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Midweek Review

We Must Shift to an Inclusive-Participatory Approach Towards Addressing COVID-19 and its Fallout

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By Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva

Sri Lanka has been working with a centrally implemented and a state centric approach to COVID-19 from the inception of the epidemic. Judging by the slow progress of the pandemic in Sri Lanka during what is broadly referred to as the first wave, it worked well in terms of identifying those with the virus, contact tracing, developing and implementing quarantine operations, introduction of preventive practices and broadly in terms of monitoring and control of the pandemic. This was reflected in the low prevalence of the COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality during the first seven months of the onset of the disease in Sri Lanka. Now that we are in the threshold of a possible community transmission of the disease with related challenges, we need to rethink about our approach to control the disease and minimize its fallout in the society, economy and the body politics in the country.

This is because a purely state-centric approach implemented by the health workers with ample support of the police and the security forces has its limitations when dealing with a large number of infections in multiple clusters some connected with economic nerve centres in the country as well as its wide ranging social and economic fallout affecting livelihoods, marketing arrangements, social cohesion, trust in systems and democratic governance in general. In order to address these challenges effectively, we need to have a broader community participation at all levels, inclusive decision making and a two-way flow of information in place of a purely top down communication pattern that dictates do’s and don’ts for people at all levels without having a sound understanding of ground realities and how the decisions made at the top will affect the various stakeholders, including the people who are most vulnerable to infection and related complications of a life threatening nature. A consultative process involving a broader spectrum of stakeholders is necessary in order to deal with a constantly evolving pandemic and its wide-ranging impacts.

Why a Change of Approach is Necessary at this Stage?

In dealing with the problem at hand we have to learn from Sri Lanka’s own rich experience in addressing massive public health emergencies in the past. For instance, the devastating malaria epidemic of 1934 to 35 that actually led to the emergence of several progressive social and political movements in Sri Lanka, including the Leftist movement itself. Many emerging political leaders in the country at the time, such as Dr. N.M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Philip Gunawardena and A. Rathnayake actually grasped the grass root level realities and living conditions of a wide array of local communities through their direct participation in relief work in the affected areas. This, in turn, shaped their political thinking and contribution to the development of Sri Lankan welfare state in time to come.i While we have to understand that COVID-19 is a different kettle of fish altogether when it comes to control and prevention, with restriction of movement and social distancing as a prerequisite for the control of the new disease, it is nevertheless the case that informed decision making is necessary in responding to a health emergency of this magnitude and social justice must be ensured in reaching out to the most vulnerable.

With a significant spread of the corona virus and related challenges particularly among vulnerable groups such as the urban poor, female garment workers, informal sector workers, prisoners, nattamis, fishermen, elderly and the like, quite apart from handling the disease burden, the critically ill, diagnostic and curative services, including ICU beds, the affected families and communities will need a whole lot of other services as well. This includes the need for counselling, social connectivity, livelihood support, food provisioning, relief services and addressing social issues such as stigma, discrimination and rights of patients and their family members too. This is where community participation is essential at all levels in order identify and overcome the gaps and deficits in the systems in place and establish a feedback mechanism whereby decision making responds to the felt needs from below as well as the need for compliance with disease prevention guidelines formulated by the health authorities.

Also it has to be noted here that blaming the upsurge of the pandemic on these vulnerable groups will be tantamount to blaming the victims. This is because they have become exposed to the disease largely due to circumstances beyond their control, circumstances imposed upon them by the institutions or social settings in which they are part of. The relevant organizations must be accountable and involved in identifying remedies for the problems encountered by the specific groups of vulnerable people within their ambit. As some commentators on the pandemic elsewhere in the world have pointed out, vulnerability cannot be narrowly defined in demographic or public health terms alone, as new clusters of vulnerability have emerged side by side with established social fault lines in the wake of this devastating pandemic all over the world.

As of now, the COVID-19 response in Sri Lanka relies entirely on a combination of a widespread use of electronic and print media for reaching out to the public with the latest information and legal enforcement of the relevant interventions. While this has its advantages in responding to the pandemic at a time when messages have to be disseminated to the public instantly expecting them to fall in line, this is unlikely to be successful in the long run unless there is an engaged social process beyond one-way communication leading to a broader community acceptance of the conduct proposed and established through a dialogue that also seeks to respond to ground level realities and problems encountered by people in implementing the safe practices introduced.

