National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) Chairman and former Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya this week issued a clarion call, urging the Government to end the politics of revenge and release political prisoners to shift the national discourse and unify the polity to combat the deadly virus sweeping through the country.
For over a year, lawyer and activist Hejaaz Hizbullah has been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Separately the 25-year-old poet Ahnaf Jazeem has been detained on terrorism charges. For nine months, former CID Director Shani Abeysekera has been incarcerated on charges of fabricating evidence that the police have been unable to prove. Five months ago, key Opposition figure Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced to a four-year jail-term. Last month, ACMC Leader and Opposition MP Rishad Bathiudeen was arrested on terrorism charges. Police arrested consumer rights activist Asela Sampath for criticising a Government Minister in April.
For the crime of encouraging fellow motorists to honk at a passing VVIP convoy during the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit to Colombo, a young man was arrested and produced in Court. Former Ministers Rajitha Senaratne and Champika Ranawaka – key players in the Opposition – are facing trial.
A special commission of inquiry has been established to determine if MPs Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Champika Ranawaka, Sarath Fonseka, M.A. Sumanthiran, R. Sampanthan, Ajith Perera and others will lose their civic rights for the crime of being members of an ad-hoc anti-corruption Cabinet sub-committee during the tenure of the previous Government. Several public servants, including foreign secretaries, senior state counsel and police officers have also been lined up for sanctions.
For one year, the pandemic has been raging across the world. In that time, the Government’s laser focus appears to be on identifying and neutralising dissent.
Jayasuriya is calling on the Government that promised efficiency and technocracy in the face of national crisis, to shift that focus. An all-party conference got underway last year under the leadership of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa but fizzled out because the president never engaged in discussions, the former Speaker recalls. Unity is the need of the hour, Jayasuriya says, but this cannot be achieved while the Government is waging war on the democratic Opposition and dutiful police officers.
Releasing prisoners arrested on politically motivated charges might be a gesture of goodwill towards the opposition, but it is also the righteous thing to do. With the virus spreading through an overcrowded prison system, incarcerating critics on flimsy charges smacks of attempts to endanger their lives. Abeysekera and Hizbullah have both contracted COVID-19 in prison.
Speaker Jayasuriya is calling on the President to cast his differences with the Opposition aside and rally the troops. Political consensus to tackle the crisis is the need of the hour. The main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the JVP and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have all expressed a willingness to work with the Government to overcome the crisis.
TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran recently tabled a private member’s bill that will replace centuries-old quarantine laws. If enacted the bill would provide for the declaration of a public health emergency in the country and the establishment of a public health emergency council. Facing down a pandemic, such bills should have been among the Government’s key legislative priorities this past year. Now that the bill is in the works, pushing it through the legislative hoops as swiftly as possible is the least the Rajapaksa administration can do.
The hour is already late. Over 1,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Sri Lanka. With testing capacity still low, official data may not reflect true infection rates and deaths from the virus. The State Minister for Health has sounded the alarm about oxygen stocks for critical care patients. The Government is begging NGOs and INGOs to divert their funds for the rest of the year for the purchase of oxygen and other medical equipment.
Ironically, the world knew the third wave was coming as early as mid-2020. The Government had months to prepare for the worst and chose to take no action. Failure to contain the spread will cost more lives unless the incumbent administration faces the challenge with humility and acknowledges that it needs help.
There is a time for politicking, and a time for statesmanship. Jayasuriya is calling on President Rajapaksa to step up. Over 1,000 Sri Lankans already dead on his watch and infection rates spiking across the country. How the President responds to the unfolding tragedy could determine his political legacy, and the fate of 21 million people he swore an oath to protect.