08 March 2018

The danger of a blank canvas in tense times


President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in recent statements have alluded to people fishing in troubled waters for political gain. It’s an ‘it’s not us’ kind of position to take. Safe. 

Dangerous too. We all know how the United National Party of J.R. Jayewardene used that line to proscribe the JVP and clamp down on the entire ‘Old Left’ after deploying the party’s trade union arm, JSS, to attack Tamils in July 1983. An unpopular government whose incompetency on all counts is no longer a secret typically loves communal conflagration. All other issues get sidelined, the public gets distracted and in the melee those in power have the best opportunity to pick up the biggest flag that emerges and wave it.  

We don’t know how things will unfold. We do know that this government scored a resounding ‘F’ on law and order. The first official statement came from the Government Information Department and it was vague and full of tendentious claims. It has vilified a particular community and absolved the other.  Wickremesinghe did much better when in Parliament he described fully what happened, that disclosure only marred by the insinuations he scripted in.

Wickremesinghe admitted that in Ampara the law enforcement authorities erred. He has not passed judgment on the men under his wing as the Minister of Law and Order in terms of their professional conduct in Teldeniya, Digana, Madawala, Ambatenne and elsewhere. 

Things have come to such a pass that it is unfair to expect him to work miracles in terms of recruitment and training. However, when a delegation of DIGs make representations to the President about who should be their minister and he doesn’t show them the door it indicates a poor political culture. Wickremesinghe himself has remained silent over this gross subversion of relevant protocol.  

Neither can we expect him to correct all the flaws of the recruitment and training process. The British whose systems this country has followed suspended the practice of recruiting graduates as senior officers of the Police way back in 1948. The incompetence that’s evident among the senior officers of the Police including DIGs goes to show, in part, the virtues of moving people up from the lowest of ranks depending solely on experience and demonstrated competence tested in multiple ways.  

In short the Government has to make do with what they have. There’s a maximum possible and the tragedy is that we are not even close to that. The Government was so slow off the blocks that people will and should wonder if the sloth was deliberate, less on account of preferences along communal lines than for calculated political gain. 

Having failed miserably to keep the public informed about what was happening, the Government has now moved to block access to social media. The logic appears to be one of curbing rumor-mongering and the use of the internet for organizing subversive activity.  

There are several problems with this course of action. First of all it is an admission that the Government either has no clue about what’s happening on the ground or is utterly incompetent in communicating things to the people. Now, when you deny access to social media by a public that has been already denied information, it not only infringes on fundamental freedoms but creates an empty canvas upon which anything can be drawn. 

The Government has played Ostrich for a long time now. One thing it cannot do is to force the people to play along. They just won’t bury their heads in the sand. Denied one source of information, they will find others. When the word is out, whatever it may be and whether or not it is the truth, it’s distortion or a lie, things cannot be expected to turn out pretty. At best the people will and should see the Government as an entity that hides things from the people and tries to sweep the unpalatable under the carpet.

Wickremesinghe has claimed that anti-Muslim sentiment has been deliberately nurtured over a period of nine months. This is not true. That nurturing has been happening for much longer. However, just as Prabhakaran and the LTTE didn’t fall from the sky, just as the bheeshanaya cannot be reduced to the lunacy of the chief protagonists, these sentiments also didn’t sprout in a swayanjatha manner. There is the fertilizing of the soil and there is soil already fertile. Finger-pointing only distracts and detracts from the ability to resolve. Fear is a powerful impetus and it is clear that both Muslims and Sinhala Buddhists are fearful, for reasons that are real as well as imagined. Not talking about things, not naming things for what they are, mis-naming things, and even keeping things shrouded in the vague and indeterminate will not help.

What are you hiding and why? This question will be asked. Indeed whatever is said in a climate where information is state-filtered will not be trusted. Interestingly the freedom-of-expression champions are yet to break their silence on these matters. What would they have done if the previous regime took similar measures when ‘Aluthgama’ and ‘Dambulla’ happened, we don’t have to guess. We know. Shrill cries of protest. Loyalties outweigh principles, obviously. That’s peripheral though.

There are several blanks sheets we are seeing right now. The first is called ‘ideas’. There’s another: competence. The third is governability, and it’s blank. It is the final one that we are contending with here. It’s called ‘narratives’.

The Government has essentially held up a canvas. It assumes that whatever was written on it is already forgotten. The Government will own this canvas. It will paint whatever its preferred narrative on it. However, when incompetency has been established and the penchant for double-speak known, the reader will naturally be inclined to disregard it all.

What then? Fresh canvases. Fresh narratives. Most dangerously, a narrative free-for-all. Guess who benefits; the mischievous. Guess who suffers; the innocent. And the price? Heavy and not pretty.
    

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com

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