By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Over the weekend, the vultures got into the presidential palace…”
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’
It looks like a scene from a science fiction movie or a glimpse of the end times. A leaden beach; figures in head-to-toe protective gear shovelling tiny plastic pellets into sacks. A labour of Sisyphus, for as they clean one mound, waves heap more on the shore. Carcasses of fish, sea birds, turtles and dolphins pile up on other shores, the first victims of a cataclysm that could have been prevented but wasn’t.
A few miles, and a universe, away, it is business as usual for the Rajapaksas. President Gotabaya presents nephew Namal with a spanking new State ministry. Prime Minister Mahinda inaugurates six road construction projects – five overhead bridges and one expressway. It is as if the worst marine environmental disaster in the history of Sri Lanka is a thing happening to other people.
The multiverse is here.
The Rajapaksas rule in one universe and we live in another.
In their universe Sri Lanka is a world-leader in fighting the pandemic, has a vaccine rollout that is a shining example of efficacy and fairness, possesses enough money for everything health, and is lending dollars to Bangladesh in millions.
In our universe, everything is otherwise.
When environment is harmed, economy suffers. According to new research by Oxfam and the Swiss Re Institute, climate change will cause G7 countries to lose 8.5% of their GDP a year within thirty years, a loss twice as high as the contraction caused by the pandemic.
What the X-Press Pearl catastrophe will cost the Lankan economy is incalculable. The devastation will impact directly on so many vital sectors, starting with fisheries and tourism. The plastic pellets “concentrate toxic chemical from the environment,” marine biologist Asha de Vos told the CNN; they could get lodged in the mangroves and even enter the rivers – a nightmarish possibility. According to Wildlife Conservation Department, “the effect will last for more than a century, not just fish but also the effect on sea grasses and nesting habitats, sea mammals and serpents” (Island – 6.6.2021).
Many questions remain unanswered starting from why a ship that was refused entry by two other ports was given the green light to berth at Colombo International Container Terminal (run by China’s CM Ports) and why the local agent erased the email sent by the ship’s captain. But something could have been salvaged even afterwards, had the authorities not chosen to trip down a Panglossian Path of groundless, anti-factual optimism.
As environmentalist Jayantha Wijesingha points out in a Groundviews piece, “In an imminent disaster, it is not prudent to plan for the best case scenario. For almost a week Sri Lanka was planning for a best case scenario instead of the worst. Even now, we are yet to get enough anti-oil spill equipment…”
Panglossian optimism, hatred of expert opinion, and ignorance are some of the signature traits of Rajapaksa rule. Their devastating marks are evident across the spectrum from the economy (2019 tax cuts and the continuing money printing binge) to international relations (cleaving to China). But it is in pandemic control these signature traits are most visible (and impactful). They had created a state characterised by perpetual unpreparedness, deadly procrastination and a habit of downgrading science in favour of politics and superstition.
It is one thing to get the first or even the second wave of infections wrong. But the third? The parallel would be if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration failed to prevent the Easter Sunday massacre, not just once but three times.
So long as the Rajapaksas rule, Sri Lanka will continue to hurtle from one avoidable disaster to next. Think of the Presidential plan to force the island into a Great Leap from chemical fertiliser to organic fertiliser, between one cultivation season and the next.
While the transition from chemical to organic fertiliser is a commendable and a necessary goal, it is something that takes research, planning, and time. To attempt it in months without even basic forethought (possibly driven by a desire to create a legacy), is as criminal as allowing a ship leaking hazardous chemicals into our waters.
Catastrophe is now our normal condition.
There is a new guessing game in town. How long will the current condition of ‘travel restrictions’ last? Will it be over on 14 June, or be extended another week, or two? Every day brings new grotesqueries. The Army Chief explains reasons for increase in COVID-19 patients. The Deputy Director General of Health Services proclaims that it is third class journalists who get killed in Sri Lanka (he has since withdrawn his statement). Presidential nephew who is also the Prime Ministerial son gives instructions about vaccination rollout while the State Minister of Pandemic Control who is also a medical specialist catches up on her sleep (or perhaps meditates on life). Commercial banks decide to close their branches for a week due to the pandemic and the Central Bank issues a special circular ordering them to remain open.
The infection curve is still to plateau, but test numbers have been reduced by about one-third. The Army Commander says exit PCRs have been stopped on the assumption that when one person is infected, other members of the household too become infected. Are these presumably infected (but non-tested) family members added to the daily infection tally? Or is this the same old game of keeping infection numbers down (artificially and wrongfully) by reducing tests?
Still on the numbers game, there’s a new circular about how to count the COVID-dead. Even if the dead person had tested positive, if he/she had a co-morbidity, a post-mortem must be conducted to decide whether the death was caused by COVID-19 or not. Previously, like in most other countries, the co-morbidity was mentioned while the death was added to the COVID tally. Now our overworked doctors must carry out post-mortems, just so that the casualty figures could be suppressed.
In Kandy, people were compelled to sign a document saying they would be satisfied with one Sputnik V vaccine (Sputnik V requires two jabs; it is Sputnik Lite that is complete with one jab). Since there are no supply bottlenecks in Sputnik V and the World Bank has granted a loan of 80.5 million dollars to buy vaccines, why force people to make do with one shot? (Incidentally, as if to prove he can be the Rajapaksas’ peer in mind-numbing irrationality, the Opposition Leader wants priests of all religions accorded priority in vaccinations.)
Sri Lanka can claim the dubious distinction of owning the most politicised vaccination programme in the world. According to the pro-regime website Lanka C News, SLPP politicians are putting up banners in various parts of the country thanking the Government for heeding their requests and providing vaccines to their areas. The chit system reportedly continues in Matara, Galle and Kurunegala.
