The Right to Care; the Responsibility to Protest


by Tisaranee Gunasekara
"Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will."
Fredrick Douglassi

The Panama Papers reveal a truth which is timeless and universal. Power and corruption are conjoined twins. The 148 politicians implicated so far, by the 11.5 million files from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, span every divide, starting with race, religion and ideological persuasion. They have one common denominator – the possession of power; and a willingness to use that power to their own financial advantage.

The Panama Papers is a reminder that no country, no political class is immune to corruption. But in a functioning democracy there is a slight chance of achieving a degree of accountability, however minute or ephemeral; in a non-democracy no such possibility exists.

The Icelandic Prime Minister didn’t admit to any wrongdoing, didn’t want to resign. But he was forced to ‘step down’ due to an outburst of popular anger. No such fate is likely to befall Russian President Vladimir Putin, implicated in the scandal through close associates. Mr. Putin’s spokesman condemned the Panama Papers as a conspiracy, hatched to destabilise Mr. Putin before the upcoming election.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is in hot water, trying desperately to answer questions about his father’s offshore fund and persistent tax avoidance. Families of several top Chinese politicians, including the brother-in-law of President Xi Jinping, are implicated in the scandal. Beijing’s reaction was to dismiss the leaks as ‘groundless’ and ensure that Chinese citizens cannot search the internet for information about their leaders’ kleptocratic practisesii.

Pakistani President has promised an independent investigation about the offshore accounts of his children. The Saudis and the Emirates haven’t turned a hair, even though the Saudi king is among those implicated in the scandal.

(Amongst those mentioned in the Panama Papers are three Lankan clients, though their names are yet to come to light.)

The Panama Papers also serve as a reminder that corruption is a societal ill. Amongst the named are economic heavyweights and sports and cultural icons, from orient to occident. Those outed by the Panama Papers also include the head of the Chilean branch of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption watchdog. (He has since resigned).

The manner in which the Panama Papers were born and their turbulent aftermath reveal the crucial importance of a free press and an involved citizenry in the never ending battle against corruption. As a British commentator pointed out, the revelations were not the work of any government or police force, but the work of whistleblowers and the pressiii. The papers were leaked by an unknown source to German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which, together with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, investigated every single document before outing the whole.

In Sri Lanka, whistleblowers and the media played a critical role in revealing some of the worst Rajapaksa outrages, even during the time of Rajapaksa rule. Since waste, corruption, nepotism and other abuses of power did not end with the Rajapaksas, whistleblowers and the media continue to have work to do. The latest example is the revelation that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, too lacking in hard cash and political sense to pay festival allowances to public sector employees, spent Rs. 31 million on hosting a farmers’ conferenceiv.

Media revelations alone cannot do the job. To have an impact, they must be backed by societal interest and public protests. Unlike in a non-democracy, citizens in a democracy have the space both to gain information about wrongdoings and to protest against those wrongdoings. And in a democracy, when whistleblowers, the media and the public act in consort, it’s hard for politicians to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, however much they may want to.

That is one of the main differences between the Rajapaksa regime and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Then, information was hard to come by and the public was too wary to protest. Now, the flow of information is much freer and the public does raise its voice. Like the generality of democratic governments, the current administration is relatively receptive to public opinion. The best cases in point are the scrapping of an inane plan to increase subsidies to the already heavily subsidised parliamentarians and the shelving of VAT hikes.

It is a specious argument, beloved by those with vested interests, that transparency is inimical to public security and wellbeing. Public security and wellbeing are likely to suffer greater harm, where there is no transparency and no right to protest. That was how clean air became a luxury in some parts of China.

Global Warming and National Crises

Vitality Air is a Canadian start up company. It came into being as a bit of a prank and might have died a quiet death had not air pollution in China reached lethal levels.

The Chinese model of development was outstanding in its utter disregard for environmental factors. As a possessor and producer of coal, China used coal massively in its industrial activity. The results were unmatched levels of air pollution and high incidences of disease including respiratory illnesses. So when Vitality Air went looking for markets, it found an insatiable one in Chinav. Of course a bottle of clean air from Canada costs a minimum of 46 dollars and thus affordable only by the economically well-off.

Had China been a democratic country and her people were informed of the danger early enough, perhaps remedial measures could have been taken before the situation deteriorated to rock-bottom.

