Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As Sri Lanka hurtles down the precipice of covid-19 contagion coupled with unprecedented economic devastation, bitter and biting anger at our plight can scarcely be contained.
‘Organised propaganda’vs public opinion
State health agencies tasked with handling the pandemic stamme and stutter while a militarised command continues to elbow out a professionally coordinated public health-led effort. In one sense, this is not all that remarkable. What we are facing is the common or garden path consequence of misrule where one set of self-serving authoritarians replaced another set of self-serving ‘democratic’ nincompoops who were too busy fighting with each other to govern properly while many on Colombo’s ‘liberal’ gravy train cheered, oblivious to danger signals early on.
In both cases, what is common to these two sets of truly irrepressible rogues is not only self-interest but also imperviousness to admitting one’s faults and changing direction in consequence thereof. Thus when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa proclaimed, in his Address to the Nation, on 18th November 2020 that the yardstick he would use to assess his success or failure one year into office, would be ‘public opinion’ and not ‘organised propaganda on social media platforms’ by political opponents, that begs the question as to what precisely is this ‘public opinion’ that he is referring to?
Are these the sycophants who commonly flock around Presidents and sing paens of praise to the power on the throne, now vastly increased to near monarchical authority? If so, the President would be advised to scorn such crawlingly subservient creatures lest he fall into the very same trap that his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was caught in, resulting in a ‘stunning’ electoral loss in 2015 as foreign editorialists gushed, it seems, a very long time ago. At another level however, this dismissal of ‘organised propaganda’ raises a further question.
Self-serving blindness then and now
It would have been good if those enthusiasts waxing forth on social media platforms on the ‘disastrous’ first year of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency had taken some time off to engage in that very same critique on the ‘first year’ of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition Government (2015-2019). Perhaps they may then have had the credibility, integrity and independence to include both Central Bank bond scams in that evaluation exercise, along with manifestly artificial constitutional reform, transitional justice and anti-corruption exercises that were indulged in at the time. The fact that this did not happen, is unfortunate. That singular partiality is what strips public legitimacy from such critiques.
That said, we have the same blindness now. Those who may brush aside this President’s top-heavy reliance on military men and corporate ‘fixers’ with less than healthy reputations do so on the basis that he ‘needs to get the job done.’ They may be asked if the chaos that we are seeing now, with virtually each random testing experiment in public spaces resulting in positive cases, illustrative of ‘getting the job done? The infection wave appears to have spread not only in the Western Province but also in other Provinces with Kandy being the disturbingly latest example.
As observed in these column spaces previously, there is no point in blaming the media or the public for putting ‘yes men’ or military men with no public health sector expertise into positions of authority on the national anti-pandemic drive. True, as the Health Minister takes pain to blare in Parliament, public health experts who competently handled the initial wave of the global pandemic have now being brought back to serve on the national task force.
Even so, this is only a sop to increasingly furious ‘public opinion’ on mishandling the exercise currently, though this may not be the same ‘opinion’ that the President says he will listen to. Being part of a task force is very much a different thing to leadership of the effort.
Familiar patterns of state behaviour
To put it simply, competency in leadership during March-June 2020 this year as the covid wave first hit our shores, we do not see now. This is a lapse in regard to which Sri Lanka’s pro-Rajapaksa priesthood itself has leveled harsh criticisms, resulting in criminal investigators visiting their temples. This evokes some amusement, it must be said as they rail against their being ‘intimidated.’ Familiar patterns of state behaviour are becoming evident as the pressure increases.
As the Government mulls muzzling the social media, a prating onetime professor of law talks of following the globally condemned ‘Singapore’ model of social media regulation to the disgrace of all foundational legal principles on which he once propounded in the University of Colombo. And the Speaker bars opposition parliamentarians from making adverse remarks on Presidential nominations to constitutional commissions, including the astonishing naming of two businessmen to the Public Service Commission. Indeed, this fettering of discussion thereto on the floor of the House raises certain interesting issues.
A major criticism leveled by Government politicians against the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, used to good effect in the preceding Presidential and Parliamentary election campaigns was that appointments to commissions and other key positions were not ‘transparent’ at the time. It was shouted out from the rooftops that the nomination and appointment process were lacking in constitutional integrity. Now it seems that these questions of ‘transparency’ have been thrown to the four winds as it were.
Warnings on past abuse of the law
Meanwhile a Muslim lawyer remains in detention as a terror suspect for months, without charges. And ‘public opinion’ becomes increasingly agitated after one of the country’s senior criminal investigators who was clapped into prison soon after this regime came into power, was transferred to a remote hospital following his succumbing to covid-19 while in detention.
With family members protesting that he needed skilled treatment due to serious underlying health conditions, including a heart condition, he was brought to Colombo after the matter was raised on the floor of the Parliament by the opposition this week.
In all of this, there is a pall of dreaded familiarity descending upon us. It is deja vu, painfully but unmistakably so. As we may recall, the discarding of common norms of decency in trumped up charges against (former) Army Commander Sarath Fonseka by (former) President Mahinda Rajapaksa was a powerful compulsion in his Government becoming unpopular to the extent that it was tossed out of power. This question was quite separate, let me say, from whether one liked the man or not or if one approved of his ‘methods’ of tackling the enemy or not.
The issue was the law and the way it was used for political ends to hound a foe beyond impermissible limits, as aided and abetted by Attorney Generals, Chief Justices and judges who forever sullied their names by playing political games, therein dragging the judicial institution into the proverbial gutter. But cocooned in impervious arrogance at the time and confident that the power of the Presidency would remain in perpetuity, this manipulation of the law and the legal system was without the pretence of shame. It was this all pervasive arrogance that Sri Lankan voters rejected in 2015.
If the very same mistakes are committed, the electorate will yet retain the energy to respond in exactly that same way, battered and beaten by enormous challenges of sheer survival as it may be. This Presidency and this Government may well be advised to look to the past for what must not, most manifestly, be done.