By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“People slide by degrees…. Each of the early steps may seem too small to be counted” – Jonathan Glover (‘Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century’)
It was a day in July 2020. The Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya, presented former cricketer Sanath Jayasuriya with a bat made of Swiss chocolate. With it, he shattered an ostentatious chocolate dessert fashioned in the form of a cricket ball (http://www.newswire.lk/2020/07/26/watch-striking-shot-by-master-blaster-had-the-chocolate-desserts/).
Such outbursts of bling, silly and vulgarian in general, become abhorrent in times of national distress. In July 2020, Sri Lankan had just emerged from a nearly three-month lockdown, with both the economy and a large swathe of Lankans facing an uncertain future. A Swiss-chocolate blast at such a time is not just bad optics; it provides a hint of bad economics which, if not remedied, can morph into deadly socio-politics.
In September 2020, a mother removed her three children from a school in Ginigathhena because she couldn’t feed them, a story that symbolised life in the time of pandemic for many Lankans. Since then, a new wave of infections had hit, heaping further devastation on national and household economics.
The Government’s economic policies are adding to this distress. For example, the interest rate gamble can undermine the financial security of even middle class families. The resultant drop in private consumption can have a knock-on effect on businesses, especially of the small and medium variety.
Worsening inequality can stymie the Government’s attempt to boost growth. Even the IMF, once a mainstay of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus, has publicly accepted the fundamental incompatibility between durable growth and high income-inequality. The change was propelled in part by the work of such IMF researchers as economist Jonathan D Ostry.
The IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva recently identified progressive taxation as a “key component of effective fiscal policy. At the top of the income distribution, our research shows that marginal tax rates can be raised without sacrificing economic growth” (Reduce inequality to create opportunity – IMF blog – 7 January 2020).
In November, Sri Lanka got a downgrading from Fitch in Long term foreign currency issuer default rating (IDR). We are now at CCC, shorthand for Substantial credit risk – default is a real possibility (Fitch estimates Lanka’s government debt to GDP ratio to increase from 86.8% in 2019 to 100% in 2020 and around 116% in 2024.) The Government may rage at Fitch, but the downgrading will make credit both less accessible and more expensive, forcing Colombo into greater dependence on Chinese largesse. Quite apart from the socio-political costs of such borrowings, for how long can Beijing continue to bankroll Colombo?
Instead of engaging in sober analysis, the Government continues with its pie-in-the-sky variety of policy making, dreaming of kick-starting the tourist sector and focusing on building more and more physical infrastructure projects of the gargantuan variety. The same Government that reduced allocation for health in the midst of a pandemic is granting $ 150 million to SriLankan Airlines in 2020 alone.
Just as politics is being remade to further Rajapaksa power, the economy is being retooled to suit the needs of acolyte businessman. The recent announcement about the abolishing of the Public Utilities Commission by presidential fiat is likely to open the floodgates of corruption in the utilities sector.
As economic woes worsen, the Government will turn with greater regularity to ethno-religious politics to preserve its political base and to maintain social consent. Currently, the same media that gave us Kuragala and Muhudu Maha Viharaya is trying to turn Devanagala into a new Sinhala-Muslim flashpoint (having served their purpose, the earlier two ‘battlegrounds’ are no longer news). The rabblerousing monk, Galagoda-Aththe Gnanasara visited Devanagala last week, his aggressive conduct and incendiary remarks giving rise to fears of a new Aluthgama.
In astronomy and astrobiology, Goldilocks Zone means the habitable areas around a star that can sustain liquid water and therefore life (neither too warm nor too cold, like Baby bear’s soup). With each move, the government is taking Sri Lanka beyond the socio-political and economic Goldilocks Zone, transforming the country into a politico-economic and social desert in which only the extreme, the irrational and violent will thrive.
The triumph of unreason
When the current wave of infections burst in on an unsuspecting country, lulled into dangerous complacence by the constant boasting of its political leaders, President Gotabaya washed his hands off all responsibility. He blamed the people and the media.
As school after school was compelled to close due to the advancing virus, Minister G.L. Peiris blamed the parents for the Government’s ill-advised decision to reopen schools.
From President and Prime Minister downwards, the Government is acting as if the pandemic is a minor matter unworthy of their attention. The resulting leadership vacuum has created an ideal hunting ground for any snake oil salesman armed with a mysterious cure-all and a beguiling pitch.
Last month we had Kundalini power courtesy faux doctor Eliyantha White. This month we have a nostrum created by a man who became a veda mahattaya literally overnight due to a divine licence. His concoction is both an immunisation from COVID-19 and a cure for it. Take one dose, he says, and you are forever safe from the virus.
What is comic relief in sane places is panacea in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. The miracle-worker has been embraced by the miracle-hungry government. The Health Minister herself took a dose of the wonder drug. Now that she is safe forever, why doesn’t she – and a few more volunteering ministers and parliamentarians – spend a week in the IDH and other COVID-19 treatment facilities, maskless?
They can even make themselves useful by helping the hard-pressed health workers. Then, if they test negative repeatedly, we can not only end the pandemic in Sri Lanka, but also export this miracle-drug to the rest of the world.
