Kath Noble

Calling in the marines

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 30, 2013

Why struggles for justice and the independence of the judiciary cannot be outsourced to the international community

20130130_Calling in the marinesAs I said last week, it is easy to become disheartened with the way that things are moving in Sri Lanka. One disappointment follows another, and each is more extraordinary than the last.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice was particularly disturbing. It demonstrated just how little space there is for dissent. Even the mild disturbance created by Shirani Bandaranayake when she ruled that the Divi Neguma bill had to be referred to the provincial councils or passed with a two thirds majority was intolerable to the administration. She had to go. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of actual wrongdoing on her part. She was removed on the grounds that she might try to cover up the corruption of her husband, which is what Mahinda Rajapaksa claims to have done himself!

Since very few of us are willing to agree with everything that the Government says all of the time, it was appalling to see the lengths to which it is ready to go to impose its will.

No doubt that was the objective of the exercise.

Our distress was compounded by the failure of the Opposition under Ranil Wickremasinghe, who appeared to be far too busy plotting his next move against Sajith Premadasa to bother with something as mundane as the independence of the judiciary. Having successfully ousted his rival from the deputy leadership of the party – whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen – he finally managed to pen an article on the impeachment for the Sunday Times this week, but readers may not have had the stamina to get past the rather laborious exposition of his knowledge of the history of English country houses and meetings of the Commonwealth to locate his point.

Once again, the widespread information campaign that was so badly needed to counter the propaganda put about by the Government has been left to others.

Worse, by focusing our attention on the Commonwealth and the sanctions that it may impose on Sri Lanka as a result of the impeachment, the UNP leader is pushing us into the same old trap of ‘internationalising’ what must be a national struggle.

Honestly, who cares about the Commonwealth?

If Ranil Wickremasinghe tries very hard, it may decide to move the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting away from Sri Lanka. But what use is that? I don’t believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa would be in the slightest bit upset.

Quite the reverse, he is at his most comfortable when under fire from abroad.

No doubt the Government is totally hypocritical when it calls people traitors for taking their problems to international fora. We all know that Mahinda Rajapaksa did the same thing in the late 1980s, when the UNP administration was butchering Sinhalese youth.

It is also wrong. There is nothing traitorous in informing the world about what is happening in Sri Lanka.

It can even be useful in some circumstances.

I don’t believe that it had any impact on the anti-JVP campaign. The architects were either convinced that Sri Lankans would never prosecute them for their excesses or too desperate to care about what might happen once it was all over. On the whole, they were right – not morally but factually. If they were punished, it was almost exclusively by extra-judicial means.

Even today, as the JVP calls for an inquiry into the discovery of a mass grave from that era in Matale, there is little chance of it being granted and no chance whatsoever of that resulting in jail time for the politicians who ordered such activities.

The JVP will not push on the issue, for to do so would be to remind people of its own role in the slaughter.

But imagine what would happen if it did. Imagine it calling on the international community to investigate, as many people are doing today with regard to the deaths of Tamils in the Government’s war against the LTTE. Would justice be done?

No.

Even after the passage of more than twenty years, and with an SLFP-led coalition in power, there is nothing the international community could do about it.

Why? Because the international community doesn’t get to vote in elections in Sri Lanka.

It is the opinions of Sri Lankans that matter to Mahinda Rajapaksa. So long as they aren’t bothered about the mass grave in Matale, he won’t be either. Likewise, so long as they don’t want an investigation into the anti-LTTE campaign, even Ranil Wickremasinghe wouldn’t do it.

The international community has zero moral authority, as everybody in Sri Lanka is very well aware.

We know that other countries have dirty wars of their own. Indeed, if we needed reminding that some things remain the same even after the replacement of George Bush by Nobel Peace Prize winning Barack Obama at the top of the world’s greatest democracy, Dirty Wars is the name of a documentary that premièred at the Sundance Festival in Utah last week.

Sri Lankans love to blame the Western media for focusing on abuses in this country while remaining silent about what their own governments get up to, but this is rather myopic. Everything we know about the crimes of Western nations has been brought to our attention by Western journalists.

According to an interview with the producers, the documentary looks at how the War on Terror, which started overtly in Afghanistan and Iraq, has now become covert. We know everything there is to know about the night raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which has even been made into a rather captivating Hollywood film, but there were 30,000 other night raids in Afghanistan that year. Nobody talks about them. The documentary recounts the story of one in which an elite squad of American soldiers killed a senior policeman and his family while they were in the middle of a birthday party, and tried to cover it up. While the survivors watched, they dug the bullets out of the bodies, then announced to the world that they had stumbled onto the aftermath of an honour killing.

