Things are getting really serious. Sometime last week I saw a headline in a local daily that appeared rather ominous. Police to crack the whip, it read. Cynics among you might well ask what is new in that. They would say the police have been doing so with increasing frequency and ferocity. So it is [...]


How nice to hold the whip hand


Things are getting really serious. Sometime last week I saw a headline in a local daily that appeared rather ominous. Police to crack the whip, it read. Cynics among you might well ask what is new in that. They would say the police have been doing so with increasing frequency and ferocity. So it is déjà vu many times over, thank you.

Now that is being quite unfair by these enforcers of law and order. True, now and then they have cracked one or two heads or left a few boot marks on the posteriors of some hotheads who thought they can run the country any which way they deem fit.

Some may even confuse these violators of law and order with members of the legislature elected by the people, some of whom would not mind taking a swing at an innocent policeman trying to protect the Speaker of Parliament from unidentified flying objects as did happen in the parliament-by-the-oya not many moons ago.

It was during those days of mayhem and mudslinging that President Sirisena threatened to use his madu walgey (tail of the stingray) on those who deviated from his ephemeral political path which was as constant as a weather vane.

Whether he swung his tail to make contact with the backs of double-dealing politicians or some lowly public servant is not recorded in the short history of his presidential rule, a history that is better forgotten and erased from the collective memory of Sri Lankans who were led up the garden path to the polling booth.

His ardent followers might consider this a thoroughly unjust assessment of a leader who voluntarily (so he has said) handed over several presidential powers to parliament and his prime minister, belatedly realising that his generosity had gone too far  making him look like the emperor with no clothes.

Now people know why the current president wants a two-third majority in parliament so he could repeal the 19th Amendment and restore the powers the President had lost. He might well want to add a few more powers not in the constitution right now as interest for having to linger a few years until the Sirisena antics ended in ignominy.

Still Sirisena has left behind some phrases that should find a place in the footnotes of our recorded history. Among them are “mama danney na” (I don’t know) and “mama paththeray dakke” (I saw it in the newspaper) and so on.

As most of the citizenry know the police are ever ready to crack the whip and investigate those who have transgressed the law or others who have not. There are times when such investigations come to a sudden halt with a change of the political guard.

That is when policemen big and small end up in some corner of this resplendent land, transfers which are defended on the basis of that catch-all phrase “exigencies of the service” or some similar obfuscation that leaves many befuddled except those who order the banishment from here to obscurity.

Now that we are on the matter of banishment as punishment whatever happened to then president Sirisena’s publicly announced desire to hang a couple of people-(essentially those drug dealers operating from behind prison walls) before he hangs up his presidential sandals and takes to the hansi putuwa at his Paget Road palace that has now become his permanent abode.

It might be recalled that while Sirisena was hanging around waiting for some auspicious day, they advertised for a hangman (or woman) and if I remember correctly there were 80-odd applicants including one or two women ready to do the job.

Then it was found that the hangman’s rope was too old and frayed and good enough only to hang dirty linen. Now I am not certain whether a cabinet paper was presented to call for tenders to buy a couple of ropes (a spare one is always useful to have) but apparently somebody struck a deal and Pakistan is said to supplied our immediate needs.

Thereby hangs the tale of Sirisena’s venture into okaying presidential executions which never happened, for one reason or another.

But when the police are ordered to crack the whip they do not go around threatening to hang the closest recalcitrant curfew breaker. They leave the choice to the curfew violators.

In the past we have heard stories of men who hanged themselves in police cells all by their lonesome selves. What drives them to take their own lives is not recorded anywhere. It is left to those who delve into such sordid happenings to deduce how such deaths came about.

What has caused the police to suddenly want to get tougher than they have in recent weeks? Well, it appears that some magistrate in nearby Gampaha had determined that the police curfew was legal thus giving the police authority to round up curfew breakers and guzzlers of locally brewed intoxicants whose conduct the police appeared to abhor.

Many weeks before the magisterial sanction, the long arm of the law had already been falling on violators. On May 4, a foreign wire service story citing a police statement reported that 46,284 persons had been arrested across the country for violating the curfew and other infractions. In addition over 12,000 vehicles had been taken into police custody for reasons that were not stated.

Nor did the police statement clarify what happened to the curfew violators after they were rounded up or to the 12,000 odd vehicles commandeered. But these are minor matters really. The best is still to come surely as the uniformed kind can now operate like OO7 with a licence to kill, metaphorically speaking of course.

So by the time this column appears the grand total could well have topped the 50,000 mark — a land mark that should be recorded in the annals of the police force.

Still there are many who treat official figures with a great deal of scepticism. Sometimes figures are exaggerated and sometimes drastically slashed depending on what such manipulation is intended to achieve.

Here in the UK, the total number of fatalities as a result of the coronavirus seemed rather low to some knowledgeable persons. They were proved correct. For the Boris Johnson government had aired only the death toll in the NHS hospitals and conveniently ignored the thousands who died in the care homes and in the community which far outnumbered those who died in the hospitals.

It was only persistent pressure particularly from the media that ultimately compelled the government to disclose the total figures. Had the media not done so, especially with parliament in recess, the public would not have known the truth.

It is the same scepticism I suppose that prompts some in Sri Lanka to question whether the total death toll in Sri Lanka from the virus is just nine. A group calling itself an “Alliance of Independent Professionals” described the figure as a “gross underestimate”.

There is an aphorism attributed to a 19th century prime minister of England Benjamin Disraeli but popularised by the American writer Mark Twain, which says there are three kinds of lies — “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

This is a wise saw that appears often in the media here and in conversations these days as it is bandied about when belated and inadequate measures taken by governments to counter the coronavirus are discussed in depth and damned.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to 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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