Photo courtesy of Bluefield Daily Telegraph

“…a merciless woodcutter whose heart is never touched by the lament of a falling tree, the breaking of its branches, and the scattering of its fruits.” Nelson Mandela (Conversations with Myself)

The Rajapaksas are at war. Not with the pandemic but with those who inform the public about the pandemic. Sudharshini Fernandopulle, the only minister who seems to possess a brain, a vertebra and a conscience, is accused of mental instability. A gag order is imposed on health officials. Dr. Chamal Sanjeewa, Deputy Director at Health Ministry, is under investigation for exercising his constitutional right to free speech.

In December 2020, China sentenced Zhang Zhan, a citizen-journalist who reported on Wuhan’s Covid-19 epidemic, to 4 years in jail for picking fights and provoking trouble! This week, in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, an Assistant Land Commissioner was arrested in Gelioya by the CID and brought to Colombo. Police media spokesman accuses him of ‘misleading public and creating distrust by publishing false information.’ He had reportedly published stories about deforestation in his private Facebook account.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa doesn’t want health officials to make public statements about the pandemic, for fear of frightening people. The Rajapaksas have a fascinating hierarchy of fears. A hijab is more dangerous than a pandemic. A Tamil mother lighting a lamp for a son or a daughter killed in the war is a far greater threat to national security than a Chinese ship with a radioactive load making an unscheduled stop at the Hambantota port.

The pandemic has already caused four times more deaths than the Easter bombings. If the curve is not flattened soon, its average death rate could exceed that of the long Eelam War. A responsible government would want to warn the people about this danger rather than lull them into a false sense of complacency. A caring government would prefer to save lives by revealing the unvarnished truth. But from Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Narendra Modi to the Rajapaksas, leaders who trade in patriotism prefer deception that makes them look good (momentarily), at whatever human cost.

On February 14, 2021, Sri Lanka’s Public Health Inspectors union warned that infections were being underreported lulling the public into incautious behaviour. On March 24, the PHI union revealed that PCR testing had been reduced from 20,000 a day to 5000 a day. With an infection rate of 5 per cent, the number of reported infections dropped into low hundreds. Reassured by this false picture of a waning pandemic, the public spent the Sinhala and Tamil New Year season binge-shopping and flocking to Nuwara Eliya and Kataragama. As K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, wrote, “…the virus travels with people and celebrates with crowds,” (The Guardian -29.4.2021). The season ended with a new and a deadlier wave.

While the government continued to insist that nothing really was the matter, the Rajarata University announced that a series of clinical trials has proven that the Kali Concoction can neither prevent nor cure Covid-19. That is hardly news. What is news is that a university held a clinical trial for a concoction made by a carpenter based on a ‘secret recipe’ given by a goddess in the Hindu pantheon. Who ordered such an insane experiment? What was its cost? Is insanity more contagious than Covid-19?

Mark this, though. All the pot-throwing and the nostrum-drinking were done by Rajapaksa acolytes. The Family merely encouraged silly myths and used them to lull the public into a sense of security totally at variance with facts. The faux cures dubbed desheeya and hela are for the 6.9 million. The family is, in all probability, fully vaccinated – with a non-Chinese vaccine.

The treacherous Suwaseriya and the patriotic Port City

The Suwaseriya ambulance service came into being on July 28, 2016 with 88 ambulances donated by India. It was the result of an agreement between Prime Ministers Wickremesinghe and Modi. Until then, public ambulances were few and used only to transport patients from a hospital to another hospital. That scarcity and the high cost of private ambulances rendered what should be a basic service into an unaffordable luxury for most Lankans. Suwaseriya was aimed at filling this deadly gap in our public health system and did. By September 2019, there were 297 Suwaseriya ambulances operating island-wide with more than 2 million people availing themselves of this service.

Imagine facing the pandemic without Suwaseriya.

