There was no death and destruction on a mass scale as in 2019. There were no suicide-bomb attacks on those at prayer, no bombing of hotels where tourists and locals were at Easter Sunday breakfast on one of the holiest days for Christians. That single-day tragedy left indelible scars and turned 2019 into an annus [...]


Will it be more horribilis next?


There was no death and destruction on a mass scale as in 2019. There were no suicide-bomb attacks on those at prayer, no bombing of hotels where tourists and locals were at Easter Sunday breakfast on one of the holiest days for Christians.

That single-day tragedy left indelible scars and turned 2019 into an annus horribilis, as they say in Latin, for many families in Sri Lanka and elsewhere who suffered from unconscionable violence.

As this year inches closer to its butt end people look around to assess what has gone before. Have more things happened than meets the eye? Citizens might well ask our politicians — those enjoying power and those out of it, and others who crept into office by means both fair and foul — would it do any good raising these issues?

If one were to say, as Hamlet said to Horatio “there are more things on heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” would it awaken the addled brains of some now comfortably ensconced in positions that were hardly meant for them by virtue of merit or experience.

Over the years, nay decades, many Sri Lankans have followed with increasing bemusement the political vagaries of this country as politicians tussled for power and increasingly fattened themselves in the name of the people they claimed to represent.

Those whose livelihoods politicians promised to nurture and safeguard were soon forgotten as the people wondered into which pigeon holes those promises were stuffed before they were dispensed with.

The other day we read that what caught fire in the basement of Hulftsdorp’s ‘Hall of Justice’ were discarded electrical and electronic equipment and possibly wastepaper. If a search party was sent into the bowels of the building, it might well have discovered other items that could be discarded without any danger to the functioning or hardly — functioning as some say, the justice system.

As the years pass, politics becomes ever so confused, confounded and dirty. What is promised by contending parties is not necessarily what is eventually offered to the people, if any is offered at all. How often we hear people who trekked to polling booths describe not too long after that politics is a power grab, as the aggrandizement of what is not yours, the accumulation of wealth from sources that are not one’s own by those who are immersed — if that is the appropriate word — in “thanha”.

So as we take the last few steps to midnight those who had been deceived by the governed awaiting a new order in the promised land and enthronement of the competent, qualified and the capable, many appear gravely disillusioned, disappointed and angry at being misled and deprived once again.

Some highly qualified and experienced non-state sector CEOs who accepted temporary assignments did not seem to have stayed long while other experienced senior officers were shunted from their posts to be replaced by cronies, according to news reports, that evoked memories of Trump-style governance from the White House.

Some believe that if 2019 was a frightening drama that opened with a short sharp act of violence, the year that is now ending was worse but in a different way. It is not merely the coronavirus that carved a swathe right through the community and upturned normal life in a way that has not happened before, causing so much dysfunction and turmoil.

It was the first time that an outbreak of Covid-19 haunted the country and disrupted life in a hitherto unknown and disturbing way. Given that Sri Lanka had no historical experience of dealing with this virus though it has done with other epidemics, any sensible government would have let medical doctors experienced in virology and bacteriology and other related sciences take the lead tackling the outbreak.

The indecisive actions that followed after the first round of the virus spread and differences of opinion between the medically qualified and others began to emerge, the people became increasingly worried and agitated.  Some violated health warnings and others broke curfew rules not because they wanted to but because they had to, to lay their hands on food, medicines and other household essentials.

As the year wore on, other policy contradictions broke surface leaving the private sector and state institutions working at cross purposes and ministries and state institutions doing the same.  If this is how policy makers and power brokers are stepping into the new year, Sri Lanka would need to tread carefully and thoughtfully.

It is not merely the economy that will need to be handled with care despite the bombast of accountants parading as well-tutored economists, but also foreign policy issues that some of our newly-emergent ‘experts’ believe can be resolved or propped up satisfactorily by leaning on China as a permanent diplomatic and economic all-weather ally.

If some of Sri Lanka’s newly-emergent foreign policy experts believe that the eviction of President Trump from the White House and Joe Biden’s election signal a more even ride for Sri Lanka on the world stage on both economic/financial issues and human rights, a re-thinking might be more prudent than the kind of defiant stance that some in Colombo are bound to advocate for the new year.

While Trump did not seem to care a jot about the UN Human Rights Council and human rights in a wider context, Joe Biden is unlikely to follow Trump’s arrogant policy and kick the issue into the long grass. If Biden’s early signs suggest anything, it is that he would be prepared to take a more coherent approach on human rights at home and abroad and allow for a more dedicated agenda.

As Biden hinted in his early post-election days, he might very well put human rights at the “core of US foreign policy”.

One might see Washington return to a lead role as a sponsor of the Council Resolution 30/1 and other corrected resolutions when the UNHRC meets in Geneva in March next and Sri Lanka is again on the agenda.

Earlier this month, the EU Council adopted a Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime that could spell trouble for Sri Lanka. Space does not permit detailed discussion of this and other international issues that can impact Sri Lanka such as climate change and ecological protection where we tend to speak with a forked tongue — one on the international stage and the other at home — the Council decision is more immediately relevant.

On human rights, for the first time the Council will be able to target individuals, entities and bodies responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses, no matter where they occurred.

Sections of the global Tamil diaspora, having now received a breathalyser, are bound to pursue a revitalised anti-Sri Lanka agenda, with changes in the White House, during the upcoming Geneva meeting.

Back in Colombo, the Government’s constitution-making is bound to run into roadblocks and strong opposition as current criticisms of impending changes seem to suggest. If the whispers now circulating pointing to more stringent executive powers and further controls over parliament and curbs on media are even partially correct, tough times lie ahead.

While changes in the constitution may not concern the majority, it is the battered economy and economic survival that will trouble the many and cause rising disaffection. Add to that, the continuing serious health issues ahead of a referendum if the constitutional drafting is completed next year, could be a hard ask and a horribilis 2021.

(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. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London before returning to journalism.)


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