Gotabaya Rajapaksa‘s assumption of office as President almost coincided with the outbreak of coronavirus in Sri Lanka. Projecting a warrior image as the alter ego of Dutugemunu who defeated the Tamils and asserted Sinhala supremacy and exhibiting aggressive postures as a no-nonsense tough guy – an Adolf Hitler wannabe at that – from day one Gotabaya proceeded to mobilize his musclemen from the military to run his administration. He has since incrementally deployed the infantry, cavalry and artillery men to take charge of different state agencies in the public sector.
Rajapaksas cabal – An anachronism
When COVID-19 surfaced and the pandemic was poised to spread across the globe, the WHO and the nations around the world mobilized commando teams of medical specialists, healthcare professionals and researchers to deal with the emerging situation.
In Sri Lanka, ministers and monks bragged about Rajapaksas’ punching power and complacently contended that they would defeat the deadly coronavirus in the same way as they defeated the deadly LTTE ‘terrorists’. Naïve nationalists swallowed the grandiose claim hook, line, and sinker. Replicating government leaders’ gullibility, sections of the innocent citizenry drank a ‘miracle’ COVID potion concocted by self-styled holy man who claimed to have received its recipe from Hindu goddess Kali.
Rajapaksas are an anachronism in the contemporary political realm. Gotabaya set up a military task force to deal with the pandemic and appointed Shavendra Silva, the Commander of the Army, at its helm. The military-led response to coronavirus has been an anomaly and a disaster. “When the enemy is a biological virus – which cannot be abducted, killed or tortured into silence and is entirely impervious to propaganda campaigns – the President is at a loss. Of course, this did not stop Gotabaya Rajapaksa from reverting to type, embracing militarisation and racism with equal vigour.” (Groundviews, 2 Feb.2021 -“The Defence Secretary and the President”)
Disgruntled Medical fraternity
Predictably, marginalization of healthcare professionals had caused much consternation among the medical fraternity:
“The decision taken by the Government to allow the three armed Forces personnel to carry out the vaccination drive at their hospitals has created a lot of confusion, the Government Medical Officers Association claimed…..(T)he Epidemiology Unit handed over the vaccination programme to armed Forces personnel to be carried out at their hospitals without giving the critical responsibility to the Health Ministry hospital network. This has created great confusion,” he (Dr. Senal Fernando, GMOA Secretary) pointed out. “This is an emergency situation related to the Health sector and not a war with any terrorist organization,” he added (Daily Mirror, 7 July 2021- “GMOA lambasts Govt.’s move to allow armed Forces to vaccinate people”).
Media – muffled voices
Rajapaksa’ acolytes from the mainstream media may have opted to complain in muffled voices. The docile “Daily Mirror”, perhaps fearing reprisals, meekly mumbled editorially:
“Perhaps it would be better if professionals are given a hand in seeking solutions to economic and medical problems” (Daily Mirror, 12 July 2021).
Noted columnist Ms. Kishali Pinto-Jayawardene has, recently, in her weekly Column identified the foul-ups and fault-lines which have undermined COVID management in Sri Lanka: (Excerpts)
“As much this millennium’s devastating global pandemic has brought deaths, destruction of livelihoods and mindless misery to millions across borders, there is a harsh mirror that it holds up to us. Political braggadocio and military might do not stop this virus; sensible public health leadership does. It is as simple as that…….Does it really need an Army Commander with his uniform emblazoned with medals to solemnly inform us that a country wide ( ‘purported’) ‘lockdown’ will continue for another week? ”(Sunday Times, 29 Aug. 2021 – “How Sri Lanka’s militarised covid policy led to a dreadful humpty-dumpty fall” )
Tamil Nadu (TN)
Now, let’s shift the focus to the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, the land of the “clowns” (Courtesy, Gotabaya Rajapaksa). While Gotabaya called the Tamil Nadu leaders “clowns”, ex-Army Chief Sarath Fonseka had maligned them as “jokers”. It’s another matter altogether that Gotabaya had, in the days of yore, chosen to undergo part of his advanced defence studies/training at coveted academies in the land of the ‘clowns’ – at the University of Madras and at the Wellington Defence Staff College in Nilgiris, in Tamil Nadu (1981-83).
