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05 February, 2010

Disappearance of a Sri Lankan political analyst


The disappearance of Pregeeth Ekanaliyagoda, a political analyst, journalist and visual designer, attached to LankaENews; the arrest of Chandana Sirimalwatta, the editor of the Lanka newspaper and the assassination of Chandaradasa Naiwadu, the JVP Urban Council member at Ambalangoda are among the acts of violence reported during the election for the executive presidency in Sri Lanka. They were all persons who supported the joint opposition campaign on behalf of the retired army commander, Sarath Fonseka. The issue of violence in the election was raised at a press conference organised by the Commissioner for Elections this week. His explanation was that since the adoption of the 1978 Constitution the type of politics seen during the election is quite normal and that even in future elections a similar pattern of violence will continue. There has not been any attempt by the government to investigate any of the incidents mentioned above or any other acts of violence.

All three persons mentioned above are, or were, intellectuals who represent different points of view and are persons who dared to express their opinions even in the midst of a very intense culture of political violence. What is most saddening in the suppression of such voices which are trying to rise up against a general climate of violence and demoralisation and trying to develop a discourse on politics by expressing their own points of view for the consideration of the electorate. The case of the journalist and political analyst, Pregeeth Ekanaliyagoda clearly demonstrates the kind of violence that is used against the voices of reason.

"Sarath? Mahinda? Or us?"

Pregeeth Ekanaliyagoda wrote several articles in LankaEnews in the months prior to the election on the 26th January. He tried to engage his readers in a discussion on issues which were part of the public debate on the forthcoming election. In November 2009 he wrote an article entitled, “Sarath? Mahinda? Or us?” In this article he tried to enter into the debate that was taking place at the time about the entrance of the retired general, Sarath Fonseka as a candidate for the election. By using the debate that was taking place at the time he tried to demonstrate that the issue was not really about the two prominent candidates which were the incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapakse and Sarath Fonseka. He tried to highlight that the election was about ‘us’, meaning the people. He tried to reason out that what is at stake for us, the people in the election and the best ways of serving the interests of the people through the election. He tried to raise the discussion on the presidential election beyond personalities and into the issues that should concern the people.

He tried to engage in a discussion on dictatorships which was one of the issues of the election. One of the speculations against the retired general, Sarath Fonseka entering into politics was that, he being a military general, could turn out to be a dictator if he came into power. Ekanaliyagoda did not dismiss the argument lightly. He tried to bring in discussions about political experience from around the world to discuss the issue of dictatorships. He spoke of two types of dictatorships; one where the military establishes a direct dictatorship and another where the government elected through democratic means adopt the practices of a dictatorship. The issue for the people was to avoid the actual practice of dictatorship and for that they should look into the indicators of a dictatorship.

By examining dictatorships in Burma, Iran, Indonesia, Libya, the Sudan and Somalia he tried to bring to notice some of the practices of the dictatorial regimes. He identified the following: the lack of respect for public opinion and the law was one of the factors he identified in a dictatorship. He also indentified a lack of respect for the parliament and the judiciary. He further identified the lack of space for people to express and organise themselves as trade unions and other organisations furthering the interests of the people and the freedom of the civil society to actively participate in the life of society.

Having identified these factors as common experiences in countries that are ruled by a dictatorship, whether they are dictatorships which were brought about by the military or by governments initially elected democratically, he pointed out that all the features of a repressive society are present in Sri Lanka now. He pointed out that there is no respect for public opinion or the law within the country. He further pointed out the absence of the space for parliamentary democracy within the Sri Lankan context. He went on to enumerate how there is repression against people who engage in normal activities of furthering the interests of the people such as trade unions, opposition political parties, civil society organisations, those who engage in human rights work and the like.

Thus, he returned to the original question of what was at stake for the people of this election. He argues that what is at stake is to defeat these practices and to bring back the freedom which gives people the space to participate in political life which guarantees media freedoms and opens space for civil society to engage in resolving societal problems.

In this manner he tried to take the arguments between military dictatorships or democracy, not purely by those who claim to be democrats but on the basis of the policies that they advocate and the policies that are needed for society at this time. As an analyst and an intellectual he was trying to engage society on an intelligent discourse on the issues they should try to resolve in the coming elections.

He concluded his article by stating that Sri Lanka does not need a wretched dictatorship like Burma and dozens of other countries which have those kinds of regimes. Sri Lanka also did not need the Mahinda Chintanaya or any other kind of dictatorship.

