The Plague of governance is senile delinquency.
- Mignon Mclaughlin
A time of crisis with the spectre of a common enemy, real or imagined, gives the ideal opportunity to roll up civil liberties to authorities. Whether it is civil war, insurgency or a natural disaster this is the case as history shows. Specially, among nations and communities where the respect for individuality is always secondary to the ‘herd mentality’, such encroachments of long held and universally cherished rights and liberties, though not always without a struggle and even shedding of blood under normal circumstances, might go unnoticed or even condoned. Militarization, disregard to the rule of law, silencing of dissent thus takes place as normal occurrences and hardly anyone seem to raise even a whimper. Political acts which would normally have been met with vociferous resistance, therefore, might not only pass as accepted but even be seen as welcome and necessary.
Amid the COVID-19 episode, two aspects that might have disturbed the civil society, or rather those sections of that society sensitive to issues such as rule of law and civil liberties, went unnoticed. In fact, they were quietly acceded to as necessary actions given the dire straits the nation finds itself in. First, was the convenient militarization of all aspects with regard to the machinery of dealing with the epidemic, which , without a doubt , has become the greatest health crisis the entire world is facing , perhaps after the black death plague that ravaged part of the planet earth, Europe to be precise, centuries ago. Even developed nations with much advanced health care systems and resources at their disposal are finding in extremely difficult to cope up with the magnitude and intensity of the Novel Corona Virus outbreak. What it means is that as a country with scarce resources, we need to act resolutely and aggressively to check the spread of the disease and to treat citizens who contract it.
The first thing the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government did was to entrust the army with the handling of the quarantine procedure. There are both pros and cons to this. Surely being a well-trained and disciplined unit where orders are simply carried out and not questioned, the military could be seen as a very reliable resource in dealing with the issue. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that the army might not be properly trained or equipped to deal with this particular health hazard as the health care system, with its special consultants, doctors, nurses and other staff, is. Yet the job done by the military thus far is commendable, whether the ordinary soldier wanted it or not, and should be acknowledged. In any event, President Rajapaksa seems to be at ease with appointing former military officers for purely civil designations such as those of Governors of the Provinces, Heads of Departments and bureaus which have been formerly headed by civilians.
Whatever dismay that was caused by such appointments during the last few months, have now been forgotten and the new military appointments hardly come across any objection as the appointment of Air Marshall Roshan Gunatilake for the post of the Governor of the Western Province illustrates. It would be an educated guess to presume that these types of appointments will not be revoked once the crisis situation subsides and in fact, would become more numerous as time goes by.
Warrior or murderer?
Then came an incident that should have caused utter dismay and abhorrence in any law abiding and decent human mind, is the Presidential Pardon of Sergeant of the SL Army Sunil Ratnayake who had been convicted of multiple murder of eight Tamil civilians including a toddler in 2003. Sgt. Ratnayake was found guilty for this gruesome murder of civilians and on Appeal, the conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court Judgement sheds ample light on the cold-blooded nature of the killings. Yet, when the President took it upon himself to interfere with the course of meting out justice, by pardoning Ratnayake, he yet again showed the scant regard he has for the judicial process as well as the rights of those who were victims of military excesses.
"Political acts which would normally have been met with vociferous resistance, would be seen as welcome and necessary"
Yet, hardly any protest emanated from the public. A few who are known for their progressive and liberal attitudes in relation to civil rights have expressed consternation on Twitter and Facebook, only to be severely reprimanded and verbally violated by the many who consider Ratnayake ‘a Ranaviruwa’ or a war hero. According to them, any action taken by those in uniform during and the immediate aftermath of the Civil war passes not only as an excusable but a commendable and patriotic act. As social media outbursts amply illustrate, those who question the Presidential decree are ‘traitors’ who have betrayed the motherland. The general public, who are neither right minded nor ‘patriotic’, do not seem to give a tuppence worth of attention to such occurrences and are more intent on knowing how to get hold of some supplies from a supermarket chain.
New common enemy
This was exactly what the President and the political dispensation that he represents depended on. If the common enemy in the form of the LTTE has now disappeared and the Thawhid Jamad, too, has been pushed to the backseat in the context of a global outbreak of a potentially deadly virus, then that very threat has become the new common enemy. It provides the backdrop for actions that can be justified as contriving for the common good.
In this regard, the clear racial and religious undertones with regard to the public awareness regarding the spread of the virus, is unmistakable. The anti-Islamic and sometimes anti- Christian sentiment that seem to accompany each and every discovery of new patients is highlighted and bloated up by the state-friendly media and which, directly or indirectly, numbs the sensitivities of the majority towards issues such as personal liberties and rights of racial and religious minorities.
Count by ethnicity
It is sad to see that we have become a country that counts COVID-19 patients by their ethnicity and religious dispensation, thus generalizing the acts, which, it should be admitted as moronic, irresponsible and possibly criminal, and putting the blame on entire communities. Yet with regard to the actions of the majority, which are as harmful as those, are glossed over as mere idiocy and stupidity.
These are extraordinary times that warrant extraordinary and sometimes stern action by the authorities and Sri Lanka is no exception. Yet in societies where individual rights and civil liberties are considered privileges and luxuries and any one standing for them run the risk of evoking the ire of the majority, these are times that can be used conveniently by rulers to subvert the rule of law, due process of justice and the civil liberties that they seek to uphold.
Let us watch out for the COVID-19. And let us also be weary of militarization and the unchallenged encroachment in to our civil rights.