Effective social mobilization and broader community participation are necessary for prevention of COVID-19 infections and more importantly in containing the social and economic fallout of a rapid disease transmission. For effective control of the disease, all people with disease symptoms or have been in contact with possible infected persons must come forward to the authorities and get themselves tested or go through quarantine as required by the circumstances. This can be effectively ensured when the number of cases is small and the flow of information from the affected people to the relevant authorities is unrestrained. However, when the disease breaks out in a large number of clusters simultaneously the process of contact tracing becomes too complicated also due to stigmatization, criminalization of certain behaviours and an increased tendency towards a punitive approach to public health interventions. Potential vulnerability of health workers and other service providers including security forces personnel for infection due to lack of safety equipment or the need to deal with potentially infected persons who might not divulge their exposure to infection are other complications that may affect the disease response at a time of rapid transmission. While a suitable legal framework is certainly needed for addressing some of the relevant issues, beyond legal obligations we need a high level of trust and a sense of community responsibility among all parties concerned. The more we try to enforce laws and dispense punishments without simultaneously developing a sense of community responsibility and a sense of social justice, the more we may encounter transgressors who want to bypass laws and seek to pass through loop holes in law enforcement in order to attain their private goals at the risk of harming the community at large.

 

Economic Fallout

COVID-19 will certainly be a major blow to the Sri Lankan economy. This is because almost all our foreign exchange earning enterprises will be or have been adversely affected by the global pandemic. Tourism will be one of the most adversely affected as international tourists are unlikely to visit Sri Lanka and most other tourist destinations in the near future. Secondly, many of the overseas migrant workers have started returning to Sri Lanka and some are stranded overseas without any kind of social protection due to loss of employment, air travel restrictions and high cost of limited flights available in the wake of the pandemic. Migrant work overseas will not be a viable option for many people for a foreseeable future. The closure of certain garment factories following the outbreak of the epidemic initially in the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda have added to the economic burden of the country, hit another leading foreign exchange earner and resulted in livelihood losses for many male and female workers. This is an unprecedented macro-economic crisis for the Sri Lankan economy as a whole. Moreover, this is a personal disaster for the affected people, having reached a seemingly dead end situation where the livelihoods they were engaged in would no longer be feasible.

 

This situation calls for a serious reflection and collaborative action involving the state, private sector and any support groups among the relevant people, including civil society organizations themselves. Self-employment and micro-enterprise may be one option that should be explored particularly with returnees from overseas employment due to their international experience, any savings they may have accumulated over time but severely depleted due to COVID-19 related loss of income also utilizing concessionary bank loans, start-ups and training provided where necessary. All these require a serious assessment of where we are, possible state, private-sector and civil society partnerships and picking up the fallout from the pandemic and proceeding in completely new directions where necessary.

While it is always good to build on our own experiences where possible, there are also some important lessons we can learn from COVID-19 response in some other countries as well. The successful COVID-19 control in the urban low-income community called Dharavi in Mumbai, India, for instance, has received worldwide attention and admiration from international organizations such as WHO.ii Unlike the rest of India where the pandemic has spread like bush fire, the crowded community of Dharavi with limited water supply and sanitation facilities and congested housing did manage to gradually bring down infection due to a combination factors such as good leadership, active collaboration between the Mumbai municipal authority (BMC), community groups, private sector agencies in the city and all categories of health workers in the municipality, community workers including social workers. In an approach titled ‘chasing the virus’, community members took the initiative in encouraging fellow community members with symptoms to go for PCR tests and the contacts of COVID-19 positive people to go through quarantine in a makeshift quarantine centre established in a small playground, the only open space available in this crowded and poorly serviced community. The private sector agencies in the city contributed funds for running the quarantine facility and provided food and dry rations to the community members throughout the lockdown.

Several civil society organizations in Indonesia have developed strategies for digital marketing of farm products in order to overcome travel and marketing restrictions imposed by the pandemic. This has involved the development of simple Apps that can be easily used by ordinary farmers on their smart phones for identifying and contacting possible buyers in the local areas. In some instances, this has also made it possible to overcome market monopolies of middlemen, minimize post-harvest losses, reduce the time-lag between farm gate and outlets and empower women producers and small time traders. The important point is that producers and consumers equally demobilized by the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have developed innovative responses in addressing the new challenges they face. These innovations have come from creative partnerships among different agencies including the state, private sector and civil society organizations. I am also aware of similar initiatives in Sri Lanka by organizations such as the Women’s Development Centre in Kandy.

 

Suggestions

In order to develop a participatory approach to COVID-19 pandemic, I propose the following strategies:

First, broadening the scope of the national task force for control of COVID-19 to include other important stakeholders including civil society, private sector and a diversity of social actors and researchers drawn from relevant fields such as economics, social sciences and community health. This forum should have a capacity to understand, respect and respond effectively to social and cultural diversity in the country. Another possibility would be to establish a number of smaller committees with a diversified membership with participatory decision making and information feedback mechanisms supporting decision making on critical issues.

Second, an assessment that seeks to understand the reasons for the higher exposure to the pandemic by certain vulnerable groups such as residents in urban low income communities and flats, fish traders, garment workers, prisoners and construction workers, identify their health care and other socio-economic needs and explore possible ways of facilitating their economic recovery and livelihood development. Similar assessments will also be needed regarding the new police cluster of infection and the navy cluster before that in order to minimize their exposure to infection safeguard these frontline workers.

