FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SRI LANKA

For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya

Governance, Rights and Reconciliation: The National Anthem and Other Disturbing News from Sri Lanka

22 Dec, 2010
Dr. P. Saravanamuttu

The headline story of the Sunday Times of 12 December 2010 was deeply disturbing.  According to it the Cabinet has made a decision that henceforth the national anthem will only be sung in Sinhala.  Subsequent reports confirmed that the issue was discussed in cabinet but that no final decision had been taken. In the meantime the status quo was to be maintained.

At a time when the principal challenge facing the country is to move beyond a post –war situation to a post-conflict one, where the sources of conflict are not sustained or reproduced and at a time in which much is made of the regime’s commitment to reconciliation by way of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission raising this issue at cabinet level, the lack of clarity with regard to what transpired and the suggestion that a decision may have been deferred, all constitute a chilling rebuke to efforts at reconciliation and a blatant, unbridled assertion of majoritarianism.  This must be seen in the context of reports alleging that the security forces have forced participants to sing the national anthem in Sinhala at recent events in the north.

The report of the cabinet discussion is illustrative, nay instructive of the cabinet’s collective thinking of the kind of country we are and should be?

The Sunday Times report did point out that the new minister for Social Integration and Official Languages, a veteran politician of the old left with a past record of championing rights Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Minister Rajitha Senaratne had stated that they thought “this move would not be a suitable one”.  The Sunday Times report also states that the President had stated that in no other country was the national anthem sung in more than one language.  Minister Weerawansa is also cited as pointing to the Indian example in support of the President’s statement.  In a later pronouncement to the media, Minister Weerawansa declared that the singing of the national anthem in Tamil is a joke.

It is surprising, given the expertise and experience around the table, that no one pointed out the Canadian practice of using both English and French and that the South African national anthem is made up of lyrics in the five most spoken languages of the country – Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English.  There are also the Swiss and New Zealand examples amongst others.  Furthermore the Indian National anthem is sung in classical Bengali. Given that MP Karu Jayasuriya was castigated for “insulting” our Asian allies for his remarks on their attitude to human rights, will Minister Weerawansa be asked to apologize to the Indians, South Africans and Canadians, Swiss and New Zealanders amongst others or are we to conclude that he is just loose mouthed and ignorant? Assuming Weerawansa was well-informed, it is disappointing that no one other than the two dissenting ministers cited in the report, thought it fit that Sri Lanka should set a precedent, given the challenge of reconciliation the country is faced with.

Do instances like this tell us as much and more of the regime’s thinking in the first month of its second term as the mega development projects and the 18th amendment?

Take the announcement of a payment of one lakh rupees to the family of a war hero on the birth of a third child.  Does war hero in this context translate into a member of the security forces and pray how many of them will be Muslim and Tamil?  Is this a case of gratitude at loggerheads with reconciliation or as a camouflage for the crudest majoritarianism? What for example does the appointment of Mervyn Silva as a minister for publicity and public relations tell us of the regime’s attitude to governance?  A light- hearted joke or a bad one and at our considerable expense? What does the roughing up of Dr Wickremabahu Karunaratne at the airport or the reported duty free shopping spree of members of the president’s security detail tell us about the Rule of Law?  What does the JHU’s position on the casino bill tell us of their raison d’etre for entering electoral politics?  What indeed does the bill tell us about the highfalutin moral rhetoric of the regime? Follow the rationale for the bill and what will follow?  A bill along the same lines for commercial sex?  What about mathata titha? Clearly, in the collective imagination of the regime is a vision of an alcohol free casino amongst other anomalies.

More recently additionally disturbing news came to light concerning an event to be held on the campus of Colombo University and co-hosted by the Law Faculty and the University’s Human Rights Centre in collaboration with the UNDP and UNFPA.  The event was to be held on 10 December – World Human Rights Day- and was on the theme of Women Human Rights Defenders.  The UN organizations pulled out of the event relocating it to another location when they were informed that the Vice Chancellor had refused permission for a internationally renowned Sri Lankan human rights defender and a recipient of the 1998 Human Rights Award in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to speak.

Most recently, a discussion on development in the north to be held in Jaffna and involving mostly academics from the university there had to be cancelled at the last minute on the grounds that the venue, booked well in advance, was no longer available. Clearly development in Jaffna cannot be discussed in Jaffna!

Clearly our universities are not to be spaces for the freedom of speech and expression, a plurality of views and diverse perspectives and our university students are not to be exposed to ideas and opinions that will inform and enrich their knowledge and understanding of the world and of the society they are invaluable members of.   Perhaps those who were part of the crescendo of righteous indignation at the indignity our beloved president was subjected to by the University of Oxford, will do likewise in respect to an affront to fundamental freedoms back at home?  Perhaps, perhaps……

Especially worrying is the pervasiveness and penetration of the patriots/traitors dichotomy in the public discourse.  It extends to quarters one would least expect and in the example to be quoted gives lie to the argument that making money is a fundamentally apolitical activity.

In October a routine “Technical Analytical and Economic/Political Outlook” by Capital Trust Research, called for the immediate identification and early elimination of disruptive elements. It noted that the war against saboteurs, traitors and subversive elements continues even though the war against the terrorists has been won.

All of this profiles our country today.  It makes for a disturbing, intolerant and even ugly picture.  Those who agree must stand up and voice their concern. Pastor Niemoeller has been quoted too often; his words have yet to be heeded.

http://groundviews.org/2010/12/22/governance-rights-and-reconciliation-the-national-anthem-and-other-disturbing-news-from-sri-lanka/

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