By Lynn Ockersz
There’s humanity as well for sure,
Deep down in the Sri Lankan heart,
And it erupts in flamboyant flares,
Especially when disaster hits hard,
And of this not-easy-to-come-by trait,
The world had the evidence of its eyes,
When that ill-fated bus plying a rocky track,
Took a death leap from a dizzying height,
Spilling innocent blood all around,
But many a life was saved in the nick of time,
Thanks to the hard-pressed folk of the land,
Who thronged the disaster site,
With outstretched helping hands,
Long before blame-game busybodies from on high,
Thought of getting into the act,
Of going through the motions of giving care,
And cutting a figure in the camera eye.
Pandemic Policies and Politics in South Asia:
A Book Review
By Kalinga Tudor Silva
Jayathilake, N., De Silva, S. and Amarajeewa, A. eds. Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic for South Asia: Civil Society Perspectives. Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in collaboration with Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict, 2021.
This edited volume published by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on various countries in the South Asian region. This volume differs from much of the emerging body of literature on politics and governance of the pandemic in that it seeks to capture civil society perspectives relating to this public health crisis and humanitarian emergency, with South Asia emerging as a major hotspot of the global pandemic. This is timely and particularly relevant as the pandemic is still unfolding in many parts of South Asia and the related horror stories triggered by the humanitarian crisis in India are presently making global media headlines. As of now, we in Sri Lanka have our own struggle against the virus, with the so-called ‘new year cluster’ attributed to related cultural festivities and the emergence of a more virulent new strain of the virus, triggering a possible third wave of the pandemic. Given all these considerations, this new book deserves our close attention and critical reflection.
The book consists of nine chapters. The first three chapters deal with broader regional and multilateral issues relating to containing the pandemic in South Asia. The remaining chapters review specific country experiences in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Afghanistan, respectively. The book sets the tone for the volume as follows:
“COVID 19 pandemic is perhaps the most daunting challenge that South Asia has confronted so far in the new millennium. With the outbreak of the pandemic, many unprecedented developments are in motion in South Asia, affecting almost all aspects of social, economic and political life in the region…… South Asia will never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic.” (p. ix).
Opening chapter by Uyangoda, traces the retreat of democracy and rise of what he calls “executive authoritarianism” particularly in India and Sri Lanka along with the onset of the pandemic. It highlights the systematic way the new regimes in the two countries have consolidated their power deploying exigencies relating to the containment of the pandemic as an excuse to advance authoritarian tendencies, suppress democratic opposition and curtail minority rights in these two of the oldest democracies in Asia. Citizenship Act in India passed immediately before the onset of the pandemic and 20th amendment in Sri Lanka introduced during the pandemic are clear examples of the authoritarian turn in the two countries. Subsequent developments, however, show that playing politics with pandemics, is a rather dangerous game as failures, mismanagement and the resulting public anger can turn against the same rulers who emerged through the pandemic as clearly demonstrated in the outcome of recent elections in India. Also, it must be noted here that the social and political history of epidemic outbreaks indicate that they do not necessarily promote the advancement of autocratic tendencies. They can also result in mass mobilization accompanied by increased democratic participation. For instance, the famous malaria epidemic of 1934-35 did contribute to the politicization of rural masses in Sri Lanka through the mediation of both nationalist and leftist political leaders and the development of the Sri Lankan welfare state as pointed out by several researchers (Jones 2015, Silva 2014, Jayasuriya 2000).
In the second chapter, Joseph and Pandey examine how far the pandemic has contributed towards development of regional cooperation for addressing a formidable common challenge. In their view even though some efforts at multilateral cooperation were made by the South Asian leaders through zoom meetings held at the onset of the pandemic, in the end “each country continued to battle the virus on its own” (P. 31) due to structural problems in SAARC and a variety of unresolved bilateral issues. Even though the chapter says that “there is a realization that COVID-19 is a collective crisis and combating this required coordinated action”, it has not been translated into a concrete program of action at the regional level. The subsequent chapter by Suba Chandran and others argue that the pandemic has served to reinforce conflict dynamics in the region, whether we are talking about bilateral issues between the countries or internal conflict dynamics within each country such as ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.