Third, identify civil society organizations including CBOs that are currently engaged in services to the communities affected by the pandemic, initiate a dialogue with them about possible ways of improving their services to vulnerable groups in order to facilitate prevention, care and economic and social recovery.

Fourth, critically examine available information about patterns of infections in diverse population groups so as to minimize infections and prevent the emergence of new clusters of infections.

Fifth, secure the inputs of those who recovered from the disease so as to tap their experiential knowledge about the disease and its cure, prevention of stigma and discrimination and identify ways and means of facilitating their livelihood recovery.

Sixth, efforts should also be made to revive the program of community policing where necessary from the angle of raising public awareness of health and safety issues and lockdown and quarantine procedures and securing public participation in maintaining law and order as well as in prevention and health promotion work.

Finally, a 24-hour telephone hotline must be established in Sinhala, Tamil and English for people who seek to get advice and clarifications about any health problems and interventions related to the pandemic. The public should also be encouraged to report any stigma or discrimination they experience due to infection or contact with potentially infected using the same hotline.

—————-

For a detailed contextual analysis of the social history of this epidemic see Silva, K.T. Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka. Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2014. For a novelist reflection on how the malaria epidemic touched the lives and political imagination of rural people, see Sumithra Rahubadda. Thammanna. Nugegoda: Platform for Alternate Culture, 2019.

 

. The author is thankful to Veranga Wickramasinghe for drawing his attention to this example. 



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Midweek Review

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s legacy

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Air Force personnel carry TNA leader R. Sampanthan’s coffin from a Y 12 transport aircraft to a waiting hearse at the Palaly air base. On the government directive, the SLAF deployed the Y 12 on July 4 morning to move the coffin from the Ratmalana air base to Palaly. On the following day, the Y 12 took the coffin from Palaly to China Bay, for the conduct of the last rites in Trincomalee on Sunday (07), after public veneration in his home electorate.

The TNA (Parliament recognizes TNA as ITAK [Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi]) won 22 seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces under Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s leadership at the April 2004 General Election. It was their best performance. That achievement was made at the height of the LTTE’s conventional military power. By the time the TNA contested the next general election, the LTTE didn’t exist, hence the drop in their performance. The TNA only managed to secure 14 seats at the April 2010 General Election as the Tigers were no longer there to stuff ballot boxes on its behalf. At the August 2015 General Election, the TNA obtained 16 seats but suffered quite a setback at the last parliamentary poll when it was reduced to 10 seats. What would be their fate at the next general election scheduled for 2025? Against the backdrop of Sampanthan’s demise, would TNA think afresh and formulate new strategy or continue on the same path.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Just a few weeks before the 2015 presidential election, the late Rajavarothiam Sampanthan admitted that the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) freed his political party – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – from the clutches of the ruthless Tigers.

The lawyer-turned-politician wouldn’t have said so willingly under any circumstances. Never. Sampanthan, who led the alliance during a turbulent 23 years, had no option but to acknowledge the truth as the writer raised the issue at a special press conference called by the TNA at Hotel Janaki, Fife Road, Colombo 05 to announce its decision to back Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature at the 2015 presidential election (Declaring backing for MS, Sampanthan admits: War freed TNA from clutches of ruthless Tigers, The Island, Dec 31, 2014).

Sampanthan was flanked by the then Northern Provincial Councillor Dharmalingham Siddarthan (PLOTE leader), Vanni District MP Nadeshu Sivashakthi Annamalai (EPRLF), Vanni District MP Selvam Adaikkalanathan (TELO leader), Jaffna District MP Mavai Senathirajah (Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi leader) and its National List MP, M.A. Sumanthiran.

Sampanthan earlier declined to answer that question when the writer contacted him over the phone several weeks after the combined armed forces brought the war to an end on May 19, 2009. The Island raised the same issue again in January 2010 after Sampanthan declared the TNA’s support for the then General Sarath Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 presidential poll. The veteran politician side-stepped the issue but he couldn’t have declined to answer pointed questions at a major media briefing.

Canada-based D.B.S. Jeyaraj, perhaps the foremost Tamil political commentator, despite some grave blunders like openly claiming that the Tigers would turn the tide of war against the Army almost till the eleventh hour, posted The Island report on dbsjeyaraj.com on Dec 30, 2014, even before the print edition was available. He headlined the story ‘Sampanthan Admits that TNA has been Freed from the Clutches of the Ruthless Military Organization LTTE.’

Why did Sampanthan take so long to appreciate the armed forces’ victory over the LTTE? Interestingly, no other local print or electronic media reported Sampanthan’s much belated declaration on the LTTE.

At the time the TNA declared its support for Maithripala Sirisena, its parliamentary group consisted of 14 MPs. The TNA was the third largest group in Parliament. The first, second and fourth places were held by the UPFA (SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance), UNF (UNP-led United National Front) and DNA (JVP-led Democratic National Alliance), respectively.

