By Rajan Philips –
The President is trying to play bait and switch politics. Maithripala Sirisena became president promising to abolish the presidency. He took pride in navigating the passage of the 19th Amendment that was presented as the precursor to abolishment. Now Sirisena is blaming the 19th Amendment as the principal reason for his disastrous presidency. So, he wants to ‘abolish’ the 19th Amendment. Only he thinks that he is being clever. The country is facing a bigger problem than the Sirisena presidency, and abolishing not only the 19th Amendment but even the executive presidency is not going to solve the problem of rising anti-Muslim bigotry. The Easter Sunday attacks by Muslim extremists on Christian churches created not only a security and political crisis, but also a social crisis. While there has been no repeat of 1983, there are worrisome new developments that should concern everyone who does not espouse bigotry or is not influenced by it.
An aspect of the new anti-Muslim bigotry hollered out in a political column last Sunday in the assertion that the island’s Buddhists, Christians and Hindus have never been united at any time after independence as they are now. Left out of this new unity assertion are the Muslims. The ganging up on Muslims found its most abominable expression in the social and professional accursing of a Muslim Doctor affiliated to the Teaching Hospital in Kurunegala. This is a new low, if not the lowest of the low, in Sri Lanka’s inter-ethnic relationships. Communalism has always been the central feature in Sri Lankan politics, but the despicable targeting of a Muslim doctor signals the arrival of a new strain of the old communal virus.
Neither the President nor the Prime Minister is doing or saying anything about it, either jointly or severally. Nor is any other political leader or religious dignitary doing anything or sermonizing about it. The best that the President could do has been to reject the GMOA’s request for a presidential inquiry into one of their own members. Talk about trade union solidarity. When doctors start pretending to be workers, they end up being neither.
Scurrilous and Shameless
The details of the wildfire allegations against Dr. Segu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi, a Senior House Officer at the Teaching Hospital in Kurunegala, are well known and they are not worthy of anymore recounts. A scurrilous newspaper story and a shameless Facebook posting by an unworthy Professor of Pharmacology (the same discipline that the great Senaka Bibile adorned in his lifetime) set up a firestorm that a Muslim Doctor is surreptitiously sterilizing thousands of Sinhala Buddhist women while performing Caesarian surgery on them to deliver their babies. The purveyors of the manifestly ill-checked and independently unconfirmed news story were not concerned about any harm done to the allegedly sterilized women. They were morbidly excited by the story’s incendiary capacity to create national mischief that a Muslim doctor is sterilizing Sinhalese Buddhist women.
The narrative fitted into the global canard that began in France that Muslims are overrunning Europe with their high birth rate. The 2009 video lasting seven and half minutes and titled “Muslim Demographics” was an exposition of blatant lies and total fabrications. Yet it was watched 10 million times worldwide. The (Ludwig) Wittgenstein wisdom that a false newspaper story is not made true by reading fifty copies of the same newspaper is of little relevance in the so-called post-truth era. Inconvenient truths are dismissed as fake and falsehood gets a million free rides in the social media. The video from France had its viewers and ramifications in Sri Lanka, north and south. A doctor in Jaffna, apparently specializing in medical demographics, prescribed bigamy for Tamil men to boost their population. Lesser idiots started a canard in Batticaloa that a Muslim eatery was adding some substance to its food to sterilize non-Muslim men. The substance turned out to be lumps of flour – yes, after due analysis in a laboratory, but only after anti-Muslim riots had broken out in the East and around Kandy. That was 2018. Now, a Muslim doctor has been singled out as a sterilizer of Sinhala Buddhist women.
Can the lives of Dr. Shafi, his wife, Dr. Imara Shafi herself a Nephrologist at the same hospital, and their three young children (aged 15, 13 and 10), be ever the same again? Don’t the purveyors of such stories have children, or grandchildren, and families of their own? Or, is this their perversely presumptuous way to payback for Easter Sunday? Even if there is reason to suspect that a doctor is committing medical malpractice, doesn’t he/she deserve the due processes of professional inquiry and of law? Dr. Shafi’s politics, his association with the controversial Rishad Bathiudeen, and perceptions about his wealth may have been offensive to some. But there are many other ways for dealing with political disagreements, professional and social jealousies, and even ethnic hatred. Why abuse one’s salaried power in the media, or in the institutions of the state, to publicly slander and bring down another member of one’s society? Worse, why take this road and risk plunging the country into another 1983?
