Daily Archives: September 17, 2006
by Namini Wijedasa
Sri Lankans were labouring under the delusion that their country was a democracy but the conspicuous control of open public discussion by politicians, business people and religious groups was stifling the nation, a prominent sociologist warned last week.
"We live in a make-believe world that Sri Lanka is a democracy," said S T Hettige, professor and chair of sociology at the University of Colombo. "It is a mirage created by the fact that we publish many newspapers, operate many television channels and radio stations, publish numerous books, run many universities, hold seminars and discussions…"
"But people live in their microcosms," he stressed. A senior researcher who heads the university’s Social Policy Analysis and Research Centre, Hettige’s main concern was the suppression and control of open public discussion.
"There must be open space for people to express their views, to contribute to public discussion so that all shades of opinion emerge and create space for comparison and contrast," he said. "If open public discussion is controlled, as it is in Sri Lanka, you prevent people from forming a balanced view."
The strength of modern democracies lies in the promotion of such debate, when different perspectives are permitted to converge and interact. "Modern democracies trust the capacity of the public to make judgments," he asserted. "In Sri Lanka, by contrast, there’s a tendency by almost everybody to control open public discussion."
Politicians were one group of "controllers". "They don’t want information to flow freely, particularly with regards to corruption," he said. "The only way to keep a lid on corruption is to keep a lid on information, thus preventing transparency."
When deals are being worked out involving business people and politicians, they are always kept secret in order to conceal any malpractice. "How many cases of corruption in Sri Lanka have been resolved in a satisfactory manner?" Hettige questioned. "Just ask people involved in corruption control. Can one ever take a case of corruption to its logical conclusion?"
"One hears, every now and then, that a village official or a policeman has been nabbed for corruption," he continued. "But this is an insignificant percentage. Corruption has become endemic and pervasive in Sri Lanka."
"Nevertheless, efforts are made to paint pictures…. Independent commissions are established. Statements are made that we have legislation or empowered institutions to take action against corruption. Corruption is publicly condemned. We have two realities, you see. But the question is… what is a mirage and what is reality?"
One way to defeat this is through an independent media.
"A very critical precondition is a strong, independent media institution that can resist any kind of interference or influence by the political establishment," Hettige stressed. "Democracies have independent media which cannot be manipulated either because the institution itself is strong or because there would be public outrage if politicians meddled with it." Businesspeople were another group of ‘controllers’. Some influenced information and discussion to prevent erosion of profits. Others promoted products to earn profit, disregarding the reality that some of these may cause public harm. Assisted by an independent media, people must be vigilant, informed, and inquisitive.
Religious groups wanted their own style of public discussion. "Each would like to put forward its own perspective and would like to see that people accept it," Hettige lamented. "In some extreme cases, we have religious fundamentalism dictating terms."
Finally, there were political groups who would like the public to absorb their own interpretation of reality. "Sri Lanka clearly has different ideological groups trying to dominate public discussion," Hettige reflected. "They can’t accept a plurality of opinion in the political arena."
"We are living in a world where there’s an information glut," he noted. "Globalisation has set in motion a process of communication that produces an enormous quantity of information that is swirling around the world.
"If you try to build a fence around your country or your institution, and prevent people from getting and using this information to make informed decisions, you are stopping that society from progressing."
Hettige felt that a majority of Sri Lankans were prevented from publicly expressing their views. "How many of us can say what we want?" Hettige asked. "You may be a cabinet minister, a high level public servant, a businessman, journalist, academic or schoolteacher. How many of us are prepared to take a chance and express ourselves? I don’t think there are many."
The sociologist concluded that we were trapped in a morass. "When a senior public servant with important information that can be discussed publicly for the sake of public interest cannot divulge that information due to implications for him and his family… then we are trapped."
"When journalists are told not to write certain articles… then we are trapped. Brute force may be used, bribes may be offered. Politicians may befriend journalists, give them perks or assure them of future benefits. Ask a politician whether he has ever felt that he has had enough, that he would like to reveal certain things…. has he or she been able to do that?"
When told that journalists were unable to extract information from the public sector (particularly on corruption or waste of public funds), Hettige insisted that there should be a Right to Information Act. "Citizens have a fundamental right to information. Everybody is required to divulge information. No public servant can say he can’t give information because he will be in trouble. You have the right as a journalist to get information."
"I think it is unfortunate that people in certain professions are unable to operate freely in keeping with the values that should guide that profession," Hettige opined. "Nevertheless, I wouldn’t put too much blame on individuals, because we are all subjected to the pressures of the system. And the only way to change the system is to change the fundamental values that should underline that system."
"The question is, have we been able to inculcate those values in the minds of the large majority of people?"
Young people were leaving Sri Lankan in droves. "There was a time when people stayed and fought back," Hettige lamented. "But when people are fed up, they just leave. What happens when intelligent, capable people leave the country? We will have fewer people to take up responsibilities. We have a serious situation."