The Island sought explanation from Sampanthan as regards the following issues: (1) Did the TNA probe its own conduct as a political party, particularly its 2001 controversial decision to recognise the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people (2) Why did the TNA ask the Tamil electorate to boycott the Nov 2005 presidential election (3) Circumstances leading to the TNA backing retired General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election.

Sampanthan sort of hesitated before he compared the situation before and after May 2009, when the war was brought to a successful conclusion.

The Trincomalee District lawmaker declared that both the government and the Opposition had the freedom because the LTTE no longer existed. Sampanthan stressed that the LTTE had been a ruthless militant organization. The MP grudgingly admitted that the TNA, too, had been freed from the clutches of the LTTE.

The TNA leader justified the recognition of the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people on the basis that both the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government and the UNP wanting to have talks with the group. That was a blatant lie. The LTTE had been on the offensive after taking the upper hand in fighting in the northern theatre.

Commenting on the Nov 2005 polls boycott, Sampanthan claimed that the Tamil electorate had no option but to abide by the LTTE directive. Sampanthan didn’t comment on the TNA having to issue that directive on behalf of the LTTE.

Without elaborating, Sampanthan referred to allegations regarding the UPFA engineering the LTTE’s decision.

The TNA Chief said that the Tamil community had to move on. People living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as well as other areas had faith in the TNA. Therefore, the party received the right to decide on their behalf.

Prez Polls boycott

In the wake of a joint declaration made by the LTTE-TNA combine to ensure Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the 2005 presidential polls, the writer contacted Sampanthan on the night of Nov 15, 2005. Sampanthan’s reaction was sought immediately after Batticaloa-based TNA lawmaker Joseph Pararajasingham confirmed the decision taken in consultation with the LTTE in Kilinochchi to call on Tamil voters to boycott the poll.

Sampanthan declared that there hadn’t been any developments after the Kilinochchi announcement. “Nothing worthwhile would be achieved by supporting either of the two leading candidates, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe.” Both Pararajasingham and Sampanthan declared that the Tamil speaking people were not interested in the election (CBK calls off last Cabinet meeting: TNA refuses to change poll boycott stance, The Island, Nov 16, 2005).

The LTTE-TNA decision was meant to engineer Wickremesinghe’s defeat. There cannot be any doubt about that. Those who had accused the Rajapaksas of bribing the LTTE to influence the polls boycott in mid-Nov 2005 should explain why the group resumed landmine attacks less than three weeks later. When the writer interviewed Kumaran Pathmanathan, or ‘KP’ as he was widely known, in late 2009, one-time the LTTE’s international weapons procurer declared the LTTE was sure of taking the upper hand in the north within two years. Pathmanathan, who had been in the custody of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) at that time he shed light on the LTTE’s thinking in the run-up to all-out war in August 2006.

The late Sampanthan knew what he was doing. He fully realized that the LTTE was dragging the Tamil community to a destructive war but went along with the despicable strategy. Lawmaker Sumanthiran, who had been seated with Sampanthan at the Janaki Hotel media briefing on Dec 30, 2014, recently commented on the 2005 polls boycott. The comment was made in the presence of President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Jaffna. The Presidential Media Division (PMD) quoted Sumanthiran as having told the gathering: “It is possible that the challenges in the North may have impeded your journey in 2005, a fact that I believe is now regretfully acknowledged by the people of the region.”

Sumanthiran may not have at least considered entering politics at the time the LTTE-TNA ordered the polls boycott. Sumanthiran, in a statement issued to coincide with the Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day this year, shamelessly contradicted Sampanthan’s stand on the LTTE announced on Dec 30, 2014.

The truth is the annihilation of the LTTE paved the way for the TNA to resume political activity. The late Sampanthan, in spite of being under tremendous pressure by the LTTE at that time, must be held accountable for utterly irresponsible decisions.

Unfortunately, the other political parties represented in Parliament never bothered to take up the TNA’s despicable anti-democratic actions. They conveniently turned a blind eye even after the European Election Observation Mission declared the partnership between the LTTE and the TNA resulted in the former openly stuffing ballot boxes on behalf of the latter. The EU made the disclosure in its report on the 2004 general election. The bombshell EU report on the general election conducted on April 02, 2004, released in Colombo on June 17, 2004, declared in no uncertain terms that the group secured 22 seats with the direct involvement of the LTTE. Leader of now defunct TULF V. Anandasangaree was the only politician to comment on the EU report (TULF leader applauds EU for unmasking LTTE proxy, The Island, June 23, 2004). All others remained silent. Actually, the Parliament should have taken up this issue. The media, too, ignored the EU comments on the despicable LTTE-TNA partnership. The late Sampanthan led the TNA at that time. Later, Sangaree told the writer that the LTTE engaged in large scale and systematic vote rigging to such an extent, the TNA’s 22 MPs had absolutely no moral right to serve as parliamentarians (Monitors should have called for fresh poll in North and East – TULF, The Island, June 26). Actually, the TNA should have been summoned by the Committee on Ethics and Privileges.

