Erring on the side of caution?
Posted on June 5th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

The recent furore over eastern province chief minister  SLMC provincial council member Ahmed Nazeer’s outrageously humiliating treatment of the commanding officer of the Sampur navy camp Captain I.R. Premaratne during a function at Sampur Maha Vidyalaya in Trincomalee presided over by the provincial governor Austin Fernando and graced by the American ambassador Atul  Keshap on May 20, 2016 naturally called to mind by contrast the government’s lighthearted reaction to  official Opposition and TNA leader R. Sampanthan’s deliberate trespass with a group of supporters into the army camp at Kilinochchi in the north a few weeks before that. Prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe thought it fit to dismiss the usually decent MP Sampanthan’s apparent  insolence with a joke or as  part of a joke. The peace-loving  public’s anger that the eastern province  CM’s disgraceful conduct provoked throughout the country  was exacerbated by their inevitable recall of that light dismissal of what appeared to them as a challenge to the government’s authority in the area. My feeling as a Sri Lankan is that the people’s outrage in this later instance should be treated as a warning to the powers that be to take meaningful steps to investigate why such displays of discontent are staged  and determine the causative factors. We would rather the dog wagged the tail, without allowing the opposite to happen.

Of course, it must be admitted that spontaneous public perceptions of the respective incidents may be too superficial to be treated as being based on a sound understanding of the deeper issues involved in those episodes. These issues are certain problems that have still failed to be resolved peacefully without aggressive foreign interference getting in the way. Yet, ultimately the common people’s instinctive reading of the particular events is most likely to be correct: they are open threats, however seemingly trivial, to the survival of the unitary status of the Sri Lankan state. The country remaining whole is vital to its future wellbeing (meaning the economic prosperity and the physical security of all the communities that make it their home).

According to the media, a leading monk from the area, Ven. Ampitiye Sumanarathana, called on the chief minister at his residence to protest against his unacceptable conduct towards the navy officer. The monk also led a peaceful demonstration in the town. The monk’s move will be interpreted by the few English-speaking  anti-national communalists in the media as an example of intolerant nationalist extremism  on the part of the majority community. A few days later it was reported that the chief minister  tendered an apology to the navy, the governor, the US ambassador, and the school children and parents who were made to witness the undignified scene. That could be expected to provide a closure to the unpleasant affair, but its sinister implications are bound to reverberate for some time to come. In any case, it remains the responsibility of the government to prevent situations being contrived by irresponsible  politicos of Nazeer’s ilk that would provoke less peaceful methods of protest by ordinary Sri Lankans who, contrary to foreign perceptions, are the real victims of communalism. The government, we (ordinary Sri Lankans) hope, will not relinquish its responsibility and lose its initiative to scheming outsiders when dealing with the longstanding domestic crisis involving the unreasonable demand for a separate state in Sri Lanka. The suddenly galvanized drive for federalism is only  an unfailing step towards separation. That is the perception that the vast majority of ordinary Sri Lankans have. Creating co-existing ethnic enclaves is not the way to unity.

Watching the video of the Sampur incident I thought it looked as though governor  Austin Fernando left the hapless navy officer in the lurch. The embarrassed Captain Premaratne, uncertain how to react to the chief minister’s shocking outburst, moved behind governor Fernando and stood there, presumably, asking for his instructions or intervention. Since, in a moment,  Captain Premaratne moved back to where he was standing before, I thought that the governor had asked him to stay on the stage ignoring the irate politician’s abusive rant. After shouting at Captain Premaratne, chief minister Nazeer turned on the governor himself, haranguing him about the officer having violated what he called the ‘protocol’, and blamed the governor for his own alleged remissness in understanding  and observing proper protocol!

(Ahmed Nazeer, according to information given in a reliable website I usually visit, has been the owner of a photography business in Colombo. I heard on TV an ignorant government minister  describing him as a former supreme court judge who should know better. Some government minister! Some supreme court judge turned-politician!)

