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THE LIMITS OF FREEDOM

May 14, 2011 3:09:23 PM - thesundayleader.lk

We are free to criticise Mahinda Rajapaksa. You can call him any number of names. Tyrant, dictator, you name it. You can compare him to Hitler or Gaddafi, though the latter might be taken favorably. Read this paper, there’s any amount of criticism of the top. It is allowed.
On May Day, marchers supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa were matched by JVP supporters portraying him in effigy as a greedy tyrant or (rather unrealistically) as an American capitalist stooge. Tear down a poster of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and they’ll shoot you in the head. In Sri Lanka it’s fine. For years we have had the outlet to criticise our leaders and Rajapaksa is no exception.
The limit to our freedom is when we actually try to effect change. General Sarath Fonseka tried to go beyond backroom grumbling and actually run for President (rather than staging a coup). After the election, he was put in jail. There are smaller examples everyday.
The state bank official who doesn’t want to make a bad loan to a crony. A phone call comes and he is transferred! The students who try to organise a protest against an institution issuing fake degrees. They are taken in for questioning by the CID. The editor who rants against the person he thinks attacked his office, and who the police are ignoring. The editor is arrested.
As long as you’re content to complain, you will be tolerated. If you try to make a change, however, that’s when the danger emerges. This is a much more intelligent form of authoritarianism than the rotting leaders in the Arab world. They emphasized personal loyalty but let civil society grow out of control. Mahinda Rajapaksa allows rank personal disloyalty but controls the system from the bottom.
While the system looks brilliant, however, it is not. Everything is an interplay of actor and environment, nature and nurture. Whatever Rajapaksa does right now will look brilliant because the economy is OK, emerging from a situation that was really bad. He will be tested when circumstances change and all the cracks and corruption begin to show.
For in fact, the greatest source of dissent or revolt is not rot from the top, it’s the stink that emerges from the bottom. What sparked the Arab Spring was not any statement or action by Tunisian President Ben Ali. It was Mohamed Bouazizi lighting himself on fire. Why? Because officials confiscated his cart of goods and a policewoman slapped him in the face. He fought back not against the regime but against the injustice right in his face, and that’s what started the whole revolt.
Rajapaksa is secure as long as conditions are good and as long as daily injustices are few and far between. Most Sri Lankans are content to look away as good government officials are sacked or transferred and students are arrested or ignored. But conditions change, and these small oppressions are all tinder at his feet.
These are the limits of your freedom. You can complain about your life, but don’t try to change it. You can criticise Mahinda Rajapaksa, but don’t get in the way of his cronies. You can support the UN Panel or rant about WikiLeaks, but don’t try to organise against a specific corruption, a specific injustice, or try to effect a specific change. In this sense, almost unconsciously, the President is aware of the real dynamics of power. Power is not taken by symbols or offices but given by consent and support. Arab dictators have fallen not because they suddenly realised that they were horrible. They fell because they lost their pillars of support (army, media, supporters). Most revolutionary movements that have tried attacking the pinnacle of power have failed. Those that target the pillars of support, however, generally succeed. From Poland to the American South to Egypt, people have improved their lives not by criticising or complaining about the top and waiting for them to change. They have simply made the change regardless, taking back their streets or civil society or rights without asking anybody.
They have presented the top not with a request but with a fait accompli. This is the freedom that Sri Lankans don’t have, or, more accurately, this is a freedom we do have but do not take. Because we haven’t been pushed, because we don’t push ourselves or because right now we really don’t care.  At some point, however, little injustices and corruptions acquire a critical mass. At some point the stink rises so high that it touches everyone’s lives. At some point people will not be content to rail against the UN or their Minister or even Rajapaksa. At some point they will want to make an actual change in their lives, and that seems to be what scares Rajapaksa the most. The freedom we do not have.