Talk is cheap but then we have free speech, no

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Now the story is being told. But not all of it. What has hit the print media front pages is a news item created from a short video clip which shows President Wickremesinghe responding to a question raised by a Tamil resident at a panel discussion he attended in London on June 19.

Who was responsible for releasing that clip–it surely had to be by or through somebody present at the discussion–I would not know. It could have been done officially or sanctioned by someone in high office or connected with it.

Alternately, it had to be somebody who attended this meeting of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) held in connection with the 40th anniversary of the International Democratic Union (IDU) of Conservative/rightist parties which, (if I recollect, the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP joined somewhere in the 1990s) but had no connection with the Sri Lanka government but had access to that video.

So, what was it all about? It showed President Wickremesinghe saying to a Tamil member of the audience at question time that if he could not communicate in English to speak in Tamil as he understood Tamil but could not understand his English.

In fact, while the question was still being asked, President Wickremesinghe was heard to say he could not follow what the questioner was saying.

With that cleared, the important question is how did this clip reach the electronic media and what was the intention of the person or persons who made it available?

Was it some presidential spin doctor acting on his own or under instructions? Whichever it was what was it trying to convey? That President Wickremesinghe could understand Tamil–as he said in that clip–if not exactly converse in the Tamil language? Was it intended to tell the Tamil minority that he was acquainted with its language and was not an ethno-nationalist as some other politicians who resented or looked down on the Tamil minority because of the past?

Or was someone intent on using the situation where it may appear to some that Ranil Wickremesinghe was being condescending in telling the Tamil questioner that he did not know the language of the country he now lived in?

Whether it was intended to be informative or insulting one would not know. Much depends on who was responsible for the video clip ending up with the media.

For the benefit of those who did not view it or read the subsequent news item, what it does show is President Wickremesinghe telling a Tamil questioner from the audience that he could not understand the English of the questioner and so to speak in Tamil as he understood Tamil.

But even those who viewed it are not aware of what transpired earlier. When the CEN chairman Sam Hall, who presided, welcomed questions from the audience there were two Tamils (one of whom said he had not visited Sri Lanka for 40 years) who posed questions to President Wickremesinghe.

There were more questions from the audience to other panellists on the environment and related issues.

Chairman Sam Hall was about to bring the curtain down on questions from the audience when President Wickremesinghe pointed to another Tamil in the audience saying “He wants to disturb the meeting, give him a chance”.

Which the chairman did when this Tamil member (whose name I know but would not mention here) went into a spiel that was straying far and wide from the subject of the day’s discussion and in English which not only President Wickremesinghe seemed unable to comprehend.

It was at this point that Wickremesinghe made the comment he did, following which the questioner ended up intermingling Tamil and English creating a confused environment that left the gathered environmentalists scratching their heads in confusion.

By this time Chairman Sam Hall seemed to think that enough was enough and dropped the shutters on question time.

However, what was particularly interesting to civil rights activists and journalists was the remark made by Vicky Ford MP and UK’s former Minister of Development. She intervened to say that it was quite proper for the audience to ask questions of Sri Lanka’s president as the freedom of expression and speech was the fundamental right of all citizens (in this case UK citizens, one presumes) but that climate change was one of the most pressing issues facing the world today and Sri Lanka’s president should have the opportunity to speak on it without being diverted.

Saying that the parties they represent have for a long time championed individual liberties and human rights, President Wickremesinghe switched to the interruptions and diversions that day.

“Here itself I allowed these disruptive questions–why not? That is the way that democratic governments have to function. We have to secure personal liberties–that message is going out. Now we have to secure the climate for future generations. Conservative and Centre-Right parties have no option but to address this”.

Shortly before leaving for his UK/France visits, Wickremesinghe spoke at the meeting in Homagama where the proposed legislation on the broadcast regulatory bill was mentioned. At that meeting, Wickremesinghe was quoted as saying that he stood for freedom of expression.

Whether the reference he made at the London meeting was an answer to the Sri Lanka Core Group led by the UK, which in its statement at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva calls on the Sri Lanka Government to “protect the freedoms of expression and association”.

Surely the country’s mastermind on national security Sagala Ratnayake who was in the audience at the CEN discussion and the president’s official security, could not have missed a couple of hundreds or so Tamil protesters who demonstrated opposite One Great George Street (a ‘hoo kiyana’ distance from Downing Street) the venue of the meeting the President was attending.

They were carrying placards and banners–one which said “Ranil Go Home” taking a cue from the Aragalaya banner “Gota Go Home” and shouting slogans. But there was hardly a policeman in sight except for a couple or so a few metres away. No side arms, no automatic weapons just simple policemen with communication equipment fixed to their uniforms.

Certainly, no water cannons to spray the peaceful demonstrators with, no tear gas or sticks, and crude wooden poles torn out of nearby fences to beat the people confronted by servicemen dressed as though on an expedition to Mars to manhandle its inhabitants.

Perhaps the National Security Adviser and the policemen’s boss Minister Tiran Alles think that free speech is too free and should be taxed to replenish our empty coffers.

But then it would be best to tax ministers and MPs for their incessant and meaningless chatter that would fill all those household rubbish bins. Did you read, for instance, what that virtually non-stop preacher State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe had to say the other day about not “falling prey” to some political parties over the “aswesuma” which had excluded hundreds of thousands of eligible beneficiaries when the lists were announced?.

Would it not have been more appropriate to call it “asbanduma

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for
Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)



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