How very honourable!

The American ‘kill list’, which had only seven names on it after 9/11, now includes thousands. That is thousands of people that Barack Obama has said that it is perfectly acceptable to murder, never mind whether they are holding up white flags.

It also talks of the American drone programme, which allows them to do so without getting close enough to see a white flag. Indeed, George Bush established a policy, which Barack Obama has endorsed, of dropping bombs on people even when they aren’t on the ‘kill list’. In certain areas of Pakistan and Yemen – countries with which the United States is not at war – all young men are assumed to be terrorists and can be killed as and when convenient.

This is also top secret. Barack Obama personally intervened to stop the Yemeni government releasing a local journalist who photographed the remnants of American cruise missiles that he says regularly kill civilians.

American funded warlords in Somalia are shown on camera saying in a completely matter-of-fact manner that they execute foreign prisoners on the battlefield.

The War on Terror goes on in another equally repugnant form.

Given this well known background, if the international community tried to use its economic or other power to force prosecutions in Sri Lanka, the public would rally behind the Government, and Mahinda Rajapaksa is very good at encouraging such a response.

There really is no short cut.

To succeed in the pursuit of justice, it is the minds of Sri Lankans that have to be changed. If they start to want prosecutions, it will happen.

It is a national struggle, and trying to involve the international community can only make it harder.

Likewise, ‘internationalising’ the effort to restore the independence of the judiciary is also going to create more problems than it solves.

Mahinda Rajapaksa showed how uninterested he is in the opinion of the international community by announcing the impeachment of the Chief Justice just days before Sri Lanka faced its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Deceiving ourselves may make us feel better, at least for a while, but it isn’t going to result in any actual change.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 30th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The wilderness of the Western Province

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 23, 2013

What Mervyn Silva has to teach us about the role of thugs in politics in Sri Lanka   

hasitha madawela killingLast week, I discussed the campaign of a tiny fraction of the majority community against Muslims, and the way in which the Government is creating space for them by neglecting sensitive issues like the allegations of interference in the Law College Entrance Exam.

Some people claim that groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya are only defending the interests of Sinhalese. If not for their ‘activism’, we are asked to believe, Buddhists would soon have to meditate in secret or risk having their heads chopped off on Galle Face Green (while being force-fed slightly overpriced meat products through the slit in the uncomfortably warm piece of black cloth that they would be compelled to don over their sarees or sarongs!).

This is obviously unbelievably foolish. Not only can they not see that at the moment in Sri Lanka their community is not in any danger whatsoever, they also fail to think ahead to what would happen if the hatred that they are encouraging boiled over into a riot. Saying that they would not participate is not enough. Their arguments may persuade others to take the law into their own hands, and they have a responsibility to take an equally strong stand against that. Violence is clearly inherently bad, but it also has an impact on how people understand the situation in the country. Sinhalese would feel responsible as a community if any such thing were to happen – and others would hold them responsible too – so that raising even legitimate grievances would be virtually impossible thereafter.

If they thought that garnering support to defeat the LTTE was difficult, let them imagine how hard it would have been if there had been a repeat of Black July. Also, let them remember how Black July led to increased support for the LTTE (including actual foreign conspiracies, not just the ones that the Government now routinely invents to divert attention from criticism of its actions!).

Even the perception of a threat can be enough to encourage young people to turn to militancy.

This has to be avoided at all costs. Even members of the 75% of the population of Sri Lanka that are Sinhalese who for some mysterious reason think that Muslims are on the verge of taking over should understand the implications of violence between communities.

Let those who speak up in support of monks who lead mobs think again. Let them look at the way in which such people behave and ask themselves whether this is really how we should go about resolving disputes.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can mull over another important question.

I said that the Government is encouraging communal violence by neglecting sensitive issues, but we have come to a point where it is no longer clear that this is an oversight.

Many ‘oversights’ are actually deliberate.

Consider Mervyn Silva.

Literally hundreds of articles have been written by people from across the political spectrum condemning the actions of this man. There is virtual consensus. Even ardent supporters of the Government have called for his removal, on the grounds that he is a thug.

The latest incident is the shooting of Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha member Hasitha Madawela on January 5th.