Chief minister Nazeer’s uncalled for berating of the commanding officer of the SLN base at Sampur has been roundly condemned on all sides as it should, but the protocol argument he raised deserves  careful attention. The composition of the Eastern Province administration which Nazeer heads as chief minister is such that it  may naturally be expected to demonstrate a perfect rapport between it and the central government, because Nazeer is from the SLMC, which is a constituent partner of the coalition government led by the UNP in collaboration with  some members of the SLFP; the TNA is also represented in it. The insignificant official opposition at the centre led by TNA’s Sampathan is virtually a part of the government, which is a unique feature of the ruling coalition. Fortunately, the Joint Opposition is fulfilling the responsibilities of a democratic opposition despite various undue pressures.

Now the governor represents the central government, and is hierarchically above the chief minister. Governor Austin Fernando is a seasoned government functionary. It is highly unlikely that he would go wrong in a matter like this. However, it looked as if he was playing second fiddle to the chief minister, which was not according to protocol (or did Nazeer act in ignorance of this?). Shouldn’t governor Fernando have asserted his authority and rescued the navy officer from that indignity inflicted on him in the presence of dignitaries including the American ambassador, and perhaps, more important, shouldn’t  he  have demonstrated that the eastern province was still part of the Sri Lankan state by restraining the offensive chief minister more effectively?  Perhaps,  governor Fernando erred on the side of caution. As a well disciplined navy officer, on his part, Captain Premaratne was not doing politics and was not ready to kowtow to any politician ; he was only performing his duty as a loyal member of the Sri Lankan defence establishment; he had nothing to do with politics. If he was guilty of anything, it was that he was so wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the success of the school project which the navy had carried out in collaboration with a private business firm (Richard Peiris Co.) to think too much about having to be careful not to prick the bloated egos of potential political bullies.

The government’s cautious response to the untoward incident is understandable, but it is hoped that it will not degenerate into mere, irresponsibly timid, political correctness. At the same time, political parties, groups and individuals who criticize the cm’s tantrum as something unacceptable and shout slogans denouncing perceived threats to the lives and dignity of the soldiers who wrested the country from the clutches of terrorism must not be attacked as nationalist extremists or worse as rabid racists, for our recent experiences prove that their concerns are genuine are well founded.

The government’s countermanding of the defence ministry- ordered boycott by the armed forces of events attended by the chief minister in question must be appreciated. But it should not be seen as a reason for underestimating the severity of the cm’s misdemeanor on the occasion or as acknowledgement of some of the blame by the security forces.

One Response to “Erring on the side of caution?”

  1. plumblossom Says:

    Yesterday, the third largest arms storage facility of the Sri Lankan Army went up in flames. Is this sabotage by the Yahapalanaya Government itself to weaken our Armed Forces? Weapons worth millions of US dollars went up in flames. Was Ranil, Sirisena, CBK, Mangala, RAW, the US, the UK, the EU, Norway, Sweden, Canada behind this? Is this to weaken our Armed Forces so that the TNA separatist terrorists can get what they want via constitutional changes i.e. Eelam?

    A great danger facing Sri Lanka is the proposed constitutional changes. UNP MPs frequently come on discussion forums on TV and state that the policy of the UNP is maximum devolution of power within a unitary state. However, you cannot any longer call yourself a unitary state if you devolve too much power in the first place! Even now with the 13th amendment in force, Sri Lanka is no longer a unitary state. I would suggest that the Global Sri Lankan Forum write a press release suggesting that no more power should be devolved to the provincial councils than they have at present and especially not land, police and fiscal powers. The GSLF should demand unequivocally that North East Sri Lanka is definitely not a Tamil homeland as stated in the 13th amendment but the homeland of firstly the Sinhala Buddhists (as per the history and archaeology of the island) and subsequently and at present the homeland of all the people of Sri Lanka in total. The GSLF should absolutely demand this change be brought on as part of the13th amendment. The clause in the 13th amendment which says that any two provinces can be merged should also be deleted.

    GSLF, please write a press release and release this to the Sri Lankan press immediately before Ranil, Sirisena, CBK and Managla bring on a federal constitution (disguised as ‘unitary’) with extremely wide powers with the North East being merged (effectively an Eelam) as what the TNA separatist terrorists, the US imperialists, the UK, the EU, Canada, Norway, Sweden and India wants.

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