Country-specific analysis in chapters four to nine provide empirical support to many of the arguments provided in the previous chapters. Chapter Four on Sri Lanka by Senanayake and others, for instance, points to the militarization of the pandemic response in Sri Lanka and its implications for engagement with minorities and civil society. While the military did play a useful role in terms of expanding health infrastructure and managing quarantine facilities at a time when the state encountered serious resource constraints, the use of military intelligence in contact tracing, the privacy issues encountered by suspected patients and their contacts and any resulting stigmatization processes particularly where socially marginalized vulnerable people on the other side of the law such as substance users are exposed to the pandemic, pose serious problems from the angles of human rights, trust building and compliance. The chapter notes that the pandemic response in Sri Lanka involved the formation of three different task forces set up under section 33 of the constitution. The members of these task forces were handpicked by the president through his inner network of allies and were directly reporting to him with no clear guidelines about the tasks assigned to them and with no accountability to the public at large. What the chapter does not point out is that these politically constituted task forces totally exclude experts in several relevant fields such as social sciences, social work, law and gender relations or any credible representatives of civil society. As a result, when it came to sensitive issues such as addressing the legitimate demand for burial rights by Muslims, task forces did not have any knowledgeable persons who could express their professional opinions on the subject and address the problem sympathetically and following appropriate public health guidelines, also countering unfounded claims by the so-called ‘patriotic scientists’ (Rambukwella 2020).
Chapters on other countries in the region clearly illustrate that civil society is engaged in the struggle against COVID-19 side by side with the state agencies and the private sector in a variety of challenging circumstances and under different political regimes. It is increasingly evident that the struggle against the pandemic is multi-pronged, carried out at economic, social, political, and epidemiological fronts at the same time, long-term and needs to be regularly updated and adapted to changing circumstances. The role of civil society organizations ranges from fund raising, relief services targeting underserved communities in particular, rights-based interventions, advocacy work on behalf of affected people such as women, people with disabilities, migrant workers, urban poor and people in different stages of exposure to the disease, treatment, quarantine and recovery processes. While law enforcement and policing do have a role to play in disease prevention and control, a community-based approach informed by evidence and supported by community leaders at various levels is necessary to promote community mobilization and preparedness, healthy behaviours, compliance, and satisfactory adjustment to the new normal. A purely statist approach to contain the pandemic carried out with a cohort of loyalists, political henchmen and yes men and not guided by a critical reflection on evidence and community responses is bound to fail at this crucial moment when decisions made can make or break the future of humanity.
Jayasuriya, L. (2000). Welfarism and Politics in Sri Lanka: Experiences of a Third World Welfare State. Perth: University of Western Australia.
Jones, M. (2015). Sri Lankan Path to Health for All from the Colonial Period to Alma Ata. In A. Medcalf et al. eds. Health for All: The Journey of Universal Health Coverage. Hyderabad: Blackswan.
Rambukwella, Harshana. (2020). Patriotic Science: The Coronavirus Pandemic, Nationalism, and Indigeneity. University of Zurich Political Geography blog, June 3, 2020.
Silva, K.T. (2014). Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka. Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
Gammanpila’s proposal for ‘grading system’ for Ministers timely
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) is a constituent of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led coalition. The PHU is represented in the Cabinet of ministers by its leader and Attorney-at-Law, Udaya Gammanpila. One-time Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) heavyweight Gammanpila secured recognition for the breakaway faction, PHU, on Oct 14, 2020, two months after the last general election. The Election Commission altogether recognised six political parties, including the PHU. They were registered in terms of the powers vested in the Commission, under Section 7(4) and (5) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, No. 01 of 1981.
The JHU contested its first general election, in April 2004, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The JHU secured nine seats. After switching sides, on multiple occasions, it is now a constituent of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the main Opposition party in the Parliament. The former JHU representative in the cabinet, Patali Champika Ranawaka, now spearheads ‘hathalisthunwani senankaya’ (43rd Division) – a political movement meant to challenge the incumbent government.
Ranawaka, who had served the cabinets of Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, quit the JHU, in early Dec 2020, four months after the last general election.
In the run-up to the general election, in August 2020, Patali Champika Ranawaka’s one-time JHU colleague, PHU leader, Gammanpila, called for a system to grade ministers. Minister Gammanpila asserted that a grading system was required to ensure the proper functioning of the Cabinet of ministers.
Let me reproduce what lawyer Gammanpila said, in Sinhala, on July 14, 2020:
“The people believe a Cabinet of ministers, capable of serving under the leadership of hard-working President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, will be installed. Ministers must work. People should also know about that. Those unable to work should lose their ministerial portfolios. Therefore, I propose to introduce a grading system for ministers and release of the results every three months. If a minister became the last, in the grading system, for five consecutive times, it means the politician concerned failed to rectify the mistakes. In such a scenario, the minister should either resign or be removed by the President.”
