Priorities

Last week, a large rally took place in Colombo. Villagers from Pānama, a coastal village in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, were demanding the return of their land currently occupied by the Air Force, and were in the city to hand over a petition signed by 20,000 to the Presidential Secretariat. This is a struggle long struggle, for years out of sight, out of mind, by citizens who have little to nothing by way of livelihoods, belongings or hope. Their lands continue to be occupied by the military. They have tried multiple avenues, reached out to multiple levels of government, demonstrating an incredible patience and resilience. They have suffered indignity, callous indifference and insensitivity. In Colombo, Police at the rally photographed them like suspects engaged in some of criminality. The only threat they posed was to bring shame to a government that since coming to power with the promise of reform and redress, hasn’t lived up to expectations. News updates over SMS alerted subscribers to a burning tower in London. There was no mention or coverage of this rally.

On the subject of the fire in London, the Foreign Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a day after a horrible blaze destroyed an apartment complex in the city, published consular contact details and even the mobile phone numbers of key staff. No Sri Lankans were reported to have been in or near the building, or in any way affected by the inferno. Conversely, to date, the MFA and the Minister are yet to issue any information around consular access, hotlines and services for the tens of thousands of our citizens in and around Qatar. For whatever reason, expatriates in London who aren’t affected by a localised blaze get more attention and care from the Foreign Minister and Ministry than a vastly greater number of migrant labour deeply anxious and hostage to the growing volatility of the Qatari region.

As evident from what I have penned over the past two weeks, when catastrophic flooding hit Sri Lanka, the Minister in charge of disaster management, not in the country at the time, decided to spend a day or two in Dubai for indeterminable reasons on his way back to Sri Lanka. We have a government that let lapse a vital insurance scheme that helps pay compensation and damages for citizens who are victims of large-scale natural disasters. This money now has to come from a government already steeped in debt. Hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign funding directly to government around early warning and disaster risk reduction has had no visible impact. All the relevant officials and the Minister continue in office, with no contrition.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto, released late December 2014, noted that he would undertake an investigation into “the import of super luxury motor vehicles, racing cars and motor cycles” and that “action will be taken to recover pertinent taxes”. In 2016 alone, well over a billion rupees were allocated to purchase brand new SUVs for MPs. This sum of money was announced in a year that saw catastrophic flooding, a devastating landslide in Aranayake and the munitions dump disaster in Salawa, leaving over two thousand homes and businesses severely damaged. Education, infant milk and food subsidies, government scholarships and the development of health infrastructure, including a new cancer ward, all cost less than the allocation for the new SUVs.  Worse, many SUVs were resold by the MPs who received them duty free.

The PM last week noted that the Government will bring in new laws to stop religious and ethnic violence if needed. Sections 290, 290A, 291, 291A, 291B of the Penal Code already address this issue, aside from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. The IGP in fact recently reminded his staff of commitments under the ICCPR to arrest the spread of religious intolerance. But we don’t need to get too technical in all this. In calling for new laws, the PM seems to have forgotten that a very public arrest order to bring the head of the BBS, Gnanasara Thero, to book, has not been executed for close upon a month. Another arrest warrant was issued last week. And yet, the Thero has disappeared into thin air and with complete impunity. The Police – all of them, all over the country – apparently cannot find him. Meanwhile, Muslim owned businesses and mosques, across the country, continue to be destroyed, desecrated or damaged. Blithely indifferent, the government issues statements around tolerance, calls for new laws around hate speech and reminds Police officers of their legal obligations.

Colombo is reeling under a water, sanitation and waste management architecture that dates to colonial times and hasn’t been upgraded to keep pace with the city’s explosion in infrastructure and inhabitants. Under successive governments, urban development is sold as leading to a green, clean, high-rise city. The only problem is that the affluence and good life many aspire to, is being replaced by the stark reality of untreated effluent and garbage. Meethotamulla brought centre and forward the fact that the billions of rupees allotted for and spent on urban development, mostly anchored to the Financial City project and high-end apartment complexes, have utterly failed to address challenges around waste and garbage disposal that the CMC is already struggling to cope with. A cosmetic veneer geared towards investment and votes hides, quite literally, a rotting mess within.

Last week, news of an evil spell ostensibly made against the President on a copper plate made front page news in a leading English daily. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, the next day, the President himself sought to assure everyone that he was not afraid of evil spells, as part of an official address at a public gathering. By way of comparison, a President unafraid of evil spells is seemingly running scared of establishing the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), despite legislation passed in Parliament in August 2016.

I could go on, but yahapalanaya’s congenital inability, since January 2015, to prioritise what is really important risks everything it promised and on paper, stood for. Many would attribute this to the warp and whoof of Sri Lanka’s zero sum, parochial and partisan political culture, which arguably strangles the best efforts around reform and course correction. Electorally, this alienates in particular a younger demographic and also minorities. Without the vote of both, neither President nor PM would be in power today. When young citizens feel or perceive they are doing more than government around disaster relief for example, their anger translates into apathy, disengagement or a vote against government and what they don’t want to see the continuation of. When minorities feel or perceive they are being persecuted and with impunity, parallels are made with how they suffered under the previous regime and how little has changed. When the families of the disappeared and missing endure hellish heat, torrential rain, incredible indignity and hopelessness to just ask for answers that were promised to them months ago, the seeds of future conflict are sown by creating a vacuum extremist domestic and foreign elements, to further their own agenda, can easily exploit.  When MPs and their convoys take over our roads, blinding other drivers, horning incessantly, breaking all road rules and darting around pedestrians as if they were skittles, the government itself, entirely independent of anything done or said by the more vociferous elements of the previous regime, rapidly and perhaps even irretrievably loses public trust, goodwill and support.

A crisis of prioritisation may well be the defining feature historians choose to focus on when studying the period this government was in power. Increasingly, all signs seem to indicate that time will be just a single-term in office.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 18 may 2017.

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