Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
From Mullaitivu to Kurunegala to Athurigiriya, fury erupts among snaking lines of Sri Lankans hopelessly waiting for days on end for fuel. Finally, unity binds the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims in their collectively deep anger against a Government that has forsaken public trust. But is this too late as the country heads into dangerously uncharted waters of non-governance with dollar and rupee reserves reduced to zero due to a cabal of thieving and incompetent political leaders along with their obedient henchmen in public service?
Deflecting the blame to the citizenry
Across the length and breadth of the land, there is a discernible uptick in tensions as the police react with uncontrolled force against public protests. Is the Government inviting another deadly wave of public anger? This week, a (Tamil) journalist was attacked by an unidentified person while filming scenes of people waiting in lines for petrol on the Mankulam-Vellankulam road with the police looking on.
In Kurunegala, a (Sinhala) motorcyclist was literally sought to be throttled by a policeman even as the victim shouted that the particular fuel station concerned is distributing fuel in secret only to the ‘privileged.’
Interestingly a senior policeman reprimanded people flocking to the fracas to the effect that, ‘do not take the incidents of May 9th as an example to cause violence.’ This statement exposes the way that the State is authorising its agents to ‘manage’ and ‘control’ the acute crisis of law, economy and governance that is throttling Sri Lanka.
In effect, it is not just one stray citizen who is sought to be throttled by one stray policeman overstepping the bounds of his legal authority.Rather, this is a powerful symbol of the suffocation of the country itself as President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ministerial minions downwards practice the art of deftly deflecting blame to Sri Lankan citizens for their misery.
On his part, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe cannot escape responsibility merely by parroting that the present financial collapse was due to ruinous policy decisions during the past two years.
Innocent and guilty alike are made to pay
He must be summarily reminded that the return of the Rajapaksas to power as Sri Lanka’s ‘King-Politicians’ with grossly bloated majorities in 2019 and 2020 was due to disastrous governance failures under the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena coalition leadership (2015-2019). The 2019 jihadist attacks on churches and hotels with the inaction if not direct complicity of state agents led to the Rajapaksas amassing their electoral majorities with gleeful force.
That responsibility is far more stark than what can be attributed to any former leader, though each have contributed his or her fair share towards Sri Lanka’s present plight. Regardless, Sri Lankans (innocent and guilty alike) are now paying dearly for their gullibility in being fooled not once, twice, thrice but many times by crafty political leaders.
This was conceded as much by former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa on his way out from his ministerial portfolio when he said that the people who elected the current crop of politicians to power are to blame.
For the people of the South who worshipped the Medamulana political family led by its paterfamilias, Mahinda Rajapaksa because he ‘ended the war,’ the cost is particularly high. As families starve in the deep South, hungry looking children stand on roadsides with their mothers selling straggly bunches of drumsticks to survive. Has even a trace of self-realisation dawned that the originators of this crisis are none other than themselves? I am not quite sure, even now.
Waving the racist flag for political gain
But if this country is ever to rise from the ashes even a generation or two later, majoritarian sentiment fed by hate-mongering against Tamil and Muslim minorities must be recognised and rejected for what it is. That is where national healing must start.
A few days ago, Sri Lankan media reported that Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen had donated his salary arrears of Sri Lanka Rs 2.67 million back to the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital which had falsely accused him of performing illegal sterilization operations. This donation was to buy essential medicines.
At the time, he was witchhunted by a coterie of racist politicians, hospital personnel and conniving policemen and sent on compulsory leave. These allegations were established to be completely unfounded by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID).
To add insult to injury, some women who had accused him of illegally sterilizing them, later became pregnant through some miracle, we assume. Members of the clergy (Buddhist and Catholic in some instances) also jumped on the racist bandwagon, privately if not publicly.
This was the ugliness that Sri Lanka had become, long before we were precipitated into this mess of a bankrupt, beggarly nation. One may indeed argue that this is cause and effect in the best sense of what that means.
The Shafi Shihabdeen incident is symptomatic of what is wrong in ourselves. Reforming Constitutions will not help to correct that imbalance. Waving the racist flag, a little known ‘Viyathmaga’ academic of the Rajarata University rose to national political prominence, later becoming an object of ridicule in his ministerial duties.
The responsibility of professional bodies
Partners in that unholy conspiracy, responsible hospital personnel and policemen went their way unscathed by the law while the victimised medical professional and his family found sheer existence impossible in the face of the venom directed against them. What role was played by professional associations bound to speak up to safeguard the integrity of their members? Did the Sri Lanka College Of Obstetricians & Gynecologists (SLCOG)make any significant intervention in this regard? Less said about the disgracefully politicised Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), the better.
Hopefully the recent change at the helm of the GMOA will bring about professional integrity in its leadership. As this nation collapses in utter grief and pain within itself today, these are contributory reasons for our plight.
Why has not an inch of accountability been conceded by political rulers distinguished only by their monumental greed and thirst for power?
The arrests of a few Ministers and their supporters who instigated violent attacks on peaceful protestors at Galle Face Green and the departure of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa are but sops thrown to placate howls for justice.
Meanwhile, protestors are arrested, threatened and intimidated as part of an overall State operation to clamp down on dissent. On their part, youth protestors should also have issued unequivocal condemnation of the death of one parliamentarian, the merciless assault of another and the destruction of public property during the violence of May 9th, some of which was however by state agents themselves or as a result of internal political vendettas.
Hopes of Presidential redemption are slim
Nonetheless, the shifting of the moral high ground from under the feet of protestors emanating from the events of that day was well reflected in the warning issued by the Kurunegala policemen to the angry crowd. This is the modus operandi of the State, going forward.
And the President continues undeterred in office on the basis that he cannot leave as a ‘failed’ leader. This is an absurd justification, devoid of both commonsense and constitutional principle.
Presidential course reversal is certainly not evidenced in the catapulting of a businessman with his fat fingers in all kinds of financial pies, through the National List to Parliament in an indecent hurry as it were. This does not demonstrate the slightest adherence to constitutional democracy.
On the contrary, it flies in the face of precedents clearly laid down by the Supreme Court to the effect that National List slots cannot be filled at the whim and fancy of the political establishment. All of these appointments are akin to magic tricks performed by circus acrobats to please an unimpressed audience.
Is this how the President hopes to ‘redeem’ himself? Truly, we shudder in dire expectation of what the future holds.