Saturday, December 4, 2021

Between Mahara and Buravi, amid anxiety and relief

Fire and brimstone. That’s one way of talking about the week that has passed. Fire, on account of the tragedy that unfolded at the Mahara Prison, brimstone as metaphor for what was feared (but didn’t transpire) by way of a cyclone, Buravi. Of course we are still caught in the so-called Second Wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and a budget debate.

Let’s first get to the Covid-19 situation. As of December 3, total infections confirmed stood at 26,038 against 19,032 recoveries with 129 fatalities. As such, according to Epidemiology Unit data, there are a told of 6,877 active cases. The relevant authorities impose restrictions and, probably following careful monitoring, relax the same and even lift them completely. Colombo is obviously the hardest hit district. This has obvious implications for economic activity. Most institutions have opted to restrict numbers coming to work and have put in place work-from-home  systems. Until when, however, is a question that no one can answer.

‘Let’s wait for the vaccine’ is, in a sense, a sign of resignation. The fact of the matter is that despite promising updates on multiple vaccines, there are none yet that the World Health Organizations have approved. Affordability will probably be an issue that will accompany availability. Meanwhile, as has been the case from the beginning of this story, it is best to assume that YOU ARE INFECTED or, if that’s a bit terrifying, to assume that YOU MAY BE INFECTED. So what do you do? Well, if you can’t stay at home, isolated, and indeed aren’t required to since you’ve not tested positive, limit travel, avoid public places, wear a mask as per mask-protocol, wash your hands and maintain recommended social distance. In short, follow guidelines.  

That’s what civic responsibility is all about. Of course, not everyone is responsible. Forget civic responsibility, even basic civility is spat at (literally) by some. Yes, we are talking about the incident in Atalugama (yes, the very same village that’s acquired a poor reputation on account of Covid-19) where an infected individual spat in the face of a Public Health Inspector.

Gross, first and foremost. Irresponsible to the core, moreover. If someone is infected, knows it and knowingly acts in a way that could infect someone else that’s not just irresponsible but criminal. Given the nature of the virus and the possibility of death, it has to be treated as equivalent to ‘attempted murder’.  

The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), which has been offering regular advice to the Government with regard to how the pandemic ought to be handled has, on behalf of health professionals, issued a dire warning. It is mulling ‘very serious decisions regarding the provision of services for people in the area.’

The GMOA is a trade union. It is made of professionals in the medical field. It has every right to air the grievances of its membership and to contemplate collective action in the face of any act(s) that put them at risk of any kind. The GMOA’s advice should be taken in good faith, but this doesn’t mean that decision-makers should take it as the last word on the matter. They have the qualifications to talk about viruses, diseases and treatment, but they are not experts on the social and economic entirety in which the pandemic is located and moves.

In this instance, it’s about protecting members from possible infection. Understood. However, to contemplate what is essentially the punishment of an entire community for the wrongdoing of a single member of that collective is morally wrong.  
After the incident of a Covid-19 infected individual spitting in the face of a Public Health Inspector (PHI) in Atalugama in Bandaragama, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) said health professionals would have to take very serious decisions in future regarding providing their services for the people in the area.

They claim, ‘no one in the village spoke against this person (the spitter)’ nor offered support to the PHI officers. That’s not crime enough for a deliberate denial of health services.

Let’s go to Mahara. The prison riots and the outcome brought back memories of ‘Welikada’ (2012 and 1983). This time around there wasn’t an armory for the prisoners to raid. The target was the pharmacy. There was unrest over PCR rests and here the blame falls squarely on the health authorities of the prison who were either ignorant or mischievous with respect to possible anxieties and alleviating the same.

How did it escalate to a point where arson took place, hostages were taken, prisoners attacking one another and a warranting of the use of force? At the end of it all, 11 persons were dead and over 100 wounded. A prison is all about security but insecurity was what was most evident in this incident.

Whether the victims were in prison for drug-related offenses, petty theft, brigandry or scamming the Central Bank is absolutely irrelevant here. No one subjected to a prison sentence would think he/she would enjoy luxurious accommodation, but neither would they believe they could die there.
The Government has taken responsibility. Inquires are under way. Those responsible for negligence or incompetence or both at every key point in the process need to be held accountable.

It is not illogical to move from prisons to courts, so let’s discuss judicial appointments. A few weeks ago, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nominated several persons to the Supreme Court. When the 20th Amendment was first proposed, the objectors raised questions about judicial independence. These objectors, nor surprisingly were ardent fans of the 19th Amendment. They applauded the Constitutional Council and decried the Parliamentary Council the 20th would replace it with. The CC was politician-heavy and even the non-politicians were essentially political pals of the then regime, in particular the Ranil Wickremesinghe faction of it. Meritocracy and seniority were shoved aside in favor of the ‘safe’ and ‘loyal.’

Six individuals have now been promoted as judges of the Supreme Court. They were the six most senior judges in line for promotion. A total of 14 have been appointed to the Court of Appeal. Eleven are senior judges of the high courts, two from the Attorney General’s department and the last from the unofficial bar who is in fact a former district judge.

