19 February 2012

Stop scripting insurrection

Poverty is not oozing out of the city seams, but this doesn’t mean people are free of anxiety.  Although less than 9% are said to be below the poverty line, around 20% of the population remain undernourished while close to half the population don’t meet the minimum recommended dietary energy consumption levels. 
Those who complain of difficulty are silent on subsidies they enjoy, from pre-birth (courtesy midwives) through childhood and youth (education and health) and throughout life (food, fuel and other subsidies).  In short human beings are perennial and happy victims of the Oliver Twist syndrome: asking for and wanting more is almost part of our DNA. 
But if it is all about perception and self-interest then those who are less well-off will always take note of differences in consumption levels and in particular be very alert to conspicuous flouting of wealth, over-consumption and in-your-face arrogance.  When all benefits enjoyed are taken for granted, perceived as birth right and these perceptions are affirmed by politicians for expedient purposes, then any ‘taking away’ naturally provokes anger.  That anger is made to be harnessed politically by those out of power. 
We live in times of stress and strain courtesy global events (the war-mongering West thirsting for Iranian blood), rampant viceroy-like angst suffered by major international actors about a regime that refuses to play ball (all the time) and the persisting trade imbalances and other factors which keep Sri Lanka ‘underdeveloping’.  In such circumstances, anxieties do spill out into the streets. 
When real incomes decline, lifestyles get crumpled.  Consumption patterns change and decline.  When you can’t take to sea (in the case of fishermen trumped by fuel price hikes), you take to the streets.   The street does not have a sign saying ‘only for the truly aggrieved’.  Among the street-takers are those hungry to obtain some deaths, for coffin-carrying makes for more photo-ops, image-enhancement and a boosting of political relevance.  The streets, moreover and as was seen in the Fort on Friday, are also fair game for petty thieves and looters. 
No grievance however serious is big enough to justify vandalism, especially of public property.  We saw a lot of it over the past few weeks including Friday evening when armed mobs hoofed innocent citizens out of buses.  That said, the right to object is fundamental to a healthy democracy.  The possibility of grievance being hijacked or abused by malicious elements is a reality that society and the state must live with. 
Minister Maithripala Sirisena, on behalf of the ruling party and the government, has expressed regret over the killing of a protesting fisherman in Chilaw.  Regretting after the fact is easy.  The Government should understand that unless radical steps are taken with respect to general policy on crowd control, unpopular decisions (whether they are necessary or not) will continue to generate protests, enhance fertility for situation-abuse by the opposition, fuel vandalism and cause more deaths. 
If agitating citizens get unruly to the point that property and lives are threatened, there is certainly justification for effective response, but shooting has always got to be a last resort and ‘shoot to kill’ never an option.   The man who died was shot in the head.  This is unpardonable. 
It is easy to blame the man who pulled the trigger or the officer who gave the order, but the fact remains that the conditions that provoked agitation and street-battle were not created by either agitator or trigger-puller.  When unpopular steps are taken, they should be preceded by honest articulation of necessity, open debate and effective communication.  Where people see opulence at the top end of a social pyramid and squalor all the way down to the base with no sign of things changing for the better, protest is inevitable.  And where politics is not about right but about making capital, the democratic right to protest degenerates into a free-for-all where democracy itself cedes ground to anarchy. 
Quite apart from the fact that such a situation would be positively orgasmic for outside forces who are salivating for regime change, what is most worrying is the possible cost for the citizens of this country.  Another bloody insurrection that leaves tens of thousands dead and systems of theft, abuse and poor governance intact is not something to be cheered. 

Responsibility is what all this calls for; from the government, the opposition and most of all by the aggrieved, for the last is the intended beneficiary and, as history has shown, the first to be sacrificed. 



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