DEC 17 — The abuse of power thrives in shadows.

Selvach Santhiran is a man who testified that police beat R. Gunasegaran to death. On the same day the inquest into Gunasegaran’s death determined that there was insufficient evidence to determine cause of the death, police burst in on Selvach’s home, beat him in front of his wife and kids, and hauled him away.

We are recently informed that Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has just signed a detention order authorising Selvach to be detained without trial in Batu Gajah for a period of two years.

For two years, Selvach will have no recourse to justice, likely no hope for release at all, and little opportunity to see his wife and young children; worst of all, he will be at the complete mercy of the police he testified against.

With parliamentary suspensions, elections around the corner and so much more, perhaps there can be little blame that Selvach’s case will likely not get the attention it deserves — here, perhaps more than anything, is where we fail Selvach.

In the meantime, Selvach will be left to the designs of his captors — in the shadows, under the cover of darkness.

Collateral murder

On July 12, 2007, an indeterminate number of Iraqi civillians were killed along with two Reuters journalists — Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen — during an American air strike that took place in Baghdad.

The US military thereafter stated that they were unable to determine who had caused the deaths of these individuals — Iraqi or American forces.

Almost three years later, classified US military footage is made public by Wikileaks, showing that the two journalists and more had beyond doubt been killed by US forces, under circumstances that show little if any justifications for their deaths.

Had this video not been made public, we may have never known how and why Saeed and Namir and the other Iraqi civilians died.

When bad guys get nervous

It may sound naive for us to suppose that this is some beginning of an era of no secrets — one where all dark guts of governments around the world will be exposed for all to see.

As I have briefly followed the aftermath of the leaked US diplomatic cables, I am starting to feel that while it would be foolhardy to consider this a dawn of a new era, I think what has happened is indeed a beginning — a beginning full of extremely significant implications.

I have to admit, there is a perverse pleasure in watching politicians get their panties in a twist (the less savoury ones, at least — politicians, not panties).

In the little time that I have been given the opportunity to observe politics around the world, it is my humble conclusion that when politicians get worked up and agitated, someone somewhere is usually doing something right.

I say this because in the case of Selvach, Saeed and Namir, the bad guys have relied primarily on shadows.

As long as no one can see what they are doing, they act with complete impunity and utter disregard for consequences. What people don’t know famously won’t hurt them.

After all, what’s the harm in a few diplomats bad mouthing the leaders of their neighbouring countries as long as no one ever finds out? (Sometimes, of course, leaked unsubstantiated hearsay is still unsubstantiated hearsay.)

By their fruits

I am wary of those who would consider the likes of Julian Assange and his band of merry Wikirebels spotless saints or supreme saviours. None amongst us are perfect.

Observe politics or humans for too long, and you develop a bad habit of always asking: “What’s their angle?” — what do the players in this game stand to gain by the actions they take?

Asking this question seems to me the key to understanding much — although admittedly not all — of what goes on around us.

There is no way to tell for sure if Assange and gang are not part of some elaborate CIA plot or something of the sort, or deluded by some messianic complex.

A religious text tells us though: “You will know them by their fruits”, and thus far their fruits have given (to me at least) no discernible pattern of some heinous conspiracy.

So maybe, just maybe, the WikiLeaks show is indeed run by idealists who somehow believe that their actions are a step into a world where governments can no longer survive in the shadows.

What we do know is that governments around the world are feeling the heat, and — in the eyes of some observers — over-reacting in a very nervous manner indeed.

The ascendancy of the hacker

Of course, we should not get overexcited. It’s not quite as if we’ve hacked into the supercomputers of the Chinese or American governments. We’ve just gotten lucky with a few leaked documents.

It seems to be a start though, and the first shot in what might be a long, drawn-out war.

We should note with interest the fallout of these leaks. Just this month, and indubitably due to pressure from governments (the US being the most obvious suspect), companies like Amazon, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard stopped all dealings they had with WikiLeaks.

The retaliation was as swift as it was fierce. Both Visa and Mastercard’s websites were brought down, while Paypal and Amazon suffered similar attacks.

It’s as odd as it is true that sometimes the rich are the easiest to leverage against — they have the most to lose.

We can count amongst the great generals of the past the likes of Sun Tzu, Hannibal, Saladin, Napoleon, Washington, and so on. Next in line, however, may be (not alas, General Grievous) the likes of Julian Assange and hackers like him.

Begun, the info wars have

We have all heard the dictum that information is power. I’m not sure we have seen such a strong demonstration of this principle as we are witnessing now.

As we read about the leaks, we can almost feel the powerful everywhere beginning to squirm in their plush-covered seats.

In movies and popular culture, we are presented with the image of the slacker hacker — grunge, non-conformist, living in a world of their own.

It may just be that these are the new frontline soldiers of an ongoing war between those who believe that some secrets should be kept, and those who feel that secrets keep only the unjust in power.

Clearly, neither perspective can be fully correct, but I for one have reason to believe that the fewer the secrets, the less the shadows, and the less the shadows, the less the abuse.

Approaching genuine democracy

It’s hard to say for sure who has the upper hand. It would again be naive to think of every hacker as conscientious and righteous. Broadly defined, everyone has their price, and I think those who seek to open up the world are up against tough odds. It is unlikely we have moved out of the age where power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Nonetheless, it’s also hard to say what some of the implications will be. This is but the latest stage of the Internet revolution. Dreamers talk of webocracy, where Internet-enabled connectivity enables discourse and consensus decision making — the ideal of democratic governance — to an unprecedented level.

While this enables a world where few things digital are “safe” — as my learned friend Keith intimated at lunch yesterday — a world without secrets may also well be a world without privacy (the implications of that I will probably leave to my article on how Google is Skynet).

Ultimately, in the best-case scenario, the aftermath of this battle will feature governments (or whoever is left running the show) that understand how futile it is to stem the tide of openness. That while the majority opinion is not always right, it has been thus far probably the best, imperfect protection against injustice and exploitation.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


Interesting insights