Fast on its way to illustrating South Asia’s frightening object lesson on how to reduce one of the region’s oldest democracies to a dystopian nightmare of rampant disease, poverty and pathetically dependant people made to grovel for handouts, Sri Lanka’s unfortunate citizenry watch with surreal fascination this week as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa blandly asks [...]


Hard questions that the government must answer to an anarchic populace


Fast on its way to illustrating South Asia’s frightening object lesson on how to reduce one of the region’s oldest democracies to a dystopian nightmare of rampant disease, poverty and pathetically dependant people made to grovel for handouts, Sri Lanka’s unfortunate citizenry watch with surreal fascination this week as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa blandly asks the world to ‘pick Sri Lanka as an investment destination of choice.’

What investors can Sri Lanka attract?

There is a hard question that the Prime Minister together with his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and associated motley Ministers spouting inanities at a so-called Sri Lanka Investment Forum held in Colombo must answer. What investor would want to sink money in an unstable and volatile country and an anarchic populace unable to feed itself on the crumbs that the Government throws them, taken together with stuttering legal cum judicial systems pressurised to bow to the whims and fancies of the political command?

From the fisheries sector to the agrarian sector with projected loss of agricultural production due to farmers not being given a sufficient substitute for chemical fertilizer following its sudden ban, the collapse of key lynchpins of Sri Lanka’s economy is phenomenal and that too, on top of ravages caused by the covid-19 global pandemic. Indeed, the common thread running through all of this is the lack of sensible policies, practical plans and clear headed thinking while yes-men run frantically in all directions.

This is very much the case at the Ministry of Health which seems unable to release definitive statistics of covid-afflicted deaths each day. Its garrulous spokespersons includes one worthy who castigated a journalist for asking questions with an astounding interpolation ‘not to be a third class journalist as third class journalists were killed during the war.’ Such a statement should have led to his immediate resignation. An apology which was issued later should not have sufficed. Relentless questioning of the Ministry is very much called for.

When a Government bends the law to suit itself

Apparently its officials are still clueless about who authorised immoral assurances coerced from recipients of the Sputnik vaccinations in Kandy that they would be satisfied with only the administration of the first dose. True, the Prime Minister’s son, conferred the ‘Ministry of Everything and Nothing’ as JK Rowling might appropriately term it, informs the public through the state run media that, ‘health officials decide the vaccine doses.’ But the contrary is the case. Politicians decide each and every step of the vaccinations process which is why we are in this pitiable state.  And there is an important lesson in all of this.

When the Government bends the law for its own purpose, it has one inevitable result; the people will stop respecting the law and stop obeying it. Thus, a loquacious police spokesman who complains about the enormous numbers of vehicles seen on Colombo’s roads during so-called travel restrictions and asks plaintively why people are breaking the law, must be enlightened on his seeming ignorance. That differential treatment meted out by law enforcers is clear. A maskless (Muslim) man pushing a wheelbarrow with groceries is arrested and a poor (Sinhalese) man who ventures out of his shack to find food in Matara is assaulted by the police. He subsequently dies after being dumped on the road when a bus runs over him.

In other words, the poor is treated atrociously by the police, insulted, shouted at, and manhandled to the point that death ensues. But in Kurunegala, the police organise a birthday party for the mayor and responsible officers are only transferred to another station. Elsewhere a horde of the (Sinhalese) lumpen nouveau riche who vulgarly kick it up party style at one of Colombo’s high end hotels are arrested for show and then immediately released on bail. Later they are put into quarantine due to public fury. But no action is taken against the hotel which hosted the event in the first place.

A policing system which rewards abusers

Meanwhile suspects in police custody continue to die with little explanation and no accountability. While statements by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and letters to the Inspector General of Police by the Human Rights Commission asking for explanations are well and good, these are cosmetic steps at the best. For it is not as if police brutality is a suddenly new occurrence for people to wake up astonished and eyes-all-ablinking. This has been a steady pattern of behaviour during conflict and otherwise, enabled by distinct State practices that have been studied exhaustively and critiqued profoundly but never properly addressed.

It is also a mistake to predicate this failure entirely on constitutional reforms and weigh the merits of one constitutional amendment against another even as it is obvious that state capture of independent oversight bodies under the 20th Amendment has made the situation far worse. That said, it must not be forgotten that even as Human Rights Commissions and Police Commissions came and went under the 17th Amendment to the 19th Amendment, the structural and systemic nature of Sri Lanka’s corrupted and warped policing system permitted and in fact, encouraged if not rewarded abusers.

Thus, a far more critical and reflective eye must be brought to bear on these issues. Regardless, we have a Government flapping around like a landed (poisoned) fish caught in the plastic horrors of the horrific destruction caused by the X-Press Pearl ship polluting Sri Lanka’s coastal stretch from Negombo to Matara. This will probably make for a great cartoon by one of our excellent satirists. But the point is that this marine environment was the very nerve centre of our island nation, proud of its diversity as one of the few cherished treasures that political greed had not been able to easily destroy. That is, until now.

A child can teach our rulers, the art of governing

Indeed, some have gone even further and warned, including senior Buddhist and Catholic clergy, that this is part of a covid-19 inspired scheme to break the backbone of community resistance. Their critique simply is that the plan of the Government is to mete out pittances to the citizenry even as a few benefit from gargantuan rackets. In so far as the X-Press Pearl disaster is concerned, we are no wiser than we were a week ago in discerning the chain of accountability for allowing this to happen in the first instance.

As one of the tens of thousands of the nation’s fishermen, now bereft of earning his livelihood, angrily bellowed from plastic strewn beaches to those whom they voted into power, ‘Where can I fish? Even if I bring in a catch, no one will buy as they are scared.’ The anger and extreme insecurity that surfaces is clear. ‘Am I now being pushed to robbing and murdering to earn money? How am I supposed to feed my children?’ he asks. A few days ago, the European Parliament issued a warning regarding the potential withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s GSP Plus status due to the flagrant violation by the State of almost each and every legal and constitutional safeguard in the treatment of its own citizens.

If this threat is carried through, its impact on the exports market will be grave. So we return to that key question, what investment in the context of the gross mismanagement of the economy resulting in mounds of debt with no effective repayment plan besides crawling to China? Essentially in the absence of the Rule of Law inclusive of a grievously politicised vaccination process, daily cases of extreme police brutality resulting in deaths that are brushed away like flies and flippant arrests of the Government’s critics on the basis that they are circulating ‘fake news’, what investment climate do we have?

That is a question that a child could answer with ease. Perhaps the Government should think as an infant would. It may do far better in its task of governing this land.

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