Lawmaker Gammanpila further proposed: “The grading system should be based on handling of capital expenditure, recurrent expenditure, swift handling of problems, faced by the people, cooperation with public servants, timely response to audit queries, filling vacancies, conducting the public day, attending parliamentary sessions, participating in debates relevant to portfolios handled by the respective ministers and responding to media queries. People should propose new recommendations for the proposed grading system.”
At the time lawmaker Gammanpila made the above declaration, he hadn’t been a member of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first Cabinet of ministers, appointed immediately after the 2019 presidential election. On Nov 21, 2019, MP Gammanpila asked President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to consider him for a Cabinet portfolio as he realized the serious difficulties experienced by the new administration.
Gammanpila, in a brief letter, dated Nov 21, addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, copied to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that 38 former ministers sought Cabinet portfolios in the caretaker government. In addition to them, there were several district leaders expecting Cabinet portfolios, MP Gammanpila said finalising the list of 15 as agreed wouldn’t be an easy task.
Gammanpila added that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s original plan was to name a 10-member caretaker Cabinet. At the end, the new government appointed 16 ministers. Of them, the SLPP received 10 slots.
The remaining six positions were shared among the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), receiving two positions, and one each for the National Freedom Front (NFF), the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).
Gammanpila received a Cabinet portfolio in the wake of the last general election. The PHU leader holds the Energy Portfolio and is also the co-cabinet spokesperson.
Since the July 14, 2020 declaration, lawmaker Gammanpila hasn’t referred to the grading system for ministers. His cabinet colleagues hadn’t mentioned the matter Either. Obviously, the divisions it would cause in the government has kept everyone mum.
Perhaps, there should be a wider grading system, not only for ministers, but for political party leaders, and even those wielding power in other tiers of government, like the Provincial Councils, and local authorities. There shouldn’t be any dispute over PHU leader’s proposal that the grading system he proposed for ministers covered the concerned lawmakers conduct, both in and outside Parliament. However, the need for accountability, on the part of all lawmakers, even for their conduct before they entered Parliament, is of pivotal importance.
Prof. Herath responds to Ambanwela
Let me give you an example of how closely a section of the public followed issues at hand. Recently, the writer received a paper cutting of a story headlined, ‘SLC funds amounting to Rs 29 mn in US bank: SLC caught lying before COPE, ‘authored by him. The story published on April 9, 2021 dealt with how COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Chritha Herath pursued inquiries into corruption in the SLC. Along with that paper cutting, the writer also received paper cutting of an interview done by Tharindu Uduwegedera with former Additional Auditor General Lalith Ambanwela for the April 11 edition of ‘Anidda’. The sender, who didn’t identify himself/herself, questioned the integrity of incumbent COPE Chairman on the basis of his conduct as the Secretary to the Media Ministry.
Ambanwela, who was attacked with acid, in May 2002, over an audit investigation in respect of corruption, involving a Central Province Education Director, levelled quite a serious allegation at Prof. Herath. Ambanwela questioned the rationale in making Prof. Herath Chairman of the Parliamentary Watchdog Committee, in spite of him turning a blind eye to specific corrupt activities brought to his notice by the Auditor General’s Department, over a period of time. Ambanwela accused Prof. Herath of not taking action as regards serious cases of corruption at the State Printing Corporation. He much respected retired public servant alleged that Prof. Herath did nothing when the then Chairman of the State Printing Corporation transferred over Rs 40 mn to an account of a relative.
The Island raised the issue at hand with Prof. Herath, who strongly denied Ambanwela’s accusation. Prof. Herath said: “I didn’t keep quiet about revelations made by the Auditor General’s Department. Within a week after COPE brought the matter to my notice, the Chairman concerned was removed. The then COPE Chairman Dew Gunasekera was informed of the action taken. Further information can be obtained from former COPE Chairman Gunasekera.”
Prof. Herath said that he deeply regretted the unsubstantiated accusations made by Ambanwela. Prof. Herath, in a twitter message, issued in Sinhala, denied Ambanwela’s claims. Prof. Herath’s swift response to the retired public servant’s accusations should be appreciated. A person with questionable past cannot, under any circumstances, chair COPE or COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or PFC (Public Finance Committee).
