by Tisaranee Gunasekara
"Basic to a free city was the right to speak back to the state, to criticise its actions in the assembly, the courts, the theatre, or conversation. If the sate suddenly interfered with that right, it was breaking its part of the contract. It was becoming a tyranny.” IF Stone (The Trial of Socrates)
Emperors are almost always naked. We think they are garbed in regal attires because of the collective psychological blinkers imposed on us, the ruled, by dominant ideologies. Those who take upon themselves the necessary task of exposing the structural nudity of Emperors risk imperial wrath and vengeance. So it was then. So it is now. So it is everywhere, even in the liberal heartland.
As Eric Ambler said, when a man is being persecuted for political reasons by the powers that be, “he must be discredited and destroyed as a man so that he may safely be dealt with as a criminal” (Judgement of Deltchev). Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, could have raped half a hundred women without causing political and law enforcement authorities of the Western world a single moment of anxiety or concern, had he not been the head of Wikileaks and had Wikileaks not engaged in outing the sole superpower’s secrets. Mr. Assange became a marked man only because he is the founder of Wikileaks and the leading spirit of Cablegate. If the rape charge is what it purports to be, there is no need for the Interpol to get activated or for a host of Western nations to make a concerted effort to erase Wikileasks out of cyberspace. The rape charge is clearly the fig leaf used by Western democracies to do their intolerant work while hiding their repressive intent.
The rape charge against Mr. Assange is rather similar to the corruption charge used by the Rajapaksas to politically incapacitate their bête noir Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Given the far more democratic conditions prevailing in the West, Mr. Assange may succeed in stymieing the machinations of his persecutors. At least he will have a far better chance of doing so than Gen. Fonseka did. Even the young soldier, without whose moral courage the Wikileaks revelations would not have happened, Private Bradley Manning of the US Army, is likely to have a far fairer trial than Sri Lanka’s war-winning Army Commander. Still, the hysteria with which the Western democracies are reacting to Wikileaks revelations reveal that democracy will always be a work-in-progress than a finished product, not just in the Tricontinental World but also in the liberal Western states.
The Special UN Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue believes the Americans, for all their thunder, will not be able to make a credible case against Julian Assange: “I will hope certainly that the principle of freedom of expression is the one that prevails because I believe that even if the US feels embarrassed it will be a bad example if anyone is harassed or charged or prosecuted for that” (ABC News – The World Today). The Assange trial will be a test case not for Wikileaks but for the West. That trial will enable the world to see to what extent the Liberal West has allowed its own core values to be eroded in its obsessive efforts to win the war against ‘terror’. The West will be on the dock with Mr. Assange.
Are Western democracies becoming more and more akin to anti-democratic countries, such as China and Sri Lanka, even as they preach to the world about the dangers of intolerance and the value of freedom? Leaders of those countries who are or aspire to be autocratic will be watching the Assange trial with riveting interest, hoping for a negative example which will help make the world a more permissive place for the rulers and a more unfree place for the ruled. If the West acts contrary to its purported liberal values and manages to lock up Mr. Assange and shut down Wikileaks, that outcome will politically and psychologically empower anti-democratic forces all over the world. That will be bad news especially for the people of actual and nascent autocracies who are struggling against enormous odds to gain or save even a vestige of democratic space.
As historian Tony Judt pointed out, “The question is not whether terrorism exists: of course it exists. Nor is it a question of whether terrorism and terrorists should be fought: of course they should be fought. The question is what other evils we shall neglect – or create – by focusing exclusively upon a single enemy and using it to justify a hundred lesser crimes of our own” (The problem of evil in post-war Europe - New York Review of Books - 14.2.2008). Terrorism has become the favourite catchphrase of rulers in many parts of the world who want to enhance their own freedoms by curtailing the freedoms of their peoples. The illiberal manner in which the Liberal West is reacting to Cablegate will be used by apologists for (actual and would-be) autocrats to justify the qualitatively greater intolerance prevailing in their countries; and to discredit the very idea of democracy in general and freedom of expression (media freedom) in particular as mere mirages. After all freedom of expression will be worthless, if it is reduced in practice to freedom to express only what governments permit.
There are public figures in the US who are demanding that Mr. Assange be extradited to America and executed (doubtless after a show-trial). Fortunately for all of us these extremists are not in control of Washington, not yet. In consequence, American (and European) media remain free to publish the Wikileaks revelations and to defend Mr. Assange. Even in the US Republican Party, there are politicians who defend what the Wikileaks is doing as an essential component of a democracy (for instance Republican Congressman – and Tea-Party darling - Ron Paul broke ranks with most of his colleagues and defended Wikileaks: “In a free society we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble”). And all over the US and Europe, those who are defending Wikileaks are as vocal and strident as those who attack Wikileaks, if not more so, because dissent in general still remains free and unimpeded.