Move over Moderna and Pfizer. Sri Lanka will take the pandemic-infested world to safe shores with its miracle drug. Soon, Fitch will have no rating to give us; with the wealth of dollars we make from selling this easy, fast and one-off cure-cum-preventive, we can not only settle all our debts but also become the world’s leading lender nation.
So dreamt the Milkmaid.
Unreason has been the hallmark of the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime’s approach to the pandemic. A health crisis was treated like a national security crisis. A general was placed in charge of medical professionals. The sick were turned into new criminals and their contacts were treated as suspects. Gun-toting solders descended on communities and boarding houses to take people to quarantine facilities. The language used by the Government and a section of the media deliberately imaged the victims of the virus and their families as national security threats – rather like the way the civilians caught in the Eelam war were treated.
Now the Government is demanding Rs. 58,000 from families to cremate their dead. Why so much money for an end which is shorn of all embellishments that characterise last journeys in this country, from flowers and religious services to embalming? One wonders which businesses provide the caskets for these funerals, whether there is a cut, and if so how much that is. Most of the dead in Sri Lanka, like elsewhere in the world, belong to low-income communities, the ones hardest hit by the pandemic. Many are facing starvation conditions. To demand Rs. 58,000 from them is an act of senseless cruelty, something only a Government that is lost to all pity and all reason can do.
When Donald Trump suggested various crazy antidotes to the virus, there was a serious pushback from the American medical community. Businesses carried out ad campaigns warning consumers against heeding their President and drinking bleach. In Sri Lanka, most medical professionals are silent about the miracle nostrum created by a man who, in his own admission, lacks any training in medicine of whatever variety. Even those who speak, make a painfully palpable effort not to be openly critical.
In an essay on the unbreakable connection between freedom of speech and the battle for justice, Ira Glasser, the long-time head of the American Civil Liberties Union, quoted civil rights icon John Lewis: “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings” (Daily Beast – 4 October 2020). The right to speak freely without fearing the heavy hand of the government is necessary not only for effective resistance but also for effective governance. The absence of that critical freedom creates an environment where politicians can silence experts and impose deleterious policies and deadly solutions on a credulous populace.
Lies need darkness to breathe and breed.
When The Sunday Times reported that the Temple Trees had been locked down, the PM’s Media Secretary issued a statement denying the story. A few days later, Basil Rajapaksa confirmed the news, claiming that the Media Secretary made the statement unknown to the PM. Would the Media Secretary have issued a public statement about a matter of national import without checking with one of the Rajapaksas? Or did he lie on behalf of his masters, who sacrificed him to save themselves embarrassment?
The Government shunned the proven policy of test-test-test and opted for trace-trace-trace to defeat the pandemic. Infection levels gone beyond any tracing capacity, the new MO is deny, deny, deny. The denial tactics span the spectrum, from the pandemic to the economy, from environmental devastation to the Mahara violence.
In Mahara, 11 people didn’t just drop dead. They were killed. Their crime seems to have been their clamour for a modicum of safety from the raging pandemic.
Bullets for PCR tests: welcome to the new normal.
Shani Abeysekara and Hejaaz Hizbullah: Canaries in the mine
One of the most consequential acts of opposition to the 20th Amendment came from the joint committee of the Amarapura and Ramaggna nikayas. The joint committee of the two chapters issued a detailed and well-reasoned statement explaining the harm the 20th Amendment will do to the country.
According to former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, the day after the statement was issued, the Police came calling. They visited the senior monks responsible for the statement and questioned them. If this is the way the regime responds to informed criticism from some of the most senior monks in the land, what cannot be the fate of the rest of us?
Against this context, the continued detention of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated detective Shani Abeysekara and his two colleagues, senior inspectors Mohan Mendis (who like Abeysekara, has become infected with COVID-19) and Nawaratne Prematilake as well as lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah makes perfect sense. Their fate is no anomaly but clear indications of the times we live in and the future that is in the making.
In July 2020, when the case of Hejaaz Hizbullah was taken up, Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake made a momentous statement in open court: “I want to reveal this. The CID officers tried to show pictures and I had to tell them to leave the chamber” (Daily FT – 12 July 2020). The incident involved CID officials trying to show child-witnesses a photograph of Hizbullah, just before they were supposed to identify him – or not – in an identification parade.
The CID officials tried to fabricate evidence against a suspect in the presence of a magistrate in his chamber. It is this same CID that is accusing Shani Abeysekara, Mohan Mendis, and Nawaratne Prematilake of fabricating evidence. If these three men are in custody for fabricating evidence, shouldn’t those CID officials also be in remand prison for the same reason?
Last month, the media revealed an attempt by the Rajapaksa Government to save a Rajapaksa nephew, Jaliya Wickremesuriya (the son of a first cousin) from American justice via a bogus claim of diplomatic immunity. The former Ambassador was indicted by the American Justice Department for wire fraud, money laundering and lying to immigration officials. The Government’s efforts to subvert justice failed because the case was filed in a foreign court. What would have been the outcome had the court been located within the territorial limits of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka?
In the early days, coal miners used caged canaries to warn them about the deadly presence of methane or carbon monoxide gas in mineshafts. Shani Abeysekara, Hejaaz Hizbullah, Mohan Mendis, and Navaratne Prematilake are canaries in the mine. Their fate would be a forewarning about the future awaiting those others, be it activist, critic or Government official, who fall foul of the returned kings.