30 June 2016

Freedom of information a must in a democratizing process

The Right to Information Act (RTI) was passed recently.  Late, but better late than never, as they say.  So kudos to the Government.  In June 2011 I wrote about the relevant issues in an article published in the Daily Mirror. Worth a re-visit, I believe.  

In May 2009 and for a few months thereafter Colombo appeared (as it has appeared for several years) like a besieged and threatened city. ‘High Security Alert’ seemed to be written all over the face of the capital.   There were those who took umbrage at what was seen to be infringement on freedoms and the deliberate gagging of democracy.  Fortunately such people don’t always end up having to defend a nation and the citizenry from ruthless terrorists or negotiate the terms of plunder and subjugation with big-name bullies in the international community. 

It is good, however, that they do what they do, because even while extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures, someone has to keep reminding people that there is a thing called ‘ordinary’ and as such ‘ordinary measures’ too; ‘extraordinary’ has a relatively short life expectancy and in the case of Sri Lanka, May 2009 was scripted to happen as far back as November 2005.  Sure, their objective was less about democracy than about giving the LTTE breathing space and yes, their shrill whines on these matters are still the product of regime-hate and determination to win for Eelam myth-mongers what Eelamist-militants could not achieve through 30 years of terrorism.  That’s beside the point. 

Since May 2009, it is clearly evident that the city landscape has undergone and continues to undergo a massive overhaul.  The barricades are all but gone. Checkpoints and checking have almost disappeared.  Surveillance seems to have gone underground.  ‘Extraordinary Measures’ on the other hand are quite visible on the streets. Both the attack on protesting garment industry workers in Katunayake as well as the attack on a TNA meeting by soldiers prove (if proof indeed were necessary) that the Government has not retired the coercive instruments available in the state apparatus. 

Now it is usual for regimes to switch to coercion when its ideological sway on a population starts slipping.  Jittery politicians however tend to trip the political clock.  They tend to lose faith in their constituency long before the constituency begins to lose faith in them.  This government is betraying exactly this.  The use of force is legitimate in a just war. Nothing else.  The use of force is contemplated when political control slips or is seen to be slipping. That’s the politician’s problem and not something that the citizenry needs to worry about. 

I have, from the time the CFA was signed, insisted that if the path of negotiation is to yield any lasting benefits, then demilitarization should be paralleled with moves towards democratization. I have also argued that the process of democratization should not be abandoned after the military threat is met and eliminated.  Things don’t happen overnight, I know.  On the other hand, we’ve had 769 nights since May 19, 2009.  In general I am in favour of incremental change, especially given the dynamics of Sri Lankan politics.  I am not in favour, however, of ‘dead-slow’! 

I know that Sri Lanka has a constitution that is made to make dictatorships and also designed to ensure a weak opposition.  The 1978 constitution was anti-democratic.  Subsequent amendments made it worse. The 17th Amendment which sought to correct in favour of democracy and citizen was flawed. The 18th Amendment threw baby with bathwater. We not only have a weak opposition but one which has shot itself in the foot over and over again by playing petty politics and pandering to the whims and fancies of forces that wanted the LTTE to prevail over the security forces; it was and is motivated by opposition for the sake of opposition and political chair-switch as opposed to championing the national interest.  KaruJayasuriya’s ‘Private Member’s Bill’ pertaining to Freedom of Information was a welcome move, in this context.

The Government using superior numbers in parliament defeated the Bill.  Perhaps the reason was a simple matter of being scared that the opposition, by getting a bill passed, would score points and claim that the Government’s popularity was on the decline.  That’s petty of course but then again politicians are anything if not petty.  The Government has stated that it will come up with its own Bill on the subject and the generous response would be ‘that’s something!’  Common sense says, ‘go tell that to the mountains!’ 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this Bill, but by rejecting it, the Government seems to be wary of the investigative potential in it.  It indicates that there’s something to hide and fear that the hidden will be unearthed.  It also could indicate a desire to keep the lid on certain activities that are planned. 

We are in post May 2009.  We are more than two years into post-Prabhakaran. We are not in post-Eelamism or post-LTTE.  There is still ‘threat’, that’s very clear.  We are however in a Sri Lanka that is not only about countering separatism but a Sri Lanka of having-to-live.  This Bill in no way compromises efforts to counter malicious moves here and abroad that are motivated by regime-hatred and/or desire to divide the country, directly or incrementally (by ‘fixing’ Eelam boundaries through devolution, for instance, as per the Chelvanayakam Option of ‘A little now, more later’).  It contains caveats related to national security. 

We have come far enough on the post-Prabhakaran road to warrant a removal of physical barriers.  The political barriers must now be lifted; incrementally, if necessary, sure, but they must go.  The Government needs to recognize that its sincerity regarding a ‘New’ Sri Lanka and one that deserves the ‘Miracle’ tag is under scrutiny, not by its enemies, but its friends and of course that the general public has the right to indulge in such scrutiny regardless of ‘constraints’ that politicians face.    

MahindaRajapaksa could be remembered as the man who united the country and brought about peace after thirty long years of misery.  He could also be remembered as the man who secured national boundaries and then buried democracy within those lines.  It’s about legacy, Mr. President.  That’s as far as you are concerned. As for us, how history remembers you is a matter for history; for us, it is how life unfolds and stops. Or is stopped.  Defeating the LTTE and giving us breathing space is appreciated and applauded. Rewarded too. That’s no license to gag the people.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene