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Is it much ado about nothing or is it a symptom of a greater malaise? This is the question that is being asked about the recent incident involving the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province, Ahamed Nazeer who berated an officer of the Navy and the Governor of the Eastern Province, Austin Fernando at a public function in Sampur, watched by an embarrassed United States Ambassador, Atul Keshap.

Soon after the incident, videos of the Chief Minister’s uncouth outburst went viral on social media. The Chief Minister was widely condemned for his actions which went beyond both the boundaries of social conduct as well as the dignity of his office. Anyone who watches the video realises this.

Following the incident, there were widespread calls for the ouster of the Chief Minister. In what appeared to be a knee jerk reaction, the tri-services declared that Nazeer was persona non-grata at their institutions and that they would boycott events that he participated in. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called for an inquiry where Nazeer was also asked to present his position.

As is usually wont to happen in such instances, the issue then took on political connotations. There was an attempt to introduce an ethnic dimension to the incident. One man’s spur of the moment tirade suddenly became a case of ‘Muslims’ insulting ‘war heroes’. Even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a statement on the incident, calling for the ‘protection’ of ‘war heroes’.  The issue was threatening to spiral out of control.

Since then, there have been some conciliatory gestures. Nazeer has written to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe apologising for his conduct. At least officially, the Defence Ministry has withdrawn its ‘ban’ on the Chief Minister visiting its installations. However, in his statement Nazeer also calls for an apology from who he calls ‘responsible officers’.

In hindsight, Nazeer clearly should not have done what he did. The bone of contention in the dispute was petty: the Chief Minister not being called on stage in the ‘proper’ manner. It is only evidence of how egotistical small time politicians are. The incident is hardly suggestive of an ‘international conspiracy’, as some tried to make it out to be!
Even if he had a genuine grievance about not being given his due prominence, Nazeer should have taken it up in an appropriate manner instead of dragging an entire country into disrepute. His behaviour was similar to a pre-school child throwing a tantrum. If circumstances were different, he would probably not be the Chief Minister anymore.
However, nothing in Sri Lanka escapes a political flavour. So, the government went into damage control mode. There was potential for the incident to grow into a Sinhala – Muslim dispute on a national scale, given the tinderbox state of relations between the two communities towards the end of the previous government. So, the fires had to be doused.

Also, the government could not go about disciplining Nazeer harshly. He represents the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) which is an important stakeholder in the ‘national government’.  The last thing government needed at this point in time was for the SLMC to pull out of the ruling coalition.

Now we are told that everything is hunky dory after Nazeer’s written apology. It would be all’s well that ends well except for the fact that Nazeer has escaped with a slap on the wrists, with hardly any consequences except for an apology of dubious value, because he also calls for an apology from who he calls ‘responsible officers’

This is the new political culture in Sri Lanka. The culture of impunity, so evident during the previous regime has now been replaced by the culture of expediency, regardless of the principles of good governance.

We saw that when defeated candidates were appointed to Parliament through the National List. We see that now with how Nazeer’s shenanigans came to be tolerated. No doubt, we will see it many times more in the remaining days of this government.