On January 8th, one of Silva’s organisers from Kelaniya was arrested at the airport as he was attempting to leave the country. The Police also charged several other people and recovered from them a number of guns, including what is suspected to be the murder weapon. They say that it was provided by Silva’s coordinating secretary, who is also the main suspect’s uncle. The following day, a raid on the SLFP office in Kelaniya discovered swords and a hand grenade.

Madawela’s colleagues in the Pradeshiya Sabha have since accused Silva of masterminding the killing.

On January 11th, he resigned from his position as the SLFP’s organiser for Kelaniya, but we know from past experience that this doesn’t mean anything.

After the infamous case of the Samurdhi officer who was tied to a tree as a punishment for not attending a dengue eradication programme in Kelaniya, Silva was sacked from his post as Deputy Minister of Highways and suspended from the SLFP. Trade unions protested and this was an easy way to get them to stop. The SLFP then conducted an ‘inquiry’, which found that it was all a misunderstanding and the Samurdhi officer had actually volunteered to be humiliated, despite video evidence to the contrary (never mind common sense!). Within a month, Silva had returned to the Cabinet with a promotion as Minister of Public Relations and Public Affairs.

Given that he has not yet been relieved of that position, we must assume that the Government believes that crimes involving trees are more serious than those in which bullets have been used.

We had already understood the Government’s position on knife crimes, since nothing much was done about the various stabbings of staff of the Rupavahini Corporation after they took Silva hostage for assaulting the News Director.

After so many incidents, this cannot be an ‘oversight’.

We can only conclude that the Government needs Mervyn Silva.

Indeed, the man demonstrated his utility during the impeachment of the Chief Justice, since it was reported that the crowds who gathered in support of the Parliamentary Select Committee were also from Kelaniya. They roamed the streets with iron rods and sticks, intimidating people who came to join the march organised by Shirani Bandaranayake’s lawyers.

Kelaniya has become the place to go for thugs.

Of course the interconnection of violence and politics is hardly new, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it.

In the case of Mervyn Silva, the country may eventually get lucky. The Sunday Leader alleges that Hasitha Madawela’s killing was the result of a kind of falling out among thieves. It says that a group from the Pradeshiya Sabha got into a dispute with Silva last month after another of Silva’s aides was abducted and told the authorities about a whole range of illegal activities going on in Kelaniya. They felt that Silva was going to abandon them.

Let us hope so, and let us hope that the Government in turn decides to abandon Mervyn Silva.

This may be a systemic problem, but targeting an individual can still be useful in sending a signal that change is coming.

We must also hope that change doesn’t come in the same form as it did for Hasitha Madawela. The Sunday Leader claims that he was one of the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha members who was involved in the attack on the Sirasa media network, for which he was arrested but later released without charge. If the legal process had been allowed to run its course, he might still be alive.

While it is extremely tempting not to worry about the deaths of people who attack journalists, we should remember that lawlessness doesn’t tend to be so discriminating.

Contempt for the rule of law is at the bottom of many of the problems that Sri Lanka is facing today.

Since the Government is constantly strengthening its grip on the institutions that are supposed to tackle lawlessness, it is easy to become disheartened.

I must say that when I saw yet another posse of monks laying siege to a clothing store in Maharagama at the weekend, I didn’t feel very optimistic. This time it was not the Bodu Bala Sena or the Sinhala Ravaya but a group calling itself the Budhu Hiru (most likely the same handful of very foolish people under a different banner!).

We await with bated breath their explanation of what appalling national calamity they have averted.

Waiting for the Government to intervene in such matters may be almost equally as foolish, so Buddhists who don’t like to see their religious leaders shouting and running amok in the streets must get together with representatives of the minority communities to resolve contentious issues like the allegations of interference in the Law College Entrance Exam before they can be misappropriated by such people.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 23rd January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Letting the extremists in again

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 16, 2013

On the Government’s responsibility to reduce intercommunal tensions and prevent violence

bodu bala senaThe execution of migrant worker Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia touched the hearts of people around the world. That a girl of 17, left to care for a baby, in addition to being charged with the supervision of the other children of the household, plus the cooking and cleaning, should be punished – let alone beheaded – for what could well have been an accident, was appalling.

Equally distressing was the careless attitude of the Government. Appeals were made to the king, but it was negotiations with the family on blood money that were needed. Were they even attempted? And how is it that diplomats were so little in touch with her case that a minister claimed in a statement made after her death that she would be released very soon? The extra time that she got as a result of her appeal was due to the efforts of the Asian Human Rights Commission, an NGO based in Singapore, which raised the funds to pay for a lawyer. Would she have been convicted if the embassy had provided her with legal assistance as soon as she was arrested?

