Bridging the trust deficit by barricading the truth out?

Monday, 26 September 2022 02:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PERSECUTED – the setting up of High Security Zones in the heart of the commercial capital shows up the insecurity of a government that majors on legality and minors in legitimacy, whilst showcasing the insecure state of the powers that be, riding on past mandates amidst present challenges... 


The move last week to declare certain precincts of the commercial capital out of bounds to a protesting public came as a shock to hopefuls who had expected the incumbent administration to be more circumspect as time went by since the people’s struggle petered out. 

This, together with the use of the PTA to arrest youthful protestors and detain a panoply of other peaceful participants in the unprecedented citizens’ movement, was hardly the formula for bridging the trust deficit leftover by the previous government’s authoritarian – yet, grossly incompetent, as events proved – ‘government by gazette’. 

But it was hardly a surprise to more insightful observers who see in the sitting president’s modus operandi a continuation of the ‘Ancien Régime’ – the old guard under a new face or aegis, driving the old stale agenda.

And although the military may be confined to barracks at present, in the aftermath of cleaning up the last physical bastions of the Aragalaya at Galle Face, the militarised encroachment of public spaces is still taking place apace. It is a red flag to the naïve who assumed that militarisation was the bailiwick of the ousted president and not the incumbent.

And while it was the jackboot that was only recently deployed to usher off the premises any resistance to the regime, it is now the blindfolded lady and scales of ‘justice’ that are being employed to further the cause of the incumbents. That is another cause for concern for liberals and civil libertarians alike.

And more is the pity in a milieu where a growing number of stakeholders in Sri Lanka’s ‘Economic Recovery Project’ – at home or away – are calling for legitimacy to triumph over legality. It may well be the over-arching criterion – ahead of debt sustainability – for a putative IMF bailout, which (for all its lustre) is but a plaster for a flesh wound. 

From the beleaguered island-nation’s bastions of civil society to the bulwarks of international forums with our national interest at heart, the call has been to exercise the law by all means. But with due care being taken to safeguard civil and human rights. And sanction excessive use of force against protests that have bedevilled the country for far too long now. From the heartland of the republic – actors, artistes of all ilks, activists, the island’s agricultural backbone, et al. – have come calls to end corruption and ensure that the state delivers the goods, every which way: which is another way of saying ‘stabilise the economy’.

From the courts of public and intergovernmental opinion overseas, there has been a corresponding clarion call to the government of the day to tread carefully on it citizens’ dreams and aspirations...

And yet, a government swept into power on the now-broken back of the Aragalaya (retired hurt?) and the stiffening spine of the Antharaya (heroically resisting!) has insisted on closing ranks with its own counsel, and closing off the alarmingly diminishing space for public dissent.

Why might this be?


For one, the cabal that comprised the previous administration – and still constitutes the spirit of the present government – is notoriously arrogant as regards civil and constitutional rights. 

The ethos of the Pohottuwa has spanned an unholy trinitarian gamut from mounting coups against legally elected governments; through rousing ultra-nationalist sentiment to gain electoral victories; to perpetuating the status quo of its natural/organic (SLFP/PP) and adoptive/pseudo membership (UNP/renegade SJB) for partisan, petty, and personal gain.

Of course, one could argue that the governments of other egregiously arrogant leaders – from robber-baron-loving tyrants and bandit queens to sundry strongmen at the helm of national affairs – have been similarly disposed.

But the present dispensation – in its latest avatar as an administration of a lone wolf MP leading a pack of wolves exiled from the public’s affection at large – encapsulates all that is, and has been, rotten in the state.

It is the acme of the axiom that ‘there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests’.

That this permanent interest – the maintenance of a familial project that is, in its deep-south deep veins, authoritarian, aggressively nationalist and nastily antipathetic to civilian sensitivities – militates against the national interest per se is a cause for regret as much as concern.

There is no need for the welfare of a select few who continue to enjoy the trappings of power to trump the well-being of a majority of citizens.

However, it is a status quo that can be challenged, critiqued and countered by only a constitutional instrument such as elections. Or equally legitimate notion such as popular sovereignty in action.

An election is not likely – if at all, at that – to eventuate before March 2023... when parliament can prevail upon the president, under a clause in the 20th Amendment, to dissolve itself. 

An extension of the life of the people’s struggle is equally unlikely. Given the legalistic net thrown over the encampments of the just and those seeking social, political and economic justice in the short term...

