20th in the time of COVID: A grim tale

Friday, 9 October 2020 00:35 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Getting the 20th Amendment through is the current priority of the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime. Every other issue was and is subsumed to that one overarching obsession. Including the COVID-19 pandemic 

  • “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the window. It was not midnight. It was not raining” – Samuel Beckett (Molloy)

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Shirani Bandaranayake was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s 43rd Chief Justice in May 2011. In ‘Hold Me in Contempt: A Memoir,’ she remembers that morning in near Arcadian terms, complete with cherry blossoms and pelicans. The day, however, would end on a grim tone, with a forewarning of the coming impeachment. 

Once the oath taking was over, Dr. Bandaranayake recalls, President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited her for a chat. Instead of a polite exchange befitting the occasion, the President fired a loaded question at the new Chief Justice: who would be the new secretary to the Judicial Services Commission? Though somewhat disquieted by this unconstitutional inquiry, Dr. Bandaranayake explained that, as per norm, the current deputy secretary would function in an acting capacity, until a permanent appointment is made.

“The President blew a fuse,” she recalls.  

This outburst of Presidential rage would have been caused by her unwillingness to consult the President about the JSC appointment, Dr. Bandaranayake opines. She is silent on whether, in that moment, she remembered her own role in enabling the 18th Amendment, which scrapped the democratising provisions in the 17th Amendment and turned the man before her into a potentate. Perhaps she did recall that past in 2012/13, as the impeachment drama unfolded one scripted episode after another, and she struggled in vain to stop the President (she helped empower) from pulverising the Judiciary. 

As the country stands on the threshold of an even more calamitous constitutional amendment, that past is worth recalling, and remembering. 

Getting the 20th Amendment through is the current priority of the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime. Every other issue was and is subsumed to that one overarching obsession. Including the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it comes to quarantine regulations, Sri Lanka is still operating under an ordinance first introduced by the British on 9 February 1897 and last amended in 1952. According to the PHI Association, the ordnance can be used to compel individuals to abide by health regulations in a time of an epidemic, but not organisations, including private companies employing thousands of manual workers. Post-election, the Government should have acted to remedy this critical lacuna. It should have introduced a provision that empowers PHIs to compel organisations such as Brandix to abide by health regulations. 

Yet it was not done, because the Rajapaksas were obsessed with the 20th Amendment.

The COVID-19 task force, which had gone into a long hiatus, was revived after the new wave of infections broke. The optics of that gathering was similar to US President Trump’s Rose Garden event to introduce his Supreme Court nominee. In violation of the taskforce’s own rules, most of the attendees, including the President, didn’t wear masks. There was no social distancing either, as the attendees sat cheek by jowl.

This was no anomaly, but symbolic of the official stance of ‘zero-community transmission of virus.’ “We haven’t found a single case within the community since April 30,” stated Army Commander Shavendra Silva, giving voice to the official truth. “We have been able to completely curb its social spread” (The New Indian Express – 25th July).

An accolade from a Chinese organisation further cemented this comforting myth. In late September, Yicai Research Institute compiled a world survey on pandemic control, and placed Sri Lanka in the second position, right after China. The Yicia Research Institute happens to be a part of the Yicai Media. In 2018, Liang Xiangyi, a journalist attached to Yicai Media, was caught on tape rolling her eyes when a colleague asked a particularly longwinded and softball question from a Chinese leader. The Chinese authorities were enraged. Yicai Media quickly recalled the ‘erring’ journalist for investigation and self-criticism. Shouldn’t research findings from an organisation so submissive to official truths been taken with a pinch of salt?  

Lankan authorities would have done better to read the last sentence of Camus’ ‘The Plague,’ his timeless warning that “...the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; it can lie dormant for years..,” until the day “when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again, and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

For us, that day is here, bringing with it bane, but no enlightenment. Instead of working towards a lockdown (full or partial), the regime is still in denial, still obsessed with getting the 20th through, even at the cost of an unmanageable public health crisis.  


The Rajapaksa approach: Hide the problem; control the narrative

Up to 40% of the Amazon could become a savannah, according to a new scientific study.

An environmental devastation of almost similar magnitude is taking place in Sri Lanka, as forests, protected reserves and wetlands are destroyed on a mass scale. In a statement made on 2 October, the Director of the Police Media Unit acknowledged this horrendous reality.

Twenty complaints had been received in the recent past about environmental destruction, he admitted (Hantana, Kalpitiya, Wanathawilluwa, Marawila, Morewawa, Anawilundawa, Mangalapura, Kawantissapura, Minneriya, Knuckles, Welikanda, Ihalathalawa, Negambo lagoon, Kekirawa, Somawathiya, Vanniyagama, Hedeniya, Kirindioya, Kantale, Galenbindunuwewa). He went on to praise media organisations for highlighting the problem. 

According to the President’s Media Unit, though, no environmental destruction is happening. It is just lies, fabricated by political opponents. “A fake news campaign that alleges unprecedented environmental destruction is taking place since the present government came to power has now been identified... The Government has decided to take stern legal action against the parties or individuals who intentionally feed misinformation and mislead the public abusing various forms of media” (Fake news campaign alleging environmental destruction exposed ... PMD – 28 September).

That is the modus operandi of the regime – deny the problem, control the narrative; and come down hard on anyone countering the official truth. 

The morning after the first patient of the Divulapitiya cluster was diagnosed, Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara, Director of the MRI, told Derana TV: “From January to now this virus has been present in the community somehow... How else could we have found a patient now?” (Economy Next – 5 October).