These questions have to be answered. While the remittances of workers in the Middle East are so important to the Sri Lankan economy, the Government must have the capacity to deal with the problems that they will inevitably encounter.

However, there is an even more important and pressing job to be done at home, in tackling communalism.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that Rizana was a Muslim.

These days, Sinhalese extremists are so keen to advance their campaign against Muslims that the execution of a Buddhist in a Muslim country would have become yet another of their ‘grievances’. They would have been out on the streets protesting, perhaps even burning an effigy of the Prophet Mohammed. There would have been posters and emails and a whole lot of ugly words.

It wouldn’t have mattered that Muslim countries consistently back the Government on matters equally close to their hearts, with regard to Tamils.

This is part of Sri Lanka’s post-war mess.

In the last year or so, these people have been increasingly active. We have seen the emergence of several very unpleasant websites, in Sinhala and English, dedicated to vilifying Muslims. And they are constantly on the look-out for new ways to draw the majority into their communalism. Recently, they have been talking about the ‘tax’ Sinhalese have to pay towards the construction of mosques as a result of the money some businesses spend on halal certificates, with absolutely no concern for the fact that the funds are likely used only to administer the system and that this is anyway an incidental cost for manufacturers, and one that they only bother to pay if they feel that they can sell enough of their products to the mere 9% of the Sri Lankan population that are Muslims. In other words, it is a non-issue.

But extremists are never ones to let facts get in the way of their preconceived notions. They are now urging Sinhalese to boycott shops and companies owned by Muslims, in an attempt to establish some kind of commercial apartheid.

More seriously, there have also been attacks on Muslim shrines and mosques, notably in Anuradhapura in June 2011 and in Dambulla in April 2012.

There was a time not long ago when the JHU was the vanguard of Sinhalese extremism. Its leaders were the ones who talked of sending Muslims ‘back’ to Saudi Arabia and other such nonsense.

But it would seem that something changed with the party’s success in the 2004 elections, when it secured nine seats in Parliament under Chandrika Kumaratunga, subsequently entering into an alliance with the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The need to interact in even a very flawed democratic framework had an impact, if not on the views of its leaders then on their understanding of what can be done about them in a country like Sri Lanka, and some of the least moderate of the JHU’s members broke away.

Groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya came up.

The Ven Akmeemana Dayaratne, who leads the Sinhala Ravaya, inadvertently became one of the JHU’s MPs in 2004, as the fourth man on its list in the Colombo district, when the party forced the third man to resign his seat on discovering that he had become a bit too attached to the SLFP. The leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, the Ven Galagodatthe Gnanasara Thero, was also in the JHU at that time.

No doubt the slight moderation of the JHU was not their only motivation for moving away from the party. They seem to be at least as interested in boosting their own profiles, in particular in competition with the Ven Athuraliye Rathana Thero, whose humble beginnings in a tiny temple (actually a converted house) in Matara would not be easily accepted by monks from the orthodox Siyam Nikaya with thousands of acres vested in their temples by the kings of yore.

Having broken away, they need to show their strength. Yet their supporters are actually very few in number.

That is what the Anuradhapura and Dambulla attacks were about.

The monks who led the mobs on those occasions were making a point. They wanted to chase Muslims away, but with as many people watching as possible, since their objective was to demonstrate to Sinhalese that they are the people who can deliver.

What is crucial to note is that the Government encourages this behaviour.

Violence shouldn’t bring the perpetrators anything other than prosecution and imprisonment, but nowadays it is the easy way to get what you want.

In Dambulla, the Ven Inamulawe Sri Sumangala Thero could have negotiated the relocation of the mosque away from the sacred area. The temple has plenty of land to offer, and Muslims were not implacably opposed to moving. Yet that would have required discussions that could have gone on for weeks. He got what he wanted within a matter of hours when he stormed the mosque, ably supported by the Sinhala Ravaya. The Prime Minister declared that the mosque was illegal and would be removed forthwith. (Fortunately his enthusiasm to reward the mob did not endure – it is reported that more reasonable leaders subsequently managed to resolve the matter amicably.)

The Government is now doing exactly the same thing in response to protests about the Law College Entrance Exam.