TNA’s role in ISGA initiative

Indian Premier Narendra Modi has condoled the demise of. Sampanthan. In an X post, the Prime Minister said: “My deepest condolences to the family and friends of veteran TNA leader R. Sampanthan. Will always cherish fond memories of meetings with him. He relentlessly pursued a life of peace, security, equality, justice and dignity for the Tamil nationals of Sri Lanka. He will be deeply missed by his friends and followers in Sri Lanka and India.”

In the post-LTTE era, the TNA should have examined its own conduct to identify its role in the destructive Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009) that only led to unnecessary further suffering by innocent people. India, where terrorism originated, should have studied the TNA role in the LTTE’s overall strategy.

The TNA at the behest of the LTTE, undermined the India-backed Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) arranged by Norway in February 2002. The TNA relentlessly supported the LTTE’s call for the institutionalization of the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) to facilitate the resumption of talks. The TNA took up ISGA with the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on LTTE’s behalf. The LTTE proxy went to the extent of threatening the government that the LTTE wouldn’t return to the negotiating table unless President Kumaratunga accepted the ISGA with powers to raise taxes, maintain law and order, control internal and external trade, negotiate foreign loans and the absolute control over marine and offshore resources of the adjacent seas and the undisputed power to regulate access.

The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003 following six rounds of talks with the government. That move, perhaps taken in consultation with the TNA, set the stage for the final war. The TNA can never disassociate itself from the LTTE’s murderous actions that corralled ordinary people as a human shield as part of its overall war strategy when it was being pursued by the security forces.

The TNA, until the very end, remained committed to the LTTE’s despicable strategy. Having granted the LTTE unprecedented status of sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, that party remained mum as the people were forced to retreat towards Mullivaikkal with the depleted LTTE fighting cadre. The TNA never publicly asked the LTTE to let the people go. The Tiger proxy TNA did not utter a word to the LTTE on behalf of horror struck people held as its human shield.

When the relentless Sri Lankan military drive forced the LTTE to retreat from all fronts, Velupillai Prabhakaran dragged the civilian population to the Vanni east where they were deployed as a human shield. Let me reproduce a letter written by the wartime Norwegian Ambassador here. It explains the mindset of the LTTE.

Ambassador Hattrem’s note, dated Feb 16, 2009, to Basil Rajapaksa, revealed Norway’s serious concern over the LTTE’s steadfast refusal to release the civilians. The Norwegian note, headlined ‘Offer/Proposal to the LTTE’, personally signed by Ambassador Hattrem, underscored the developing crisis on the Vanni east front. The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter, addressed to Basil Rajapaksa: “I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future.”

There wasn’t any positive LTTE response and the military went ahead with the final phase of the operation which was completed 15 years ago this month. Perhaps, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), inquiring into wartime and post-conflict accountability issues, should try to identify several channels through which Ambassador Hattrem tried to convince the LTTE. Did Ambassador Hattrem seek the late Sampanthan’s help to convince Prabhakaran? Did the Norwegian seek the intervention of any other TNA MP? If not, the Norwegians believed that there was no point in even getting in touch with the TNA regarding this particular matter.

The diabolical LTTE-TNA partnership, finalized in late 2001, cannot be examined without taking into consideration the elimination of top Tamil political leadership by the LTTE. At least two ex-parliamentarians were killed in Sept 1985 by TELO at the behest of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

The LTTE assassinated Appapillai Amirthalingam in July 1989. Along with the foremost Sri Lankan Tamil political leader and former Opposition leader, the LTTE killer squad shot dead ex-Jaffna MP Vettivelu Yogeswaran. Ex-Nallur MP Murugesu Sivasithamparam was shot and wounded at 342/2, Bauddhaloka Mawatha/Bullers Road in Colombo 7.

In spite of initial reluctance, those who represented the TNA had no qualms in working with the top LTTE leadership responsible for the assassination of Amirthalingham. The killing took place during the LTTE-Premadasa honeymoon, 11 months before the eruption of Eelam War IV. The truth is the LTTE wanted Amirthalingham eliminated as Prabhakaran knew his monstrous group would never receive recognition as sole representative of Tamil speaking people as long as the political veteran lived.

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Midweek Review

The Common Pet

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By Lynn Ockersz

There he sits obediently,

The cynosure of all eyes,

Contemplative and sad,

Yet upright, ready to spring,

At the prey that strays,

And within him burn urges,

That ‘Culture’ cannot tame,

Which define his essence,

And these contending pulls,

Bring silent, lingering agony,

That petting can’t lay at rest.

