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Silence is complicity

by Shanie, 20 November 2008

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The Island, 15 November 2008

NOTEBOOK OF A NOBODY

The appalling silence of the good people

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

Martin Luther King, the author of the words quoted above, was as a thirty five year old in 1964, the youngest person in history to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. A year earlier, he had made his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC which has now been shown as truly prophetic. Four years later, he was assassinated. A man was convicted for this but it was widely believed that it was part of a conspiracy in which the FBI was also involved. Throughout his involvement with the civil rights movement, King had been receiving death threats, some of it allegedly emanating from the FBI itself. He had been a strident opponent of the Vietnam War and criticized the US Congress for the continuing to spend billions in the conduct of the war. "A nation", he declared, "that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programmes of social uplift is approaching spiritual death". For this King was riled not only by the establishment but even by the mainstream media. The Life magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi" and even the liberal Washington Post wrote that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people." Later events however proved right the wisdom of King.

Two years ago at A Veterans for Peace Convention in the US, a US soldier facing court martial for being a conscientious objector to being posted to the US army in Iraq made a statement which is worth quoting extensively in the light of both the re-interest in Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement as well as our own war situation. Lt Ehren Watada from Hawaii stated, "I have broken no law but the code of silence and unquestioning loyalty. If I am guilty of any crime, it is that I learned too much and cared too deeply for the meaningless loss of my fellow soldiers and my fellow human beings. If I am to be punished it should be for following the rule of law over the immoral orders of one man. If I am to be punished it should be for not acting sooner. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period … was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.’

"Now, I’m not a hero. I am a leader of men who said enough is enough. Those who called for war prior to the invasion compared diplomacy with Saddam to the compromises made with Hitler. I say, we compromise now by allowing a government that uses war as the first option instead of the last to act with impunity. Many have said this about the World Trade Towers, "Never Again." I agree. Never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life to reign free - be they terrorists or elected officials. The time to fight back is now - the time to stand up and be counted is today.

"I’ll end with one more Martin Luther King Jr quote: ‘One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

The life and words of Martin Luther King, re-echoed by the young US officer, have a relevance for us today in Sri Lanka. Terrorism, in all its form, has to be rooted out. Abductions, extra-judicial killings, extortions and intimidation of those holding different views is terrorism, whether they are committed by a terrorist in the jungles of Vanni or by a terrorist who now sits on a political chair. We must protest against double standards and break the ‘appalling silence’.

Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala people?

Cabinet Minister Champaka Ranawaka and Army Commander Sarath Fonseka believe that our country belongs to the Sinhala people. Though each has stated it in different words, they both appear to claim that all other ethnic groups do not have the same rights in Sri Lanka as the Sinhala people. Their statements have led to protests from the Tamil and Muslim communities and in at least one incident last Friday, there has been some violence. But the focus of criticism seems to be on the protestors, for their violence, rather than on the majoritarian supremacism displayed in the provocative statements of those in authority.

Neither President Rajapaksa nor any other Government political leader has disassociated themselves from this claim. Even the media, both state and non-state, have little to state on it. On the contrary, there have been many comments in the opinion pages of the newspapers in support. We cannot say that they represent the majority, or even a substantial section of the Sinhala people. But the tragedy is that our political leadership and the opinion makers have not countered this statement by assuring the minorities that Sri Lanka belongs equally to all her citizens, that all have equal rights and equal protection from the state. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. And not only that, all those who passively accept evil are as much involved in it as those who help to perpetrate it. Those who accept evil without protesting against it are really condoning or cooperating with it.

Is it any wonder then that the minorities are only lukewarm in their support for the current "war"? The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) have been strident in their exposure of LTTE’s terrorism. But even they, in their latest report, have been constrained to question the present strategy. We quote, "Fighting the LTTE has become almost secondary to the prerequisite of the extremists close to the corridors of power to establish a Sinhalese-Buddhist state and erase all semblance of pluralism. It is this obscurantism that in the first place kindled the present ethnic conflict. An important category that became targets of the State’s killer groups are those who are not LTTE sympathizers, but were active in defending and speaking up for legitimate Tamil interests. The result is the further isolation of the State from the Tamils.

"A responsible government must think and do the political work it is there to do, in winning over the Tamils and to persuade the world that it has a viable plan to minimize the damage and loss of life, before sending in the armed forces. To conduct a war with the present chauvinistic outlook is utterly irresponsible by the Sinhalese youth being sacrificed, even if the State has no empathy for the Tamil victims. But what is to be gained by giving the Tamils the message that they would lose everything and have no place in this country if the LTTE is defeated?

"On the other side the people are in this terrible plight because the LTTE for its totalitarian ends repeatedly spurned opportunities to reach a political settlement. The people’s relationship with the LTTE is complex. The general mood among the people of the Vanni was strongly anti-LTTE four months ago, and resistance continues. Resistance however to the LTTE is either passive or tragically fatalistic. With increased aerial bombing and shelling and stories of increasingly repressive treatment of minorities coming from other parts of the country, the mood is changing. Despite this the LTTE, by October 2008, had once again become very aggressive in conscription.

"There was fear under the LTTE, but now there is terror, violence and extreme uncertainty under the much travestied label of democracy. The natures of internal terror and external terror and their dynamism have been regularly discussed in our reports. The first destroys the soul of the community and the latter creates continuous uncertainty and fear; both take away hope and dignity from the people. That is why for us the choice is not between an LTTE victory and a Government victory. Both are obnoxious in their aims and inimical for the people. Any evil ultimately burns itself out. We could only hope and pray that the suffering of the people would be brief, followed by a dawn of fresh hope."

That dawn will come only when, as we have repeatedly stated in this column, when the two major national parties, the SLFP and the UNP, set aside political games and get together in the national interests, in consultation with the Muslim and Tamil elected political leadership, and present a joint political package that will ensure peace and justice to all the people of our country. Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe must know that the APRC has just been a wasted time-stalling exercise. They have the 2000 consensus proposals to work around and they must quickly come with a proposal that will end the meaningless loss of lives and the tragic displacement of people and restore dignity and justice for all our people.