Defending democracy

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As a journalist I have reported on conflicts in various parts of Asia: Sri Lanka, Philippines and in my own country, Nepal. Various countries have followed similar trajectories in trying to deal with the questions of devolution, decentralisation and economic development. They have failed to address historical social injustice, entrenched feudalism and discrimination. And that often creates the objective conditions for violent revolution.

In a sense, Nepal holds a tragic lesson on what happens when rulers fail to address the precursors to conflict like exclusion and the grievances of minorities. Most politicians cannot resist the temptation of  exploiting differences for short-term electoral advantage. The Subcontinent has had very few statesmen who have refused to use populism that deepens polarisations within society, and ultimately leads to war.

We have also learnt that the time to build peace is before the war begins. It is much more difficult to stop the killing once the savagery starts.
Nepal is now struggling with the aftermath of our conflict. We have found out the hard way that the end of war does not necessarily bring peace, violence leaves a long legacy of impunity in society.  The root causes of our war persists. Bad blood festers, and the wounds won’t heal unless the yearning of the survivors for truth and justice are fulfilled.

When the guns fall silent, a people weary of the brutality often want to move on. When memories are terrible, they find it better to try to forget.
This benefits those who perpetrated and prolonged the war. They would like nothing better than for victims of conflict to let bygones be bygones. The people are asked to forgive, but not forget. However, letting atrocities and war crimes go unpunished holds the danger of them being repeated in future. There is no such thing as a war crime. War is the crime.

So, how much do we want to rake up the past? Is it more important to protect the peace process by moving on? Or should we pursue individual reckonings? Different countries have come up with different ways to tackle this: the Nuremberg Trial model, or the South African way to national reconciliation. The Cambodian, Peruvian or Colombian ceasefires hold their own specific examples.

Nepal’s conflict was different from others because neither side won, and neither side lost. But the Nepali people lost. It raged for ten years with massive human rights violations by both the state and the Maoist rebels, leaving 17,000 dead and 1,400 people disappeared by the time it ended. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the conflict in 1996, and ten years since it ended in 2006.

Because the former enemies are now partners in the coalition government in Kathmandu, they are complicit in trying to sweep the dirt under the carpet. There is an unspoken agreement to air brush history. There is no mention of the conflict in school curricula, none of the major tragedies of the war years are commemorated, and there is only a half-hearted pursuit of transitional justice. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and another one on enforced disappearances have limited mandates, and have provisions for blanket amnesty to war crimes.

It is when the state actively seeks to forget, that it becomes even more important for journalists to remind people to remember not to forget. The media cannot apprehend perpetrators, that is the police’s job. We cannot hand down sentences to the guilty, that is for the courts. But when everyone wants to forget, it becomes our responsibility to document as much as we can before time starts blanking out memories. Our investigative reports, profiles of victims, descriptions of massacres, photographs of battles, even historical novels, documentaries, drama and drawings will record it all for posterity. So history can be the judge.

The best guarantor of peace is an inclusive democracy that upholds the rule of law and defends the freedom of press. Authoritarianism is born out of violence, and needs violence to sustain itself. Peace, on the other hand, is not automatic. It needs to be defended and nurtured. And we need to broaden the definition of violence beyond just meaning war — there can be violent thought, violence against nature, domestic violence, trolling on the Internet is also violence. We need to teach peace in schools.

Our democracies come with a design defect that makes it possible for demagogues to win elections by using the media to whip up hate, xenophobia, racism and bigotry. You’d think this happens only in totalitarian states. But these days, such intolerance is rife even in vibrant democracies in Europe, the United States, or in the Philippines, Turkey, India.

Governments have become smart. They have learnt that jailing journalists or harming them attracts needless international attention. So they have refined their methods — censorship today is achieved by behind-the-scenes threats which can be even more insidious and sinister. Some of that is aimed at journalists who dare to investigate wartime atrocities.

An essential element of peace-building is to defend and strengthen democratic institutions because it give the people who want peace and justice a voice. Press freedom is not meant just for journalists, it is the fundamental right of all citizens in a democracy. We in the media are just the custodians of that freedom.

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