Therefore, the common or garden citizen’s resigned adjustment to reality. Like it or lump it, the long arm of the law is now empowered to collar anyone straying against the will and pleasure of an entrenched mindset in the ensconced administration. 


For another, there was a plethora of other leadership teams – from Premadasa Pater & Co. cracking down on the then JVP and MR & Bros. decimating the north with the scorched earth blitzkrieg – that have been apathetic to and/or chosen to be ignorant of international norms as regards civil and human rights.

This is by no means a weakness if one wishes to preside over a small pond and be number one frog in its ambit.

But if one aspires to be a fully-fledged member of the international community – from which there is no escape, by the way, perhaps short of setting up one’s own insular enclave on the Moon or Mars; and not even then, given the renewed Space Race 2.0, of late – one must play ball according to the global ground rules.

There is no cocking a snook at what seem like extra-judicial economic sanctions seeking to be imposed by an understandably irate UNHRC at UNGA, and also desperately soliciting the perks and privileges of the likes of GSP+ and other preferential treaties. Which a bankrupt, cash-strapped, globally black-balled backwater political economy such as Sri Lanka needs now, more than ever!

Is this too tough a proposition for the arrogant as much as the apathetic to comprehend?

There is no way in a month of Sundays or a slump of Mondays that two 73-year-olds – both heads of state, and equally lacking in the criterion known as ‘the Stamp of Public Approval’ – can hobnob at royal cocktails (even on a sombre occasion) and ceremonially exchange warm, hearty, smiling pleasantries while all the king’s men and all the queen’s horses and dogs valiantly strive to put the humpty-dumpty of strained diplomatic relationships back on the wall of friendship again.

Or perhaps there is: Which is probably why, in a parallel universe, CR III continues to enjoy the support of monarchists and royalists, if not the indignant taxpayer. And RW VI (in his sixth reign as supreme emperor of all he surveys, he thinks – and acts like it) rides on with elan! And the éclat of his peers in the upper echelons of island society! And damn any esprit de corps among the hoi polloi!

Which redounds to apathy more than arrogance, arguably? The ‘We don’t know’ of the British stiff upper lip, stiff upper crust grandees, providing a nice counterpoint to the ‘We don’t care’ naivety of big biz and the chambers of commerce and industry. Who don’t mind the state of treasury coffers or that the trains no longer run on time – as they supposedly did under an erstwhile despot – as long as the Jaguar has spare parts and the Bentleys and Rolls-Royces run to boot.   


As long as the upper classes – demonstrably the most influential and useful to the government project – are complacent about or complicit in the closing off of avenues for dissent, there’s no need to discuss (one would feel) the third and final reason why the Official Secrets Act is being invoked to stymie and stifle dissent.

And that is that for all its power in the House and prowess in the Home Office (so to say), the powers that be are running scared.

Of the perseverance of a people who – though many of them manage on a meal missed a day; and some families, on a meal a day – show no signs of giving up the ghost or allowing bygones to be bygones. Even if #GotaGoHome saw the former chief executive go, and come, and stay long enough to be ensconced in clover at the taxpayers’ expense.

Of the possibility that pushed against the wall once again – if and when push comes to shove, and the promised hard times become harder until the first tranche of the IMF’s bailout package eventuates in December or sometime next year – the people’s struggle won’t hesitate longer than it takes to say ‘people’s sovereignty’ backwards in the mother tongue before taking to the streets again.

Of the nous that another ‘Occupy Anything’ movement – short or sustained, it won’t matter, if the streets run with the blood of the martyrs, which is the seedbed of many a vibrant republic today in their historic pasts – would oust another president; cart the cabals courtesy the tumbrel known as the franchise to the guillotine of a general poll; and rake the Augean stables with a fresh spurt of cleaning waters that would see the gerontocracy in situ today lose its deposit and its meal-ticket.

But one also fears to hold one’s breath in favour of the day when commonsense would prevail among the arrogant, the apathetic and the afraid.

Best then, fellow citizen, to ignore the baying of the hounds on the other side of the barricades and – in times such as these – do your best... rather than hold your peace.

I for one do hereby add my assent to the still, small voice that daily grows – not diminishes, but enlarges and augments itself against all reasoning such as “let’s give Ranil a chance” – to a clarion call that urges (together with the BASL and other agents of citizen sovereignty and constitutional guarantees) that we need government to “let the protest be and let the dissenters go free”.               

| Editor-at-Large of LMD |

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