The basic expectations of investigative journalism are now well established: one, verification of the news story, especially such as the sterilization story, through multiple independent sources; and, two, giving plenty of opportunity to the alleged party to make a statement which should be included in the news story. If the party declines, that should be reported. Was any of this done for the newspaper story that started the whole saga? As for the Facebook posting by the pharmacologist, it broke the cardinal rule in interdisciplinary professional propriety – in that one does not act as an expert or proffer comments on any area other than one’s own discipline. Worse, the pharmacologist, and others (in Kurunegala) who started the complaints and the ‘case’ against Dr. Shafi, have been reported as having political connections to the SLPP, the elect-Gota enterprise, and Wimal Weerawansa. The counter or real facts that are now coming out are exposing the mischief that has been recklessly committed. Who will hold the miscreants to task or hold them accountable – newspaper owners, academic superiors, or law enforcement agencies?
A positive ending?
The counter-facts are now out, but those who recklessly disseminated the original unproven facts do not appear to be as eager, or for once feel responsible, to give the same publicity to Dr. Shafi’s version of events. To her credit and to the credit of those media people who interviewed her, Dr. Imara Shafi has been recounting the counter facts on behalf of her husband. An unsurprisingly comprehensive compilation of their facts has been provided by Dr. Shafi’s lawyers as part of his Fundamental Rights petition before the Supreme Court. It would be interesting and revealing to see what answers and explanations the respondents named in the petition will ever give?
It is not just Dr. Shafi’s wife and his lawyers who are contesting the fake story that has been dominating the news media for over a month, after the first appearance of the Divaina story on May 23. Last Thursday, June 27, the CID went before the Magistrate’s Court in Kurunegala and declared that – after a monthlong investigation involving recorded statements from more than 600 female complainants, 69 nurses, 26 doctors including Visiting Obstetrician and Gynaecologists (VOGs) and 14 minor staff employees who have worked with Dr. Shafi during his tenure at the Teaching Hospital, Kurunegala, the District Hospital, Galewela and Base Hospital, Dambulla – they (CID have found no evidence to substantiate any of the allegations against Dr. Shafi. No evidence, that is – to substantiate the allegations of blocking the fallopian tubes of mothers, illegally amassing wealth, or maintaining links with a terrorist organization. Not only no merit was found in any of the complaints, many of Dr. Shafi’s patients, the entire hospital staff who have worked with him, and doctors specializing in the field of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (and not Pharmacology) have attested to his honesty and integrity as a Doctor.
The police also admitted to irregularities in the arrest of Dr. Shafi, and further informed that the decision over the continued detention of Dr. Shafi would be made after discussions with the Secretary of Defence. The police seem to be in a bind because Dr. Shafi was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Hopefully, Dr. Shafi will not have to languish in detention for one and a half years (apparently reduced to one year now) – the time limit that the Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake publicly joked about to indicate the power that arresting authorities have suspects arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Mercifully, Dr. Shafi is not a suspect over anything, so there should be no reason whatsoever to detain him for a minute longer. Although, when the wretched allegations against him were going viral, Dr. Shafi may have found being in police custody a safer option than being out in the open. Lastly, we can only hope that Dr. Shafi and his family will be able to put this sordid experience behind them and move on.
What about the country? The fake sterilization saga is not the only manifestation of the current anti-Muslim bigotry in the country, although it has been the most dramatic one. On the positive side, the police must be commended for what they did in the Kurunegala Magistrate’s Court – for standing up for truth and justice and for admitting to their own irregularities. One would hope that there will be more like this from the Police Department in the future, and that no longer will the police be misdirected from doing the right thing by their superiors and their political masters. Kudos is also copiously due to all those Sinhalese Buddhists who personally and professionally stood up for truth and fairness, and in support of Dr. Shafi. They are the unreported and unsung repositories of the basic goodness of Sri Lanka. The country needs them and their voices need to be amplified over the din and clamour of the agents and fellow travellers of bigotry.