Sampath Athukorale, a SLPP Parliamentarian from Galle, was quoted in Lanka C News hailing the Moratuwa method: “It is the right way and those officials who oppose it are educated animals,” the gentleman (who presumably is an uneducated animal) has said.
The arrest of the Mayor of Moratuwa was obviously not an attempt to end the gross politicisation of the vaccination programme but a piece of theatre. He is the scapegoat, sacrificed so that his colleagues can continue to politically weaponise vaccinations.
Travel restrictions are implemented with strict regard to status, wealth and connections of the persons concerned. Small hotels are closed for violating rules but the Shangri-La, which is at the centre of the Birthday Party controversy, remains untouched. Thousands gathered for the funeral of the Mayor of Puttalam with impunity, while 10 people were arrested for commemorating their war-dead on Kiran Beach in Batticaloa.
The expressway the PM laid the foundation stone for will be built, owned and operated by a Chinese company until the investment is realised, the first foreign owned and operated roadway in Sri Lanka since the British left. Fonterra Lanka Ltd. defended using Sinhala, English, and Mandarin but no Tamil on its packaging by saying the product package includes “commonly spoken languages in these countries” (Newswire – 4 June). Is Chinese a commonly spoken language in Sri Lanka (or even South Asia) while Tamil is not? Does Fonterra Lanka know something about Lankan demographics we ordinary Lankans are unaware of?
In ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch,’ the nameless dictator (who calls himself the General of the Universe) fails to pay back his American patrons the money he had borrowed. In retaliation, the Americans take the Caribbean away, to plant it in Arizona, leaving only a desert of lunar dust behind. The dictator contends himself with a wind machine which allows him to enjoy a ghost of the lost breezes.
This week, several websites carried a picture of a building in Jaffna flying the Chinese National Flag. Some days ago, Belt and Road Sri Lanka informed us that there is actually a Lankan Princess in China, a 19th generation descendant from a prince from the court of King Parakramabahu VI. The Hidden Princess made her official debut at the Vesak celebration organised by our Embassy in Beijing.
In a space-time where the difference between outlier and normal has vanished and nothing absurd remains absurd for long, the impossibility of today can be the reality of tomorrow. Like once golden beaches turned into toxic wastelands.
Best not to underestimate the end times
Into the Valley of Death?
Terror and comedy form the basic ingredients of the grotesquery that is dictatorship. In ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch,’ the torturing-murdering dictator also sets up an annual contest for the election of a beauty queen and institutes free schools in every province to teach people sweeping. Terror is for the minority who either say no or inadvertently fall foul of a power-wielder, major or minor; comedy is for the majority who are willing to go along, determinedly blind and deaf to the reality around them.
The pandemic has enabled the Rajapaksas to abuse their powers with even greater impunity. Last week, a former IGP was appointed to the OMP, the same officer who allegedly misdirected the Lasantha Wickrematunge murder investigation. The OMP’s current head is the retired judge who, in his capacity as the head of the Political Victimisation Commission, recommended the exoneration of several suspects accused of causing the very disappearances the OMP is supposed to investigate. The Rajapaksas don’t dismantle the chicken coop. They merely make the foxes the guardians and the protectors of the chickens.
Two fathers who left home to buy food for their families – Sunil Indrajith of Midigama and a Muslim resident of Panadura; Chandran Vidushan of Batticaloa, a 22-year-old arrested by Police allegedly for drug possession – all three are dead. Their families allege that they were killed, allegedly by the Police.
Their stories are symbolic of the uncertain existence experienced by the poor and the powerless in the context of a mishandled pandemic.
Sunil Indrajith’s daughter works in a garment factory in Koggala and contacted the virus there. Most garment workers have been working throughout the pandemic, often with minimum facilities and pay cuts. Given that they (with the plantation workers) form the backbone of the local economy, an economically rational government would have vaccinated them on a priority basis. Instead, there are allegations that the factories are allowed to operate with scant attention to health regulations.
When Parliamentarian Shanakya Rasamanikkam tried to visit such a factory in Batticaloa (run by the same Brandix which was at the centre of the second wave) he found himself in a surreal situation. According to media reports, the Police visited him at home and asked him not to go to the factory. When he went, he found the factory to be akin to an occupied zone, guarded by Army and Police.
This week, the President issued another gazette, naming the Counter Terrorism Investigation Unit as a detention centre. Meanwhile, two maulavis arrested under the PTA, have alleged that they are being pressured to frame Hejaaz Hisbullah even though they don’t know him, according to a Fundamental Rights petition filed by their lawyer (Daily Mirror – 1.6.2021). Did Hejaaz Hisbullah, like Shani Abeysekara, cause annoyance or inconvenience to some power-wielder? What will be the fate of Rajeev Kuruwitage Mathew, Chairman of the Information Technology Society of Sri Lanka, who was arrested this week for making a false statement? Is this another step in the ongoing attempt to suppress dissent through targeted arrests?
Recently Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said the country might be under a curse. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero too thinks so and is planning a series of measures to alleviate any possible divine-ill feeling.
Sri Lanka is cursed with a regime that cares only about building a dynasty and a populace that has allowed ethno-religious phobias to trump their own enlightened self-interest. Add an Opposition that – with a few commendable exceptions – is occupied with their personal power agendas and political trivia, and we are caught in a hermetically-sealed space where every door is a dead-end. The courageous acts of resistance by a handful of citizens and social activists (from humorists to litigants) are what keep hope alive in these seeming end times.