Regardless of Prof. Herath’s denial of Ambanwela’s accusation, let me briefly discuss how the latter explained political interference, in relation to the audit process. Ambanwela’s explanation, given in response to Tharindu Uduwegedera’s query, should be examined against the backdrop of lawmaker Gammanpila’s once proposed grading system for ministers. Successive governments had done precious little to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities.
Alleging that some politicians participated in COPE and COPA proceedings with a view to dilute the Watchdog Committee’s reports, Ambanwela claimed that some represented the interests of those promoting various deals. Ambanwela cited the deal on leasing out a building owned by Upali Jayasinghe (former actress Sabitha Perera’s husband) at No 288, Rajagiriya-Kotte, Jayewardenepura Road, as a notorious example to prove politicians/governments colluding with business interests. Ambanwela made a no-nonsense assessment of the deal as the senior AG Department official who handled that particular inquiry.
The Auditor General’s Department report on the building deal, prepared by Ambanwela has been submitted to the COPA before the finalisation of the controversial agreement. Ambanwela, in the course of COPA proceedings, chaired by the then Chairman Lasantha Alagiyawanna warned Agriculture Ministry Secretary B. Wijeratne not to sign the agreement until COPA addressed the issue at hand. Ambanwela had warned of dire consequences if the Agriculture Ministry went ahead with the agreement. Ambanwela quoted the then lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake (JVP National List) as having said that the proposed agreement was a serious case of corruption. However, when Ambanwela urged Alagiyawanna, who represented the SLFP, not to finalize the deal, the lawmaker asserted such a decision couldn’t be taken as the Cabinet of ministers already had approved it.
Ambanwela revealed that in spite of him being an official, he had no qualms in declaring in the audit report pertaining to the Jayasinghe building deal that it was a decision taken by the Cabinet of Ministers without critical analysis. If Lasantha Alagiyawanna, in his capacity as COPA Chairman, made the right intervention, losses could have been avoided. The total value of the deal was over Rs.1.3 bn.
COPE, COPA and PFC reports issued since the last parliamentary election proved, without uncertainty, that successive governments ruined the national economy. The country would have been in a far stronger position to face the Covid-19 challenge if successive governments ensured financial discipline. If one examines all reports issued by the above-mentioned Watchdog Committees, all governments, including the incumbent administration failed pathetically to follow laid down procedures, thereby causing massive losses to the national economy.
Evaluating an administration
The last presidential election was conducted in Nov 2019. The parliamentary election followed in August 2020. The electorate overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP, in both instances, with the SLPP securing a staggering 145 seats – just five short of a two-thirds majority. Without doubt, the SLPP’s performance is the best since the introduction of the Proportional Representation (PR) system. The UNP obtained 5/6 of the seats at the 1977 general election under the first-past-the-post system. As lawmaker Gammanpila called for public proposals as regards a grading system for ministers, perhaps it would be pertinent to rank governments/political parties on the basis of points scored by ministers and members of Parliament in terms of a grading system. In other words, a proper grading system should reflect genuine public opinion.
Let me examine the conduct of Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge in the wake of Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Asela Gunawardena’s May Day declaration of Piliyandala as an isolated police area due to the growing Covid-19 threat there. Within hours, Lokuge got the isolation order removed. Subsequent to his intervention, the isolation order was restricted to just five grama sevaka areas.
One-time UNP Minister Lokuge switched his allegiance to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006. Since then, he remained with the UPFA/SLPP and received the Transport portfolio, following the last general election.
Minister Lokuge got away with his high handed actions. Lokuge jeopardized the government counter measures against the spread of Covid-19 purely for parochial reasons and, in spite of widespread condemnation, he continued to defend his right to intervene on behalf of the Piliyandala electorate. The deployment of police in Covid-19 protective gear to carry away those in public places, not wearing face masks and other violations, on the basis they posed a threat to the community, seemed silly when the likes of Minister Lokuge walked freely about even after some of his staff tested positive.
Where would Minister Lokuge be if he was subjected to a proper grading system? In quite a revealing interview with Panuka Rajapaksa, of Hiru TV, on Sunday (9), the Minister reiterated his callous response to the growing Covid threat. Declaring his right to intervene, the Colombo District lawmaker faulted officials responsible for implementing Covid-19 counter measures. The Minister blamed it all on the DGHS. Thanks to a section of the media, particularly Hiru TV, the public are fully aware of how Piliyandala strongman Lokuge, and those under his political command, brought the entire government into disrepute. Unfortunately, the government refrained from taking remedial measures. Perhaps, the SLPP didn’t want to admit how irresponsible its senior members are. The DGHS never explained how his isolation order on Piliyandala/Kesbewa was unceremoniously removed by Minister Lokuge through his clout. The Minister’s actions, and the failure on the part of the government to take tangible measures to protect residents of Piliyandala/Kesbewa, proved beyond doubt the government still played politics with the issue at hand.
