While people of many countries have been moping in this Lockdown Era whether they were going to hell or to a new paradise on Earth promised by their messianic leaders, very many Sri Lankans were kept buoyant and optimistic by most local TV channels with patriotic and nationalist personalities assuring more paradisiacal joys in the [...]

Sunday Times 2

Man cannot live by curfews alone


While people of many countries have been moping in this Lockdown Era whether they were going to hell or to a new paradise on Earth promised by their messianic leaders, very many Sri Lankans were kept buoyant and optimistic by most local TV channels with patriotic and nationalist personalities assuring more paradisiacal joys in the post-Covid era.

Police officers on curfew duty in Colombo

However, they did not indicate how Paradise Lost was to be regained.

Nonetheless they are keeping the spirits going at a gallop with even their own followers tripping themselves up being unable to keep the recommended ‘social distance’ even at supermarkets.

Lanka may be scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to international achievements but in the case of the Covid pandemic, we rank among the topmost they claim citing an international survey done in the early stages of the epidemic.

Politicians appear to have got ‘camera shy’ and are seen only occasionally in the background, while some of the old praetorian guard, the military and the police are on the screen telling us hoi- polloi locked up now (for more than 50 consecutive days) on how the missions impossible were achieved. All that was possible because of the meticulous planning of, You Know Who, they say without saying Who it was. Clever.  Talk show mediocrities aren’t shying of saying Who’s the You Know Who. They know which side their bread is buttered on.

It does not matter who did the job.  That the deadly disease was contained is what matters. To those unsung heroines and heroes at the frontline: nurses, doctors, attendants, hospital workers, morgue attendants who risked not only their lives but entire families and carried on their duties, the Sri Lankan nation owes its gratitude. They have to be rewarded, compensated and when it is all over a Role of Honour with their names engraved should be constructed as for other heroes. The military played a key role in providing, transport, housing of expatriate and local inmates returnees and providing of other logistical facilities and the police contributed much in keeping 20 million people for 24 hours indoors.

All these categories of employees are no doubt Lanka’s heroes. But are they the only heroes? What of the millions of ordinary citizens who cooperated and kept indoors for 24 hours for over 55 days and with still no end in sight?

True, fear of losing their own lives and those near and dear made them abide with ‘Emergency Laws’ whose legality they questioned. Sri Lankans, despite their vaunted hubris and bravado, have shown a clean pair of heels even in the face of imaginary disasters such as ‘the Day when the Tigers Came to Colombo’ (Kotti awa davse.) 

Despite such blemishes, it was not the fear of the police nor the military that kept millions indoors but the need to not rock the boat in the midst of a national crisis. They are heroes for suffering in silence which is even harder than sufferance under punishment or even torture. Had these law-abiding citizens not cooperated with the authorities undergoing extreme privation under the laws declared to control in the spread of the virus, limiting the spread of infection and the number of deaths to double digits would not have been possible.

Recall the turmoil on the roads when medical students, monks, thugs and political hirelings defied water cannon, rubber bullets and police batons over a medical degree and the deserted, peaceful Covid era streets of today?

In this context we were amazed to read a news report last week of a ‘senior police official’ lashing out at the public for not obeying the laws of conduct spelled out by the police on the first day the 24-hour curfew was partially ‘relaxed’. The people had not observed the social distancing rule which had become law following a magisterial decision. The police disciplinarian vowed on TV to bring the full force of the law against the violators not only for not observing the social distance but also for breaking other laws announced by the police. The laws imposed by the police were now legal following such a declaration of a magistrate he pointed out. Why the police had not sought the approval of these ‘laws’ by the Supreme Court is perhaps beyond status of this loquacious policemen.  But as a policeman, who is supposed to be a friend of the people, he should have understood the human inclination of a people on being released after being held virtually as prisoners for more than 50 days.

A policeman is said to be not only a friend of the people but a public servant, a servant of the people. In the bad old colonial days a public servant signed off his letters addressed to a member of the public with the declaration:  I am Sir, Your Obedient Servant….

What concerns us is not with the change from days of colonial rule till today but the change with the beginning of the Curfew Era in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka with the onset of the pandemic? The question that is being posed is: Are we a democracy?  How can we be a democracy without a parliament?

In a democracy, if a policeman of whatever rank lambasts the public and threatens it with dire consequences, there will be people’s representatives to give the police top brass a dressing down and an demand an immediate apology. Are we a Socialist country? Certainly not. It was perhaps a manifestation of a J.R. Jayewardene idiosyncrasy during the enacting of a new constitution to name Sri Lanka a socialist country while switching over to an unrestrained capitalist economy. Perhaps the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement which had passed over to him from Sirima Bandaranaike and the next summit meeting which was to be held in Cuba where he would light up Havana cigars with Fidel Castro made him want to appear as a socialist president.

It could be argued that today we are not a democracy, certainly not socialist but still is  a republic with an elected president. But an elected president of a democracy needs a parliament with representatives of the people. If not his officials — the executive — may be inclined to ride rough shod over the people. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants a parliament but Covid-19 is stalling him. Rajapaksa also wants a parliament with a 2/3rd majority. This may be elusive but a parliament is called for with or without a 2/3rd majority.

Meanwhile, the millions cannot be held in a lockup — now well over 50 days. In many countries, curfews have been far more relaxed than what Sri Lankans have suffered. The liberalism of President Rajapaksa’s executives operating the curfew — letting the people out for a few hours only to purchase a few essential requirements and medicines can no longer go on.

The curfews no doubt have protected the lives of the people, but they cannot go on in this rigorous fashion. Man cannot live by curfews alone.

(Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)


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