Kishali Pinto – Jayawardene
The Sri Lanka Government may be preening itself on taking the sting away from a combined political protest against state repression this Wednesday in Colombo. But let it be warned that its rejoicing comes too soon.
‘Stability’ vis a vis protests
Bristling lines of heavily helmeted and gas-mask wearing police officers may hold politically motivated protest marches off. But there is nothing that the tri-services and the police can do if the people collectively take matters into their own hands. This, we saw very well a few months ago where protestors ‘occupied’ high state buildings and forced a President, a Prime Minister and his Cabinet out. Once again, there is a massive surge of public discontent simmering under the surface.
It is a curate’s egg situation, in fact. The Government and business chambers have called for ‘stability’ and to abstain from protests as that may cripple a painfully recovering tourism sector among others. But these pleas are only partly the truth.
When the Government asks the people to endure, it must first lead by example which the motley crowd of politicians in power will not do. Instead all they do is fatten their pockets, still, in the midst of bankruptcy.
Even when they beg for aid, wearing their brightest smiles and posing in the backdrop of relief packages, they see no shame in the part that they played to bring about that disgraceful result.
A few days ago, President Ranil Wickremesinghe made a monumentally unwise remark, referring to himself as taking over the ship of state, like the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. Probably the audiences that he was addressing, (this was the Annual General Meeting of the Sri Lanka Tea Factory Owners Association at a plush hotel), may have grinned and smirked at such repartee.
The President is part of a collective that is politically responsible
Such comparisons only illustrate the glaring disconnect between the privileged (the minority) and the now ‘pushed into the gutter’ populace (the majority). The President must understand that he is very much part of the ‘iceberg’ which has sunk Sri Lanka into the swirling icy waters of complete despair, along with any futures that people may have dreamt of, for their children. In other words, that ‘iceberg’ is the collectivity of this country’s (recent) political rulers who, by their gross misdeeds and corruption, have brought about a state of economic ruination.
President Wickremesinghe cannot exculpate himself from that responsibility; the sins of the ‘yahapalanaya’ regime which he oversaw including most notably the daylight robbery of the Central Bank, was on his watch. That was partly the reason why the electorate voted in a Rajapaksa as President, whose blinding ignorance was only equalled by his blinding arrogance. And when the Roman Catholic Cardinal, Malcolm Ranjith declared bluntly this week during a service for his faithful in Gampaha, that rulers are profiting while people are starving, he is only stating the obvious.
The good Cardinal himself has much to repent in bringing about this sorry state of affairs. That is another tale for the telling. But the desperate contrasts that he points to, reflect the public mood. In that backdrop, flippant responses on the Titanic and the iceberg do not go down very well in the national discourse, to put the matter mildly.
And business chambers who also played a major role in inviting the current disaster by bombastic support of a Rajapaksa Presidency in 2019, need to think beyond bland calls not to engage in ‘protests.’
Rejecting the ‘inconvenient truth’
When push comes to shove, it is not the members of these chambers or their children who poise on the edge of starvation as the State abdicates on its duty to ensure food supplies for the poor, after all. Many businessmen have earned fat profits off their political patrons, they have directly benefited from the collapse of the State.
Certainly, the next wave of anger, when it comes, will target not only the political class. That warning is writ large on the faces of the man and woman on the street as it were.
As they struggle to feed themselves, with skyrocketing inflation and greatly increased taxes despite their livelihoods dwindling into nothingness given soaring costs of living, desperation grows. Flooding the streets with armed police, using the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) against protestors or gagging public servants from being critical of the Government, is not going to help.
Reportedly, the Government had interdicted a health professional this week for declaring to the media, that, 80% children of Sooriyawewa, in the deep South, suffer from malnutrition.
These findings were the results of a research study conducted by the Professional Forum of Physicians on Medical and Civil Rights, its conclusions were based on careful evaluation of their subjects. The Forum had called for a nutritional assessment of Sri Lankan children to ascertain broader perspectives. So this was no social media gunslinger firing rapid rhetorical shots to ‘discredit’ the country. And the knee jerk action of the health authorities in interdicting this professional, beggars the imagination.
The bizarre gagging of public servants
In what conceivable way could the results of a sober research study be construed as inflammatory criticism of the ‘Government’, pray?
If that is the case, Sri Lankan universities and professional bodies must forthwith stop their research exercises. If the Ministry of Health disagreed with the conclusions, those must be properly rebutted by factual evidence to the contrary not by wild interdictions. Lately, the gaggling of public servants by forbidding them to speak to the (mainstream) media has taken a particularly bizarre turn.
In the interdiction letter which this professional has been served with, he has been accused of violating provisions of the Establishments Code by being ‘critical’ of the Government to the media. Earlier, the Ministry of Public Administration made negative global news by issuing a circular ‘forbidding public servants to speak to ‘social media’ following reports that children were fainting in schools due to lack of food. ‘Expressing opinions on social media by a public officer… shall constitute an offence that leads to taking disciplinary action’ it was firmly said.
In critically reporting on that circular, international news agencies tagged along the line that Sri Lanka’s unofficial inflation rates were second only to Zimbabwe. So what was finally achieved thereby?
Does the Government think that mere denials and gagging public servants who speak openly about a matter of deep concern affecting this country’s future generations will make the ‘problem go away’?
No, it will not. It will only aggravate, intensify and direct global attention even more to Sri Lanka’s plight.
More sensitive responses by the political leadership are warranted
Hard on the heels of those reports, the World Food Programme (WFP)reported that a third of the populace are ‘food insecure,’ calling for humanitarian assistance’ in that regard. So, will Sri Lanka gag the WFP as well?
Indeed, there are grim echoes from the past, where this ostrich-like hiding its head in the sand, hoping that the problem will ‘go away,’ is concerned. This was exactly what the (then) Government did, in regard to war operations in the Wanni against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in its final stages.
From ignoring the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to insisting that there were no abuses committed, we are still battling with the consequences of that extraordinarily stupid mindset.
Only, the difference now is that the majority is on the sharp edge of the State sword. Thus, quips about the Titanic and the iceberg, while affording delighted cartoonists grist to their mills, may best be left at home by the President when he speaks at public gatherings.
At least, that will be a small mercy.