TN Task Force on COVID Management
Presently, the DMK party with its Chief Minister M.K. Stalin ( the late Mr. M. Karunanidhi’s son) is in power in TN – since early May, 2021. TN government has constituted a 14-member Task Force under a retired IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer……that will assist the expert committee headed by the Chief Minister for COVID-19 management activities. According to media reports:
“The committee will have an advisory role and it will conduct meetings periodically and monitor the action taken on suggestions,…… Non-official members in the task force are Dr. P. Kuganantham (Public Health Consultant, Indian Public Health Forum, and ex-Director, Communicable Diseases Hospital, Chennai ; Dr. K. Kolandaswamy (Retired Director of Public Health Department, Tamil Nadu); Manoj Murhekar, Director of the National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, and Jayaprakash Muliyil, Epidemiologist at the Christian Medical College, Vellore.”
“Health Secretary, Officer on Special Duty to the Health and Family Welfare Department, Director of Medical and Rural Health Services, Director of Medical Education, Director of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Mission Director of the National Health Mission, Managing Director of the Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation Limited and Chairman of the Medical Services Recruitment Board will be the other members. Joint Secretary of the Health and Family Welfare Department will be the member-secretary of the panel. …….(T)he committee can co-opt additional members as per need.” (The Hindu, 5 June 2021 – “Task force set up to assist expert panel for COVID-19 management”).
Incentives to Medicos, etc.
Rajapaksas may be at their wit’s end wondering how the TN government could fight the pandemic without involving the brawny musclemen from the military! In the meantime, in appreciation of the extraordinary service rendered by medical professionals and healthcare workers during the second wave peak of the pandemic in April, May and June 2021, the TN government had offered cash incentives to them for three months. Also, Chief Minister Stalin has awarded a solatium payment to the families of doctors who have lost their lives while engaged in treating COVID-19 patients and related work. (New Indian Express, 12 May 2021- “TN CM announces Rs 25 lakh each as solatium to kin of 43 doctors……” )
BTW: Supreme Court of India in New Delhi, in an obiter dictum in the course of an Appeal hearing, has recently commended the Tamil Nadu health infrastructure system: “Tamil Nadu has one of the better health infrastructure in the country,” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud orally remarked at a virtual hearing and added “It was on show during second wave of COVID-19”( The Hindu, 8 July 2021 –“TN’s health infrastructure comes in for praise from SC” ).
Medicare at doorstep
Last week, TN government has launched an ambitious medicare scheme, ‘Makkalai Thedi Maruthuvam’, (literally meaning, “Medicare in search of (sick) people”). Explaining the program, Chief Minister Stalin said the scheme was also part of the 7-point vision of his government that envisioned an “enhanced quality of life for all.” “Makkalai Thedi Maruthuvam will ring in an era of healthcare delivery, where people need not come to the hospitals but have access to medicine and screening at their doorstep,” he said. The scheme was initially launched in seven districts, including Chennai. By end of the year, the government is hoping to extend the scheme to the entire state. (Hindu, 05 Aug. 2021 – “TN CM launches Makkalai Thedi Maruthuvam scheme” ).
