Civil society as a space for dissent in Sri Lanka

By Nilanjana Premaratna

07 August 2012: In Sri Lanka is civil society being silenced as freedom of expression is restricted? Nilanjana Premaratna, Insight on Conflict's local correspondent for Sri Lanka, looks at the issue and interviews prominent activist Sanjana Hattotuwa.

There is a widespread backlash against journalists and human rights activists in Sri Lanka
Along with international pressure that was brought upon Sri Lanka with the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution urging investigations into alleged war crimes, there is a widespread backlash against journalists and human rights activists in the country. In an interview with us from March this year, Sanjana Hattotuwa, a peace activist, raised a point that resonated with the Sri Lankan context at the moment: the restricted space for the freedom of expression, the lack of space for dissent.

(Note: in the video, Sanjana's references are to March 2012 sessions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva).

Silencing Sri Lankan civil society

Excluding and attempting to silence these alternative voices only result in an increased tension
Freedom for expression – the freedom for voicing dissent through non-violent means – is indeed the foundation of democracy. It is what holds a democracy together, ensuring that it is a people’s government. This space for multiple voices is what sets a democracy apart from a dictatorship or a monarchy that is run according to the wishes of a privileged few. When this space for expression or dissent is absent – or more accurately, actively discouraged or threatened within a country – it automatically raises questions on its democratic allegations.

Sanjana comments on the ‘hate speech’ that is virulent in Sri Lanka towards human rights activists and, specifically, civil society representatives who went to Geneva to support the resolution again the government. These activists have been issued veiled death threats and, as Sanjana notes, have been called ‘dogs’, ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’ by the largely government-sponsored media.

This vilification is not an isolated act; it is yet another example of a systematic attempt to exclude the voice of civil society that calls for a different path to reconciliation and coexistence. We see diversity as a resource in democracy. The different viewpoints brought forth can result in the creation of a unified whole that is more sustainable in the long run. Civil society exists for the purpose of exploring alternative paths that can contribute to the public. Excluding and attempting to silence these alternative voices only result in an increased tension that hinders the journey ahead as a country.

The significance of a space for dissent

Engaging with the voices of dissent in a process of constructive criticism will be the first step towards  sustainable long term solutions in Sri Lanka
The significance of the space for dissent has been long noted by scholars and practitioners alike. Rajini Obeyesekere in ‘Sri Lankan Theatre at a Time of Terror’ notes that dissent is an inherent part of every culture and that it must ‘inevitably find an outlet in some culturally accepted public arena’ when ‘authoritarian governments clam down on critical expression using violence and political terror’. She allocates that space to the theatre in Sri Lanka during the insurgency in late 1980’s.

Today, the community of peacebuilding actors and organizations come to the fore as important stakeholders in this space. The hate speech campaign targeting these individuals at a superficial level- refusing to engage with them in a productive public dialogue-narrows down this vital space for dissent in today’s Sri Lanka.

The outward lack of dissent and seemingly peaceful veneer can lead to a simmering mass of people underneath. Curtailing dissent is the starting point on the path that leads to civil wars: "civil wars arise when individuals, groups and factions discover that a policeman, judge, soldier or politician no longer speaks and acts for them." (Doyle and Sambanis 2000: 799) [pdf].

In this light, the recent release of Gen. Sarath Fonseka can be applauded – simply because this action by the government doubles as a statement for ensuring citizenship rights of an individual and allowing factions of dissent to exist. Engaging with the voices of dissent in a process of constructive criticism, instead of indiscriminately labeling these as ‘traitors’ or ‘terrorists’ to silence them, will be the first step towards a search for sustainable long term solutions to the problems faced by the post-conflict Sri Lanka.

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