Draconian. Hitler-like. Dictator. Military-mindset. Those were the tags pinned on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Well, the president seems to have done an immense disservice to his reputation! His detractors, meanwhile, are in thumb-twiddling land on these appointments.

That said, the course of action chosen by Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not necessarily mean that someone else would do the same if in his place. Ranil Wickremesinghe, as Prime Minister, was ‘okay’ with the Near-n-Dear Mode. If he, or someone like him (and there are many in all political camps), was in Rajapaksa’s shoes, there’s no guarantee that meritocracy and seniority would be similarly affirmed. The President, however, has set a precedent. A good one. Reason has bested emotion and self-interest. We should applaud.

Related to all this is of course ‘The Constitution.’ A committee has been appointed to draft a new constitution. The public has been requested to submit recommendations. Well, there’s a set of recommendations which may require constitutional amendment that this committee headed by Romesh De Silva can wipe the dust off and use as a foundational text when deliberating on certain elements of constitutional amendment: The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security.

This committee was appointed in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019. The 17-member committee headed by Malith Jayatilleka, came up with many recommendations on 13 different subject areas which, in their minds, would ‘eliminate new terrorism and extremism,’ or rather threat of the same. It is all about streamlining matters, especially in key areas such as education, religion, media and defence.

The Report was released days before the expected dissolution of Parliament, i.e., on February 19, 2020. That could have been a coincidence. Dissolution was followed by Covid-19 related restrictions and then parliamentary elections. The document was the work of a previous Parliament, true. The movers and shakers of that parliament got creamed on August 5, 2020. Nevertheless, some of the committee members were returned. All this notwithstanding, we don’t have any report that can even come close to this in terms of taking cognizance of relevant factors and recommending corrections with a view to tackling the vexed problem of extremism.

Not all recommendations require constitutional amendment. A simple gazette notification would suffice for most of them to be put into operation. Others may require cabinet approval or acts of parliament. Some, amendment of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Law and the Waqf Law might require an amendment; no doubt interested parties will petition the Supreme Court to hear their objections. All that, for tomorrow. Today, it makes sense to use the report at least as the basis for conversation if not far-reaching restructuring of institutions and adjusting of processes to ensure reconciliation and peace.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his election campaign, fervently pledged that he would work towards a system that affirms the notion ‘One-Country, One-Law.’ The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) used that slogan in the run up to the August elections. They need to make good on that pledge. They have 6.9 million backing them. In fact they have more, for if they use this Report as a base document for reform that aims for cogency in the law, the constituencies of the authors and the parties they represent would significantly swell those numbers. Let us not forget that Sajith Premadasa’s campaign also insisted that the unitary nature of the state would not be fiddled with. His backers also spoke the one-country-one-law language.

The report can be found online if you go to www.parliament.lk and look for ‘committee reports.’  It’s the one right on top. We recommend a close reading of that text.

Finally, we have the anticlimax. Buravi.

There was much anxiety on account of Buravi. It was heartening to hear that the Governor of the Eastern Province, Anuradha Yahampath, visiting villages considered to be at risk, advising them, offering help and instructing all relevant state agencies to be ready for any eventuality. The Disaster Management authorities were ready. Officials on the ground were on alert.

The devastation feared did not take place. One person has gone missing, four are reported to have been injured and over 12,000 persons adversely affected. The Disaster Management Centre (DMC)

The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) has released the following numbers: 2, 252 people in 3, 575 families affected, 15 houses fully damaged and 192 partially damaged. A total of 10, 336 persons in 2, 911 families have been placed in 79 safe locations Mannar, Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Trincomalee districts. The district-wise breakdown of the affected is as follows. Mannar: 7, 749 people in 2, 236 families; Jaffna: 2,986 people in 829 families; Killinochchi: 41 people in 10 families; Mullaitivu: 1, 149 people in 405 families; Vavuniya: 236 people in 74 families; Trincomalee: 91 people in 21 families.
What next? Provincial Councils? Ruling party politicians are making a bit of noise about PC elections. Maybe they are testing waters. It’s in their interest. Political consolidation is part of the story.

PC elections have been repeatedly postponed. This is not a good thing. The democracy-watchdogs, not surprisingly, haven’t uttered a word about this. Interestingly they also happen to be high on ‘devolution.’ Maybe they are punch-drunk. Maybe they were never sober or were unsighted by party loyalty and outcome preferences.

The 13th Amendment, which gave us PCs, was illegally pushed through. However, it is not part of the constitution. As such elections should be held.On the other hand, we are told that a new constitution is on the way. In that case, why waste time and money on maintaining this white elephant which was the issue of an ungainly union between Indian hegemony and a spineless regime way back in 1987? The intended beneficiaries, after all, aren’t lamenting the fact that they haven’t elected representatives to relevant PCs. Administration has not come to a standstill.

The drafters of the new constitution should consider these issues as well. We await word from them on progress made, what we can expect and when. We need to know what they propose to do with the 13th Amendment as well.

One week rolls into another and Covid-19 rolls along. We are relieved that Buravi’s bark was worse than its bite. We are alarmed that ‘Mahara’ happened. We are encouraged by judicial appointments. We remain wary, as is prudent, always.

MALINDA SENEVIRATN​E
malindasenevi@gmail.com
Source: gammiris.lk

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