Hettige admitted that there are worse scenarios than Sri Lanka in the world. "Obviously, there are," he affirmed. "There are countries with no state. There are others with no democracy at all. There are no elections."
"But do we want to compare our situation with worse cases or better cases?" he asked.
Sri Lanka has to realize that she has a problem, Hettige stressed. "We are discussing a major societal and structural malaise," he said. "We must appreciate that there’s a huge problem here. We must accept that we are trapped, that this society cannot progress unless we address critical issues."
"We are obsessed with our own self interest and we are obsessed with our own petty ideas," he asserted. "Change could start with our (political) opposition. The opposition must espouse the cause of open public discussion and insist that there is no meddling. The opposition can put this forward as a guiding principle for the country.
"What are these fellows doing in the opposition? They are not doing anything. They should present an alternative perspective to the country."
Everybody should be scrutinized, Hettige insisted: "Businesspeople should be scrutinized, politicians should be scrutinized, public servants should be scrutinized, journalists should be scrutinized, NGOs should be scrutinized.
"Unless there is openness, free flow of information and transparency…. there’s absolutely no way forward."
via… The Sunday Island
Who’s going to replace our buddy Kofi as the next United Nations Secretary General? At the JayanthaDhanapala.com blog, they ask the question – listing the six candidates – and ask us to comment.
The listed candidates are South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Ban Ki-moon, Senior Adviser to the President of Sri Lanka Jayantha Dhanapala, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor of India, and Jordan’s UN Ambassador Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein.
Someone also suggested Latvian President Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
No one suggested John Bolton, who is probably not from the proper region.
For my part, I wrote that I don’t much care for the U.N. but cast my vote for Sri Lanka’s Jayantha Dhanapala, as he understands the nature of terrorism (Tamil Tigers). Plus he’s the guy in the URL.
Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike says he is awaiting letters from the President’s Office and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party calling for his explanation over his recent conduct. He says he wants to give the senders a “basic lesson in civics known even to an O’Level student".
The Sunday Times last week published a story quoting a source from the President’s Office as saying that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had decided to send two letters to his Tourism Minister, one from his Office and from the party over certain remarks Mr. Bandaranaike had made in Parliament and outside critically referring to US President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Indian High Commisioner Nirupama Rao.
In a letter to the newspaper, the Minister says the Rajapaksa Government has not taken any collective decision to defend foreign envoys "who step out of line", nor "to defend the horrendous invasion of Iraq led by the Bush and Blair Administrations".He adds that as the Cabinet has not decided on either of these, a question of collective responsibility does not arise.
A spokesman for the President’s Office confirmed that no letter had yet gone out to Mr. Bandaranaike because President Rajapaksa and President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunge were busy with their overseas itinerary.
The Presidential spokesman also confirmed The Sunday Times story of last week, and said that a decision was taken at "the highest level" to warn Mr. Bandaranaike about his recent public utterances.
He said that a disciplinary committee of the SLFP was already inquiring into his conduct on issues relating to the party.
He said, "As, Head of State and Head of Government, it was the President who receives the credentials of a foreign ambassador or high commissioner. Hence, their conduct was a matter that is the President’s prerogative. When a Cabinet Minister in the Government voices different views, it reflects badly on the President."
Meanwhile Mr. Bandaranaike in an interview with our sister paper ‘Irida Lankadeepa’ said that if not for his campaign efforts at the last Presidential elections in the Gampaha district where the margin of victory was 350,000 votes President Rajapaksa would have been defeated.
He said that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s daughter will be marrying a foreigner who is a British national and that Ms. Kumaratunga would be soon returning to the country to make arrangements for the wedding which will be held in London.
…. attacks Bush, Blair again
Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike yesterday renewed his criticism of US president George W Bush and his main ally British Premier Tony Blair saying they flawed in invading Iraq and were now trying to do the same to Iran.
Addressing a meeting to commemorate the sixth death anniversary of M. H. M. Ashraff, the founder of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Mr. Bandaranaike said the US president had become very unpopular even in his own country for the blunders he made by invading Iraq and described Mr. Blair as an ‘obnoxious Englishman’.
Mr. Bandaranaike berated the two world leaders in front of an audience that was largely Muslims.
He also asked them not to interfere with Iran which is currently at the centre of a dispute over its uranium enrichment efforts.
Mr. Bandaranaike launched a similar attack on the two leaders and Indian High Commisioner Nirupama Rao in a speech in parliament. Defending his remarks which he recently made about Ms. Rao, he stated that it was because he felt the diplomat was going in the ‘wrong direction’.
While praising the move by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to invite the UNP for talks, the minister stressed the importance of the two parties coming together to solve the national problem.
Mr. Bandaranaike also said that it was not proper for the JVP to demand that the LTTE should lay down arms before coming to talks because it was a difficult condition to meet by an organisation fighting a war for a long time.
He also paid tribute to the late SLMC leader, saying that his greatest gift to Sri Lanka was the formation of SLMC.
via… The Sunday Times