Confusion and chaos seem to reign! | Sunday Observer

Confusion and chaos seem to reign!

These days there is a lot of soul searching in the two main political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as to why they lost the local government election, and one is blaming the other while their common rival, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) revels in its victory. Various reasons- and scapegoats- have been identified: the Central Bank scandal, economic hardships imposed on the people, the inability to prosecute those suspected of corruption in the previous regime, and so the list goes on. Not many people realize however, that this government does not seem to be able to get its acts together on almost anything and is unable to arrive at clear cut decisions and then implement them. The result: confusion, chaos, a perplexed electorate and a government which doesn’t know whether it is coming or going. Consider the following examples:

Example 1: Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera lifts restrictions on women buying alcohol. It was said the decision was aimed at reducing gender discrimination. Days later, the decision is reversed by a Presidential directive, following protests that it would encourage drinking. We are not arguing the pros and cons of the original decision or its reversal. The fact is that one arm of the government was not aware of what the other was doing. So, when what appears to be a major policy decision with wide social implications is reversed almost overnight, the government is left with a lot of egg on its face.

Example 2: Sri Lanka’s Defence Attache at its High Commission in London, Brigadier Priyanka Fernando makes a ‘throat slitting gesture’ towards Tamil Tiger sympathizers protesting outside the High Commission. It is promptly announced that Fernando is suspended.

Social media erupts in support of Fernando and on the eve of local government elections the SLPP plays its familiar card that the government is ‘persecuting war heroes’. Fernando’s suspension is then revoked. Clearly, Fernando was in London more as a diplomat than a soldier. Therefore, he should not have done what he did. What the government did however was worse. First, it played to the human rights lobby gallery and suspended Fernando without so much as an inquiry. Then, faced with the political backlash at home, it reversed its decision without batting an eyelid.

The Army meanwhile, went on record saying there was no inquiry against the officer. Again, the debacle is not about what Brigadier Fernando did or whether it was right or wrong. It was the government’s response that was appalling. At first, it suspended an officer without an inquiry to appease lobby groups. Then, believing that two wrongs would make it right, the suspension was lifted, also without an inquiry. The latest we have in this saga is that he has been recalled to Colombo for ‘consultations’, whatever that means!

Example 3: The government announces a budget proposal in November 2016 to provide tablet computers (‘tabs’) to Advanced Level students. The ambitious project is hailed internationally. It is said to cost five billion rupees and benefit some 175,000 students and 28,000 teachers. This week, it has been announced that the project has been suspended as there were other areas in the education sector which need to be prioritized. One politician went on record asking whether tabs were the need of the hour when some schools didn’t have sufficient desks and chairs. He may have a point there, but others will ask whether we need to fulfil all the ‘basic’ needs of all the schools before modernising education. Of course, there will be different views on the issue as to what the priorities are. But, how is it that the budget proposal presented first to Cabinet and then to Parliament and endorsed by the latter, suddenly gets shoved in the wastepaper basket for not being a ‘priority’? Surely, those in government could not have been in slumber when it accepted the proposal and allocated a massive five billion rupees for it. More than a year later, it has suddenly ceased to become a ‘priority’. The latest bulletin from the Education Ministry is that the project will be implemented after ‘considering other priorities’!

Example 4: Over many months and years the government laboured to formulate a resolution to the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine issue, better known as SAITM. A committee headed by Minister Harsha de Silva worked long and hard to arrive at a solution acceptable to all.

It was decided to affiliate SAITM to the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology with the latter gradually taking over the former which will cease to exist. University students who boycotted lectures over the SAITM issue returned to work following this agreement. This week, lo and behold, it is announced that SAITM will be affiliated to the Kotelawela Defence University instead. There is not a word uttered about the previous proposal.

Surely, if that was the plan, all those years students spent protesting and doctors spent staging strikes putting the lives of thousands of patients at risk amounts to nothing? When the SAITM issue emerged and there were protests in every street corner, the government did not budge, saying it was committed to a policy of private medical education.

Whatever the solution to the SAITM issue, it said, private medical education in Sri Lanka would continue. Now, it appeared to have caved in, lock stock and barrel and abandoned its policy without giving it a second thought. If the government- both the UNP and the SLFP- wants answers as to why it lost the election, it must review these events. The public perception is of a government that is incompetent and inefficient. As someone pithily commented ‘it cannot even engage in corruption efficiently, without getting caught’.

The government is seen as floundering from one mistake to another, with no clear sense of policy or direction. Their predecessors, voters say, ‘got things done’- be it development or corruption. And voters seem to prefer the latter- and you can’t really blame them, can you?