Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Vultures are circling high above in the skies as they watch what appear to be the struggling death throes of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe unity alliance with delight.
Fury in Sri Lanka’s hamlets
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa hypocritically thunders on the twin dangers of the sale of national assets and the betrayal of national war heroes, going on to insist that the faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) loyal to President Maithripala Sirisena can join his group only on their terms. His numerous hangers-on in the self-styled Joint Opposition (JO) who compete with each other for the prize of being the most unprepossessing, cackle with unabashed joy at the prospect of a settling of scores with their rivals and a quick return to power.
To be fair, the beating of the communal drum by the JO has not been that effective in the villages and provinces of Sri Lanka as even the cursory traveller will discover. In other words, there is little public acceptance of the favorite Rajapaksa bogey that the country is in the pincer grip of hostile international forces. More to the point, plainly and simply, the problem is the monumental inefficiency of this Government and the soaring cost of living.
The desperate plight of farmers having to cope alternately with prolonged drought and then flooding with little official support is just one example. This seeming inability to enforce order is replicated in other instances; a nation-wide example being the recent fuel shortage. But in the rural hamlets, the fury is even greater. Steeply increasing prices of staples like coconuts and rice have aggravated the predicament of the poor. The enthusiasm for ‘yahapalanaya governance’ has waned among those who voted for a change.
An unsettling contrast
The contrast is unsettling; on the one hand, suited and black tied crooks get away with millions in the sinister form symbolized by Arjun Aloysius of Perpetual Treasuries fame and on the other hand, helpless villagers are caught in death traps of poverty, whose only recourse is suicide. In a recent casual exchange in Colombo, my conversationalist asked the incredulous if not somewhat patronizing question; “are people in the villages actually aware of the so-called Central Bank bond scam and shenanigans in high financial circles?’ After recent visits to the Uva, Central and Eastern provinces, the answer to that query is in the positive.
In that regard, it must be conceded that the communications strategy of the Rajapaksas has been effective. And it has not helped that the much vaunted anti-corruption strategy of this Government against the crooks of the previous regime has failed miserably, part by design and part by its own inconsistency. Handled badly from the outset, this has now has become an embarrassing fiasco apart from a few stellar convictions.
True, the Supreme Court is performing its constitutional role after a lapse of close to two decades, even though this is attributable primarily to a few conscientious judges. One example is the Court’s recent decision declaring the arrest, detention and subsequent deportation of a British tourist in 2014 carrying a tattoo on her arm of the Gautama Buddha seated on a lotus flower to be unconstitutional.
This case demonstrates a common pattern of Rule of Law safeguards being violated from the point of the tourist being ‘compelled’ to go with a so-called ‘civil defence officer’ and a taxi driver who had first ‘spotted’ the tattoo to the Katunayake police station subsequent to which she was produced in the Negombo Magistrates’ Court, detained in the Negombo prison and later, at the Mirihana immigration detention camp. Writing for the Court, Anil Gooneratne J. summarily dismissed explanations of the police officers that the tattoo had been feared to bring about a ‘breach of the peace’, holding that there was no reasonable basis for the arrest. The manner in which the tourist was abused in lewd language by a prison guard and the constant demands for money made by the police was judicially deplored.
The privileged and the marginalized
Despite these undeniable gains, the fact remains that this Government has failed to straddle the city-rural divide in a way that harmoniously intertwines both. An active Supreme Court is a distant luxury to a milk farmer struggling to survive in the interior of the Ampara District. And visits by one delegation of the United Nations followed by another are of little comfort to a mother in Trincomalee despairingly struggling to ascertain the fate of her disappeared son.
Death is the one relief to the pain of very different victims, united by their common and desperate hopelessness. It is that disjunctive contrast between the privileged and the marginalized that the unity Government (if it lurches on) must address with all its might and main without floundering in the major cities, leveling pot shots at each other.
In 2015, the marriage of the long talked of ‘technocratic vision’ of the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe and the homespun commonsense of the SLFP’s Maithripala Sirisena was hailed. The President and the Prime Minister were expected to bring their respective and very different strengths to the unity alliance. What has happened since then is quite different. The UNP has been almost irreversibly damaged by a gigantic financial scandal in connection with the Central Bank and its own party while the Sirisena faction of the SLFP has become inextricably entangled with nationalistically populist rhetoric.
Avoiding an awaiting tragedy
In that sense, both have failed to give enlightened leadership to the national effort to lift the country out of the Rajapaksa morass of communalism and corruption. To the cocooned in Colombo, the glee that implacable rivals of the Government display at its eagerly predicted downfall may seem premature. Perhaps there is nothing wrong in wistfully (albeit vainly) hoping for a turn of the tide. This becomes even more urgent as the local government elections draws nigh amidst the failure of asinine games of some to delay the polls.
Measured even against the various idiocies committed by the flotsam and jetsam that cling to one or the other faction in the unity alliance with desperation, whoever thought of conjuring a legal challenge to the Gazette notification pertaining to the polls, deserves a rude knock behind the ears for their monumental stupidity. Even if that challenge has now been withdrawn, the bad taste that it left behind will linger even though it appeared to be an ill-advised gamble only on the part of a few.
So as the inevitable draws near and absent a course correction even at the eleventh hour, the vultures will certainly lose no time in swooping down on the carcass of what once promised to be a bright and beautiful change for Sri Lanka.
That will be the ultimate tragedy for this country and the people. Certainly it must be avoided at all costs.