And yet, when it was being set up, the Rajapaksas-led Joint Opposition screamed about Indian intervention. That most egregious of pro-Rajapaksa trade unions, the GMOA went even further. On August 20, 2016, its then secretary Dr. Nalinda Herath solemnly warned the public against using Suwaseriya ambulances stating that a three-wheeler would be safer.  “…people should think twice before getting into these risky Indian ambulances and decide whether to die by a tree fall or an electric shock from the ambulance,” he said. Though no patient was electrocuted, the hostile acts of the GMOA continued. On August 26, 2019, the GMOA wrote to the Health Secretary, enquiring about the efficacy of Suwaseriya, possibly as a prelude to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential bid. Interestingly, the GMOA which screamed against the life-saving Suwaseriya and the free trade pact with Singapore made no such noise about the Port City Commission Bill, which, in its original form, violated the Constitution 25 times, according to the Supreme Court judgment.

This week, lawyer Thishya Weragoda revealed that a plaque ceremoniously unveiled by the outgoing Attorney General in the AG’s Department omitted Tamil and included Mandarin, thereby violating the constitution in plain sight. Once the media picked up the story, the AG’s media coordinator issued a statement stating that the plaque will be removed and replaced. The question is didn’t the AG see the Mandarin letters when he unveiled the plaque? If he couldn’t see the Mandarin before his eyes, little wonder he didn’t notice the 25 instances of constitutional violations in the Port City Commission Bill.

The Chinese Embassy predictably involved itself in the controversy reportedly tweeting, “Chinese language is displayed as a kind gesture towards China.” So was Tamil dropped as an unkind gesture towards Lankan Tamils and Muslims? (Incidentally, what would have happened if the Suwaseriya ambulances contained Hindi lettering, ‘as a kind gesture towards India’?)

In December 2020, social media users revealed the existence of a notice board in the Mt. Lavinia railway station in English and Mandarin. Not even Sinhala. Are these ‘kind gestures’ coincidences or part of a plan to impose Mandarin from above as a lingua franca?

According to Lankadeepa of 25 July, 2019, the Chinese Ambassador presented a litany of complaints to the then Tourism Minister John Amaratunga. Foremost was the language problem experienced by Chinese tourists in Sri Lanka. The Ambassador also expressed displeasure at some rules and regulations in the tourism sector (unspecified) and wanted more visas for Chinese cooks so that Chinese tourists could partake of familiar cuisine. Does China demand Chinese language and cuisine for its tourists from every country?  Or is that is an honour reserved for their dependencies?

In April, the Chinese Embassy organised a field trip of the Port City for Lankan parliamentarians. An embassy inviting the host country’s parliamentarians to visit a piece of land that is supposedly part of that country’s territory – what isn’t wrong with this picture? When SJB’s Harshana Rajakaruna raised questions, Belt and Road Initiative in Sri Lanka reportedly tweeted, ‘Why not? A field study will help to understand better about the project…’ Since the Port City is supposedly not a Chinese colony, any trip there should be organised by a Lankan entity and not the Chinese Embassy. The only field trip the Chinese Embassy can organise for Lankan parliamentarians within the territorial boundaries of Sri Lanka is a trip to the Embassy premises.

Whatever the final version of the Port City Commission Act might contain, the Chinese response proves who is truly sovereign within the Port City. The Chinese will use the Port City with the same disregard for Lankan interests, needs or sensitivities as the Americans display towards Cuban interests, needs or sensitivities in Guantanamo. To be fair, why should China spend billions of its money to create an artificial land mass for Sri Lanka to own? If we are naive enough to believe in politico-financial fairy godmothers, is that China’s fault?

As for the claim that the Port City will be our economic miracle, attracting investment and generating employment galore, a similar claim was once made for the Hambantota Port. We know how that story ended.

The patriotic road to perdition

2018 was a seminal year. In March, the Digana anti-Muslim riots erupted. The government’s inability to nip the violence in the bud or to bring the perpetrators to justice birthed a sense of despair within the Muslim community, strengthening the reach and the efficacy of extremist elements. In October, President Maithripala Sirisena launched a political coup, taking himself and the SLFP formally into the Rajapaksa camp.