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Midweek Review

Field Marshal in penetrating post-Aragalaya move

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President Wickremesinghe receiving a copy of FM Fonseka’s memoir at Nelum Pokuna (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has switched sides again. Fonseka, MP, threw his weight behind UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Presidential Polls campaign as the latter strengthened his position, politically, with the finalisation of debt restructuring pacts with the Official Creditor Committee (OCC) and the Exim Bank of China for USD 5.8 bn and USD 4.2 bn, respectively.

Japan-led OCC includes France, India, the United States, Canada and several European nations. However, Sri Lanka is yet to reach an agreement with private creditors. That remains a challenge.

But, on the political front, President Wickremesinghe continued to make substantial progress with the gradual disintegration of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Would Gampaha District lawmaker Fonseka’s betrayal of the main Opposition party the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) at a crucial stage of the Presidential Polls campaign undermine Sajith Premadasa drive, with more than a dozen others from the SJB also having behind the scene negotiations with the UNP Leader to back him at the crucial poll, foremost being Rajitha Senaratne?

To be fair by Rajitha he has gone on record telling interviewer Chamuditha Samarawickrema, without naming the co-conspirators, that his plan is to, at the same time, have Sajith Premadasa as the PM candidate in a definite future tie up with Ranil. It is a clear cut challenge to the JVP. According to the one-time Health Minister Dr. Senaratne the SJB rebels had their first meeting at the residence of Eran Wickramaratne, MP, and, according to him, other rebels are cozying up to Ranil more than him.

The launch of FM Fonseka’s memoir “The Army Commander’s Promise to the Nation – I will not leave this war to the next Army Commander,” at Nelum Pokuna, with the participation of President Wickremesinghe last Friday (28) marked the end of Fonseka’s relationship with the SJB, officially.

Fonseka’s move is unlikely to undermine the SJB’s campaign at any level, unless the current internal rebellion, urging Wickremesinghe and Premadasa getting together for the greater good of everyone, gain greater support. In fact, in spite of MP Fonseka being Chairman of the party, he never played a role in Sajith Premadasa’s campaign. But Sajith has to be cognizant of the fact that his MPs do not want to be at the mercy of the JVP knowing its bloody past during two unsuccessful uprisings against elected governments in 1971 and the 1987 to ’89 period. His own late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa and his supporters faced the brunt of the JVP violence in the second uprising. By Sajith Premadasa’s own admission he was the target of an attack when he went to visit the Aragalaya camp site at Galle Face in 2022. He escaped any bodily harm, or even death, thanks to his alert driver who managed to whisk him away to safety in the nick of time. A similar visit to the site by JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake went off without any incident!

Field Marshal Fonseka, the war-winning Army Commander (2005-2009), had been among those UNPers who joined the SJB at its inception. in 2020. close on the heels of the Grand Old Party’s heavy defeat at the 2019 presidential election. The formation of the SJB, at the expense of the UNP, led to the total annihilation of the latter at the 2020 Parliamentary Polls, if not for a single National List (NL) slot.

The SJB secured 54 seats, including seven National List slots, whereas the UNP was reduced to just one NL slot. Now, MP Fonseka has returned to the UNP. Of the 54-member parliamentary group, fiery Fonseka is actually the third SJBer to go back to the UNP since Wickremesinghe joined the Rajapaksas in April 2022. SJBers Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando switched their allegiance to Wickremesinghe immediately after the latter accepted the premiership from Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (Former SJB NL member and State Minister Diana Gamage’s ouster from Parliament should be dealt with separately).

The SJB also lost Patali Champika Ranawaka, who registered Eksath Janaraja Peramuna (EJP) and declared his intention to contest the 2024 Presidential Poll. Unfortunately, the former JHU stalwart lacked the required backing to join the fray. Would Ranawaka, too, join Wickremesinghe? If that happened, what would be MP Ranawaka’s terms as he recently declared that he wouldn’t accept ministerial portfolios.

What really prompted MP Fonseka to join Wickremesinghe? The former Sinha Regiment veteran desperately wanted to contest the 2024 presidential election though he lacked political platform. In fact, Fonseka felt he should have had the opportunity to take on Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 presidential election. Fonseka obviously had no option but to join Wickremesinghe as the SJB publicly rejected him.

The FM’s relationship with Wickremesinghe cannot be examined without taking into consideration the latter’s dependence on the ruling SLPP in Parliament. However, the SLPP has been fragmented, sharply, with a significant number of MPs declaring their support for Wickremesinghe’s candidature.

In late February this year, Fonseka, in an exclusive interview with the writer, declared that he wouldn’t leave the party, hence the decision to title that article ‘Field Marshal won’t quit SJB’. (https://island.lk/field-marshal-wont-quit-sjb/). But, he has done so. In fact, The Island, during that interview at his Thalahena, Malabe office, raised the possibility of him joining Wickremesinghe against the backdrop of meeting the President in Parliament. The FM claimed that he met Wickremesinghe not as the President but the Minister in charge of the Finance portfolio regarding some of his funds held by the government. According to Fonseka, his February meeting, on the day the President delivered his latest policy speech, was the third. “There were two other previous meetings regarding the same matter,” Fonseka said, adding that the other officials who dealt with the issue at hand were the Governor, CBSL, Treasury Secretary and the Attorney General.

