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‘Storm warning’: Weathering some turbulence with stressful words

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The weather these days is a little like the political climate. Early sunshine, clouds on the horizon towards afternoon, scattered thundershowers in the late evening. As far as the incumbent administration goes, the bright patches have scurried over the horizon. Today, amidst some lingering glory from the sun-bright breakthroughs of legislative reform, towering cumulonimbus bearing strong suggestions of rain are looming. The cracks in the clouds mirror rifts in what commentators are pleased to call the ruling coalition. A hint of dampness; as into each political marriage, life, alliance, a little rain must fall… That the coalition partners know this, but that they – like soaked commuters struggling through the soggy press – muddle on, is cold comfort for citizens who expected the warm turns to last longer.

And then, like a violent silver streak that lights up the overcast sky from east to west, there comes the occasional flash of electricity to wake us up. Then follows the thunderbolt whose reverberations echo across the country and die down only in the muffled cloisters off the corridors of power. There was one such electrical event over the mediascape a few days ago. If the resultant concussion hasn’t shaken up the establishment a bit, there is something a tad wrong with the new political culture we have drawn overhead like some grand canopy of hopeful atmosphere.

13-01WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS – after a drought in progress on headline-arresting cases, a sudden downpour this week in a landmark case involving an erstwhile defence secretary might have caught media as much as its masses unaware. While progress in cracking the details of the assassination of an iconic editor is painfully slow, government can get away with the plea that the wheels of justice eventually grind sure… What could be of concern however is that all parties among the powers that be – prosecuting the advent of peace with justice with agendas inimical to the national interest, and at odds with their coalition partners – are not under the same stormy heaven as the rest of the citizenry outside the canopy of the all-embracing umbrella of the new/streamlined/same old political culture are



Rest assured it’s the “dog bites man” kind of news… In any other milieu – where the media would break the story to an unaware public – it would be a “man bites dog” type of headliner. In topsy-turvy-land, however, the splashes that the media makes have long since paled into puddles by the time the spectacular surmises and summary speculations get up there in 72 point bold. Which is to say that the co-called news these days often goes by another moniker in the marketplace: rumour, gossip, faction, common knowledge, conventional wisdom, the sense that while the headline is over the top, the happenings have been under the radar for so long that they’ve flown over the cuckoo’s nest...

PRESIDENT’S BROTHER LED “DEATH SQUADS”. Really? How terribly surprising for a dismayed citizenry! Yawn… is that a silver streak, a bird, a plane, superman? No, it’s a former defence secretary cum military mandarin with a wing down… it’s the international media reporting on it rather than the local press sitting up and taking due note that makes it remotely interesting in the first place.

Maybe the time, as well… Perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye, that – as Al-Jazeera reported – “a police report has implicated the brother of a former Sri Lankan president saying he directed a top-secret death squad that targeted journalists and dissidents. For the rest of the CID’s testimony to a magistrate’s court earlier this week – including the hoary chestnut that the erstwhile high-ranking bureaucrat led a clandestine unit culpable inter alia of assassinating gadfly editor Lasantha Wickrematunge comes as something of an anticlimax. Or it could be that in a climate such as we enjoy today (we use the word “enjoy” with critical appreciation), such passé revelations have become so much par for the course that we tend to take them for granted in ways that we never did before. Under a previous regime in which transparency was as clear as, well, an overcast sky with war-clouds obfuscating the picture.



Which reminds me of another tried and tired cliché: As also reported by Al-Jazeera, it transpires that a special secret unit outside the formal chain of command – of course! – of the former army commander (now a field marshal and the general blue-eyed boy of the powers that be, being something of a past presidential candidate and future vote attractor) – targeted the then authoritarian government’s thorns-in-the-side… The plot thickens, as they say. Again, yawn…

