Photo courtesy of Medium

The heady days of victory and power are diminishing fast. Bankrupt for ideas and a plan for COVID-19 management, clinging to an army that wasn’t trained to run a country, Sri Lanka has turned into a theatre of puppets with the political-military nexus pulling the strings. A stage play with dancing puppets and a bleeding nation would be a no brainer tragi-comedy. The reality is that, minus the comedy, we are left with “tragi”.

Starting with COVID-19, a triumphant nation hailed the chief for his ability to lead this small country as a COVID-19 defeating hero, small of stature but a larger than life figure on the world stage, coupled with winning the war. Envisage a theatre where the hordes descend to pay homage to the man with the Midas touch. Suddenly, very quickly, the stage crumbles underfoot and things begin to go horribly wrong.

COVID-19 has taken a dangerous turn with increasing numbers and deaths. After the initial incarceration of the entire nation, low figures and few deaths the business-political nexus raised its ugly head and the “cluster” threat was borne and continues to unfold. The government hailed brand Brandix as an employer of 40,000 people and therefore not to be vilified. As a contributor to the economy the garment business is a key driver, however, it is naive to raise praise when the 40,000 contribute to the company bottom line – profit. Let’s not put weight to the clarion call for sympathy, this is no charity. An investigation is apparently underway but little is heard of its progress. What happened to the female staff member vilified and shoveled off into isolation while her husband and daughter were quarantined in the South? What of the several women hustled off in the early hours packed into transport like sardines and accommodated in less than hygienic surroundings? Gone are the pictures of happy, grateful people thanking the army for a wonderful quarantine experience. This debacle remains a continuing saga; there is no need hold our breath waiting for accountability and heads to roll.

COVID-19 blasted the lid off an economy, which even pre-COVID-19 was hardly a stellar performer.  Now the bottom has fallen out, the people too stressed and too poor to bother with caring about the macro stuff, turned into beggars and unwilling thieves. In broad daylight, two men  jumped into the compound of an already struggling orphanage for the disabled to steal thambili and bananas. These are not thieves but desperate people starving for food or cash. Thambili and bannanas are hardly a high stake booty, let’s hope it fed a stomach or two. The tables have turned, the donor has turned recipient and the charity loses its home grown sustenance. In this scenario, brand Brandix is no charity employing 40,000 as a job creation scheme. What it has delivered is a national crime.

In a further twist to this sordid tale of decline, COVID-19 prevents mass gathering on the streets avoiding visible protests, so social media has taken its place with a vengeance, offering a mix of criticism and twisted humour. The 225 mostly self-serving MPs in the legislature allowed the passage of a dictatorial Constitutional amendment.

The descent into a dystopian hell began when the focus shifted from managing a public health crisis to managing the 20th Amendment to feed the appetite for power.

Even a benevolent dictator must have the tools to work with, for devoid of tools how will power be wielded? Men in boots certainly send shivers down our spines. The desired result of an efficient state run machinery has been substituted with fear, ad hocism, marginalisation of the health services, and the substitution of the civilian bureaucracy with ex-military men. Now the state has nailed the coffin with the blaming of the people for the spread of COVID-19. The police media spokesman confirmed that it is up to the people as to when lockdown restrictions will be lifted. If the people behave properly, COVID-19 and curfew will go away. The backlash to this statement was both swift and uncompromising, “Is the state responsible to the people or the people now responsible for the state”? The power givers, whether for personal profit or the protection of Sinhala Buddhism, are now cringing at the enormity of their misguided beliefs. Memories in Lanka are indeed short.

 I wonder how people have enough cash to buy masks for the entire family, put food on the table, educate their children via remote learning and deal with increasing levels of stress and anxiety. How does it feel to see the Prime Minister and the politicians cruising about in their shiny black cars, offering flowers for  renovation of stupas while a helicopter flies overhead spraying holy water?

It’s worth holding our breath to see if her pot wielding holiness is going to bring forth a COVID-19 cure with her dunk of holy water into the river. This is truly a sign of a nation cursed with ritual and superstition, power mongers, liars, cheats and thieves. Given her budget allocation, the Health Minister needs more than a pot of water – maybe if she sidles up to the Highways or Defense Ministries they might share some of their pot. Rs. 355 billion for the army is a tidy little packet. Pakistan anybody? I hope we are not going to war anytime soon. Cutting a critical social sector budget for the armed forces does not scream development. It appears there is something funny going on with the import of antigen testing equipment too, awarded to two companies while several others are known to have bid. Must be having the right contacts to be able to make such healthy profits from COVID-19.

Suddenly, the little island turns into a cog in the geo-political wheel; hot on the heels of a China big wig trots the larger than life Pompeo. Fortunately, the much desired sweeping powers given to the President means everything can be kept under wraps,  a “secret”. Did they come to squeeze the ex-US citizen? That’s the beauty of sweeping powers, we will never know. The public are placed on a “not to know basis”, never mind that as tax payers they do have a right to know. Let’s leave that mystery to boil, no doubt it will all end in the people’s best interests, most of whom anyway are now so beaten that they are too weary to care. It’s the people’s vote, grin and bear it, these are mere foibles.

The Rajapaksa brothers are enjoying a heyday, expanding the dynasty with enough babies to keep them in power for generations to come, shudder the thought. With time hanging on our hands, I recommend reading Military Inc. by Ayesha Siddique.

What happened to all those Viyath Maga folk who were supposed to spear head a technocratic government machinery to the heights of Singapore? COVID-19 finished off the business types who rushed to the feet of the strongman. What of governance, transparency, social sectors and poverty to this tribe of merry men and women in search of efficiency? In a twisted fate of poetic justice COVID-19 dealt the blow and the strongman has no bag of tricks unless China coughs up more cash.

In the midst of coconut wars, rice wars and arsenic laced tinned fish, the drug king was gunned down. Zharan’s wife was taken to an army facility with suspected COVID-19. Wild speculation on social media cries foul, calling for vigilance, expecting her to be bumped off for spilling the beans

What a mess up in a year and it’s not all because of COVID-19 but also the modus operandi that was well thought out and executed. The economy has tanked and it is going nowhere except to bring memories of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s austerity days with US aid PL 480 flour with worms and weevils. We have come full circle 70 years post independence. Import substitution with indigenisation sounds lofty and patriotic, grow local, buy local and eat local may take us to subsistence levels but even the mustard plant takes seven months to grow and so does pepper on the vine. “Let them eat basmati” said one. It’s the people’s vote, let’s grin and bear it.