Disclosing the February meeting lasted just 10 minutes, Fonseka appreciated the fact that the President didn’t discuss politics at all on all occasions. “Perhaps, regarding the same matter, I may have to meet the President again.”

The funds held by the government are widely believed to be received by Fonseka in the run-up to the 2010 Presidential Polls. Perhaps, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government must have released the funds that had been held for over a decade. The June 28 book launch proved switching allegiance is all part of the game.

But if Wickremesinghe opts out of the race, as some believe, in favour of Fonseka, as happened in 2010, 2015 and 2019, then most of the JVP bravado about the election being a cake walk as there is no real challenger may turn out to be plain bravado. The writer, however doesn’t think so.

A place in Yahapalana Cabinet

In February 2016, Yahapalana Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe threw a political lifeline to Fonseka who had been in a desperate situation in the wake of the massive 2015 General Election defeat. Having contested the 2015 General Election under the symbol of the Democratic Party (DP), Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief failed to secure a single seat. That defeat demoralised and disappointed him. Obviously, Fonseka had absolutely no opportunity to strike a deal with President Sirisena or Premier Wickremesinghe as DP’s showing at the parliamentary poll was so poor and he faced political oblivion.

But, the sudden death of UNP NL MP M.K.D. S. Gunawardena, a SLFPer who switched allegiance to Wickremesinghe, in February 2016, created a vacancy that gave an opportunity to Wickremesinghe. Fonseka was swiftly named Minister of Regional Development and, thereafter, as Minister of Wildlife and Sustainable Development until the Oct 2018 constitutional crisis.

If not for Wickremesinghe, Fonseka wouldn’t have received an opportunity to serve in the Cabinet of Ministers. In the wake of the constitutional crisis triggered by President Sirisena and the Easter Sunday attacks several months later, interested parties called for Fonseka’s appointment as the Minister in charge of police. President Sirisena, who had been at loggerheads with the then Minister Fonseka, declined to do so.

At the time of the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) mounted Easter Sunday attacks Sirisena served as both Defence and Public Security minister.

Regardless of the opportunity granted by Wickremesinghe, in Feb 2016, Fonseka deserted him in 2020 when Sajith Premadasa formed the SJB. About five months after the General Election, MP Fonseka received the appointment as Chairman of the party. Now, after four years in political wilderness, lawmaker Fonseka had again received media attention by way of a book launch but could he sustain public interest?

When Fonseka’s relations deteriorated with the SJB at an early stage, as a member of Sajith Premadasa’s team, he got involved with a group of senior citizens who genuinely promoted him as an independent presidential candidate. They organized a mega event at a five-star hotel in Colombo several months ago to promote Fonseka’s candidature. But, when Fonseka made his latest move, that group simply abandoned him. One of them admitted quite candidly that they were duped.

Now FM is ready to follow SLPP dissidents who switched allegiance to Wickremesinghe at the expense of the party they were elected.

Having given up post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in July 2009 to enter politics, Fonseka contested the 2010 presidential election but suffered heavy defeat at the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UNP-led coalition that included the JVP and the TNA, lost interest in Fonseka ahead of the parliamentary polls. The celebrated ex-Army Chief ended up with the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) and the grouping, led by the JVP, secured seven seats at the General Elections. Fonseka was among the group that included Arjuna Ranatunga, Titan Alles and Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

The arrest of Fonseka in early February 2010 in a despicable manner and subsequent legal action/ court martial and his release in May 2012 with a presidential pardon demonstrated a pathetic state of affairs.

Fonseka-TNA relations

Fonseka comfortably won all electorates in the Northern and Eastern Provinces at the 2010 presidential election. After having accused his Army of butchering Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front, the TNA (one-time-LTTE ally), backed his candidature, thanks to Washington’s machinations here to defeat Rajapaksas at any cost for defying the West and wiping out the Tigers militarily. The TNA backing for Fonseka had been in line with the overall US-led strategy to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential Poll. The US strategy, however, failed that time till Sirisena’s betrayal five years later, again with the US backing. Fonseka ended-up losing by a staggering 1.8 mn votes though he handsomely won all the North and East electoral districts with mainly Tamil votes.

MP Fonseka, in May 2021, explained why the Tamil electorate voted for him at the January 26, 2010, presidential election. The explanation given in Parliament coincided with the low-key 12th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE. Fonseka declared: THE PEOPLE OF THE NORTH AND EAST VOTED FOR HIM WITHOUT HATRED BECAUSE OF THE RESTORATION OF PEACE IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

Why did MP Fonseka make such an assertion 12 years after the war? What prompted him to say so? Most importantly, was he telling the truth? Did the Tamil electorate really vote for him because of his role in the eradication of the LTTE? No one has responded to Fonseka so far. The civil society, too, has remained mum.