The political class has been patently disappointing. No one stood up in parliament to set the record straight and put the matter to rest. Here was an opportunity for the government to engage the country in some useful and ethno-neutral discussions on health policies and practices, hospital procedures and doctor-patient relationship. The vacuum as usual was filled through the visual and social media by fly-by-night specialists with personal and political agendas. It would be instructive for the government to provide information about the extent of Caesarian births and female sterilization in Sri Lanka, as global comparisons seem to place Sri Lanka among countries with higher than average rates of Caesarian deliveries as well as female sterilization. How common or rare is the practice in Sri Lanka to carry out sterilization along with C-section? There is reasonably good data on these practices for the different districts and provinces in Sri Lanka. What implications do they have for health policy development, nationally and specifically for different districts? Those who are familiar with these matters will know that only the women in the plantation communities have been targeted as a group for sterilization in Sri Lanka. Academics and researchers have noted this consistently, but it never hit the political radar the way the wild allegations against Dr. Shafi exploded on the national screen.
Unsurprisingly, there is no indication whatsoever of any serious thinking at the highest levels about addressing the Muslim Question which has social ramifications locally and foreign policy implications globally. There is no evidence of clarity, only inherent contradictions and unnecessary complications. Whatever thinking that is going on is electoral thinking and not strategic policy thinking. The facile assumption among some commentators is that the UNP/UNF is stuck with the Muslim vote, and that the SLPP opposition can reap the benefit of the apparent Buddhist-Christian-Hindu unity against the Muslims. The criticisms about the external alliances are exactly reversed. The presumptively Muslim-friendly UNP is also taken to task for leaning too much towards America and India even though their current governments are among the more anti-Muslim governments in today’s world.
One weekend commentator has even suggested that the Easter Sunday bombings may have been the result of ISIS wanting to teach a lesson after Sri Lanka renewed its pre-existing military agreements – the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) and the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) – with the US. There is still uncertainty about ISIS involvement in the Easter Sunday bombings, and there was no criticism of the military agreements with US before the Easter bombings. At the same time, The SLPP leadership is internally conflicted. The leading members of the Rajapaksa family are not too willing to let go of their footholds in the US. They also have to straddle the virulent Islamophobia of the upstart Sinhalese patriots, on the one hand, and the traditional anti-Americanism of the degenerate Sinhalese progressives. Like Donald Trump, the Rajapaksas are not seriously committed to any political position or principle but have the knack for making political success out of the lowest common extremisms in society.
The other actor on the political stage, Maithripala Sirisena thrust himself to the political foreground in November 2014 as a benign wildcard. Nearly five years later he has become a rogue wildcard. Gone are the shades of idealism that he flashed as everyone’s common candidate. With time in office and nothing done to talk about, Sirisena has come to view his office and its powers solely as his personal instruments to be used to serve his own narrow ends. After vainly exploring all avenues to be viable a candidate again, the incumbent President now seems to be trying sponsor a candidate whom he could claim to his political protégé. There is nothing secret about the political and personal love-in between Maithripala Sirisena and Sajith Premadasa. Two events last week suggest the logical consummation of this love-in is the potential candidacy of Sajith Premadasa.
First, President Sirisena chose the occasion of the 40th anniversary celebration of the commencement of the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) (viewed as patrimony from the late R. Premadasa to his son Sajith), to make his Einsteinian discovery that the 19th Amendment is the source of all evil. Second and no sooner came the letter from Moscow, from Ambassador Jayatilleka the past master of paternal validations, nicely using the twin anniversaries of the father to set up the stage for the presidential candidacy of the son. Where all these games will take the country to, no one knows, but there is no more hiding of Sajith Premadasa’s presidential ambitions and his emerging sponsors. It may be that Mr. Premadasa will present himself as a median alternative to the tedium of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the temerity of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Then there is Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who is also open to being a presidential candidate provided the United National Party unanimously asks him to be so.
All in all, the presidential election is becoming a round robin among aspirants until two people are left standing as candidates before the hustings. Not unlike the World Cup round robin that is going on in England and Wales, and whoever who wants to be in the final two will have to fare much better than the aimless way Sri Lanka folded before South Africa on Friday, after doggedly beating England a week earlier. In the game of cricket, the Sri Lankan team, with no shortage for flair, can regroup and regenerate itself with new leadership and new direction for the next time. There is no next time for any of the Sri Lankan political players who are throwing their hats into the presidential round robin. And they have no time either for the more serious challenges facing the country, especially the Muslim question. They don’t see it, they don’t hear, and they don’t want to touch it. But each one of them would like to be President. For what?