We as a nation have been through so much trauma in the past few decades and we all have our PTSD tendencies, and that’s okay. It’s only natural. We are all in recovery; the leaders, the citizens, the media: all of us. Following 30 years of war we immediately began to treat MR as our saviour, that’s was PTSD. We were insecure and we became so dependent on our leaders. Like children are to their parents, when they get scared. And soon after the war, we, as a nation, fell at his feet and said “it’s okay, you do what you think is best for us. Imprison commanders, kill journalists, rewrite our constitution with your pen. Do what you have to do. We believe in you.” And then about five years into that we got bitter, we got angry, our media got in the habit of criticising the government. It worked. We yelled at the top of our lungs, we investigated, we shamed the corrupt. We defeated the corrupt out of office. We restored democracy. We made magic happen.
And now we have a leader who amended the constitution so his term in office would be shorter. A leader who is open to decentralize power, a leader who aspires to reconciliation so much so that he talks about it in almost every speech he makes. A leader who focuses on real burning issues that affect our middle class like shortcomings in local food production, the high rates of Chronic Kidney Disease, the increasing Narcotics and Tobacco addicts, environment conservation, children’s and women’s rights. These issues were ignored by previous leaders simply because they were not masculine enough, they had little popular appeal. But President Maithripala Sirisena has long term plans in the works for all these issues; he talks about them in front of the whole word and also in his conference room with the local experts in the respective fields every opportunity he gets. For the first time in a long time we have a leader who is respected internationally. A leader who gets a seat at the table only Ban Ki-moon, Putin, Obama and two other national leaders got to sit. (Don’t forget, we are a fraction of those nations, in land, in wealth, in population, in power. But for the first time, we are respected on the same level.) But we don’t talk about it. We don’t appreciate it. Our media doesn’t report it, our civil society doesn’t advocate for it, and most of our public is unaware of it. Instead we nit pick the little things, the typos in speeches, the family member who stands beside him, supporting him as he fights this lonely battle for us. We have let our PTSD get the best of us.
We spoke against the government once, it was necessary. It worked. but it also gave us a sense of privilege, a sense of entitlement, a need to always criticize the government; a new PTSD. To quote the President himself “I applaud criticism. Uninterrupted criticism is a sign of a functioning democracy.” A quote I hold very close to me is : the right to criticize is earned through the willingness to construct. So if you are going to criticize be sure your views are balanced. Be sure you also look at the good.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case of the performance of some media outlets in the past week. Nobody took a minute to talk about the strides we made in Foreign Policy. No media outlet pointed out the humility in our President in choosing to speak in his mother tongue in front of the entire world. He spoke about women’s rights and eco-sensitive development, things no Sri Lankan leader has spoken of for decades. Somewhere along our national PTSD our civil society has become bitter and pessimistic. We have developed a sense of privilege and entitlement.
We have chosen to forget that our leaders are human too. And we hold them to standards that even we can never live up to.
This semester I’m taking a class titled Civil Society in Conflict Resolution with leading Nigerian political scientist Rotimi Suberu. In it we learn about the absolute cruciality of civil society’s role as both a critic and an advocate in rebuilding post-conflict nations such as Sri Lanka. Media is a large component of civil society. And it’s absolutely necessary that media is civil. (Varshney, 2001, provides an elaborate analysis of how civil and uncivil media deliver contrasting outcomes in different states in India.) Uncivil media pushes for a negative narrative of the state, to provoke civil society, to manipulate them into disputing the government. The past week, has brought out the uncivl nature of some of Sri Lanka’s media outlets, disregarding the progress and nit picking provocatively. This is extremely damaging for the long run progress of a government and it’s collaboration with civil society. And we need to correct it before it’s too late.
In the coming years, we are looking at mass-scale education, healthcare, institutional and constitutional reform. For these processes to be democratic and participatory, the civil society has to be vocal. Vocal in a constructive sense, a progressive sense. With all this one sided pesimism that the media is throwing at the public, I’m afraid we might be damaging the drive and interest required of citizens of a nation in transition.
I urge my country, especially the media and youth, to leave our nation’s traumatic baggage aside and move forward progressively. We have a nation to build.