Sunday, June 5, 2016

Post-mortem on the Nazeer Ahmed affair in Sampur

From DM online

The examination ended in blame falling on each others blundering

The controversy over the Eastern Province Chief Minister Hafis Nazeer Ahmed rebuking a naval officer at a function at the Sampur Maha Vidayalaya on May 20 has almost subsided, apparently following his apology to all concerned including the naval officer in question, in a letter to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe.

The armed forces that had announced a boycott of the chief minister on May 26 too had revoked it on May 30 after the President returned to the country after attending the G 7 Summit in Nagoya in Japan. However, the saga, though seems to be no longer an issue, it has left many questions unanswered.

Before going into the matter it is appropriate to revisit the incident so that one can better understand the causes and effects involved in the incident. The chief minister first participated in a function in Kinniya in the Trincomalee District with Governor Austin Fernando and the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Atul Keshap on the same day.

They left Kinniya to attend the opening ceremony of the science lab and the computer unit of the Sampur Maha Vidyalaya in the same district. The school came under the Eastern Provincial Council.The governor had arranged a helicopter to travel from Kinniya to Sampur and the chief minister too wanted to join the governor but he was told there was no room in the helicopter.
Thus the governor came to Sampur Vidyalaya in the helicopter and the chief minister in his car as had been planned. In Sampur the function started and the compere called upon governor and the US ambassador to the stage, leaving out the chief minister. Apparently realising the embarrassment faced by the chief minister the governor gestured to him to come on to the stage.

Accoring to the chief minister a naval officer attempted to prevent him from getting on the stage; it was then all hell had broken loose. The chief minister verbally abused the naval officer in English in the presence of the US Ambassador and a video footage of that part of the incident went viral in the social media. The CM had asked the naval officer “Who the hell are you to stop me?” The naval officer’s alleged action was not in the video footage.

Many individuals and organisations condemned the indecent behaviour of the chief minister. The supporters of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa called it harassment allegedly meted out by the present government against the armed forces personnel or the “Rana Viruvo.” Some people attempted to give a communal colour to the whole episode while another group of people went to the extent of visiting the chief minister to condemn him and threatening him.

The Navy along with other two armed forces declared an embargo against the CM that banned him from entering any Navy camp and that the forces would boycott all events that would be attended him. Responding to the outcry made by many groups against his outburst, Nazeer Ahmad wrote to the President and the Prime Minister explaining what happened while apologising to all concerned including the naval officer. Following this the armed forces withdrew the embargo.

When looking at the whole episode, without taking the chief minister’s action out of context, it is clear that the chief minister had been humiliated on one hand and the naval officer too had been subject to humiliation by the chief minister, on the other. However, Tamil media had opted to highlight the former’s side of the story while the Sinhala and the English media had chosen to side with the latter.

If a function takes place in the Sampur Maha Vidyalaya which comes under the Eastern Provincial Council with the participation of a foreign ambassador, especially the US envoy, the chief minister of the province cannot be left out, because under the concept of devolution of power it is the chief minister as the representative of the people of the province who should be in the forefront in public affairs, rather than the provincial governor who is the representative of the Centre, and the President. 

This was the practice followed in all provinces other than the North and the East where the provincial administration had been under the governor for a long time due to the absence of elected provincial councils during the war. Thus the provincial governors taking precedence had become a tradition in those provinces,creating a cold-war between them and the elected chief ministers. However, in the Western Province for instance, it is the Chief Minister, Prasanna Ranatunga or Isura Devapriya who had been the public face of the provincial administration, instead of Governors Alavi Moulana or K.C.Logeswaran who are unknown to many in the province.

Chief Minister Nazeer Ahmed should have and might have planned his travel from Kinniya to Sampur beforehand. It was his deviation from that plan and intention to join the governor in the flight to Sampur that had been the cause of his initial embarrassment. On the other hand, Governor Austin Fernando should have been courteous enough to invite the Chief Minister Nazeer Ahmed to join him in the flight if there had been persons lower than the chief minister in status intending to fly with him.

Then had the chief minister been invited to the Sampur Maha Vidyalaya he should have been invited to the stage as well. Leaving him out was an insult to him. Even then he had no option other than taking up the matter with the higher authorities later and handling the issue politically as well as administratively.On the other hand when he had walked towards the stage at the gesture of the governor or without any other invitation, nobody had the right to prevent him from getting on to the stage as he was the chief minister of the province elected by the people and not a security threat. Hence, stopping him was another insult in the presence of foreign dignitaries.

The chief minister cannot be an unknown person to a high ranking naval officer in the province. That was indicated by his commendable calm response to the chief minister’s outburst. Though the naval officer was allegedly wrong, it was indecent on the part of the chief minister to pounce on him and to use such harsh words, especially against a senior armed forces officer.Interestingly, the media had publicised the outburst of the chief minister out of context, and not that of the naval officer stopping him as alleged.

Nazeer Ahmed has to be condemned for his behaviour at the Sampur Maha Vidyalaya. But condemnation by many people and groups was not out of patriotism or love for the armed forces, as claimed. Seemingly it was politically or communally motivated. When a DIG was publicly insulted by a minister and a powerful official of the previous regime, that video also went viral in the social media. But no fuss was made and the mainstream media totally ignored it. When Major Generals Lucky Algama and Janaka Perera were killed by the LTTE after their security was reduced following their joining hands with the UNP, these people and groups kept mum. President Maithripala Sirisena had attributed this lopsided condemnation of Nazzer Ahmed to the fact that he was a Muslim. 

In an interview with the Tamil Newspaper Sudar Oli in Nagoya in Japan where he attended the G 7 Summit he had said that it was because of Ahmed being a Muslim that all these accusations had been made. He had also reportedly questioned as to whether there would have been such a fuss made if a Sinhalese had been in the place of Ahmed.

The trade union-style action by the armed forces was also unprecedented. However, their concern was justifiable and hence they could have taken up the issue administratively or legally. But finally, all concerned blamed each other after their blundering.

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