independence and are completely and wholly controlled by the executive. And this includes the judiciary.

When the judiciary depends on the executive for survival and career advancement, and the executive is of the type that expects complete subservience, what hope does this country have?

I don’t have to go into detail here about just how politicised our institutions are. My audience knows it. What is despairing is that it appears to be a bottomless pit. You keep falling, and falling, and falling. The level of submission required is suffocating and even extends to the arts, particularly to the world of film. Since the war ended, Sri Lankans have been allowed to view the conflict only through the eyes of the Sinhalese or through the eyes of the military.

Their story of loss, grief and victory must be told. But what of the others who died, who suffered, who grieve? What about the Tamils? What about the LTTE fighters, many of whom even the government says were conscripted by force? They have a story to tell too. If we don’t tell it, a foreigner will. And then we won’t like it. Then we will whine about it. And somebody out there will join the growing ranks of traitor, of conspirator, of enemy.

I remember visiting a Tiger cemetery once, during the ceasefire. It was for a story. Back then we were encouraged to report these things. A mother and her daughter were laying flowers out on a grave. The woman said her son was buried there. He had been 16 at the time of his death. I saw the same pain in her eyes that I have seen in the eyes of other mothers, Sinhalese mothers, Muslim mothers. Sorrow has no ethnicity, no bias, no race or political preference. So why do we give it these attributes?

Everyone is doing politics everywhere now. The end result is that we don’t get our services. It’s politics at the municipal council, at the police station, in schools, universities and in the health sector. Sportsmen do politics, actors do politics, soldiers, even very senior ones, do politics on behalf of politicians. Politics, politics, everywhere. To prep up a regime, or to topple it. Nothing in between, where the people are.

Then there is this business of how people have come to accept the unacceptable. Some months ago, I walked to the top of our lane with our five-year-old daughter, Anshula. We were heading to the little bookshop near Jubilee Post junction. When we got there, there was police tape around the shop and policemen outside. So we turned back.

I asked some three-wheeler drivers parked at the stand nearby what had happened. As my daughter listened open-mouthed, they described how some men had come the previous evening—not too late—shoved the owner of the bookshop into the inevitable white van and taken him away. They had guns, these drivers said, with great relish. Don’t know where they took him. “Oh well,” I told my daughter, “let’s come some other time”. “Will they find that uncle?” she asked. “I don’t know darling,” I replied, noncommittally. “But there are other bookshops.”

It was only at night that it hit me. My reaction was not normal. It was not normal for me to have accepted the abduction of this man. I don’t know if guns were actually used, but it was also not normal for me to have accepted that a bunch of guys could turn up with guns at the local bookshop. What had happened to me?

But this how it goes. We Sri Lankans are getting so used to things being done wrongly that we forget what the right way is. Does it make me an NGO puppet when I say all this? A traitor? A conspirator? A misguided fool? A plant of the West? An anti-Rajapaksa ingrate? Of course. To some people. But I’m none of those things to me. And that is what matters.

So… how do we reverse the rot? Heck, I don’t know. If the whole distinguished lot of you failed to get it done over the years, what chance do I have of prescribing or enforcing solutions? Most times, the situation seems so hopeless that the worst option seems to be the best option: That is, if you can’t beat them, join them.

But there has to be a way. And here is a little of what I figured out through my interactions as a journalist. First and foremost, we must fight on behalf of institutions and systems while separating personalities and politicians from the same. Politicians, regardless of their parties, have taken ownership of institutions and systems that do not belong to them. The public must bear on politicians to run them in a manner that benefits us.

So often, since the war ended, we have heard that we must be grateful to the government. Yes, we must. But this notion of gratitude has been taken too far. Today, we are expected to be grateful for everything, particularly services that are our entitlement. And those services, too, are delivered so grudgingly, so lackadaisically and so incompetently that it makes you cringe. This is a country that can’t conduct an advanced level examination without a breakdown. Need we look further?

I say that now, three years after the military victory, it is time to stop focusing solely on gratitude. It is time to demand good governance. The regime must be grateful to the people for tolerating its inefficiency thus far. All the international conspiracies in the world can’t mask the fact that things are not right here.

So how does the public know that they are being poorly governed, that politicisation is eating way at the very heart of our systems? The message must go to the grassroots, to the members of local government and provincial councils, of village societies and women’s groups. Teachers, clergy, business people, professionals, agricultural workers, everyone, must be made aware of their rights and entitlements. People must be educated about how proper systems work because we are so entrenched in what we have now that we cannot see or remember a better time.

As a journalist, I have found the public eager to learn about alternatives. I recall a discussion I had with a group of law students at the Colombo High Court last November. It was a vibrant dialogue about the importance of separating the judiciary from the executive. It seemed all the more relevant because we were waiting for the judgement in Sarath Fonseka’s ‘white flag’ case. They, and I, went away more enlightened than when we came in. And I wondered whether the legal education system was today independent enough for similar debates to take place at student level. My guess is, no.

When the message goes to the grassroots, stuff happens. Changes occur. We may not see them now, but things start moving. Politicians get nervous and feel more accountable. If the voices circulate only in the capitals, nothing will change. I had a scheduled interview with a senior VIP government minister recently. I was to meet him at 2 pm. At 1.30 pm, his aide called me and said the minister would be delayed because he was in meetings at Anuradhapura. Two o’clock came and went. I waited because the interview was an important one. We have waited a lifetime for Chandrika to get to places so this was nothing.

At 3.30 pm, I called the aide. So sorry miss, he said. The minister was still at meetings and hasn’t even had his lunch yet. What’s the problem, I asked. “Big problem, miss,” he said. “All the local politicians are fighting with him about so many things and he can’t get away. He’s been stuck since morning.” The minister did not return till late that day. He had been given a tough time by the people that matter.

This pattern needs to be repeated. People from the bottom have to get their rulers to listen. They have to cut through the rhetoric about international and local conspiracies and get to the root of the problem.

But the objective, in my personal view, should not be to topple governments. Any fool can see that the alternatives are not viable. And if the systems remain the same what’s the point in changing a government anyway? Besides, that objective will defeat the purpose. The fight will once again be about personalities and not about systems.

I don’t know whether we can achieve this. I do know that the job can’t be left to journalists alone or to civil society alone or to anybody else alone. Everyone who has the knowledge and the exposure must encourage people at the grassroots to demand more from our rulers. Governing, after all, isn’t the sole prerogative or business of governments, and of particular political parties. The agenda has to be set by us. If we can’t get the people we elected to do their job, then we are responsible for the rot we so despise.


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