What is the Meaning of Chung’s Message?

1
80

US Ambassador Julie Chung tweeted, “As petrol lines & power cuts increase, tensions are naturally rising too. But boiling over will not address SL’s urgent needs. I urge authorities to exercise restraint under these difficult circumstances. Any excessive use of force should be quickly investigated”. One has to wonder the purpose of this extremely condescending tweet. 

We are not ignorant that the queues for essentials are frustratingly long or tempers could fly at any given moment. Hence the Minister of Power & Energy Kanchana Wijesekara’s request not to queue before the goods as fuel reaches redistribution centres. Yet, people do not heed this warning. When the goods, whether it is fuel or gas, arrive, they want to ensure they are in line to procure it before it runs out.

Already, confrontations have erupted at various fuel refilling stations. Therefore, the Government officials are experimenting with various methods to ensure fair supply to all and thereby diffuse the tension.

After the first few unruly incidents the Government stationed Police or Army personnel at each petrol shed to ensure uninterrupted selling of fuel. This has helped to service the consumers in an orderly manner. Unfortunately there are those who misuse their power to allow their associates to bypass queues. This may be a contributing factor to the clashes between consumers and Police witnessed in the past weeks. It is in one such fracas that the image of a Police officer was seen brandishing his weapon. Ambassador Chung’s tweet too coincided with this image.

It is however unfair to automatically assume the fault lies with the Police. The tension etched in the officer’s face speaks the difficult challenge before the Police tasked to reason with those who no longer want to be reasonable.

Furthermore, there are politically motivated elements disguised as disgruntled consumers who deliberately create disturbances. The Rambukkana incident is a classic instance where the situation continued to deteriorate despite the valiant efforts of the Police to restore peace. As with these kinds of incidents, a dead body is all what twisted minds behind such riots want. Even before the facts of the event fully registered the Police came under much flak for firing at a crowd that were described by many as peaceful protesters.

However, the behaviour of those who confronted the Police, causing grievous bodily harm to 20 officers, refusing to disperse but continuing to act diabolically does not describe a peaceful protester. This puts the Police in an unenviable position – peace does not restore until there is a body to market.

Ensuring Fair Play

Allowing fuel to be bought into containers were making vehicle owners uncomfortable. Though it was possible that homeowners and entrepreneurs of small and medium enterprises were buying fuel to power their generators, the growing suspicion was that some with cans were hoarding the fuel and thus purchasing more than their requirement leaving less for those whose needs are real.

The violence that followed the fracas in Galle Face on 9 May between anti-Government protesters and former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters, gave way to properties of select Parliamentarians to come under attack. Many of their houses and officers were set on fire. The question was “from where did the rioters find petrol to commit acts of arson when there was a severe shortage of fuel?” This confirms that not all those who purchase fuel were buyers in the ordinary sense.

Records also confirm that purchasing trends have tripled. Though the Government stopped selling fuel into containers, the unusually high consumption continues unabated.

Hindering Black Market Racketeers

With restrictions over selling fuel into containers, opportunists continue to return to the queue to fill up their vehicles. The fuel just purchased would then be extracted and the racketeer would return to the refilling station for another filling.

They would then sell the extra fuel thus procured for as high as Rs 1,000 per liter to those who are unable or unwilling to stand in long queues. Such purchasing leads to artificial demands.

Some mix the fuel with other substances as kerosene to increase quantities. This can severely damage the vehicle. Notwithstanding Government’s warnings fuel purchasing continues to be unusually high. The Ceylon Petroleum Cooperation developed an app with the support of the Police IT division to identify such vehicles that repeatedly return to the refilling station.

Assurance of Supply

The underlining cause for tension is the fear of not being able to procure fuel. Even after the long hours of wait, there is no guarantee that one would get the fuel until one actually does. The root cause for number of protests to erupt is by those who had waited patiently long periods at the queue only to find stocks have run out when their turn is round the corner. Hunger, fatigue, worries over opportunity costs can and does translate into anger of unmanageable proportions. In an effort to redress it, the Ministry is exploring ways to assure the public a regular supply. Amongst these is a methodology to inform consumers when refilling stations receive its stock.

The Ministry also contemplates  a quota system for fuel to private vehicles, based on the last digit of the number plate. For public transport and other transport services as three-wheelers different methods have been already implemented or suggested. Especially for personnel in healthcare and other essential services, specific petrol sheds have been allocated.

Purpose of Ambassador’s Curious Tweet

People are frustrated and that has on occasion escalated into protests and confrontations with the law enforcement authorities. As a Government the incumbent has shown much restraint and patience in these situations. Even in the Rambukkana incident, the officer who gave the order to shoot and those who complied have been taken into remand custody.

Likewise, the Government has been extremely tolerant towards anti-Government protesters at the Galle Face. The protests are negatively affecting the already ailing economy. In April tourism fell by 43 percent, denying the country from the desperately needed forex. Yet, in the name of democracy the Government allows these protests.

Of course, democracy is not only about freedom of expression but also the dignity of life, education and plethora of other rights. All these have been infringed because of the collapsing economy. In that context, the Government still prioritising the right to protest should not be undermined.

Today, the once beautiful Galle Face Greens is desecrated by the protesters with garish posters and morbidly decorated open booths. We also cannot ignore the effect this has on investors – especially with the Colombo Port City, our biggest investment, neighbouring the protest site.

One must wonder at the Ambassador’s urging for authorities to exercise maximum restraint and any excesses to be investigated immediately. As an internal matter this is out of the Ambassador’s purview. This is especially unwarranted when the 2021 report of Policeviolencereport.org records 1,136 killings by the US Police – most over non-violent offences or even when a crime has not been reported. 

While working towards an IMF bailout package, the Government’s hands are tied. This package is only possible if the Government can assure political stability. There are however self-serving political opportunists who are hell bent in fracturing this image.

 If to preserve democracy, then the Government must have the freedom to crack down hard on those who are piggybacking on the public’s genuine frustrations to push the country further into an abyss for their own personal gain. Ambassador Chung’s message however can unduly pressurise the Government from taking necessary action to preserve the country’s peace and security. Ironically, this can deny the political stability insisted by the IMF.

As this is an economic crisis, any human rights violations arising would be as a result of the economic dilemma. Therefore, the effort must to redress the economic meltdown and only then would any repercussions in the form of human right violations or other could be avoided.

The US, for various war fronts – including the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia – spends billions of USD as part of its foreign policy. Yet, when it comes to real humanitarian crises as the one developing in Sri Lanka, the US is quite stingy.

The US Embassy’s recent announcement that the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) Board of Directors has approved USD 120 million in new loans to support the growth of the Sri Lankan economy is welcomed, especially if without impossible strings. This is also cosmetic if such endeavours take time to translate into a tangible impact on our economy.

Whether US directly help us or not is the US’s prerogative. Sri Lanka has no right to expect such generosity. However, without such help for the Sri Lankan economy to recover the US has no business to comment or instruct the Sri Lankan Government on how to handle its internal affairs.

[email protected]

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe

1 COMMENT

  1. I think this author should host a YouTube/odysee channel focusing on Sri Lankan politics in English. There are many videos discussing Sri Lanka’s economic woes,by foreigners.There are even videos distorting Sri Lanka’s history.(horrid comments like SL should join India, like before etc)Noone is there to respond to these attacks and disseminate the truth, to the world.She can interview experts,she can show beautiful places in Sri Lanka and give historical context. Check Alex Chistoforou’s (the duran)videos for inspiration and read the comments. Thank you

Comments are closed.