Be the boredom of the meteorological media audiences as they may, the bolt from the blue is not the alleged guilt of Gotabaya 02321Rajapaksa, nor is it the ostensible innocence of Sarath Fonseka in any political killing or war-criminal-type wrongdoing. The surprising streak across the falling-night sky is the volte-face of a far more prominent player in the saga… no less than the defence minister and commander-in-chief himself. In a statement that has surprised – if not shocked – both political partners and previously supportive opponents, the president has enacted something of a Pontius Pilate washing off of hands (but with some wiggle-room…). In a statement – to which the background and context are clearly proceedings in the magistrate’s court earlier in the week – the head of state has categorically said that (to quote a media report) “the government will disavow any member of the armed forces or police who is accused of participating in the murder of both journalists and sportsmen, or those who abducted and murdered for reasons not related to the war on terrorism. Reading in-between the lines, perhaps the statement is not as categorical as it initially appears. Because further down the track, he clarified his take… again, per media, “that the government would do whatever was necessary to protect war heroes against accusations of war crimes committed against terrorists” – adding the rider that “these protections do not apply to those whose actions can in no way be attributed to fighting the LTTE...”



As plain as pikestaff? Or as clear as cirrus-flecked heavens can be when obscured by the gathering gloom of rain-bearing strato-nimbus clouds! Could it be, we mean to ask, that the c-i-c of the security forces has changed his mind – as far as it is not unusual for politicians to be blown by trade winds fair and foul – since his last strongly worded sentiments less than six months ago? On that occasion, the h-o-s waxed eloquent on how hauling a senior bureaucrat and a trio of ex-commanders of the navy into court was not justice being served, but rather the blatant execution of a political agenda. At the time, he was clearly riled that the heads of the CID, FCID, and Bribery Commission – to say nothing of fellow consuls in the coalition – had not consulted him in the matter of the former defence secretary being asked to account for the loss of an estimated Rs. 11.5 billion in revenue to the state as a result of the defence ministry’s decision to permit private security firm Avant-Garde to run a floating armoury. The controversy took on a personal flavour when perhaps scurrilous reportage insinuated close ties between the sitting president and the ousted senior secretary, at one time ostensibly the most powerful bureaucrat in the civilian hierarchy and demonstrably de facto defence minister.

Therefore the president’s pique of outrage then must be counterpointed by his seemingly more balanced valence today. A man – even if he is head of state, especially if he is head of a government committed to globalism – can harbour personal opinions on how to handle terrorists, rogue bureaucrats, miscreant naval chiefs, et al. However if and when his sentiments are in danger of being interpreted as policy, that’s when the bolt from the blue becomes a lightning-strike headed towards ground zero. In this context, the position of the coalition partners could be made clearer in the national interest. Respect for the mandate granted this government by the people demands it. Expect to hear the thunder soon…

In the meantime, in the absence of atmospheric clarity, a meteorological approach to weather conditions (see my own ‘Beaufort Scale for Senior Bureaucrats’ – below) might shake government and citizenry out of their apathy.

0.“Calm.” The former regime is ousted democratically. Democracy trumps military bureaucracy.

1.“Light Air.” Coalition partners enjoy honeymoon. Autocrats in exile.

2.“Light Breeze.” Reformist agenda is aired. Includes ensuring ‘peace with justice’.

3.‘Gentle Breeze.” Meets with resistance in the House. Horse-traded MPs and cabinet ministers fear being implicated in former regime’s wrongdoings. 

4.“Moderate Breeze.” Realpolitik rules the day, but after deals are struck, legislation is passed. The Full Monty isn’t possible; former bureaucrats look like they might be let off the hook.

5.“Fresh Breeze.” 19A, RTI, give government ratings a boost. Former regime and mandarins seen to be in the doldrums.

6.“Strong Breeze.” Joint opposition gives split SLPF a hard time. President rumoured to be in cahoots with former senior bureaucrats. 

7.“High Wind.” Government renews transitional justice pledged in Geneva. President fears international pressure will compromise his domestic popularity if security forces are implicated in war crimes. 

8.“Fresh Gale.” Reformist camp prosecutes former mandarins with a vengeance.Graves are dug up, key bodies exhumed.

9.“Strong Gale.” Joint opposition alleges political agenda being ground like an axe. CID, FCID, perceived as state lackeys of conservative wing of coalition powers.

10.“Storm.” The c-i-c and h-o-s lashes out at coalition partners.

11. “Violent Storm.” Former defence secretary looking increasingly culpable of masterminding political death-squads.

12.“Hurricane.” Impasse over delivering on mandate as regards peace with justice drives coalition partners apart; reformist agenda flounders in choppy seas; roof comes off the national government with good intentions but no sea-legs to stay the course.

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