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Sunday, 19 June 2016

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Poson, governance, disaster recovery

Even as Poson's shining moon plays hide-and-seek with lowering monsoon clouds, many of the worshipping faithful, especially in the hill country, will remember those affected by the recent natural and human-made disasters that have struck this land and its people. Lamps and incense sticks will be lit in memory of those buried and maimed by the collapsing mountainsides, and, for the secure future of those whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed.

The Sri Lankan Buddhist devotional event of Poson Poya Day commemorates the formal arrival of the Dhamma in the country, sometime in the reign of King Devanampiyatissa in the Anuradhapura kingdom in the 3rd Century BC.

The Buddha Dhamma would have had its followers among the population in Lanka even before the arrival of the Arahant Mahinda-led missionary group. But it was that legendary meeting and dialogue between monarch and monk that led to the adoption of the Dhamma by the ruling clan, thereafter, introducing a new religious and ideological dimension to the State in Sri Lanka: a symbolic and discursive resource that has served polity and society here these past millennia.

The symbolism of a powerful new philosophy and doctrine of life and destiny has protectively cloaked this 'resplendent isle' over the centuries helping the island society face up to numerous challenges ranging from political struggles and internecine war to famine, disease, economic crisis and foreign invasions.

The Sri Lankan polity neared a major institutional crisis in recent years due to abuses and plunder by political leaders. Complete systemic collapse was avoided in the nick of time by daring political manoeuvres and painstaking efforts by activists and politicians to meet the crisis.

Over a year after that momentous political change, the prospects of 'righting' of many wrongs may seem, to some - especially those impatient for a clean-up - a yet distant future, perhaps too distant for the credibility of those who promised and, now, must show action for change.

There is probably a particular disillusionment among those who have worked for regime change and now want not only the new regime to stay on but also want the changes to be implemented forthwith. Older citizenry, whose expectations are tempered by long experience and knowledge of the real challenges, may be more patient at the slow pace of remedial action. But the younger citizens - the new generation voters - may expect more, and quickly, in terms of delivery by their elected leaders. Hence, hopes may be dashed quicker among such new, and more nave, political constituencies who may, in premature disillusionment, soon seek elsewhere for alternative leadership to break out of the perceived quagmire. Lurking in the murky wings, of course, are many volatile options ranging from religious fundamentalism, secessionism, to 'New Age' obscurantism and ethnic fantasies of domination.

Such deviations from more stable and harmonizing social norms and conventions are ever present to mislead the desperate and un-inspired away from wholesome and comprehensive solutions and futures.

While poverty is the ever-present principal marker for social dissatisfaction and frustrations, nationalism lies in wait to enrapture the frustrated, leading them precipitately to divisive and selfish 'solutions'; as if the rollercoaster ride to quick fixes is the way to go.

The way different groups of people, some being the survivors of natural disasters and, others being those affected by human-made disasters, are recovering today from their respective predicaments, is a window on to the world of opportunities opening up and closing in this Poson season.

Most of the people of Meeriyabedda, in the Badulla district, or, at least, the few in those villages who survived the horrific mountain collapse in 2014, yet remain in tents on open hillsides, poorly protected from rain and mud and, in an insecure social environment. Nearly two years after they were cruelly dislodged from their homes, these people remain with mostly nothing and yet await a roof over their heads.

The people of Aranayaka are a little better off being also still camped out and yet to return to their normal habitat. They, too, do not have hope for a quick fix, being remotely located and, perhaps, 'out of sight' being 'out of mind'.

It is ironic that people most affected by the human-made explosives disaster in Salawa, have been the ones most quickly attended to by the authorities. Perhaps it is merely the coincidence of the institution primarily responsible being the Army, a highly disciplined and professionalised, military force, which, therefore, wishes to protect its own pristine record by moving fast and efficiently to ensure that all affected are rehabilitated and compensated without delay.

The Army being, in effect, the 'perpetrator' of that military disaster, wants to protect and enhance its institutional reputation by being seen to be prompt in its actions. In the case of the other two disasters, the causes are natural and hence, there is no human institution to be directly held responsible. Thus, there is no institution either in Meeriyabedda or Aranayaka, that feels compelled to save its reputation or prestige by acting swiftly and efficiently.

And is the location of Salawa in a more populated area, close to the capital city and adjoining busy travel routes, also a factor - the chance to showcase one's efficiency and social responsibility? Is it that the impoverished peasants and estate workers in the remote hills of Aranayaka and Meeriyabedda, respectively, are too far away from the public eye for anyone to care?

The silvery moonlight of Poson embraces all and leaves out none. As does the Dhamma, should not also the faithful?

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