Colombo Telegraph

Father-In-Law Austin; A White Belly Turns Yellow

By Sarath De Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

This commentary is an effort of plain speaking to repossess the spirit of the movement that made 8th January possible. In less than eight weeks, we will reach the first anniversary of the Maithri Presidency. The avidity of late January has given way to abject apathy in early November.

The essence of what was perceived then as an epochal transformation is captured in this anecdotal point of reference with which the Time Magazine accentuated the Maithripala presidency.

“When the Sri Lankan President’s motorcade encounters a red light now on the streets of the capital, Colombo, it does something unthinkable just months ago—it stops and waits for a green signal.”

You cannot step in the same river twice. That is the perpetual tragedy of the human kind. President Sirisena and Premier Wickeremesinghe are human.

8th January was an idea of which the time had arrived. In the age of broad band connectivity people at every level wished to participate in the leadership process.

The new President himself stressed the import of the movement that catapulted him to the presidency with disarming sincerity. He told the Time Magazine “For a short period after being elected, I was not really certain that I am the President.”

This commentary is constructed on the reasonable premise that history is the sum total of things that could have been avoided. The election of President Maithripala Sirisena was the result of an idea whose time had come.

Ideas are not intellectual toys. Ideas have consequences, for good and for ill. That is the ‘real world.’

This is an effort to understand that real world which holds the President and Prime minister hostage to political and parochial compulsions. It appears that both have put politics ahead of governance.

Governance is the process of steering and managing the government. Politics is about parleying on who gets the opportunity to pull the strings. One is a process. The other is a pursuit.
Governance is about baking the pie. Politics is about distributing the pie.

Although it may seem to be unfair, the government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe needs to be subject to scrutiny with a ferocity that has no precedent. They sought and obtained a mandate for good governance.

In the age of broadband connectivity their omissions and commissions are condemned or hailed instantly and irretrievably.

Governance is a concept subject to qualitative assessment.

That is precisely what this commentator proposes to do by citing the example of Mr. Manoj Warnapala whom the government has made the new counsellor in our High Commission in London. He is a Solicitor domiciled in the United Kingdom. Until his new diplomatic appointment he practiced as a solicitor with Caveat Solicitors Limited, TEK House, and 11-13 Uxbridge Road, London, W12 8LH. The Blurb in its website informs us that Manoj Warnapala currently heads the firm’s housing department. Manoj is fluent in Sinhalese and has a wide range of skills that enable him to represent different types of clients from all backgrounds.”

He is the son-in-law of Mr. Austin Fernando Distinguished Public Servant, Governor of the Eastern Province, Presidential Confidante, and Handpicked Defense Secretary of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the author of the tome ‘My Belly is White – Reminiscences of a Peacetime Secretary of Defense’. Mr. Austin Fernando is therefore, the quintessential insider of the Maithri Ranil consensus government.

This commentator derives no pleasure in this distasteful exercise of criticizing a distinguished public servant he has neither met nor dealt with. But for this injudicious episode, this commentator may have never concerned himself with the career path of a young solicitor in London.

Mr. Austin Fernando is the author of the tome “My Belly is White”. He explains why he titled the book “My Belly is White”. He has borrowed the title from an African folk tale in the book ‘Gab Boys’ written by Cameron Duodu the Ghanaian writer.” In the folk tale, the Snake Oprammire, unjustly accused and cut in two, exposes its ‘pure’ white belly and appeals to god that his heart is as white as the underside of its belly. The author similarly ‘exonerates’ himself and his colleagues from criticism levelled at the cease fire agreement. He rightly asserts that public servants can only rise to the call of duty.

It was only after Mr. Austin Fenando emerged as a prominent figure in the post 8th January 2015 firmament, that this commentator read the book ‘My Belly is White.” It was only to discover the man who was publicly acknowledged by the new President as one who mentored him in his early days. The author of ‘My belly is white is an idealistic and upright public servant. On page 189 of his magnum opus Austin Fernando reproduces an extract from the poem ‘God give us men’ by Josiah Gilbert Holland.

“God, give us Men! A time like these demands

Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;

Men whom the lust of office does not kill;

Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy;

Men who possess opinions and a will; 

Men who have honor; men who will not lie……,”

Then he laments “For six decades God has not heard our prayers, even sparingly.”

With that slight detour to God’s garden behind us we return to folk tales.

There is another African folk tale that has an immediate and urgent relevance to the Good Governance project of President Maithripala Sirisena.

It is a folk tale of the Ndebele tribe in Southern Africa, about the Great Race between the Hare and the Tortoise.It is borrowed from that marvelous anthology of South African folk tales – ‘The Quivering Spear’ by Thomas A Nevin.

This tale narrated around Ndebele fires in Southern Transvaal is quite reminiscent of the race between Mahinda the Hare and Maithri the Tortoise. We all know that Mahinda the Hare did not go for a nap in the midst of the race.

The story is about Umvundla the Hare and Ufudu the Tortoise. Once the challenge was made and accepted the race was to be from the home of Ufudu the Tortoise to the big rock pool.

Ufudu gathered all the tortoises two days before the race. Now if you had been at that meeting of Tortoises you would realize that all tortoises look alike. They made up the ‘Aluth Parapura.’ He told his Tortoise colleagues ‘This is what you should do. The race takes place from my home to the Rock pool. Each one of you must hide in a different place and wait. Then sharp at noon each one of you must walk towards the rock pool.

Ufudu the Tortoise allocated a spot for each tortoise along the race course much in the manner that Venerable Sobhitha did. Now to revert to Thomas Nevin’s engaging prose. “At the starting line, the Hare hopped from one foot to another. The Tortoise stood quietly waiting. He was completely relaxed. “

‘Indlovu’ the Elephant had been appointed the official starter. He lifted his trunk and issued a piercing trumpet call. The race was on. The Hare sprinted off. In seconds he was out of sight. The Tortoise took a few lumbering steps and then walked off to the glade.

Meanwhile the Hare was baffled. Every time he looked up there was Ufudu the Tortoise ahead of him. He took one last bit of strength and bounded towards the finishing line. But before he got there, he gave a cry and collapsed. Ufudu the Tortoise was waiting for him!

The race on 8th January was won because all we Tortoises 6,217,162 of us of an ‘Aluth Parapura’ crawled to the rock pool in unison. It is not just a folk tale. It was a miracle. No one has the right to maim a miracle.

We have now subscribed to the Open Government Partnership. We are yet to agree on a code of standards in public life. The Prime Minster is known to favour Latimer House Principles on Judicial standards.

His administration may not frown on House of Commons standards recommended for holders of public office. “ Citizens have a right to expect that holders of public office who take decisions which affect their lives should do so with impartiality, should be truthful about what they are doing and should use public money wisely. Society expects decisions to be made fairly and on merit and not influenced by personal or private interests.”

We must return to the forgotten poetry of Josiah Holland. What was not quoted from Holland’s poem ‘God give us Men’ by Mr. Austin Fernando is a fitting end to this lament on good governance or the lack of it.

“For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds,

Their large professions and their little deeds,

Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps,

Wrong rules the land and waiting Justice sleeps.”

In this instance, Homer nods, falls asleep and slips off his pedestal.

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