Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Silencing Dissent in Sri Lanka

Video courtesy of Frontline Club

Candid Minds

If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all, Noam Chomsky once said. The basic premise in which democracy rests is the freedom of speech and expression and whenever it is in peril, democracy is in peril.

However, in many countries autocrats have usurped power and leave no stone unturned to make sure that they silence all forms of dissent. The civil war in Sri Lanka and the subsequent triumph of the government forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), supplemented by the enormous election victory, has made Mahinda Rajapakse government autocratic. Reporting truth, if that truth is against the government’s view, is often a hazardous proposition in Sri Lanka as journalists are killed, physically assaulted, maimed, abducted and harassed. Armed groups in the country are also known for their arm-twisting tactics against those journalists and human rights activists who dare to challenge them by exposing the truth.

The malicious statements of a democratically elected government against dissenting journalists and human rights activists would create a dangerous precedence that would harm the smooth working of the principles of democracy. Any group, political or otherwise, that has no regard to the freedom of speech and expression of people has no right to remain and work in a democracy, or for that matter, in a civilised world. In Sri Lanka, Rajapakse government’s malevolent responses against criticism have reduced their international legitimacy. The United Nations expert panel has decided to investigate the war crimes committed in the civil war. Demonstrations led by a minister in Sri Lanka against this expert panel show the overt hostility that the government has for the UN’s investigation.

The Sri Lankan civil war that ran from July 1983 to May 2009 witnessed incredible reduction in the freedom of press. The various governments in the country refused to recognise that the press and the common people had a right to information. As the intensity of internal strife increased, the noose on the neck of press freedom also got tightened. The press in Sri Lanka was allowed only to project the government’s version of events. They were always stopped from publishing the truth and from reporting the human rights abuses done by both the government forces and the armed men of the LTTE. January 2010 presidential election made the Rajapakse government more strong and they increased the clampdown on dissenters and opposition voices. Even famous newspapers and journalists were arrested, trade unionists harassed and web-based media intimidated.

India as a responsible neighbour and as an aspiring regional super power has an enormous onus to constructively engage in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. President Mahinda Rajapakse recently came down to India and had discussion with the Indian government. From the comments made by Rajapakse after the meetings show that his actions of silencing dissent and violating human rights got a tacit approval from Indian authorities. If that is the case, it must be noted that it is not the right view to take for a country which is the largest democracy in the world. We, as a country, have never been known for supporting any human rights abusers or governments that silence dissent. Indian government should take into account the emotions and opinions of ordinary Indians who have always given our support to freedom of speech and expression.

The Indian government and the citizens should voice our concerns against the human rights violation in Sri Lanka and against the forces that silence dissent in the country. We should also urge the United Nations to go on with the investigation of the expert panel on human rights violations in Sri Lanka, despite the protest from the Lankan government.

© Candid Minds

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