Actually, why did the UNP pick Fonseka as the common candidate? In the aftermath of the eradication of the LTTE, in 2009, the UNP had no option but to accept Fonseka as the common candidate, particularly against the backdrop of the war-winning General making covert moves in their direction. The UNP-led Opposition strategy was primarily meant to deprive President Mahinda Rajapaksa the advantage of the unbelievable (in the eyes of the powerful West that insisted on the invincibility of the Tigers in battle) war triumph. There couldn’t have been a better choice than Fonseka though the Opposition leadership quite correctly realised how the inclusion of the LTTE’s sidekick Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the grouping distanced the Southern electorate.

Fonseka didn’t mince his words when the media, on July 15th 2009, raised the possibility of his entry into active politics. The writer was among those who had been present at the media briefing called by General Fonseka, in his new capacity as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) within the Army Headquarters premises.

Fonseka declared he would never seek a political career. The war veteran said that he wouldn’t want to lose his popularity within 24 hours by taking to politics. The former Army Chief recalled the fate of his senior colleagues, Major General Lakshman Algama and Major General Janaka Perera, both of whom perished in LTTE suicide attacks on election platforms.

The LTTE assassinated Gemunu Watch veteran Algama on Dec 18, 1999, at an election rally in Ja-Ela held in support of UNP Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, whereas Commando veteran Perera perished on Oct 06, 2008 in Anuradhapura at an event related with PC polls in which he contested as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the North Central Province.

Nothing could be further from the truth than Fonseka’s declaration in Parliament that those living in the northern and eastern regions voted for him because of the restoration of peace therein? The Tamil electorate never accepted Fonseka’s role as the Commander of the Army and repeatedly accused him and his Army of genocide, especially after the crushing defeat of the LTTE.

Having recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, way back in 2001, the TNA wouldn’t have accepted Fonseka if the outfit hadn’t been convinced that only the former Army Commander could have challenged the immensely popular Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential Poll.

The plan received the wholehearted backing of the West and especially the US, though the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, in a confidential dispatch from Colombo, subsequently exposed by Wikileaks, categorized Fonseka as a war criminal along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and lawmaker Basil Rajapaksa.

The diplomatic missive, dated January 15, 2009, held the above-mentioned leaders responsible for war crimes. In spite of that, the US threw its weight behind Fonseka, perhaps initiating the move itself as the only viable political strategy to defeat the hugely popular war-winning Mahinda Rajapaksa securing a second term.

Now Fonseka is back again with Wickremesinghe as the latter builds-up large alliance in preparation for the 2024 Presidential Poll.

Why Fonseka accepted the TNA’s backing against the backdrop of its close relationship with the LTTE is still a mystery. Having recalled the killing of Majors General Algama and Perera when he assumed duties as the CDS in July 2009, Fonseka quite conveniently forgot the TNA’s endorsement of the LTTE bid to assassinate Fonseka. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka in April 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Oct 2006, the war would have definitely taken a different turn as we have often been reminded.

Post-Aragalaya politics

Field Marshal Fonseka was one of the few lawmakers to publicly endorse Aragalaya that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Aragalaya accepted him. The war veteran was the only lawmaker to address the crowds near the Janadhipathi Mandiraya a couple of hours before they stormed the place. After the SLPP elected Wickremesinghe, in late July 2022, as the President, MP Fonseka called for fresh Aragalaya to oust the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration. Addressing Parliament, Fonseka urged people to gather in Colombo on Nov 09, 2022. The war veteran wanted to launch a continuous protest campaign until the government was forced out. The SJB quickly distanced itself from Fonseka’s plans. The August 09 project collapsed. Fonseka suffered an irreparable setback.

Perhaps, Fonseka’s latest move should be discussed in the context of the retired military being largely divided among the SJB and JJB/JVP. Fonseka is the only top level retired officer to throw his weight behind Wickremesinghe.

Among those who had been present at the book launch was retired General Mahesh Senanayake, who recently joined the SJB. But that hadn’t discouraged Fonseka from inviting Senanayake, who was recalled from retirement to serve as Yahapalana Army commander. That was due to Fonseka’s intervention. But, the SJB’s decision to accommodate retired General Daya Ratnayake angered Fonseka, who lashed out at Sajith Premadasa for doing so.

The leader and Chairman hadn’t agreed on many things. Actually, there hadn’t been consensus on key issues. They disagreed on the move to back Dullas Alahapperuma as the Opposition candidate against Ranil Wickremesinghe when Parliament voted to elect an MP to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term. Finally, having tried to utilise Aragalaya against Wickremesinghe, Fonseka ended up in the President’s camp.

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