Various people questioned the results when they were announced last month. According to news reports, while in almost every year until 2010 less than ten Muslims qualified, in 2011 the number was 51 and in 2012 it was 78. The three toppers were Muslims, as were 28 of the first 50. This naturally raised suspicions, since it was in 2010 that Rauff Hakeem took over as the Minister of Justice. It was alleged that he was involved in leaking the question paper, using Muslims who serve as English-Tamil translators. Equally naturally, Rauff Hakeem denied it, saying that responsibility for admissions to the Law College lies with the Council for Legal Education rather than with his Ministry, while the Entrance Exam is conducted by the Department of Examinations, but it is hardly surprising that this did not dispel all doubts.

Politicians regularly interfere in such matters, so there was no need to treat it as a communal issue. The only special feature of this scandal, if the allegations are proven, is that it was uncovered because those involved belonged to just one community.

What was needed was a credible investigation.

But although the Government immediately took action when a leak was alleged in the O Level, resulting in the arrest of five people, including a tuition master and an official from the Department of Examinations, it ignored the Law College Entrance case. This is despite the fact that unlike the O Level, the Law College Entrance is a competitive examination, meaning that one person’s success necessarily means the failure of another, which makes it a much more controversial issue.

It was only when the Bodu Bala Sena stormed the Law College that anything was done. The Principal immediately decided to suspend registrations.

People thus got the message that it pays to be violent.

Even more important is the space that this kind of response opens up for extremists.

As things stand, the vast majority of Sinhalese are not at all interested in the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya, or indeed in the JHU. They are content to live peacefully with Muslims, and they have no intention of acting on any prejudices they may have developed. They don’t read the disgusting websites that such people maintain, and they have not been roused by the shouting about halal certificates and other such red herrings. They are not stupid.

But their common sense cannot be taken as given forever.

The relationship between Sinhalese and Muslims is far more sensitive than the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils, due to the more obvious cultural differences.

Having just concluded a generation long conflict, the Government should understand the danger.

The Government has a tremendous responsibility to stop the further growth of Sinhalese extremism, yet it actively helps in the creation of ‘grievances’, and it consistently allows communalists to do as they please, even when this includes violence.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that there are as yet no comparable groups among Muslims.

When Rizana Nafeek was executed, they could also have taken it as a reason to protest against Sinhalese. They could have argued that the Government didn’t bother with her precisely because she was a Muslim, while it is an administration that is interested only in Buddhists. They would have been wrong, but there is no reason to expect one set of extremists to be smarter than any other.

The sad truth is that the girl died because she was poor.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 16th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A wish for the New Year

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 9, 2013

Why Sri Lanka must join the 90-strong league of nations that recognise the right to information

right to informationRajiva Wijesinha has been attracting attention in recent weeks due to his unfortunately rather lonely stand from within government ranks against the impeachment of the Chief Justice. It would have been easy to keep quiet, so he deserves a round of applause.

But it is the effort that he has been making to engage with people in the North and East to find out what they need or want to rebuild their lives that is even more important. Unlike other government politicians, who meet this constituency only when they are laying a foundation stone for an infrastructure project that they are hoping to take credit for – or get a cut of – without the slightest concern as to whether it is actually a priority, Rajiva has been listening to them and communicating what he has been told to the rest of us through his column in the Daily News. Of course what people feel confident to share and what that newspaper cares to publish can be nowhere near the whole story, but even a very partial account is valuable in understanding the ground situation in the former conflict areas.

One conclusion that he has come to as a result of this experience is that to get things done there is a desperate need for transparency in government operations. In one of his recent articles, he has urged action on a Right to Information Act, which he points out was one of the recommendations of the LLRC.

We’ll soon find out whether being included in the much referred to LLRC Action Plan means anything!

A Right to Information Act is long overdue.

The LLRC Report notes that such laws have been adopted by virtually every other country in the region, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives.

Senior politicians in those countries have realised that it is only way to ensure that their policies are implemented. Bureaucracies throughout South Asia – and indeed worldwide – suffer from inertia and corruption, and they are subject to many other influences and pressures than those coming from the top. Interference by juniors is also an issue, and it can be difficult to embark on an initiative to discipline them when their indiscipline has become part of the political culture. As a result, people get disenchanted, either with their party or with the system as a whole. Of course a Right to Information Act makes it easier for citizens to expose the wrongdoings of ministers and presidents as well, but it is now generally recognised that the benefits outweigh the costs, even for them.

From the point of view of citizens, this is wonderful news, since the legislation can be an extremely powerful tool in challenging budding dictators, never mind democrats.

