By Jehan Perera –
The government announced the present ten day lockdown giving only a day’s notice. Until the announcement was made it seemed that the government would keep the county open regardless of the human cost for the greater good of the country as a whole. There was a resemblance to the government’s success in the war with the LTTE. The government conducted military operations that were high in human casualties. But it was these military operations that finally led to the end of a war that had dragged on for three decades and was generally believed to be unwinnable. As Defense Secretary and military leader President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was known to be resolute in his determination to achieve targets and to give his fullest backing to those entrusted with those tasks.
It was therefore not surprising that when he was elected president, there was anticipation that the president would govern with a firm hand. Those at the extreme nationalist end of the political spectrum even called on the president to act as a Hitler to achieve the vision they held for the country. There was much trepidation in those who felt they might be on the wrong side of the new president’s policies that seemed to be oriented in the direction of nationalism and militarization of society. These apprehensions increased when the president made a large number of high level appointments of military personnel drawn from the group who had fought the war against the LTTE along with him. A dark era of oppressive government seemed a possibility. However, President Gotabaya Rajapaka’s conduct of state affairs as an elected leader has been much more democratic and less authoritarian than anticipated.
The president has taken his role as an elected leader seriously which manifests itself in different forms. The end of war is not the end of military battles but becomes peace when there is a rebuilding of trust and political relations that stabilizes the country. In his inaugural speech the president said he would be the president of all Sri Lankans although large sections of the ethnic and religious minorities had not voted for him. He has also been willing to accept public criticism of his shortcomings which are displayed in exaggerated detail on social media in particular. At a recent meeting with a group of civil society leaders, one of them from the East felt able to remind the president of his promise in his inaugural speech and that he needed to live up to it which the president appeared to take in its positive spirit.
It would also seem to be the case that the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not been as directive as initially anticipated. This is partly due to the economic calamity that has befallen the country due in most part to the Covid pandemic. If the government had been able to achieve economic success that enriched the general population, there would have been a growth in self-confidence and hubris that might have impelled government leaders to more severe actions to achieve their economic and ethnic nationalist goals set out in the election campaign. Economic success might have strengthened the credibility of the government to take strong measures that had a high cost even in terms of people’s rights. But the present absence of economic success has not made this possible. There is skepticism about the government’s cost-benefit analysis.
The rejection of the government’s preference to keep the country open despite the human cost in terms of Covid spread is seen in the decision of traders associations in many parts of the country to declare self-lockdowns. The traders in many towns closed down their shops and commercial establishments in a manner that demonstrated their solidarity with the plight of their workers and the general public who had begun to be infected by the virus in droves. The lockdown of the traders was given moral support by the country’s health workers who have themselves been calling for a lockdown even as the health system is overwhelmed by Covid patients.
The self-lockdown of several important towns in different parts of the country is an indication of the possibilities of self-governance that can occur in a time of central failure. The concept of self-governance has come to be identified with the demand of ethnic and religious minorities who have felt themselves to be marginalized in the national governance processes. However, in this case of Covid-generated self-lockdown there is no ethnic or religious dimension to the impulse of self-governance but the feeling that the central authorities are insensitive to the needs of the people at the community level. The devolution of power would allow more people to be engaged with resolving the issues collectively or differently and also provide a form of competition for success which would be a motivation which does not exist in a centralized system.
The present Covid crisis is of such severity that it requires a whole of government approach to mitigate its impact. The government is relying on its vaccination programme to protect the general population. This vaccination programme is being implemented efficiently by the army for the most part. But this can only be part of the solution. There is a significant proportion of those who have been vaccinated who fall prey to the virus which is an indicator that the general population has also to be made aware of the need for continuing safety precautions. There is a need for government agencies at all levels, central, provincial and local, to work hand in hand with civil society at the community level to get the message across. The provincial councils in particular would allow the government to look at long term policies and development beyond the local administration that could be handled by the provincial councils.
One of the unfortunate features of the present time is the non-functioning of the provincial council system which is the most important of the country’s administrative systems from the point of view of accessing the community at the local level. All nine provinces are currently being run by their respective governors, who are presidential appointees, instead of by democratically elected leaders for more than three years now. During a meeting with a group of civil society members, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa noted that 60 percent of the national budget was channeled through the provincial council system. This suggests that the provincial council system needs to be reactivated soon not only to accommodate the wishes of the minorities but also to give effect to the constitution for efficiency purposes in coping with the Covid crisis.
The elections to provincial councils have been stalled since 2018 due to a defect that has occurred in the process of changing the electoral law. The Supreme Court has determined that the provincial council elections can be held under either the old or new system but subject to amending legislation being passed. There needs to be an all-party consensus built on this issue which civil society can also contribute to. The restoration of the provincial council system could serve multiple purposes. It could improve people’s participation in restricting the spread of the coronavirus in all parts of the country. It would also provide governance at a lower level of access to the ethnic and religious minorities, accommodate their grievances and contribute to healing the wounds of war which is the positive message that the international human rights community that supports minority rights is interested in.