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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 107

The breakdown of civil society in Sri Lanka: A leading businessman’s lament

By Raj Gonsalkorale

In an open letter to business leaders, the former chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and a well respected accountant, a business leader and a social worker in Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan of the year in 2001, Mr Chandra Jayaratne, has sought the counsel and guidance from his fellow businessmen how he could reconcile business activity with silence in the face of some terrible atrocities that are going on in the country. In his letter, he appeals to his fellow business leaders as well as fellow citizens, to do their bit even in whatever little way they could, to speak and act against such atrocities especially when those who are suffering and have suffered are innocent children and the elderly.

Mr Jayaratne makes reference to a news item in the Mid Week Leader of the 4th July relating to the World Bank country strategy in preparation for the period 2008 to 2011, and the risk that the document will face when it is sent to Washington for approval. The news item has a gruesome photograph of the massacre of a family of four, in Vankalai, Manner, and in it one could see the horrendous way two children and a woman has been murdered.

Mr Jayaratne’s open letter is quoted in full here.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I write this note to seek your good counsel and guidance, as to how I can reconcile my disturbed mind and live down the shame of calling myself a business leader in Sri Lanka (even though retired now) going about my usual business and life (in a business as usual mode ), when pictures of the type seen in this news report and others that are similar appear in the news media frequently, and are accompanied daily by TV news of more gruesome incidents, with details and pictures of murders in all parts of Sri Lanka ( that too in numbers of half a dozen at a time per day), especially involving at most times the murder of innocent children and elderly persons.

The picture in the attachment actually accompanies a reference to the 'World Bank Country Strategy being in Peril' and refers to the development initiatives that are in focus within the plan.

Though development in general and development projects in specific supported by the World Bank Country Strategy, with close networking with International Financial Institutions and development partners seeking national economic development and adding value equitably to the private sector and people of Sri Lanka, have been a close part of my working career in the last 15 years, (especially during the time in the leadership team of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce), and in all these initiatives I have always been sensitive to the human side of the equation, assuring human rights, human security, equity and justice of all citizens (a high priority as enunciated in the 'Vision 2020' and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce 'Way Forward Strategy'), I have never been so much saddened as by seeing this picture adorn a reference to the 'World Bank Country Strategy being in Peril'.

I now realize that what is in peril is not only the World Bank Country Strategy and development, but the sustainability of the entire structure and fabric of human society and social interaction values and norms in Sri Lanka that have been an embedded part of our nation and its people. This sense of hopelessness enhances further, especially as we are becoming a society beginning to accept the horrible events around us, as 'as business as usual', including the murder and mayhem involving even innocent children and elderly.

Irrespective of who ever is behind such murders, what ever their rationale, motive or driving cause or justification be, the real question in my mind is why target the innocent, young and elderly and how can we, in the context of our religious values, cultural links, family backgrounds, educational and professional attainments, business achievements and entrenched social norms and values, accept these without open protest, crying out aloud in shame, and doing some thing about them individually and collectively and above all, why do we go about our lives "with business as usual" closing our eyes, ears and mouth in the face of the horrific happening surrounding us.

My shame and pain of mind are heightened as I recollect that Mahatma Gandhi had said that a 'Man is equated to a Monkey' , when he closes his eyes and sees no evil, closes his ears and hears no evil and in the midst of all the evil around him closes his mouth and does not speak against such evil.

With a sincere wish that we all can by our actions, however small and restricted they may be insulate the little world around us from being so evil enough to take the lives of innocent away, especially children and elderly.

With best regards
C. Jayaratne

In Hitler’s Germany, when millions of Jews were being massacred by the most inhuman ways possible, and when it was happening all around ordinary German people, there was stony silence at the time from those Germans. Even those who were in a position to voice their outrage remained silent, and Hitler and his henchmen killed more than 6 million Jews.

