The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) strike action on Friday based on a host of trade union demands is best described by the pithy local saying; “viddey pandurata wadune haawata” – the arrow was aimed at the bush but it hit the rabbit (in the bush). The Government cared two hoots for their strike while [...]


The new human shields


The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) strike action on Friday based on a host of trade union demands is best described by the pithy local saying; “viddey pandurata wadune haawata” – the arrow was aimed at the bush but it hit the rabbit (in the bush). The Government cared two hoots for their strike while scores of patients – the poorest of the poor, whom the GMOA is under oath to serve, were made to suffer.

Among the GMOA’s many demands is to abrogate the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore. The GMOA is not taking the word from the Government that no doctors, in fact no professionals, will be permitted to come to work here under the Agreement. The union concedes that its demands are not confined to its calling, but are a wider protest on behalf of other professionals (when other professionals are not complaining). The GMOA even goes to the extent of calling for a National Trade Policy, which is strictly none of its business. It wants to play the role of “Watchdog of the Nation”. This has attracted justifiable criticism from the Government that the GMOA is a trade union of the ‘Joint Opposition’. That its strike came a day after the JO’s Janabala Sena protest seemed a questionable coincidence.

The GMOA’s use of hapless patients is no different to when the LTTE used civilians as human shields. About this time last year also, the GMOA threatened to strike right in the middle of a dengue epidemic, over medical degrees being awarded by a private institution. We said then, that the GMOA was running the risk of earning the public wrath and the day may well come when the people will, in fact, ask for foreign doctors to come to this country to heal the sick.

It is not that the GMOA doesn’t have genuine grievances. Which professional body doesn’t? Those who work in the public sector, from Railway personnel to Immigration officers to private bus operators, engine drivers and university staff – the list is endless, all have grievances. The GMOA is not the only trade union to hold the public to ransom with strikes. The difference being that while strikes by other sectors are an inconvenience to the public, a GMOA strike can mean the loss of lives even though it meekly argues that essential services were maintained.

In our letters page this week an irate engineer makes a valid point, noting the unsung contribution made by professionals in the engineering field: among whom are those who ensure the citizenry, industries and services with an uninterrupted supply of power. Serving in inhospitable conditions in power stations around the country (not sitting in a/c rooms like doctors) they have no private practice, she says. Furthermore, it is the engineers who have made modern medical care more patient-friendly with their inventions and instruments that doctors did not have earlier.

The engineer’s letter (Plus section page 2) is well worth a read, especially by doctors and other professionals in the public sector even though Electricity Board (CEB) unions have not been without threatening strikes from time to time to win their demands. Basically, the engineer asks why doctors must be treated as ‘holy cows’. That the GMOA has lent itself to accusations that it is a puppet trade union of the ‘Joint Opposition’ is to its own detriment. The day it loses the respect of the public it will lose everything it has. When the GMOA opposes private degrees, and FTAs and the Government is taking the dismissive approach saying it is a mere political cat’s paw, it serves no one, not least the poorest of the poor of this country.

The Health Ministry is on a trip felicitating the Minister on some WHO appointment that is given on some rotation regional basis to the country, not the individual. The Ministry is not thinking of out-of-the box solutions to genuine grievances of the GMOA. The Sri Lanka Medical Council boss has quit complaining of the failure to change archaic laws, while the Ministry complains that the media are not giving it sufficient publicity for the good it does in reducing the prices of some pharmaceutical drugs and providing stents, optical lenses and lifetime care for cancer patients.

As for the Government as a whole, it is difficult to get the public to buy its lament that the General Treasury has no money to meet the demands of these public sector unions, when it sets the worst possible example of leadership — as shown by discussing pay increase for the Members of Parliament and allowing MPs duty free vehicles which they sell and pocket millions overnight. It is a wonder that the general public does not get onto the streets as well.

Crucial test for Imran

There’s always fresh hope with the advent of any new Government after an election, and it is no different in Pakistan.

Very much like India’s now ruling BJP which won only two seats in the 1984 election to the Lok Sabha, Premier-designate Imran Khan’s PTI won just a solitary seat in its maiden foray into Pakistani elections. Despite the early setbacks, he now reaps the fruits of electoral success and the confidence of his people to guide his country’s destiny into the future.

There are five domestic compulsions he will have to face; 1) the absence of a clear majority in Parliament, 2) the powerful military and its agenda, 3) the Pakistani Taliban and religious fundamentalism, 4) an independent judiciary, and 5) a free press. The latter two he publicly acknowledged were the great defenders of emerging Pakistani democracy, but it is common in all democracies that an independent judiciary and free press are the darlings of the Opposition – not Governments.  Externally, relations with India will be the main priority, as they have been ever since the new nation of Pakistan was created seven decades ago through a painful, botched partition process. For his inauguration, the cricketer-turned-politician premier was toying with the idea of inviting his Indian counterpart and his Indian cricketing colleagues of yesteryear, but opted for an austere ceremony instead.

It takes one back to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own swearing-in which turned out to be a mini summit of South Asian (SAARC) leaders, including the then Pakistan Prime Minister. There was great hope for a ‘new beginning’ of South Asian cooperation ending decades of mistrust among neighbours. But that was short-lived as the two arch-enemies returned to their usual vile rhetoric and cross-border terrorist activity. The SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad was scuttled with boycotts. It has not met since. Pakistan’s new PM-to-be has said if India takes one step towards withdrawing its military from the urban areas of Kashmir, he will take two steps towards normalising relations between them. He also wants to improve trade ties between the two countries, now largely routed through Dubai.

How well the incoming premier will be able to cope with the growing influence and grip of China on the Pakistani economy, much to the irritation of India, and much like the situation in Sri Lanka is to be seen. He doesn’t enjoy the ‘luxury’ of selling parts of the country to India to balance off China.

And while India is exploring new ties with the United States to ward off China’s growing influence in the region, and forging trade links with BRICS ( the world’s leading emerging economies’ alliance – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), SAARC seems destined to be slowly dumped into the dustbin of history.


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