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Fear and Loathing in "serene" Sri Lanka

By Sidharth Bhatia – Scoop’s Indian Correspondent

Walking around in downtown Colombo, with its magnificent Ocean front on one side and its colonial buildings on another, it is easy to forget about a war being fought in the country somewhere in the North. The three-wheelers, the hawkers selling everything from plastic dolls to lottery tickets, the smells-all the familiar sights and sounds of a South Asian city are there, adding up to a chaotic normality which is comforting to the Indian traveller. Nearby are the hotels; their restaurants doing good business and their nightclubs packed with the young and the beautiful set of the city. The slightly older lot is over at the Colombo Cricket Club, a colonial relic much like the elegant Galle Face Hotel which was the centre of the city's upper crust social life for many of the past few decades. In Colombo, the war is no a longer subject uppermost in the minds of its people.

But of course the war, though remote, encroached on Colombo's a long time ago. It is not only the occasional bombings in the heart of the city, the document-checking and frisking at several points and the (censored) newspaper reports about the bravery of Sri Lankan soldiers that remind the residents of this beautiful city that their country is in the middle of a war.

Yet, these inconveniences, irritating no doubt, are not impossible to live with. Certainly, the Sri Lankans have managed to keep a business-as-usual front- the tourists are back, lured with Sri Lanka's beauty and the prospect of a cheap holiday on the unending beaches, while investors too are eyeing the country once again. The central bank building which was bombed in January 1996 is now rebuilt and the swanky Galadari Hotel has completely refurbished its ballroom which was totally devastated in a carpark explosion in 1997. ("I was visiting your country with my wife when the explosion occurred," says the affable Hotel manager to this writer smilingly. "Otherwise the blast, which took place outside my apartment, would have most certainly killed both of us.")

But while the psychical scars may have begun to heal, the psychological wounds have struck deep into the country's psyche. Sri Lankans know that the ethnic war, which the country is fighting at great human and economic cost, has weakened the country's spirit. It is not merely the polarisation of Sri Lanka's society along ethnic lines-that was a reality for a long time, only the privilegentsia did not care to acknowledge it-but the debilitation of liberalism and erosion of values like tolerance, dissent and slowly, even debate that are the war's real legacies.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the condition of the press, which is, in most democratic societies, a beacon of libertarianism and free thought. The Sri Lankan media, especially print, are currently engaged in a protracted war of their own with the political establishment which has, on its part, not spared any effort to cow them down. Journalists have been sued, threatened and even murdered and the official media-Sri Lanka, uniquely among South Asian nations has its own government-owned newspapers-has been co-opted in a bid to silence all those who may want to oppose the powers that be.

The state-owned newspaper, Daily News and television channel Rupavahini regularly fulminate about the "Media Mafia", apparently a group of high-profile newspaper editors who are currently engaged in fighting the government. Leading the pack of this apparently errant group is Sinha Ranatunga, editor of the Sunday Times, arguably the country's best English newspaper. In 1996, Ranatunga's paper carried a gossip item about the State president Chandrika Kumaratunga of the kind that would pass unnoticed in an Indian newspaper. The story claimed that she had attended a birthday party of a colleague and entering the venue discreetly through the backdoor. This, apparently, was not entirely true. The response was swift and brutal: the entire machinery of the state was let loose on the editor immediately after and a criminal case-not civil, mind you-of defamation was launched. Ranatunga was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, which was suspended for 7 years. His appeal is being heard, but the sentence still hangs over his head; any misdeameanour, including drunken driving, could find him in jail instantly.

There are several other journalists facing criminal defamation charges slapped on them by ruling party members, who always seem to swiftly get the mandatory permission from the attorney general's office to launch criminal proceedings. The dreaded criminal suit has become the first course of action, but is by no means the only weapon in the armoury of the political establishment. Earlier this month, the editor of a Sinhala scandal sheet was murdered and other journalists have been physically intimidated, followed, shot at and, in one case, the school records of the five-year-old son of an editor who has been exposing financial scandals in high places were examined by the criminal investigating department. To be sure, the situation is much better than the long period when the current opposition party was in power, during which critics used to simply disappear. But journalists say they expected much more tolerance from a government which had promised to give more media freedom and which has erudite liberals in its ranks.

Journalists groups have been demanding that the criminal defamation laws be dropped from the stature books because they militate against civil society norms. To which, the government's answer is that the media in Sri Lanka has become irresponsible and reckless and this is the only way to keep it in check. Official media has no hesitation in calling anti-government journalists "terrorists", "traitors" and worse; a recent letter by no less a personage than the President's media spokesman to an editor, which was carried in full by the official newspaper and television, called some journalists "convicted murdering insurgents and bomb makers!" Newspapers often pay back in the same coin and deploy invective and abuse to criticised ministers. The net result is that the entire atmosphere has become vitiated.

These developments in the media cannot, however, be seen in isolation. In a situation where voices of moderation are silenced viciously-the recent murder of lawyer Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was killed in broad daylight by a suicide bomber comes to mind-and hundreds of young men are being killed on the battle front in a senseless civil war, reasoned debate often becomes a casualty. Democratic institutions and other structures of civil society-academia, non-government organisations and the media-despite their best intentions, then find it difficult to keep the discourse on a balanced track. Normality is almost impossible in a surreal world.

Many Sri Lankans argue that free speech is not a luxury a country at war can afford. Newspapers are not allowed to cover the war freely and even government handouts are subject to censorship before they are printed in the papers. But when, in the name of protecting the national interest (from the nation!), free speech is curtailed, the effect is quite the opposite. It corrodes a society's civic health and creates an atmosphere of hostility, suspicion and intrigue, hardly healthy attributes for any country. More, not less, freedom of speech is what Sri Lanka needs right now and creating an institutional and social environment in which free expression is allowed-even to the extent of it being occasionally misused-may go a long way in opening up channels of communications between divided ethnic and social communities. At the very least, it will bring in a breath of fresh air into the stultifying atmosphere of Colombo.

Sri Lanka was for centuries the cross-roads where trade winds brought merchants, missionaries and colonisers. Sri Lankans-and the people of Colombo most of all-pride themselves, and rightly so, on their liberal, internationalist ethos, pointing to their 90 percent literacy rate, to the average 5 percent growth during the worst times, to their disproportionately large count of international civil servants they have contributed. They refer to their beautiful beaches and their long-standing traditions, their culture and their sophistication. Sri Lanka is a civlisation well poised to cope with the demands of a modern world, they say. These attributes are flaunted to sell the country to investors and tourists; but what use are they if the sum total of these parts adds up to a frightened society?

ends


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