Today, in Sri Lanka, although no reference or inference of any sort is being made to the situation there as a “Hitlerite” situation, there is still silence from those who are in a position to voice their opinion and even outrage, to the extra judicial killings, abductions and human rights violations that are taking place in the country. Besides some journalists and some people with a social conscience, the likes of influential, powerful and rich businessmen and women have chosen to remain silent, possibly for fear of losing their privileged position and business, as a result of speaking out against social injustice. At the outset it must be mentioned that the government of Sri Lanka is not being accused of these violations, lest, some may end up missing the woods for the trees in respect of the issue that is being discussed.

What is at stake is the impact of silence on the society we are part of, and the gradual breakdown of values in that society due to the acceptance of some of these atrocities as “necessary evils” of the times we live in. By this we seem to mean the government battles with the LTTE and the intercine battles between the Karuna faction and its breakaway faction. Some have commented that we were silent when thousands of people, mainly young men and women were killed by unknown gangs in the late eighties, and when groups that were either JVP’rs or their supporters also killed many innocent people. The reasoning given at the time was that by sacrificing a few thousand lives, we saved millions more from murder, anarchy and a Marxist dictatorship.

True, as a collective, we were silent when some of these atrocities took place, and the social fabric took the impact then as it is doing now. In 1983, some held the view that the LTTE killing of 13 soldiers precipitated the killing of hundreds of Tamils, inferring and implying that it was a price that they paid for what the LTTE did to 13 soldiers. Fortunately for the civil society in Sri Lanka, those who held such a view, and the implied justification, were very few, as most Sinhala people were aghast about what happened to their fellow Tamil citizens, and many went against all odds to support and protect Tamil people.

As the environment has been suffering irreparable damage over the years due to silence, inaction and indifference, our social fabric has also been encountering incremental and some irreparable damage over the years due to silence, inaction and indifference, and above all, the acceptance of evil as “necessary”. Like the environment and the damage caused by the thinning of the Ozone layer, a phenomenon viewed by many as irreparable despite the sudden galvanizing of many world luminaries to the cause, our social fabric may have suffered irreparable damage, and in our case, as no local luminaries have risen to the cause and spoken out.

As Mr Jayaratne says, quote “Irrespective of who ever is behind such murders, what ever their rationale, motive or driving cause or justification be, the real question is why target the innocent, young and elderly and how can we, in the context of our religious values, cultural links, family backgrounds, educational and professional attainments, business achievements and entrenched social norms and values, accept these without open protest, crying out aloud in shame, and doing some thing about them individually and collectively and above all, why do we go about our lives "with business as usual" closing our eyes, ears and mouth in the face of the horrific happening surrounding us” unquote.

As some Germans did during Hitler’s atrocities, some of our influential businessmen and women are asking for “proof” and evidence and documents to pin point who is responsible for the atrocities in Sri Lanka. Rightly so, as no one could accuse another without some proof. However, nothing should prevent the business community from speaking out against atrocities that are going on around them, and exerting greater pressure on the custodian of the current watch, the legally elected government of Sri Lanka, to make sure every effort is made with the backing of resources, know how and the impartiality, to provide a safe and secure guardianship to all citizens of the country.

What is needed is an elevation of such dark events to the centre stage in Sri Lanka and to support the small coterie of people with some sense of social justice and who are always unkindly and unjustly referred to as NGO pawns, and who are considered as irritants limited to holding placards at the Lipton Circus in Colombo, but who are always at the forefront when it comes to defending attacks on social justice, and to galvanize the wider participation of people against atrocities. While there might be an element of an organised campaign against the government to discredit them in the international media and within the international community about human rights violations, neither the government nor others, including the influential business community should hide behind such a reason, that is, if such a campaign does exist, to accept some evils as “necessary”. No evil can be right or necessary and if we begin compromising on this basic human principle, even our parents will not be safe as circumstantial reasoning against upholding this principle will have no bounds.

We shouldn’t let the Gandhian logic come true and become Monkeys.

- Asian Tribune -

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