Rarely do political leaders miss an opportunity to issue statements when nations or religious and ethnic communities celebrate important occasions that are sacred to some and meaningful to others. This happens the world over, especially in countries in which democratic governance or a shade of it, still exists and public support is constantly sought to [...]


Preach one thing, practise another


Rarely do political leaders miss an opportunity to issue statements when nations or religious and ethnic communities celebrate important occasions that are sacred to some and meaningful to others.

This happens the world over, especially in countries in which democratic governance or a shade of it, still exists and public support is constantly sought to further one’s political life.

Such actions are common not only in this “country like no other” but elsewhere too. For without winning over the citizenry political shelf-life becomes incredibly short.

So, come a widely celebrated traditional occasion, an internationally accepted religious ceremony or a long recognised world event, leaders and prominent politicians fall over each other to express their goodwill and good wishes and gain publicity.

Last year on Sinhala and Tamil New Year day all hell broke loose here when the British Labour Party issued a statement which only wished the Tamil community and not the Sinhala people. This was not the first time the Labour Party has engaged in such hypocrisy raising the ire of others in the Sri Lankan community.

It was abundantly clear that such blatant bias was politically motivated with the Labour Party pursuing the Tamil community for its votes to preserve the parliamentary life of some of its prominent members by scraping the bottom of the electoral barrel.

This year the party was embroiled in internal electioneering as it searched for a new leader to succeed a labouring Jeremy Corbyn under whom the party lurched precariously to the left.

Add to that the spread of the coronavirus in the UK mainly because the new Conservative Party leadership dismissed the advice of scientists and medical experts. The Boris Johnson administration singularly failed to take early steps to prepare the country for the impending calamity. Thus today the UK has the highest death toll in Europe resulting from Covid-19.

In Sri Lanka the caretaker government is grappling with the spread of the virus and trying desperately to contain the pandemic as new cases of the infection are detected. At the time of writing the total infected has scaled the 800 mark.

Of course, it is way below the statistics released daily in the UK which might not have happened had the media not intervened and demanded the right to know.  That was the only way an anxious public would know what its government is doing and where it stands in the battle to contain the dreaded virus.

If one is to believe what medical and other experts have been saying in the UK and in Sri Lanka, then it seems that both governments got off the starting blocks much later than they should have.

The Boy Scout Movement, founded in the UK over a century ago has a brief and unforgettable motto — “Be prepared”. Had the two governments taken that to heart they should and would have been prepared early enough with protective equipment for frontline staff and health workers and other vital medical supplies for testing and isolating those infected and others who were their contacts.

But as is often customary, politicians and their inner circles think they know best. So the best of opinions and advice from persons more competent to assess the situation on the ground are discarded or ignored thus jeopardizing the health and lives of many.

It is easy to say in hindsight that political leaders did not ready themselves for this eventuality because there were hardly any early signs that indicated the outbreak and spread of this virus.

One would have expected the know-alls that sprout inside administrations like unwanted weeds, to have been alert enough to take a cue from the spread of the virus elsewhere in Asia and Europe. Then our Resplendent Isle might have been spared the health and economic woes that it has had to undergo in the last two months and would have to go through more suffering before Sri Lanka can come out of it.

But our politicians seem to have been otherwise distracted by other events such as upcoming parliamentary elections and preparing their parties to meet the electoral challenges.

Now with the economy in tatters, the jobless in their thousands and the wunder kinder scratching their bald pates for ways to restart their economies, they are appealing to those in the public and private sectors for donations to fill the fiscal holes.

Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera, who knows a thing or two about money matters, has come up with a brilliant idea that should win him a Nobel Prize.

That is if the other economic whizz kid in government ranks, Bandula Gunawardena, does not steal a march on Jayasundera. After all was it not this economics teacher who once said a family of four could live on Rs 2,500 a month or some such nonsense which evoked derisive laughter.

Let the economics experts fiddle with figures and resort to means fair and somewhat foul like urging donations from the monthly salary of public officers already struggling to survive- to plug the gaping monetary holes.

Having read of Dr Jayasunera’s futuristic idea of taxing the poor public servants, I received a telephone call from a resident here who asked a pertinent question. Why does the learned economist not ask Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Putin-land, Udayanga Weeratunga for a few dollars more. After all he is back home now. I suggested that he approach Dr Jayasundera and pitch his suggestion.

In this Vesak month of May, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority — and perhaps others too – have been exhorted by political leaders to follow the wise and compassionate teachings of the Buddha.

There is nothing wrong with such exhortations. In fact, the people should be urged to follow the wise words of the Blessed One not only in this month of Vesak but every day of the year. And that should include our politicians who are quite liberal with their preaching.

If the ordinary people of our Resplendent Isle forget those teachings as they struggle to survive. But it is unforgiveable when those who preside over us appear once a year or so to remind the populace of the Buddha’s teachings.

On reading the annual statements that spin forth from the political echo chambers one is reminded of these words of the Buddha: “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them.”

These are indeed wise words and should apply equally to some of those who have covered themselves with the saffron robe, undertaking to follow the precepts of the Buddha and preach the dhamma, but have sadly deviated from the task they have undertaken, to dabble in worldly and unsavoury affairs that violate the vinaya and still go unpunished.

To those who search for the hidden and buried, who seek accountability on behalf of the citizenry, the Buddha’s advice to the Kalamas stand in good stead.

In this Sutta, which Soma Thera calls the Buddha’s “charter of free inquiry,” the Thera states that “the spirit of the sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance”.

It would be a sad day if that spirit of free inquiry is killed and those who would wish to dig deep are stilled.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before leaving for London where he worked for Gemini News Service. He was later Sri Lanka’s Deputy chief of mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London before returning to journalism)


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