Don’t fail the state

There is a reason why tiny, little-heard-of states in Latin America and the Caribbean are often called ‘Banana Republics.’ The term was coined by Author of Cabbages and Kings, American humourist, O. Henry, whose reference to Honduras as a ‘banana republic’ brought the phrase into common usage in the context of a certain breed of nation states.

These countries are characterised by their dependence on foreign aid, are constantly in the grip of a revolution, presided over by a dictatorial military ‘junta’ or ruling elite that sits in the lap of luxury, exaggerating its own power and importance, while its citizens are almost always caught in a vicious snare of contentious politics, bloody violence and depressing poverty. In today’s democratic (for the most part) world, such ‘republics’ are also referred to as ‘failed states’.

While Sri Lanka may not fit geographically into O. Henry’s pigeon hole, it is certainly starting to take on certain disturbingly similar features. The time has come, therefore, as the Walrus said, to talk now of many things, for silence would be tantamount failing ourselves.

The capital Colombo is a garrison city, barracks and barricades meet the eye at every street corner. Completely defeating the purpose of the uniflow system which was introduced to ease congestion on Colombo’s highways, roads are closed off at random, suspending the traffic flow and creating congestion for miles at peak hours, to allow a VIP motorcade to pass by. Even walking is prohibited when a VIP decides to ply Colombo’s streets, with pedestrians now being hustled into the nearest compound and held there at polite gunpoint by armed soldiers. Too often now, the citizens are left pondering exactly who the security forces are bound to protect – the people or the political leadership. While all necessary precautions must be taken to prevent the country slipping into a state of anarchy if the political leadership is annihilated, the people cannot be made to feel that their safety will be at any cost and no matter what the degree of inconvenience and harassment to the public.

Getting to a meeting on time has never been harder and the number of hours spent on travel during the working day has increased exponentially in recent times. All this translates eventually into a loss of man hours, decreased productivity and a colossal waste of energy and fuel – all factors that spell doom for an already beleaguered economy. After millions spent on video conferencing equipment and the technology now available, the time may be ripe to begin thinking out of the box when it comes to high level government meetings and the travel of senior government members and prime LTTE targets. If the people can put up with so much inconvenience, the least the ‘kings’ can do, is to give the bullet proof cars a rest occasionally and come up with alternative systems to minimise the hassle and heartache for the ordinary citizen on a daily basis.

We are, ceasefire agreement notwithstanding and for all intents and purposes, a nation at war. In attempting to lay siege upon the enemy and neutralise their power bases, we are ourselves besieged. By definition then, a nation on a war footing must take all necessary precautions to ensure its nerve centres are safeguarded from infiltration and terrorist threat and in doing so, a certain school of thought would argue, that civil liberties and the citizen’s right to ‘hassle-free’ living must surrender to a higher cause.

Indeed, a patriotic public may agree to grin and bear it for a time, if it means that the government will move swiftly to militarily defeat the LTTE and ensure that peace comes at last to this land that way. History teaches that this has always been easier said than done. A war that continues indefinitely will mean that the people’s patience also wears thin.

Already, the strains are beginning to show. We are a people bent double by the cost of living, with no hope of economic revival any time in the near future. The legislative arm of the government is almost a non-entity, with power vested in a tightly knit circle of players to whose beat the country is now being compelled to march. The prospect of all out war looms ahead of us and the government shows little or no sign of being interested in pursuing a political solution to the north east problem. Tourists and investors are on the run and our defence bills are skyrocketing. From an economic perspective, Sri Lanka is fast approaching ‘failed state’ status; let us hope that her leaders do not fail the people.