DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES – between a Government politicising the pandemic to stifle democratic dissent under the guise of maintaining law and order to protect public health and safety – and a political opposition irresponsibly weaponising a protest movement to exercise constitutionally enshrined rights – our nation-state is once again at the crossroads of compromised civic responsibility and incompetent governance
If the political Opposition had a sense of irony or proportion, it or he or they would not have sought to march on Colombo against a cornered and increasingly-unpopular administration.
The time is right – no doubt the Premadasa juggernaut thought, tearing itself away from wildlife and witty epithets for a good day’s work to demonstrate that the Green Coalition is not the toothless tiger its critics, and perhaps its erstwhile supporters, had made it out to be of late...
That the Government had done everything (but that) in its power to seal its eventual fate was clear to anyone with a degree from the LSE or a diploma in Daily Life. From queues for virtually every commodity vital to staying alive, to questions over just about everything else that’s “big picture” against the backdrop of an arguably failing State, Government appeared to have its back against the wall...
A forex crunch plastered over by cosmetic fixes. Failure to supply the nation with its comestibles and other essential consumer items without invoking the spectres of shortages, lengthening queues, price controls and the removals thereof, and commodity mafias boosting skyrocketing prices into the stratosphere. Corruption lurking like a cabinet minister with a wry grin on its or his face all the time and shy to boot about speaking of possible divestiture of national assets in the face of bankrupt sovereignty. A grip like a vice on civic rights and the democratic space for dissent. Alienating today’s ‘Big Three’ (viz. ‘Govi’, ‘Guru’, ‘Kamkaru’) of yesteryear’s ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’ with myopic policies and stubborn refusal to recalibrate based on results or lack thereof. ...the regime’s name and sins are legion.
Charge of the heavy brigade
Of course, if you’re going to charge a wounded beast headlong, you’d better have testicles of steel and/or transport that’s invisible to the storm-troopers at the barricades. But discretion was never the better part of valour as far as a largely unimaginative SJB goes. I think trying to get the growing numbers of its desperate fans to gather at Galle Face Green is as far as the potentially influential but irresponsibly populist Green Army goes. Tell me I’m wrong (and one including self hopes I am!) – if and when a now almost inevitable regime change bar martial law or a military takeover by a ‘friendly neighbour’ or ‘far-off neo-empire’ proves more adept at managing the economy and floating on the rising tide of geopolitics.
On the one hand, it saw an opportunity – and the whiff of frightened sweat in state ranks was too much for the bloodhounds baying for the red stuff. But the fact that anyone’s would do right now – especially for farmers starved for fertiliser and teachers bilked out of their stipend hikes among other disaffected demographics – works against the emergence of a thoughtful, responsible and effective opposition up against a ruthless regime that’s set in its ways and unlikely to cow under pressure. I rather think that Sajith in his sunset years, assuming the traditional ‘coming of wisdom with time’ does eventuate, is going to regret the grand theatrical stunt he almost pulled off.
For one, the madding crowd at Galle Face is but a crucible for super-spreading that no longer novel coronavirus. For another, props for proving that The Green Army is nothing much more than yet another populist movement – of course, bar the ball and chain or iron fist which have come to (perhaps predictably) characterise the Gotabaya presidency.
The aborted rally went nowhere near far enough to critique that Government’s hiatus at delivering the goods or its hypocrisy in politicising COVID-19 to escape facing the music for its lapses and lacunae. Sure enough if this was ‘show and tell’ – it showed that the Premadasa scion is a Rajapaksa facsimile in lieu. Let’s be charitable and say that the most telling effect it had on television audiences near you was that it also showed that while Sajith is no Gotabaya proxy like Ranil was Mahinda’s, the character of contemporary Sri Lankan leadership is cut from the same cloth.
Little foxes light big fires
In the light of this, the jeering jibe of a professorial type in parliament – no, not the Old Fox; but rather a younger avatar from the Viyathmaga jar of the so-called ‘scientific approach to governance’ – that the Opposition could have been more creative in its modus operandi rings true. The main point it seemed to be making by staging this abortive yet none the less dangerously irresponsible protest at a time like this is that if the Government and its henchmen are permitted to conduct ‘katina pinkamas’ with scant regard to social distancing, why then the
Opposition must be allowed to do so too!
That the Minister of Public Security lambasted the defenders of the rally on the grounds that the Police were acting at the behest of the health authorities and not their political masters is neither here nor there, which is where that worthy may soon find himself? I am no fan of PC Plod; but when Mr Goon makes a political tool out of the law enforcement agencies under his authority, it won’t be too long before some successive administration incites the worm to turn. And it would be rough justice – except that we live in a long-time banana or coconut republic where the dicta that ‘all animals are created equal but some animals are created more equal than others’ translates readily enough into ‘you scratch my back and I’ll keep the powers that be to come from prosecuting you’.
On the other hand, the optics of the late great protest – labelled rather self-consciously as a ‘People’s Protest Against An Atrocious Administration’ (I paraphrase its apposite if bombastic epithet) – highlighted that in theory, if not actual practice or sustainable implementation, the SJB were right.
Busloads of people being denied access to or entry into Colombo turning away to stage protests across a country littered with spiked roadblocks and armed security forces bolstering the long arm of the short fat law’s reach underscored just how much ground democracy and a panoply of constitutionally enshrined rights have lost their guarantee.
I worry more about how blasé most people I know are about the increasingly shrinking space for dissent than they are up in arms about the supermarket shelves not being adequately stocked with their favourite brand of pink salmon.
The waste land redux
The bottom line for governors in their palaces with silken girls bringing sherbet may well be for the nonce that – as far too many sensible people crowed on social media – the protest was an abject failure by dint of low levels of participation. Albeit at gunpoint and with scant-of-breath bureaucrats flaunting public health and safety provisions in protestors faces as if it was the constitution and not a spurious interpretation of outdated quarantine regulations.
But a greater abortion of ‘good governance’ than the late great purge of 2019 may be yet to come if the powers that be don’t climb down from their high horses, back down from intractable and indefensible positions, and calm the fluff down as regards dissent being unpatriotic.
And until and unless the national movement against an incompetent at best or insufferably corrupt at worst administration grows up, grows a pair and grows more nuanced while sparing the nation its theatrics and tentative fourth or fifth wave, one will see more of weaponised protests making a mockery of law and order to say nothing of good sense or common courtesy by one’s fellow citizens.
Of course, the latter ethos is exactly what the incumbent administration lacks in spades; together with its other weakness of being tone-deaf to public sentiment, apathetic to citizen suffering, and its far more serious shortcoming of using ‘terrorist demagoguery’ to stifle protest through a rash of ill-conceived presidential task forces – especially the blatantly disorderly one on (ironically enough!) ‘law and order’.
But the growing stridency of a weaponised Opposition is perhaps more cause for concern.
And if the throngs and thrusting of this week’s outing results in an ‘SJB cluster’, it will only strengthen the grip of an already grimly authoritarian Government on the regulation of free exercise of rights under the guise of administrative responsibility.
I invite Sajith & Co. to consider the irony of the ‘greatest treason’: doing the right thing irresponsibly for the wrong reason.
(Journalist WFH since 2009 | Ed.-at-Large of LMD | Writer in the long queue)