"Sensitive Leader"

In an article written in December Ekanaliyagoda tried to discuss an advertisement that was commonly used on television at the time which stated that people should vote for the sensitive leader, meaning Mahinda Rajapakse, the incumbent president. In this article Ekanaliyagoda tried to analyse what was meant by a ‘sensitive leader’.

First he tried to elaborate on the concept of sensitivity and insensitivity in political life in terms of the sufferings of the people. He began with the issue of the tsunami which affected Sri Lanka badly and pointed out that during that time one of the most saddening aspects was that there were people who were willing to steal from the victims. He said that the exhibition of this tendency during this great tragedy point out a tremendous insensitivity to the suffering that had become part of the Sri Lankan psyche. The capacity, even to rob from people in a natural calamity he saw as an exhibition of tremendous breakdown of morale within Sri Lankan society. Then he went on to discuss the very serious illnesses such as dengue fever, swine flu and other epidemics that affect the young. Accompanied with such tragedies is also the revelation of fraud and attempts to earn commission from the purchase of medicines and other basic needs of the people.

That again was a manifestation of an enormous morale breakdown within society and this is reflected in the behaviour of the ministers and others who engage in such practices on behalf of the government. Dealing with such questions of insensitivity was something very much needed within the country.

Then he discussed the common news items which appeared often of suspects who are killed in custody under the pretext that while they were being taken by the police to show where they had hidden their loot they attacked the police who had to defend themselves. Such a blatant use of violence within the policing system itself and the tolerance shown to such stories by society was a clear manifestation of the insensitivity that has developed within Sri Lanka. He discussed the insensitivity in the enforcement of the law and the disregard of the courts which has become quite an entrenched part of the behaviour pattern within the country. He showed that on matters that involved huge sums of money there does not seem to be any kind of sensitivity or patriotism exhibited by the political leaders of the country.

He then went on to examine the killings of media personnel on orders from those in power and the fake condemnations of such killings without taking any steps to ensure that justice is ever done in these cases. Mentioning such killings such as the assassination of the well known journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge he mentioned that the behaviour towards the media and the critics is almost like that of Caligula in the Roman Empire. Journalists are killed or assaulted in broad daylight or otherwise intimidated and this was not a climate of sensitivity. He also discussed the foreign debt and other issues of serious financial frauds that had taken place in the country as an indication of the absence of a political sensitivity. Thus, Ekanaliyagoda tried to develop a discourse on political sensitivity speaking of what should, in fact, be the behaviour of a sensitive political leader towards the suffering of the people within his country and what is actually found in the country.

"Should Mahinda’s government have an extension?"

His third article was in early January where he discussed the issue as to whether Mahinda Rajapakse’s government should have an extension. He discusses the work of the present government, particularly on the issue of the main allegation against the government which is corruption. Giving details of the ever increasing corruption within the government and that all aspects of national life being involved in these affairs he argued that the country would not benefit from a further extension of the government as it would only mean a continuance of the pattern of corruption that is entrenched within the country.

He argued that no plan of action has been put forward by the government with the promise to end corruption. No legal measure has been proposed in order to deal with the problem. Instead the entire machinery of the state has been made ineffective against any act of corruption and this was contributing to a climate of corruption within the country. Unless this trend is stopped it will damage the economy and the future of the nation, was his main argument against allowing the existing regime to continue in power.

Creating political discourse

The three articles that this political analyst has written within the last three months before his abduction indicates an attempt to involve the public in a political discourse on issues that he considered to be important.

A political discussion within a country cannot take place unless there is space for thinkers, writers and analysts to put forward their views and for the readers to have various views to consider. Having such serious minded analysts enhances the capacity of others to have different views and thereby to deepen the political discourse within the country.

The silencing of analysts and thinkers would only strengthen the argument made by such people that a climate for proper development does not exist presently. That development requires the serious participation of the thinking elements within society, in order to give their points of view on all aspects of life, so that an enlightened approach could prevail to support the betterment of the conditions of the people.

Ekanaliyagoda’s family constantly told the investigating authorities and the public through the media that they do not suspect any other reason for his disappearance except for political revenge. Under these circumstances there is even greater obligation for the government to investigate this disappearance and other acts of violence that is taking place in the country. The election commissioner has warned that other elections in the country are likely to repeat the same pattern of violence.

It is now the government’s turn to demonstrate its capacity to change the course of the violence and it is the duty of the international community to raise the issues of the disappearance and violence and request serious investigations and redress for victims of such violence.

Basil Fernando is Executive Director of Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong.

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