The Sunday Leader

Fake Suicides, Demonstrations And Threats To Democracy

  • TV has made dictatorships impossible but democracy unbearable - Shimon Peres

by  Gamini Weerakoon

Veteran journalist the late Gamini Windsor, who hailed from a family in Galle involved in the gem business, regaled many tales of Galle’s gem salesmen attempting to palm off gems to foreigners on ships anchored in the Galle harbour. Gem salesmen in their dinghies went alongside ships with foreigners on decks. The assurance given by a salesman who was questioned by suspecting customers about the genuineness of his gems was: ‘If this not good gem, I cut your throat’.

This funny story which was related to us about five decades ago came to our mind when we read reports of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa whilst in Japan recently telling a Japanese newspaper that he would ‘cut his own throat if there was evidence that he had even stolen a single dollar’.There is of course no similarity between the gem dealer’s amusing threat to slit his customers throats in contrast to the usual  Sri Lankan practice threatening to slit one’s own throat as Rajapaksa threatened to do. Such a suicidal reflection may have been influenced during his presence in Japan, the home of hara-kiri, but long extinct. Rajapaksa is obviously exasperated by allegations made against him and his family members without proof forthcoming.

Exasperated politicians often declare their willingness to end their lives when they are unable to stop allegations cascading on them. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa who was assailed with allegations about the assassination of his ministerial colleague and political rival Lalith Athulathmudali cried out: ‘Assassinate me but don’t assassinate my character’.The latest attempted suicide was by controversial politician the Deputy Minister for Internal Affairs and Cultural Affairs, Palitha Thevarapperuma who staged a fast to death before the Educational Office at Matugama, following refusal by the authorities of Meegahatenna Primary School to admit ten students and then attempting to hang himself on a ceiling fan of the school. He had however been prevented from doing so by his well-wishers. His protests yielded results with the ten students being admitted to the school. Thevarapperuma then called off his fast but fainted immediately and was rushed to a nearby hospital.

However the unorthodox ‘heroic’ attempts of this UNP MP were not recognized by some authorities. He was charged in courts for having forcibly entered the school along with nine other mothers of the children concerned. All were remanded.

Fasting on Glucose and Saline

Threats to end their lives if their demands are not granted but not doing so are a common occurrence in Sri Lanka.

Threats of fasting to death by politicians and political activists came into vogue during the Sinhala Only days of the mid-1950s when the late  K. M. P. Rajaratne, the extremist Sinhala Only agitator and his followers went on hunger strikes demanding enactment and legislation of Sinhala Only as the state language. They were followed by a Peradeniya University professor who too staged a ‘fast unto death’ which students claimed was attempted while sipping glucose water. Since then most fasts unto death have not been taken seriously and are believed to have been energized by surreptitious sips of glucose.

Wimal Weerawansa’s ‘fast to death’ staged in 2010 was a demand made on the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon to abolish the panel  appointed by the UN to investigate alleged war crimes committed during the final stages of the terrorist conflict. That fast was described by The Sunday Leader as ‘a comedy of errors’ because Weerawansa had been fed through a saline tube while ‘fasting’ and the paper quoted medical sources saying that one could go on fasting for around 7 days without food and water on a saline drip. After much ballyhoo the fast staged opposite the UN headquarters in Colombo was called off ceremoniously with his boss then the president Rajapaksa, giving him a glass of Thambili.


Non-Violent’ but violent protests

Like terrorism this kind of ‘passive resistance’ or ‘non- violent protests’ cannot thrive without media publicity. Today in Sri Lanka, any kind of protest receives media attention particularly intense coverage on TV.

It does appear that protesters contact the media, particularly TV channels who appear to relish in enlivening their news programmes with strident, raucous demonstrations. Anti-government TV channels simply relish such coverage. Some of these protests are certainly far from being ‘non-violent’, particularly undergraduate protests that end up in water cannon, tear gas and at times (as in the past) in even live firing.

The intensity of demonstrations in this country have developed to a state when each day there is some kind of raucous protest on the streets somewhere and the media are there on time on each occasion. Certainly the media has a duty to give prominence to causes that have resulted in people getting on to the streets to make their protests. But should every grievance result in people coming on to roads and disturbing the peace?  Are there no alternate means of resolving their problems?  Media pundits should investigate whether such intense national coverage does generate more protests or not and how effective media coverage of demos is in settling grievances.For some reason or the other, it’s a human desire to appear on TV. When coverage is given to instigated school children shouting insulting  slogans at their school principals or teachers, children of other schools would be inclined to follow the example an be on TV. When a principal or teacher is removed following such a demo, what is the status and standing of the succeeding principal among his students or that of teachers?

This is an issue which is not calling for censorship of the media but awakening media bosses particularly of TV channels to their social responsibilities. However lustily journalists may pat each other on their backs and make claims for the wonderful things they have done in promoting democracy, human rights, etc., it is a plain undeniable fact that their degree of freedom is limited by the thinking, desires, financial and political interests of the proprietors of their institutions.

Thus, those at the levers of power of media institutions should consider the impact of these daily demonstrations televised island wide on the social fabric and political stability of the country.

While they do make those with authoritarian ambitions to have second thoughts, they effuse a degree of defiance even to legal authority and cause political instability.

Shimon Peres, Israel’s elder statesman’s remark: ‘TV has made dictatorships impossible but democracy unbearable’, is relevant to all democracies.

The Freedom of the Wild Ass is essential for a vibrant and free print media and that freedom is also essential for those of the two Idiot Boxes – Radio and TV.  But Wild Asses in the print have always been reined in by their bosses. Those in the Idiot Box require same restraints for the benefit of the country’s citizenry and its political stability.

(Our comments are directed solely at the privately owned media. The state media is better than before – not biting opponents as viciously – but simply can’t bite the hand that feeds them.)


1 Comment for “Fake Suicides, Demonstrations And Threats To Democracy”

  1. gabriella

    Yes, some wild asses need a kick up their ass !

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