Within hours, Dr. Bandara was demoted to the post of Deputy Director and the Deputy Director promoted as Director. The Government is yet to give a reason for this strange and disturbing decision. According to media reports, the demotion had happened without the knowledge of the Health Minister. The relevant circular was signed by the Ministry Secretary, Major General Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe. 

The President recently and publicly articulated a revolutionary new theory, redefining a Government circular as the verbal order of the Executive President. The ongoing militarisation of the public service makes sense from this perspective. Retired and serving military men are more likely to accept this radical ‘Circular theory’ than seasoned public officials. 

Was that what happened in the case of Dr. Bandara? Was that the genesis of Health Secretary-cum-General Munasinghe’s circular? 

Once the 20th Amendment is in place, will we see a military lawyer made Attorney General or even a Supreme Court justice? 

The regime’s zero-community transmissions theory was made in the absence of widespread random community testing. It was therefore not fact-based but faith-based. This myth was rather like the earlier Rajapaksa invention of zero-civilian casualties. That it was impossible to wage a war without causing a few civilian deaths should have been obvious to anyone with a grain of sense; but it was accepted by most in the south, because the lie was comforting. A similar attitude of wilful ignorance about the presence of the virus in the community pervaded both official circles and society. 

The result was an enabling environment, in which the virus could thrive undetected because no one tried to detect it outside the identified clusters. Perhaps even mutate into a more deadly form, as the GMOA now claims.

Though the onset of a new wave of infections is obvious, the Government continues to ignore and dither. The Advanced Level and Scholarship exams are to go ahead – a decision that is as criminally irresponsible and morally repugnant as Donald Trump’s insistence on opening schools in America. Instead of imposing lockdowns in an orderly manner, giving people time to prepare, the Government has seesawed, increasing the woe of the people. 

For instance, on 6 October, at 1:50 p.m. a circular was issued, imposing a curfew on all areas coming under Gampaha police division. Hours later, the police did a U-turn, issuing a statement limiting the curfew to four Police areas. Late that night, while the populace slept, the Army Commander issued a statement imposing an immediate curfew not just in Gampaha police division but also in Ja-ela and Kandana Police area. People who went to sleep confident that they could go out the next day woke up to find themselves under curfew.

Will there come a day, when the rest of us too wake up to discover that a curfew had been imposed while we slept?


Easter bombing, Riyaj, Hejaaz and Shani

Joachim Fest in ‘The Face of the Third Reich,’ argues that the rise of Nazism was caused primarily by “the curiously fragmented neurotic character of the post-1918 era...together with an increasing mass flight into irrationality, the mindless readiness to renounce reason, and an ever more uninhibited susceptibility to myth...” Assailed by insecurity and fear, yearning for safety, the German people enacted a collective self-surrender of their rights, freedoms and fate into Hitler’s hands. 

A similar mood was present in Sri Lanka after the horrendous Easter Sunday massacre. Shaken by the violence, the majority community dreamt of a strongman who could keep them safe. They bought the Rajapaksa argument that had the siblings been in power, the Easter bombings would not have happened.

The fracas over the inexplicable arrest and the inexplicable release of Riyaj Bathiudeen, the brother of Parliamentarian Rishad Bathiudeen, casts serious doubts about this claim. 

Riyaj Bathiudeen was arrested by the newly-reconstructed CID (after the purge of Shani Abeysekara), with much fanfare. Statements made by various men of authority left no doubt in the public mind that the CID was in possession of irrefutable evidence proving Bathiudeen’s involvement in the Easter bombings. 

Five months later, Bathiudeen was released, this time the Police claiming that it couldn’t find any evidence linking him with the bombing.

Let’s consider the possibilities. Either the CID lied the first time and arrested an innocent man. Or the CID is lying now, having released a culpable man. Or else, the CID was clueless on both occasions. One of these explanations has to be true. Irrespective of which one is the truth, it casts serious doubts about the unfounded claim that the Rajapaksas could have prevented the Easter massacre.

The same authorities are holding Hejaaz Hizbullah. The same authorities claim that they have evidence linking him to the bombers. Ordered by the Magistrate to provide some of the evidence, the CID claimed that Hizbullah had received money from a terrorist entity called Qatar Charity. Qatar Charity is an international relief organisation which has worked/is working with a number of UN agencies including WHO and UNICF. It might be fundamentalist in its outlook, the same way Saudi charities are, but terrorist?

Was this the kind of evidence the CID possessed about Riyaj Bathiudeen? If so, no wonder they had to backtrack, though the fact that his brother has a vote to cast for or against the 20th Amendment may not have hurt. Unfortunately, Hejaaz Hizbullah has no parliamentarian sibling. Therefore he is likely to languish in unjust incarceration for a while more. The same goes for Shani Abeysekara, punished for his manifold successes in bringing influential criminals to justice. 

Recently, Minister Johnston Fernando made a claim that might be helpful in understanding these curious doings of law enforcement authorities: “Even if one of our people does something wrong we must protect them” (https://www.facebook.com/headlinenewslk/videos/2966501176785283/). If that is the Government’s stance, is the obverse also true? Will opponents be persecuted, even if they have done nothing wrong? 

Is a policy of protecting friends and hounding enemies the explanation for the curious cases of Riyaj Bathiudeen, Hejaaz Hizbullah and Shani Abeysekara? 

Won’t that become our common fate, if the 20th Amendment is passed?

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