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Hiding Behind Covid-19

Covid-19 has played havoc with the world order, but for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, it is a Godsend!

And so, instead of the usual white van abductions, life-threatening assaults, and even murder to suppress dissent, the hallmark of his brother Mahinda’s era as President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lackeys are using the so-called Covid-19 regulations for that purpose. In the Mahinda presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary.

It is clear, that this government, formed under the “Weda Karana Viruwa” slogan that hurtled Gotabaya into power has failed. Every government before his has bungled things too; but not on all fronts. There were some redeeming features in those other administrations. But this time, there is nothing the government can crow about, nor people are happy over.

They seem to be unable to even decide on simple issues such as what goes into a gazette notification, if one were to count the number of time's gazettes issued have been reversed since GR’s ascendancy to power in November 2019.

Brother Basil, who is a dual citizen was brought through the back door, sworn in as the new Finance Minister and then as a Member of Parliament. A day after a list of institutions falling under his purview was published, it was followed by another, reassigning some of those back to brother Mahinda!

But, it is not about the crass nepotism taking place in the country that the general public is protesting. While there are ascerbic comments on that matter, nepotism is not new in Sri Lanka. However, one must concede that Rajapaksa’s have taken it to new heights; brothers and nephews are Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers and State Ministers. MR’s second son is his Chief of Staff, in-laws have been awarded plum positions and, one sister is a Consul General, plus MR’s newest Coordinating Secretary, reports state is married to one of his wife’s nephews, a chairman of a government institution.

Those are issues that bother Colombo’s elite, the Twitterati and the more sophisticated political opponents. For ordinary folk, those are just minor irritants at best. In fact, at grass root level, such behaviour, or even abductions and murder are non-issues. If they were, would the Rajapaksa’s have been returned to power?

For the man on the street, it’s more about their daily survival, issues that do not seem to bother the GR government very much:

· The cost of petrol was increased recently, with little regard to the fact that a majority of the people are struggling to even earn a living owing to the extended Covid-19 imposed lockdowns.

· Apart from the lockdowns businesses are crippled by the ‘no imports’ policy of the administration.

· An overnight ban on the use of chemical fertilizer, that too, introduced on the eve when the Yala season commences has left farmers tearing their hair out; they’ve spent money on seeds and saplings, tilled the earth; but without fertiliser, they are not assured of a good crop, and by extension, food shortages are expected in the coming months. While there is no opposition to the introduction of organic farming methods, it is the government’s ad hoc decisions on the matter that have hit farmers squarely in the belly!

· Forests are being cut down, and those lands distributed to government allies to grow commercial crops or build roads to hotel resorts.

· Wetlands have been disrupted for shrimp farms, golf courses and highways.

· Fisherfolk are struggling to survive; first, it was a fear of catching the coronavirus from them. Now, the X-press Pearl tragedy has negatively impacted their livelihood, and also the country’s marine ecology.

· Covid-19 imposed lockdowns meant moving to online education, a facility available to a privileged few. Most others climb trees or water tanks or walk miles from their homes to connect to the internet. (Let’s not forget, how efforts by the Yahapalanaya government to gift tabs to school children and expand internet coverage were booed by members of the current administration.)

· The proposed changes to the Kotalawela Defence University will, apart from militarising education, ring the death knell for free education. Those who fought against SAITM, during the Yahapalanaya administration, with the blessings of the Rajapaksa loyalists are now back on the streets protesting this move.

The list goes on, and the woes of the people are mounting.

While a move towards organic farming methods is certainly a plus, even the uneducated would know, that before any new plan is put into operation, that the old must be phased out gradually. Obviously, the so-called, highly educated Viyathmaga band helping run this government, is devoid of any common sense.

And so, farmers, fishermen, plantation workers, educationists and opposition politicians are banding together across the country to protest against the government. The country’s police force, who are there to protect and serve the public, are falling over themselves to carry out the order of the administration.

The police ought to be ashamed of themselves!

As the Bar Association has pointed out, none of the covid related regulations bans such gatherings, as long as masks are worn and physical distances maintained. But, taking a cue from the government, the police have become a law unto themselves; video footage covering a protest against the KDU Bill in Colombo, showed protestors being dragged away by the police. Not even elderly women were spared.

Ignoring the bail order of the Magistrate, protestors were whisked off to quarantine, without even a chance to collect a change of clothes. On whose orders are the police acting?

If anyone violated Covid regulations, it is the police, who were seen dragging off protestors to a waiting bus. Interestingly, the police were on their best behaviour when Samagi Jana Balavegaya, led by Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa engaged in a similar protest. Did they fear international condemnation if Opposition Parliamentarians were subjected to the same treatment as those other protestors? Were they fearful of an altercation between themselves and security personnel guarding parliamentarians? How come then that non-parliamentarian members of opposition parties leading protests across the country are being arrested?

Earlier this month consumer protection activist Asela Sampath was snatched from his home. It occurred at the same time Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the nation. Quick thinking by his family in raising the alarm, resulted in the CID admitting they had him.

Posting messages on social media too is becoming dangerous, with several being intimated, and some others arrested. The latest is journalist Tharindu Jayawardena, threatened for his Facebook post regarding Shani Abeysekara, the much-maligned Police Officer faulted for investigating the many atrocities that occurred during the Mahinda regime, by DIG Western Range, Deshabandu Tennekoon.

So is Sri Lanka now a Police State, with the blessings of the highest of the land?

Lawyers for the protestors have warned the police; acting in violation of the various regulations safeguarded by the constitution would result in legal action against the officers. Cases, they said would be filed against individual officers on a personal basis.

In the Mahinda presidency, the police and military alike did the bidding of that government. Will the police pay heed to the warnings of the legal profession this time around?

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