In between came the story about a conspiracy to assassinate President Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The tale was constructed by a hitherto unknown Namal Kumara, who titled himself the head of an organisation called Dushana Virodi Balakaya (Anti-Corruption Brigade). The JO embraced the tale. Addressing a September 19 press conference organised by Namal Kumara’s outfit, parliamentarian Mahindananda Aluthgamage accused the head of the TID, DIG Nalaka Silva of planning the conspiracy with the connivance of the IGP.  “These conspirators are in an attempt to favour Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. We thought that only the Rajapaksas have become victims, but at present President Sirisena’s life is also at stake.”

Had the Rajapaksas truly believed in this ‘plot’, they would have launched a full fledged investigation into it the moment they came to power in November 2019. They didn’t. Having served its purpose, which was to addle Maithripala Sirisena’s mind and push him into the patriotic arms of the Rajapaksas, the plot was consigned into oblivion.

The tall tale though had an inadvertent result. Nalaka Silva’s arrest sowed confusion within the TID. Its investigation into Zahran Hashim was sidelined in favour of chasing imaginary assassins. With that, a possible counter against the Easter Sunday massacre became negated.

Two days after the massacre, Mahinda Rajapaksa made a fiery speech in parliament. (Interestingly, he said that his security officers had received the warning about the attack, but did not keep him in the loop). He ended his speech by questioning whether the presence of a foreign hand behind the attack has been confirmed and what that foreign hand was.

In the coming weeks, his two chief rabble-rousers proceeded to give shape and form to that nebulous statement. Addressing a public meeting, Wimal Weerawansa said that the American Ambassador could be behind the attack, with the aim of turning Sri Lanka into a Libya or Syria, with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s complicity (Lanka c news 3.5.2019). Udaya Gammanpila informed the parliament that the IS was an American cat’s paw and the Easter Attack an American conspiracy aimed at creating another Black July. The Americans had Muslims ready, complete with Sinhala names, to attack other Muslims, he claimed. The plan, he elaborated, was for Muslim countries to protest the attack and the West to use it as a pretext to send peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka (Lanka c news 9.5.2019).

So the tale of a mysterious mastermind behind the attack was born. A solemn pledge to uncover and punish this mastermind became a constant refrain on the SLPP’s stages. The Rajapaksas didn’t mastermind the attack, anymore than Ranil Wickremesinghe or Rishard Bathiudeen did (the government, starting with the Rajapaksa ally President Sirisena, was guilty not of criminal responsibility but of criminal irresponsibility). But like George W Bush did with 9/11 attacks and Narendra Modi did with the Kashmiri suicide bombing which killed 40 Indian soldiers, the Rajapaksas used the Easter Attack as a bridge to power.

The patriotic glitter which enabled them to romp to two electoral victories is now almost gone. The pandemic is revealing their incompetence unintelligence, and total indifference to human suffering. This Saturday, PM Mahinda imposed a series of taxes on essential food items ranging from chickpeas to sardine, dried chillies to red onions. And face masks. Only a Rajapaksa regime would impose a tax on life-saving face masks in the middle of a pandemic, while making them mandatory and arresting those who fail to wear them. This week, groups representing garment factory workers demanded that the workers who are forced to labour through travel restrictions are vaccinated and provided with proper quarantine and treatment facilities. A government that is only interested in power for itself and profit for its cronies is unlikely to be interested.

When election season dawns, the Rajapaksas will seek to fill the popularity gap in the only way they know, by reincarnating the Undead Tiger, harping on the Muslim bogey or railing about the conversion threat.

Two questions remain? Will enough Sinhalese remember what the patriot was like, sans the mantle? If a majority recalls the patriot bared leading to a Rajapaksa defeat, what will China do to protect its territorial, political and financial interests in Sri Lanka? Will they intervene to help their clients cling to power via undemocratic and possibly violent means? Or will it give the losers their congé and write some cheques for the winners?