Only in Sri Lanka

by padraigcolman

Colman's Column3

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Wednesday January 8.

Professor Kingsley de Silva famously wrote that the Sinhalese were a majority with a minority complex, while Sri Lankan Tamils were a minority with a majority complex. I always have in my mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aphorism: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”.  As a guest in this country, I would be wary about generalising about Sinhalese on an anecdotal basis. I will cautiously limit myself to saying that I have observed in some Sinhalese a masochist pride in the sheer awfulness of Sri Lanka. For them it is almost a mark of honour that no other country can match the thuggishness and corruption of Sri Lankan politicians. The masochist sometimes expresses a vicarious nostalgia for the British Empire, sometimes a longing for a benevolent despot like Le Kuan Yew to subjugate them.

Let me take one example of these passive-aggressive masochists who always think that the UK and the US things do things better.

I got into a “discussion” on Facebook with a cadre, whom I will call SJ, from the masochistic tendency. SJ was  exercised by the recent news that a stage had collapsed in Colombo, injuring many New Year revellers. SJ fulminated: “Imagine if this happened in the US? In SL of course it’s part of the usual circus.”

I pointed out to SJ that a similar accident happened in London on 20 December 2013. Seventy-six people were hurt when ornate plasterwork at the Apollo theatre fell during a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

I mentioned the Hillsborough disaster, which occurred in 1989.  Ninety-six people died because of the crush at a football match in Sheffield. Before the kick-off, a bottleneck had developed outside the ground with more fans arriving than could enter the Leppings Lane Stand. People who had been refused entry could not leave the area because of the crush behind them but remained as an obstruction. The police, to avoid deaths outside the ground, opened a set of gates, intended as an exit, which caused a rush of supporters through the gate into the stadium.

A huge crush built up at the front of the terrace, where people were being pressed up against the fencing by the weight of the crowd behind them. People entering were unaware of the problems at the fence. The sheer weight of bodies had broken the crush barriers on the terraces. Desperate fans tearing at the fencing caused later holes in the perimeter.


Most of the deaths were caused by compressive asphyxia. The pitch quickly started to fill with the bodies of the dead and people sweating and gasping for breath and injured by crushing. Only one ambulance made it on to the pitch in the immediate aftermath of the crush. The police, held a fleet of ambulances outside the ground, so medical help did not reach the injured.

Dozens of fans might have lived with proper treatment. Post-mortem examinations showed they might have had heart, lung or blood circulation function for some time after being pulled from the crush. Placing any fans who were merely unconscious on their backs would have obstructed their airways. Kevin Williams, 15, was lifted from the pen at 3.28pm and laid on the pitch, alive but weak. Pathologists now believe that broken bones in Kevin’s neck caused his airways to swell; a simple rubber tube down his throat would have saved him. Dr Bill Kirkup revealed recently that 41 people were living beyond the time suggested by the original coroner

Only 14 of the 96 fatalities ever arrived at a hospital. The final death toll reached 96 in March 1993, when Tony Bland was taken off a life support machine after four years in a vegetative state. Andrew Devine, eight years after he was also rendered vegetative at the age of 22, became aware of his surroundings and started communicating with his family. He is still alive.

SJ was not impressed. He still wanted to think that things are worse in Sri Lanka. “why why and why Padraig do you need to give examples like Hillsborough? You live in SL…a couple of weeks back a train engine went walkabout for a long distance on its own. NO ACCOUNTABILITY! Nothing? In Britain ministers resign when some mishap happens.”

I am afraid that is a myth. UK Ministers generally stay in their jobs at least until the next reshuffle, however incompetent they have proved to be. Michael Howard was unwilling even to consider stepping down as Home Secretary over the Whitemoor and Parkhurst jail breaks. James Prior hung on to his post as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1983, when more than 30 IRA inmates escaped from the Maze prison. Norman Lamont failed to resign as Chancellor in 1992, when Britain ignominiously left the Exchange Rate Mechanism after a day of financial chaos.

Following the Hillsborough disaster, Lord Justice Taylor conducted an inquiry, which sat for 31 days. The Taylor Report found that the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control. Taylor described senior officers as “defensive and evasive witnesses” who refused to accept any responsibility for error. “[T]he police case was to blame the fans for being late and drunk, and to blame the Club for failing to monitor the pens. … Such an unrealistic approach gives cause for anxiety as to whether lessons have been learnt. It would have been more seemly and encouraging for the future if responsibility had been faced.” Cabinet documents revealed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned the Home Secretary against welcoming the report because its “broad thrust” constituted a “devastating criticism of the police”.

SJ might respond that UK governance was better because there was a thorough investigation. Impunity would prevent such an inquiry in Sri Lanka. Maybe so. However, twenty-four years later the Hillsborough matter is still not settled. Jon Stoddart, Assistant Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is leading Operation Resolve, a criminal investigation into the disaster. The Sheffield Telegraph reported on 20 December 2013 that David Duckenfield, who was overseeing policing at the stadium, now retired from South Yorkshire Police, would be interviewed early in 2014.   Around 500 police officers have been interviewed so far, with eight officers ‘declining’ to be questioned. Original inquests into the deaths were found to be flawed, the verdicts of accidental death quashed and fresh inquests will be held in 2014. A separate investigation into the conduct of police in the aftermath of the disaster is looking at whether statements from police officers on the day were changed. One unnamed ambulance worker’s reference to access to the pitch being ‘pitifully inadequate’ was removed.

Deputy Chairwoman of The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), Deborah Glass said: “Hillsborough has had a history of inquiries by the police and others, many completed quickly, coming to flawed conclusions. Our investigations need to deliver the last, definitive account.” The IPCC said it has uncovered evidence to suggest that the statements of 74 more officers might have been changed, and that fans’ witness accounts could have been altered.

Families of the dead accused West Yorkshire Police chief constable Sir Norman Bettison of spreading ‘black propaganda’ to force the blame on to innocent supporters. He resigned in October 2012 amidst allegations that he was involved in the implementation of a cover-up of police errors. He remains the subject of an IPCC investigation. According to Police Review magazine, he told his staff to monitor Wikipedia – to stop users posting rude comments about him. He took exception to being described as a “greedy, vain moron”.

Which Sri Lankan ministers should resign, then, because a stage collapsed at the Hilton or a train wandered off? I agree that not many of them would be missed. I do not condone the systemic flaws in Sri Lanka. However, SJ  manages to use a few accidents  as the basis of an attack on the government: “Are we failing to see the obvious truth about Rajapaksa governance for the same reason we failed to look through those outlandish Rajapaksa lies about ‘Humanitarian Operations’ and ‘Welfare Villages’.” That seems a bit of a painful stretch to me. The  Hilton incident was indeed unfortunate but what did have to do with the government? What is even sadder is the infantile delusion that things must be better elsewhere. This invited comments from some that perhaps he should try elsewhere and see how he likes it. Others told him to man up and try and change things in the real world rather than whingeing on the internet.

Another commenter on Facebook responded: “Ten years ago we could not even DREAM of SL being where it is today, so what is to say Ten years from now that the society we want cannot be achieved?”

It will not be achieved by passively dreaming about how much better other countries order matters.