Having cancelled May Day rallies, citing the Covid-19 threat, the government succumbed to Minister Lukuge’s, what can be termed as, reckless politics. There is no harm in calling the same politics of Idiocy. However, Lokuge’s reckless behaviour should be studied, also taking into consideration the highly contentious decision to allow Indians into the country, both on holiday and for quarantine purposes, until the Covid-19 situation here took an extremely dangerous turn. The government announced plans to block Indians crossing the maritime boundary while allowing visitors through the Bandaranaike International Airport. What did the government expect to achieve by much publicised religious ceremonies in support of Covid-19 fight, especially in the wake of the likes of Minister Lokuge jeopardizing the overall effort?
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Health Minister Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi and other big shots, who set an extremely bad example by consuming ‘Dhammika Peniya’, depicted as a tonic prepared with the intervention of the Gods, issued instructions to members of Parliament as regards the Covid-19 counter measures. Close on the heels of the Speaker’s instructions for members to adhere with health guidelines, both in and outside Parliament, the government acknowledged the tonic touted as a miracle cure, is not so. The Health Minister and all her parliamentary colleagues who shared Kali amma’s tonic in Parliament should be ashamed of themselves. Their actions provided tacit approval for the ‘Dhammika Peniya.’
Perhaps the Energy Minister and co-cabinet spokesperson should grade those who accepted the miracle tonic of fraudster Dhammika Bandara of Hettimulla, Kegalle.
Throwing pots, containing what faith healer Eliyantha White called miracle water, by Minister Wanniarachchi, as well as her colleagues Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga, late last year didn’t have the promised impact. White, who claims to have mystic powers with many VIP clients, including foreigners, got Wanniarachchi to smash a pot, containing his special water, into the Kalu Ganga to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, footage on the social media showed.
At the time of White’s intervention, the number of infections was over 11,000 and 22 deaths.
Gamnmanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga were both filmed throwing pots into the Kelani River at two different locations. White also dropped a pot containing his own miracle water.
Now, the number of infections is at over 125,000 cases and over 800 deaths. The government engaged in some quite ludicrous projects as the situation deteriorated. Those responsible for the overall government effort against the rampaging epidemic never ensured a proper investigation into the second Covid-19 eruption. Did they suppress the investigation even after outgoing Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, ordered no holds barred investigation into what he called the ‘Brandix cluster,’?
Livera issued specific instructions on Oct 27, 2000, in the wake of a 39-year-old female worker, at the Minuwangoda Brandix facility, being detected on Oct 4, 2020, as the first detected in a random test as the origin of the second wave of COVID-19 after almost five months since the countrywide curfew was lifted. Later, an attempt was made to fault Ukrainians for the second eruption. In their haste to suppress the investigation, a group of Ukrainian personnel, here on the invitation of the Air Force, to inspect AN 32 transport aircraft, too, was falsely implicated. What happened to the criminal investigation sought by AG de Livera?
The deterioration of the national economy is not an overnight development. Careful examination of Watchdog Committee reports, pertaining to state institutions, revealed how unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence over the years deteriorated the national economy to such an extent, the country is facing unprecedented challenges. The Covid-19 crisis, in a way, has come in good stead for those responsible to blame it on the raging pandemic.
Why isn’t the government pursuing a criminal case against those responsible for the swindle, costing over a billion rupees to the state in the leasing of the Jayasinghe building? Is it because of another hidden deal between government and Opposition politicians? Is it because the same political mastermind behind the bond scams was also behind the Jayasinghe building lease deal?
The Re-defining Moment
By Lynn Ockersz
The Human caring to look at himself,
Draws back in great dread,
From the bruised face that presents itself:
‘Is this me, whom they said,
From society is never
In anguish he asks himself;
‘Didn’t they say that humanity,
Is my defining essence?’
‘What stuff and nonsense’,he tells himself:
‘For, isn’t the rampaging plague,
That’s taking lives in the millions,
Teaching me that I must live,
Only for mine and myself?,
Don’t I see everyone else,
As a cadaver of sorts in a diseased state,
Whom I must avoid like the Black Death?
By doing this am I not standing,
The famous social being theory on its heads?’
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