Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Despite familiar wiles of lawyers sacrificing the national interest in favour of (political) clients in cases currently being heard at the Supreme Court leading to sensational headlines that Sri Lanka’s topmost health officials had waved the green flag for the holding of the country’s 2020 Presidential Elections, the truth was not so simple, it so appears.
Sri Lanka facing multiple dilemmas
As the somewhat pugnacious interview given to state run television last Sunday by the Director General of Health Services Frank Jasinghe disclosed, the nation had to first implement a raft of safety measures, as noted in his response to the Secretary to the President upon a query being made to him.
These measures included implementing regulations under the quaintly colonial Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance (1897) bringing covid-19 control measures within a regulatory framework. As he warned, ‘if these measures are not implemented, then in another three weeks, let alone an election, Sri Lanka will not be able to do anything at all.’
There is something that must be added to this salutary concern. While regulations under this antique Ordinance are crucial as the Director General points out, what is even more urgent is a wholesale revamping of that statute. This is in order to fashion the legislative environment needed to meet the unprecedented threat posed by the global pandemic which has left death and destruction in its wake across the world. But for that, Sri Lanka’s Parliament must sit.
And we are veritably between Scylla and Charybdis in that, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains steadfast in not agreeing to summon the old Parliament (now dissolved) while the holding of national polls for a potential new Parliament has been put on hold until there is at least relative certainty that the health of the population is not put at risk thereby. In fact, that Greek myth which has two fearsome females bestriding a narrow strait in the waters of the western Mediterraneant to catch Greek mariners in their toils has peculiar application for the dilemma that we find ourselves in.
Political upmanship as starvation looms
Scylla was cast as a monster with snaky heads, sharp teeth and multiple dog heads who devoured her prey in one gulp while Charybdis was a gigantic whirpool sucking down the unwary. Reeling from massive economic devastation caused by the pandemic with starvation predicted in consequence as the poor get desperate without sources of income, the poor is at a loss to decide which is deadlier, the quarrelling old Parliament or a new Parliament filled with the same rogues. Whichever it may be, as the enraged ‘wadu baas’ (carpenter) down our lane proclaimed in disgust, ‘our fate will be the same.’
Some days ago, several died in a stampede in the heart of Colombo caused by money being distributed for charity by a private benefactor. Dying due to charity distribution would undoubtedly be a first for this nation despite years of conflict and terror caused by war from the North to the South. And there is no point in politicians or the police moralizing about safety standards that should have been observed in organising this event. The point was that people died because they were desperate to get a pitiful sum. The point was also that trumpeted relief supplies by the Goverment found their way to the pockets of its political supporters. In lockdown Colombo, those who had the means had the luxury of grumbling about how scarce salami had become. In the slums, the unfortunate simply starved.
So let us recognise the singular danger besetting the nation, as frightening as ancient Greek monsters, as legal charades are played. With militarisation of the governance process continuing unabashedly, the dismantling of democratic structures and systems is a given. The only question is as to how slow or how quick this will be. The Government’s targeted attacks on the National Elections Commission with ‘kept’ journalists baying for blood is a case in point. One favorite mode of attack is to blow normally mundane incidents entirely out of proportion.
Racist and ugly venom by political hounds
A good illustration is this week’s unseemly fracas regarding the visit of one of the Commissioners with his daughter to the office of the Commission. What could have been managed with decency and propriety being at the worst, merely an error of judgement if at all even in the eyes of the most exacting of critics, became scandalised in the media beyond belief. These are the rude if not crude realities of today where racist attacks are the norm, not the exception and nothing is spared in the process.
That venom, racist and ugly in one form, manipulative and twisted in another, does irreparable damage to the governance process. In a different context, the Director General of Health Services put this in another way as he warned the country’s politicians, (and no doubt, media hitmen), not to drag public officers into political fights. As this generally self effacing official emphasized with little less equanimity than he ordinarily displays, ‘we are public servants who have worked independently and not given way to political demands. Allow us to do our jobs.’
This is a statement that reverberates throughout Sri Lanka’s history. It is precisely because state officers and judicial officers were ‘not allowed to do their jobs’ that the country was dragged into great social, economic and even legal degeneration. All this is not to say that sometimes the very individuals causing that destruction were power hungry or corrupt public servants. And as an aside, judges themselves have not been exempt from this despicable pattern of subverting the institutional proces as history teaches us.
A thought to ponder when the ‘Ranaviru’ is cheered
But even so, there is no doubt that much of what survives of our governance systems is due to public servants who have stood up even when it was very unpopular or, at times, dangerous to do so. Despite political machinations, the nation’s public health systems rose to the formidable challenge posed by the global pandemic, even while many freely prophesied disaster. The part played by servicemen and servicewomen along with the police is of record in this regard.
These are tributes that must be paid even as political capital is sought to be made out of Sri Lanka’s response to the pandemic. For the ‘new narrative’ of the ‘Ranaviru’ (tri-services) constituting the Sixth Force of Sri Lanka’s historical five-force combination of ‘Veda’ (medicinal), ‘Guru’ (teachers), ‘Kamkaru’ (workers), ‘Sangha’ (priests) and ‘Govi’ (farmers) propounded by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa recently only mocks the tribute that must be paid. As remarked in these column spaces last week, if the weary foot soldiers of the ‘Ranaviru’ were indeed accorded this veneration, Navymen living in cramped quarters in Welisara and Ranagala would not have been left without adequate protective equipment as they escorted covid-19 patients to quarantine camps. Indisputably, this has now become the largest virus cluster in the country.
Perhaps we may ponder on this uncomfortable fact the next time someone cries ‘Hail to the Ranaviru’ to dutiful cheers.