Gota’s ad hoc Task Forces
President Gotabaya proceeded to establish a dozen or so ad hoc Task Forces charged with different tasks. On 2nd June 2020 he established a 13-member “Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society.” (“A loud-sounding nothing”! – per Austrian statesman Metternich, 1773-1859, made in a different context). This Task Force, composed entirely of military, intelligence and police officials was to be headed by Defence Secretary, Major General Kamal Gunaratne. Civil society activists had raised concern about its composition, while the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) had condemned it outright : “This Presidential Task Force constitutes another act of over-reach by a government ….” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “Its mandate is overbroad, and it empowers its military and police membership – including alleged war criminals – at a time when strong, independent, civilian-led policy-making is what is needed.” (ICJ, 5 June 2020 – “Sri Lanka: Newly constituted Presidential Task Force threatens rule of law ”)
Archeology in EP – Evil designs
‘Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province ’established by Gotabaya on 2nd June 2020 was intended for an egregious purpose, motivated by downright evil designs. Eastern Province (EP) has been a Tamil-speaking territory traditionally inhabited by Tamil and Muslim people. Despite successive state-sponsored ‘colonization’ schemes (read ‘Sinhalization’, commencing with Gal Oya Project in 1948) EP still remains a predominantly Tamil-speaking area. The Task Force comprising 11 members, including two chauvinistic Buddhist monks, Defence Secretary, Senior DIG (WP), ‘Derana’ Media chief Dilith Jayaweera and 6 other officials of Sinhala-Buddhist mould, is exclusively a Sinhala Buddhist team sans any Tamil or Muslim member.
Entreaties by Tamil leaders to include qualified Tamil/Muslim professional(s) on the team were of no avail. Gotabaya’s macabre message is that the Tamils/Muslims have no stakes or share in the heritage to be discovered and dug out in the EP.Task Force member Ellawala Medhananda Thero had already, years ago, aggressively asserted Sinhala-Buddhist claims over the Tamil habitats (Vide-Thero’s book on “Sinhala-Buddhist Heritage in Northern and Eastern Provinces-2003).Thus, the Task Force is in effect mandated to accelerate the process of Sinhala-Buddhistization of EP.
Aggression in the North
The North is not immune from the iniquitous excavation missions led by rabid Buddhist monks, backed by the military/police personnel, rummaging for relics of Sinhala-Buddhist heritage. Vanni region bear the brunt of extensive land-grab and spurious heritage claims. Recently, a new Buddha statue was installed and foundation was laid for a Buddhist temple at Athi Aiyanar Hindu temple site at Kurunthurmalai on a hilltop in Kumulamunai area, Mullaitivu, with the participation of Sri Lanka’s state minister for ‘national heritage’, monks, army men,police personnel and archaeology department officers – everything done in defiance of an earlier Court Order against disturbing the status quo. Resistance from the local Tamil residents was crushed by jackboot tactics. Often, original Hindu idols found on such sites are destroyed or vandalized.
Oddly enough, ‘The Island’ newspaper, the mouthpiece of the SB ultra-nationalist camp has, perhaps during a lucid interval of neurological normality, published a matter-of-fact article by an anonymous writer (claiming to be ‘a Free-thinking Sinhala Buddhist’) which captures glimpses of the land-grab aggression in the North-East:
“The role of the Army along with the Buddhist priests in establishing new places of worship or reviving temples that have remained dormant for many decades in areas with hardly any Buddhist residents is being treated with suspicion. Buddhist monks from elsewhere are being “planted” in these temples. As there are hardly any Buddhists in the vicinity, they are being serviced and provided with security by the Army. It appears that the local non-Buddhist population is coerced by the forces into participating in various religious functions. These activities may give the impression that there could be a sinister long-term plan to colonise the area with Sinhala Buddhists.”……“(T)he fact that Tamil Hindus were the vast majority in the North for hundreds of years should be accepted and respected. Any seemingly state-sponsored attempts to upset that demography will undoubtedly arouse much hostility. It is disappointing that the committee appointed recently to preserve the cultural heritage in the North and East has no representation of the minorities.” (The Island, 10 April 2021 – “Monumental blunders paralysing Sri Lanka”)
While Gotabaya has established a ‘Sinhala’ Task Force to bolster the archeological heritage claims of Sinhala-Buddhists and structurally destroy or dispute/deny the claims of Tamil/Muslim inhabitants of the NE region, let’s see later, how the Tamil Nadu government has chosen to address the issues/concerns of the religious and linguistic minorities in the State.
*To be continued…