The situation in the country today is especially hard on those with low or fixed incomes. They are finding it hard to feed their families as they could do till the recent past. Their salaries have not changed over the past six months but prices have soared even those of staples such as rice, meats and vegetables. There is apprehension that people may face economic hardships on an even worse scale, and across the board, if the government fails to repay its loans and defaults on them. The agriculture secretary who was sacked through a WhatsApp message had warned that the country could face severe food shortages by April. Already there are ships in the harbours and containers in the ports that cannot be cleared as there is no foreign exchange pay for them.
There are also groups of people who are living an affluent lifestyle in the midst of this crisis. One of the reasons given for the prorogation of parliament was that it was to give parliamentarians a break to enjoy the Christmas vacation with their families. The media subsequently reported that as many as 60 of them had gone abroad with their families. They have not encountered the dollar shortage that the country is facing. The question is how they are doing so well when the masses of people are doing so badly. The belief that the lifestyle of the rules and ruled are far apart may explain the jeers and hooting that have manifested at restaurants and public events attended by leaders of the government. “Let them eat cake” is the quote attributed to Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France before the French Revolution.
The Catholic priest and theologian, Fr Aloysius Pieris has written an article on Celebrating Christmas Amidst a Political Crisis. He looks at the period in which Jesus Christ was born, makes his observations and leaves his readers to come to their conclusions. The situation that existed over 2000 years ago in the Middle East bears many resemblances to Sri Lanka today, and also to other countries at various stages of their evolution. The message of hope is that over the past two millennia, the struggles of great individuals, and groups of people, have led to the development of institutional mechanisms that prevent such abuses. It requires leaders willing to give leadership to take up the challenge of implementation.
There are five parallels that we can draw from the account of Christmas by Fr Pieris. The first is the nature of the ruler of that time when Jesus lived, Herod of Galilee who has been described as a ruler who was dependent on a foreign power (Rome). He was used by another country, which through him, kept his own people in subjugation. Second, Herod was involved in major development projects, such as a port and the building of the temple of Jerusalem which had been started by his father. He was therefore able to obtain the support of the religious clergy. Third, he lived with a large number of bodyguards as he lived in fear for his life.
The fourth parallel is that the king felt politically insecure and this made him resort to violence. When he heard that another king was to be born (Jesus, whom he mistook for a worldly king like himself) he ordered all new born male infants to be killed. As a result the first Christmas took place in the midst of nationwide bloodshed and political turmoil, much like the elections that took in the aftermath of the Easter bombing and killing of innocents. Fifth, the Roman emperor, Augustus, believed himself to be a god, and groomed his adopted son to be his successor. Fr Pieris ends his article with encouragement that “the Prince of Peace who is in our midst with a promise to deliver us from violence and oppression, not with weapons of war but disarming love, not alone but with all People of Goodwill, obviously expecting us to be among them.”
In particular the issues of impunity and corruption loom large as Sri Lanka heads towards the New Year. Holding people to account for the wrongs or mistakes they may have committed has not been in evidence where it concerns those who are politically powerful or connected to those who are politically powerful. A few months ago a government minister entered a high security prison and intimidated prisoners with his gun. Various committees were appointed to look into the matter but the outcome is unknown. The search for the masterminds behind the Easter bombing, sugar scam, central bank scam remain in abeyance. The New Fortress power plant deal is pending. The indemnity clause for government officials that states that action taken in good faith cannot be challenged in a court of law or for the officials to be personally charged needs to be removed and they need to be answerable as administrators to the law and charged as necessary.
The low key manner in which the issue of exploding gas cylinders is being viewed is another example of impunity. Over 800 gas cylinders used by people for their cooking needs have exploded in the past few months. At least seven people have been killed including a mother of three small children. The findings of the committee appointed by the president is that the composition of the gases inside the cylinders were changed, which led to the pressure inside the cylinders increasing. But the impunity to those who put profit before safety appears to be secure. The burden of loss, even of life or of homes being burned down, falls where it lands. This may be due to the fact that those who have been affected are largely poor and powerless people, which is a disgraceful sign of the relative worth of lives in our country today. This is unacceptable in a civilized country that has taken pride in its traditional ethos of caring for those who are less privileged.
Ideas and methods of governance have evolved over the past two thousand years, since the days of King Herod and the imperial Roman army. We do not have to tread that path. More than the targeting of individuals, systems need to change. Institutions that check and balance power, that ensure accountability and prevent impunity, and hold government leaders to standards of honesty and non-corruption are available due to the sacrifices by great and committed people down the millennia such as Bishop Desmond Tutu who passed away this week. They require a shift of mindset by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his advisors and government to be adapted to Sri Lankan conditions and implemented. People may be silent today but they are not ignorant and many empires (and governments) have collapsed when the impunity and corruption has gone beyond the limits.