Similarly, the environmental noose that is the Colombo Port City might not have come into being had the media and political life been less unfree under the Rajapaksas.

According to the UN, 2015 was the hottest year on record. Already February 2016 has broken all previous global temperature records, according to NASA. Global warming is a fact, a burning reality, and of particular relevance for countries like ours. The challenge cannot be met by invoking divine intervention; gods of whatever religion, even if they exist, are unlikely to involve themselves in the matter, since the problem of global warming is mostly a manmade one.

The new government’s inability to think beyond building more coal power plants as a solution to the country’s energy crisis is incomprehensible. The embracing of coal power might have made some economic sense had we possessed coal mines. We don’t. And instead of turning to a source which we have in abundance, solar power, we are opting for a power generation method which is not just detrimental environmentally but also makes no sense economically. We will have to import coal, and given the status of the rupee, even if global coal prices plummet to record lows, cheap energy will remain a dream for Lankan consumers.

We currently have one frequently malfunctioning coal power plant, supplied and built by the Chinese. Another coal power plant is to be built, this one coming from the Indians.

China heads the list of coal producing countries, globally; India occupies the third positions. Interestingly China and India are also top solar power producers. Why are the two countries building coal power plants in Sri Lanka while they embrace solar power? Are they using Sri Lanka as a dumping ground for their unwanted coal?

Environment is not some esoteric issue which concerns Colombo’s well-fed and well-heeled minority. It is something which affects the entire country, especially those at the lower end of the income ladder. It is they who will be forced to pay a disproportionately greater price for environmental degradation.

Public pressure cannot arise where there is no public awareness. We care only when we know. That is one reason vested interests try so hard to ensure that we don’t know.

Superstition and Child Marriages

Death by exorcism seems to be a rising trend in Sri Lanka. This month a 36-year old woman from Anuradhapura asphyxiated to death when an exorcist made her swallow a slice of lime. According to the victim’s husband, the exorcist was engaged by the family to get rid of a demon believed to be in possession of the woman’s body.

In the 21st Century, in a country with high literacy rates, such tribal practices should not exist. But they do.

Another horrendous practice from the past which still is alive and well in 21st Century Sri Lanka is child marriage.

Child marriage is a global problem, and not a problem limited to Islamic nations. High levels of child marriage persist in those African countries where tribal practices remain deeply ingrained. According to UN sources, it is also prevalent in South America and the Caribbean, with highest incidences reported in countries with no/negligible Islamic populations, such as Dominican Republic, Honduras, Brazil, Guatamala, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Ecuador.

This issue of child marriage needs to be decoupled from religion and addressed as a matter of basic rights. Muslims have been exempted from the 1995 law which lays down minimum age of marriage in Sri Lanka (16 for girls). This exception is incomprehensible, since a number of Islamic countries have minimum marriage ages for girls compatible with UN guidelines. For instance, according to UN sources, in Algeria, Bangladesh, Jordan, Iraq, Malaysia and Morocco, the legal marriageable age for a female is 18; in Tunisia it is 20vi. In Sri Lanka, it seems as if a girl child from a Muslim family can be married at 12, or even below with consent from the Quazi courts.

Perhaps this horrendous anomaly can be ended in the new constitution and Lankan Muslim children assured of the same rights as their non-Muslim brethren. After all, if Islamic majority Indonesia has set 16 years as the minimum marriageable age for Muslim girls, why not Sri Lanka?

Often laws are not enough to combat age old beliefs. Afghanistan has a high prevalence of child marriages side by side with a minimum marriage age of 18. Laws work when they are backed by awareness and incentives. The Indian state of Haryana and Ethiopia both have made some headway against child marriage by providing families with financial incentives to keep their daughters in school.

During the Rajapaksa years, several powerful politicos began to talk about introducing a rape-marriage law as a way of combating child rape. Such a law would have enabled a child rapist to escape justice by marrying his victim. The idea was proposed not by Muslim politicians but by Sinhala-Buddhist politicians. Fidelity to archaic practices which violate basic rights and harm children is often found among conservatives of all societies and all religions.

Child rights, like all basic human rights, are universal; so are the forces opposing those rights, in the name of tradition, family or god; so should be the battles to make those rights a reality, in our particular corner of the world. The right to care and the responsibility to protect belong to all Lankans, irrespective of ethnicity or religion.

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