South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it…”

— George Orwell (Proposed Preface to Animal Farm)

Every day, three children are raped in Sri Lanka….. Why aren’t we outraged?

The incarceration of Gen. Fonseka, the 18th Amendment or the Rajapaksa dynastic project are contentious political issues; not so child rape. Child rape is an abomination which everyone of us, irrespective of our politics or lack of it, can and must condemn, unequivocally and in unison. One child raped is one child too many; the daily rape of three children is a menace which must be eradicated from Lanka soil.

And, yet, silence reigns, two weeks after the Sunday Times report appeared (3.10.2010). Silence on the part of the government and the opposition, religious leaders and self-appointed guardians of traditional morality. Silence in the Parliament and outside. And a societal silence as reprehensible as it is astounding. Has indifference become a coarse habit which inures us to the most heinous of crimes and most barbarous of outrages, as long as we are not the victims?

There is nothing singular about our collective indifference to the proliferation of child rape. In the recent past, we reacted with equal indifference to media revelations about unacceptably high levels of child malnutrition and child poverty and debilitating educational standards. A country which is seriously concerned about its future cannot ignore a steady erosion in the safety, health, education and general wellbeing of a substantial percentage of its children. Yet there is no outcry, political or public, no parliamentary debates or public perorations, no crisis plans or emergency action programmes about any of these issues. We are learning to coexist with horrors and abominations, so long as they do not touch us personally.

Addressing the Istanbul Conference on Freedom of Speech, Noam Chomsky opined that ‘even more fundamental than the right to free expression is the right to think.’ What happens when a populace willingly abdicates its right to think, because it considers thinking burdensome and, perhaps, dangerous? What happens when a populace embraces indifference as a way of life outside of one’s private sphere? Did our gradual descent into moral indifference begin in the North, when we unquestioningly accepted the outrageous lie of zero-civilian casualties? We cling to that anesthetising myth even now, single-mindedly ignoring such dribbles of truth, as the statement by an Indian doctor, who treated civilian Tamils in the last weeks of the war, about ‘massive casualties among civilians’ (around 30,000; Hindustan Times – 1.6.2010).

Motivated by that same stupefying yearning for ignorance, we drew veils of concealment over testimonies by civilian Tamils at the LLRC hearings. Such as the testimony of Ratnasingham Easwary, who escaped from Tiger clutches on May 10, 2009 via the lagoon. When her boat was intercepted by the Navy, “we called out that we were civilians and asked them not to shoot at us. Yet minutes later eight shells were directed towards our boats from the Navy ships. Of the 20 who travelled in our boat eight were killed” (Groundviews).

The survivors were rescued by the Navy; subsequently Ms. Ratnasingham’s brother-in-law was taken away by the Navy; his fate is still unknown. In answer to a question, the witness reiterated that there were no arms in the boat and there were no Tiger boats close-by; they were all civilians and shouted so to the Navy many times, she said. Civilians died, and some avoidably. But we will continue to cling to our happy illusions, lest we are lured to think and to question our indifference…

A Militarised Peace

More than a year after the victorious end of the Eelam War, defence remains the topmost budgetary priority of the Rajapaksas. A defence budget at a stratospheric Rs.215 billion cannot but gobble up the peace dividend (the health budget at Rs.6.2 billion is about 3% of the defence budget while education and higher education budget at Rs.24.7 billion is around 12% of the defence budget). Defence remains the cardinal consideration of the Rajapaksas, over and above economic or social development, even in peace time.

The LTTE is incapable of regrouping and rearming, Minister G.L. Peiris recently assured the world. If so, why spend an unacceptably high 20% of total government expenditure on defence? Wouldn’t it make sense to channel some of this money into fulfilling health, educational, housing and employment needs of the North and East? The North needs a Marshall Plan but is getting military camps and cantonments instead. Obviously the Rajapaksa objective is not consensual peace-building but forceful pacification. This is further confirmed by the regime’s disinclination to do its constitutional duty by fully implementing the 13th Amendment.

As Minister Peiris said in response to Indian insistence on a political solution, “It is impossible to talk of exact time frame for implementing the 13th Amendment, it is a great mistake to do because if you talk of a timeframe and then you are not able to complete the process, it is bound to be conjecture, speculative, then there is erosion of credibility” (ANI – 16.10.2010). Obviously a political solution is not on, though a desperate Delhi may continue with the charade, to save face and to appease Tamil Nadu.

As the Tamil witnesses at the LLRC hearings indicated, the demise of the Tigers has not killed the desire for self-rule (naturally, as the Tigers were born due to a dearth and not a surfeit of self-rule): “When the people of Kilinochchi gave evidence they said that the armed conflict was the result of the of the feelings of those who were affected by ethnic conflict….  Since both sides have experienced losses…the people stressed that finding a permanent political solution for the Tamil people was imperative to prevent future generations from taking up arms….” (ibid).

The ethnic problem is a living reality but any Tamil who demands a political solution will be deemed an enemy. In the Sinhala supremacist eyes of the Rajapaksas, there is no difference between Tamil nationalism and Tiger fascism. Tamils will be able to gain a place in post-war Sri Lanka, only at the cost of submission to Sinhala supremacism and Rajapaksa dominance. If the Tamils behave, they can be free, safe and perhaps even successful, by the grace of the Rajapaksas; if they become ‘demanding’ they will be labelled as Tigers and treated accordingly.

Indifference and impunity are mutually-sustaining cancers which cannot be isolated politically or geographically; eventually the South too will be consumed by these twin ills. The proposed barricading of the country would be aimed at guaranteeing the Rajapaksa right to impunity (according to the official narrative, national interests and Rajapaksa interests are identical). But the prime guarantor of Rajapaksa impunity will be our own habit of indifference. After all, what cannot be done to and on behalf of a society which remains unmoved by the rape of its children, three a day?

Source: The Sunday Leader – 24.10.2010