Dissent and Freedom from Fear – cornerstones of Democracy and Freedom


by Shanie

"I think we have to accept the sad fact that people are attracted by power. I have found that perfectly decent [people] are flattered when the ruling governments bathe them with some attention, makes a fuss over them, and this is true for Burmese people as well as for non-Burmese people who come to Burma. And this attraction that power and influence has over humanity in general works against those who are in the dissenting faction because we are who are dissidents, we don’t have the power, and people tend to think that those who are in power must be in power for good reasons when actually there can be very, very horrible reasons for people being in power. So I think what we have to do is to raise people’s awareness as to where it leads to in the long run - if you support those who should not be supported.

- Aung San Suu Ky

Last year, the BBC’s Reith Lectures were on the theme ‘Securing Freedom. Two of the five lectures were delivered by Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader from Myanmar or Burma, and the other three by Baroness Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, the British Security Service. The lectures are followed by a question-and answer session when the guest lecturer answered questions put to her by selected members of the audience, usually persons who had held prominent positions in public life. Suu Kyi gave the above answer to a question from a woman human rights activist from Egypt who was present in Tahrir Square during the spontaneous uprising in Cairo that toppled the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. The questioner was referring to the support given to the Mubarak regime by individuals and countries from the international community and by prominent religious and business leaders from within Egypt itself. Suu Kyi’s answer applies not only to Burma but to many other countries as well, including our own country. Lord Acton’s oft-quoted comment about the corrupting influence of power applies equally to leaders who wield power as to the unjustified beneficiaries of that power. The beneficiaries of largesse from the corrupt leaders who wield absolute power leads to those beneficiaries themselves becoming unable to extricate themselves from the hold the leader has over them and become corrupt themselves. This led Lord Acton later to come up with another truism: "Remember that where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that." This is what happened in Germany under Hitler leading to the rise of Nazi fascism. This is why the Judges and civil society activists are protesting President Mursi’s latest decree in Egypt. And this is what is now driving the movement in Sri Lanka for the abolition of the Executive Presidency and the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.

‘The Family’ in Tunisia

When government leaders lose touch with public opinion, their actions become increasingly irrational. They are ill-advised by a small coterie of self-seeking collaborators and sycophants and the leaders become unable to sense popular feeling. This is what happened in the Arab world during the recent Arab Spring upheavals. Tunisia was the first country where the leaders were toppled. Among the countries of the region, Tunisia had the best educational system, a good infra-structure and was a popular tourist destination. It enjoyed a reputation as a strong technocratic state. But behind this façade lay an administration plagued by corruption. Lisa Anderson, President of the American University in Cairo, writing in the journal ‘Foreign Affairs’ last year on ‘Demystifying the Arab Spring’ wrote: Tunisian President) Ben Ali’s family was also unusually personalist and predatory in its corruption. As the whistleblower Web site WikiLeaks recently revealed, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia reported in 2006 that more than half of Tunisia’s commercial elites were personally related to Ben Ali through his three adult children, seven siblings, and second wife’s ten brothers and sisters. This network became known in Tunisia as "the Family." That said, although the scale of corruption at the top was breathtaking, Ben Ali’s administration did not depend on the kind of accumulation of small bribes that subverted bureaucracies elsewhere."

Any government must beware of falling into that trap of listening to sycophants and losing touch with the hopes, aspirations and views of the ordinary man in the street or countryside. The spontaneous uprisings in the Middle East that toppled regimes were not led by revolutionaries but by the middle class and young people dissatisfied by the actions of an insensitive ruling class – a ruling class drunk with power and its attendant privileges that was not sensitive to the sufferings and hardships of the workers and peasants and of the young people.

Army beats up Jaffna

University atudents

It seems that there is a real danger of that happening in Sri Lanka as well. Last Wednesday was the Tamil/Hindu festival of Karthigai Theepam or November Lights. This year it happened to fall on 27th November which the LTTE had been observing as their Heroes’ or Mahaveerar Day. At the Jaffna University campus, the students had lit small claypot lamps (pol thel panas) as done in many Tamil homes to celebrate the Karthigai Theepam. There may have been LTTE sympathizers among the students who lit the lamps with Mahaveerar Day in mind. But whatever it was, it was an event that should have been treated as one observing Karthigai Theepam, particular since it was a festival of cultural significance to many Tamils. Instead, somebody (Defence Ministry’s Rakna Lanka Security or the Military Intelligence?) seems to have called in the Army who came into the campus and beat up the students while they were lighting the lamps. Worse, they even reportedly went into women’s hostels, breaking down locked doors and beating up the female students as well. The action of the Police and Army has naturally enraged the University community. This has put the University administration under stress as having shirked their responsibilities towards the students.

This was an incident that should never have been allowed to happen. The lighting of the lamps, even if it had Mahaveerar overtones, should have been ignored. But the government, going by past experience, seems unlikely to inquire into the incident and apologise for any over-reaction by the Army and the Police. The bitterness caused by the baton charging and beating up of even female students will remain. These are the incidents that build up resentment among the students against the establishment. EPDP’s Devananda probably had nothing to do with this incident but, as the Government’s man in the North, resentment will build up against him as well.

Withdraw Impeachment Motion

The government seems to be moving from one blunder to another. Lord Acton’s warning that when power is concentrated in a few, all too frequently people with the mentality of gangsters get control needs to be heeded. The move to impeach the Chief Justice is another that stems from persons with such a mindset. It is not too late for the government to retract from proceeding with that move by heeding appeals from various religious and civil society leaders. It must not postpone action to withdraw the motion by awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality or otherwise of it. If it is sensitive to public opinion, the government should have realized that the move to impeach the Chief Justice is hugely unpopular. By withdrawing the motion in good grace, the government will be stooping to conquer. If it continues to defy the Supreme Court, it could provoke the Supreme Court to hear the petitions ex-parte. And that could lead to a confrontation where the government will have little constitutional grounds to stand on. Not only the government but the country will be the loser. in such a scenario.

This week, Izeth Hussain, the respected former diplomat, wrote a very perceptive article in The Island arguing why it was necessary for the government to withdraw the impeachment motion now. He concluded his article with a plea: "We are not living under a dictatorship. If we were this article would not be published. We do have a democracy, though a deeply flawed one, which might be called a quasi-democracy. Anyway, we have sufficient democratic space to move meaningfully towards a fully functioning democracy. The Opposition is far more active than during the period from 1977 to 1994. So is our civil society, though it is far from being an ideal one. Above all, the international community is far more favourable to democracy than it was between 1977 and 1994. The alternatives facing us are stark. We can take action towards a stable and fully functioning democracy. Or we can be our own executioners."


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