There was a time, during World War II, when it was said that careless talk costs lives.
The war in our own country came to an end eight years ago but we saw plenty of careless talks last week.
That was when Cabinet spokesman and Minister of Health Rajitha Senaratne dropped a bombshell at the official Cabinet media briefing stating that President Maithripala Sirisena had requested Former Army Commander and now Minister of Regional Development Sarath Fonseka to assume a ‘special position’ that would enable him to deal with the spate of strikes, protests and work stoppages that have now become a hallmark of public life in Sri Lanka.
Minister Senaratne went on to give more details. He said Fonseka would step down from his ministerial role to do so. The new position would be titled ‘overall commander’ and would have authority to deal with the protest campaigns, the Minister elaborated.
To be fair, Fonseka himself, when questioned on the issue was less forthcoming. His explanation was that the President had asked him whether he could assist in dealing with strikes and that he had answered in the affirmative. He did not elaborate further.
At least one other minister, Vijith Vijayamuni Zoysa, added fuel to the fire. Zoysa said that the proposal was a ‘good idea’ and was necessary to maintain discipline in the country.
Naturally, the report made headline news the next day. Mainstream newspapers, in banner headlines, proclaimed that Fonseka would be appointed ‘overall commander’. The reaction was swift- and left at least the cabinet spokesman with a lot of egg on his face.
Trade unions rushed to condemn the suggestion. They claimed the government was acting against the tenets of good governance (‘yahapaalanaya’) that they preached during the election campaign. Moreover, ministers in the government itself were lining up and falling over each other to pooh-pooh the idea.
The question was also asked as to whether the government planned to enforce a crackdown on trade unions in line with what occurred during the previous regime. The name of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also dragged into the discussion
It was Minister S. B. Dissanayake who cast the first stone. He said that the President’s suggestion was a ‘joke’ and that he did not attach much significance to the request. Several other ministers- such as Mahinda Amaraweera and W.D. J. Seneviratne denied that a special position for Fonseka was ever discussed.
It was Minister W.D.J. Seneviratne who provided perhaps the most rational explanation. While discussing the recent strikes, Seneviratne recalled that the President had, in lighter vein, asked whether Fonseka couldn’t do anything about it.
It was a humorous question and was not explored in greater detail, Seneviratne said. He explained that he himself was not at the Cabinet meeting but had subsequently clarified the sequence of events from the President.
This matter brings to the fore several outstanding issues: collective responsibility in the cabinet, the reaction of panic among the trade unions and of course, the issue of strikes in the public sector which appear to be disrupting our lives more often than not.
This is not first instance when Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s utterances as Cabinet Spokesman have caused confusion. If the subsequent comments of his cabinet colleagues are anything to go by, it appears that he has taken a comment made by the President in lighter vein and blown it out of proportion.
Minister Senaratne has since defended his remarks and created more consternation. He maintains he was accurate in his reporting of what transpired and launched a thinly veiled attack on those who he says are members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who wish to join former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It is an accepted practice that the cabinet speaks with one voice. This being a government which is a coalition of the two major parties, the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP), we can expect differences of opinion from time to time. However, when it relates to matters of policy, the government must stand as one even if there is heated discussion and debate within the confines of the cabinet room.
The reaction of the trade unions was also interesting. The unions, most of them backed by opposition forces including the Joint Opposition (JO) were quick to cry foul saying that the government was attempting to revert to the Rajapaksa era, cracking down on unions and in the forefront of the protests was the JO itself! Is this a tacit acknowledgment that the previous regime was indeed responsible for a brutal crackdown on trade unions and their democratic rights?
Nevertheless, the most important issue was perhaps the unending strikes that seem to cripple our public sector. It is a testament to the fact that this government has indeed encouraged democracy and dissent but it has now reached the point where the public are asking whether these freedoms are being abused by unions usually manipulated by parties in the opposition and whether measures should be taken to impose some limits to what the unions could do and what they should not be allowed to do.
The recent actions of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) are a case in point. They are acting as a law unto themselves, abusing the position of trust they hold and using patients’ lives as a bargaining tool to gain their demand which are far from reasonable. The service provided by doctors is not one which can be readily duplicated and this is what the unscrupulous trade union is exploiting to the hilt.
If this trend continues in the public sector and spreads like a cancer to other trade unions as well, a mechanism to deal with strikes and work stoppages will no more be a mere joke at the Cabinet meeting it may well become a necessity, in order to maintain discipline, law and order and to ensure that life goes on in the country without being subjected to the threats of opportunistic trade unions.