The need in Sri Lanka is clear.

There is no longer any such thing as ‘information’ in this country. There is only hearsay.

Consider the rather innocuous matter of expenditure on Deyata Kirula. Last week, the UNP blamed the Government for spending Rs. 26.5 billion on what they dubbed a carnival when so many people have been affected by flooding. The money should be used for their rehabilitation, a spokesman argued, since it is clearly not possible to build a house within the allocated sum of Rs. 100,000. So far, so easy to follow. But then the Government claimed that the exhibition would cost only Rs. 40 million, with the remainder of the allocation of Rs. 60 billion being for development work in the four districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa. And the JVP added that of the Rs. 25.5 billion spent on Deyata Kirula last year, in Anuradhapura, only a single building remained, supposedly a paddy store, but it was located so far away from paddy areas that it could not be used.

And we are lost!

As things stand, there is absolutely no reason to trust the Government and absolutely no reason to believe the Opposition.

Whoever happens to be near a microphone says whatever comes into their head, never mind whether it is true or even whether it corresponds with what they said yesterday. And tomorrow they will have no qualms in telling us the exact opposite.

Most people respond by closing their minds, no longer willing to try to separate fact from fiction.

A Right to Information Act can help to get out of this dangerous rut.

Properly formulated, it would do a great deal towards restoring the category of ‘information’, by forcing the Government to give truthful answers to questions put to it by citizens or face the consequences in court.

At the risk of sounding like a spokeswoman for the Indian High Commission, having suggested in my last column of 2012 that its National Rural Employment Guarantee Act could be a model for Sri Lanka, I shall dare to suggest in my first column of 2013 that its Right to Information Act is also worthy of emulation. (Since I can already picture a small army of over-sensitive nationalists hyperventilating at their keyboards, I would like to offer as some kind of compensation my sincere belief that India has even more need of these progressive laws than Sri Lanka!)

A key feature of the legislation is the penalties that it imposes on officials for failing to respond within given deadlines, for giving incorrect or incomplete replies and for destroying evidence, including fines to be paid by them personally.

That this is effective may be seen in the growing number of activists who are being harassed or attacked.

Researchers who have compared the laws of the 93 countries that have adopted a Right to Information Act to date consider India’s to be the second best. By comparison, the UK is ranked 25 and the US 39. (See http://rti-ranking.org/)

This is not a matter of the enlightenment of its leaders, although it is surely not a coincidence that both the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act were passed in 2005, just after the return to office of Congress with the support of the Left Front. Rather, India does well in the global ranking because its Right to Information Act was the result of a sustained and well-supported campaign by civil society, and civil society is strong enough to prevent Manmohan Singh from succeeding in his now regular attempts to water it down.

Sri Lanka must take note.

I recall writing in support of a Right to Information Act in 2010, when it was reported that the Ministry of Justice was preparing a draft. But nothing emerged, with no constituency pushing for it.

Now the LLRC Action Plan says that it is the responsibility of the Media Ministry.

Even if the Government finally makes up its mind to pass the legislation, without proper scrutiny, Sri Lanka is bound to end up with the world’s worst example.

For a long time, the category of ‘civil society’ in Sri Lanka was practically non-existent, since all space was occupied by NGOs and they were totally discredited by the positions they took during the war, among other things. There was little hope of them bringing pressure to bear on the Government. Indeed, although people in other countries were ever ready to listen to them, they didn’t seem to have much idea of how to use the vast sums of money they were getting to influence Sri Lankans.

The Government would have us believe that nothing has changed. All dissent – even very mild disagreement – is said to be connected to NGOs and foreign plots, usually terrorist-inspired.

But the more extraordinary its actions, the more obvious it is that this is not the case. With the impeachment of the Chief Justice, another segment of ‘civil society’ has risen up in protest – lawyers. Like academics before them, whose three month long trade union action was the most effective challenge to the Government since the end of the war, in the sense of starting a debate on an issue of genuine importance, they are part of the mainstream. It isn’t easy to dismiss them. When they come out onto the streets, unlike free trade zone workers and fishermen, they are not subject to live firing by the Police. At least, not yet. And their real strength lies in convincing people, not in waving banners. They enjoy considerable respect among the rest of the population, and they have the capacity to lead them, if they so wish.

Let’s hope that they also take up the cause of a Right to Information Act, since it is clear that Rajiva Wijesinha alone cannot make it happen.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 9th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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