In a place like Sri Lanka the outcome would have been far more different, as the fates of Lasantha Wickremetunga and a dozen other media personnel demonstrate. As the hysteria surrounding Karu Jayasuriya’s timely statement about the need to carry out a credible investigation into the ‘war crimes charges’ against Sri Lanka indicates, a sober and rational discussion/debate about the conduct of the Lankan Forces during the Fourth Eelam War is tabooed. According to the dominant (Sinhala supremacist) ideology, the only ‘patriotic’ stance is to assert again and again that Lankan Forces never committed ‘war crimes’ (this is the mirror image of the Tiger stance) or even mistakes. We did not kill any civilians inadvertently or knowingly: there the matter is supposed to end. Anyone who ventures beyond this border is a traitor and will be treated as such.
After the victorious conclusion of the Fourth Eelam War, the Rajapaksas and their acolytes claimed that the West should follow the Lankan example in its own war against terrorism. Perhaps the liberal Western nations may yet emulate (at least to some extent) Sri Lanka (and other like-minded countries the world over) in curtailing democratic rights and freedoms of their people. The ancient Greeks warned about the human tendency to become like the enemy one is fighting, and destroying that which one is striving to protect in consequence. Euripides’ Heracles tries to protect his family from the murderous wrath of Lycus; but in a moment of madness he does that which he wanted to prevent Lycus from doing: he kills his wife and his children, believing them to be his enemies. “With grief and many a bitter tear we go our way, robbed of all we prized most dearly”, chants the chorus at the end, the robbery committed not by any outside entity, not by an enemy, but by oneself, the natural protector of the victims.
Hypocrisy is not new to West. Of all the cases in point, perhaps the most telling was the failure of the West to save German and Austrian Jews, when it was yet possible. Until the war broke out, the Nazis’ favoured solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ was emigration. But there were no takers for the Jews who wanted to leave. When the US criticised the Nazis for their persecution of German Jews, the Nazis challenged the US to take the Jews in to save them from persecution. The Americans were not willing to back their fine words with appropriate deeds, much to the glee of Hitler and his cohorts. By reacting in such an intemperate and intolerant way to Wikileaks and Mr. Assange, the US in particular and the West in general are discrediting themselves far more greatly than any of the Wikileaks revelations did or can do. They are killing that which they say they want to protect most – democratic values.
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas are breaking new ground in their effort to transform a democracy into an autocracy, from within. By deciding to punish a grandmother for sheltering a fugitive grandson, the regime is setting a deadly precedent. The law was always in the books; but this is probably the first time it has been implemented against a close family member of an offender, especially when the offender is charged with a non-lethal minor crime and the family member is a 79 year old grandmother.
Danuna Tilakaratne, Gen. Fonseka’s son-in-law, is wanted not for murder or even manslaughter but for a minor act of corruption. That is in theory. The real purpose of the exercise is to harass the family of Gen. Fonseka, who dared to commit the ultimate crime of making a serious attempt to unseat the Rajapaksas, democratically. Mr. Tilakaratne, on the run, was sheltered by his 79 year old grandmother. Very few grandmothers worth the name would turn their backs on a grandchild in trouble. Mr. Tilakaratne was not the only fugitive to seek help and shelter from a close family member. Though legally such assistance is punishable, only an administration which is devoid of common human decencies would want to enforce such laws.
The fact that the Rajapaksas administration is doing precisely that and getting away with it should be a matter of deep concern for all of us. We can be as apolitical as we like, but we all have loved ones to whom we would want to be loyal, especially when they are in trouble. By going after Mr. Tilakaratne’s grandmother, the Rajapaksas are sending a clear signal – that our duty to the Ruling Family should take precedence over our duty to our own families. This is the mindset which premised the ancient practice of punishing close family members for the crime of a man, if the wrongdoer cannot be apprehended. Taken to its extreme, this custom enabled the last king of the Kandyan Kingdom to execute the entire family of his erstwhile chief minister suspected of treasonous deeds. With the infamous granny trial, we are heading in such dangerous directions.
Under the Rajapaksas we have achieved things, both positive and negative, which were hitherto unimaginable. Perhaps the time to stop charting new courses and heading in unprecedented directions has come. If we do not, we may find ourselves in totally unfamiliar terrain, barren of common or garden compassion and loyalty, pity and sympathy, kindness and consideration. Under the rule of the Sun God, the Tigers punished parents who tried to save their children from being conscripted, in the name of Tamil liberation. Under the rule of the Sun King a grandmother is being punished for not handing over her grandson to the police. Is this our country?