By Mohamed Harees –
“How many times had those awful words – “I know what I’m doing” – been uttered throughout history as prelude to disaster?” ~ Christopher Buckley, Supreme Courtship
Well known Indian writer Arundhati Roy in a recent appeal asked the Indian PM Modi to step aside. She beseeches thus: ‘We need a government. Desperately. And we don’t have one. We are running out of air. We are dying. We don’t have systems in place to know what to do with help even when it’s on hand. ..We cannot wait till 2024. Never would people like myself have imagined the day would come when we would find ourselves appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for anything. Personally, I would rather have gone to prison than do that. But today, as we die in our homes, on the streets, in hospital car parks, in big cities, in small towns, in villages and forests and fields – I, an ordinary private citizen, am swallowing my pride to join millions of my fellow citizens in saying please sir, please, step aside. At least for now. I beseech you, step down’.
Time has come for Sri Lankans too to make a similar appeal to Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa too. For, his disjointed sense of direction and lack of strong leadership, abdicating his responsibility to his military personnel , bears all tell-tale signs of Sri Lanka too falling into the same plight as or even worse than its’ neighbour- India. Sri Lanka is presently in the midst of a worrying surge in COVID-19 cases with a national lockdown being called for by the professionals to stop further spread. Already, two reputed medical bodies namely Sri Lanka Medical Association as well as Medical Specialists have expressed grave concern about the current status of Covid management strategy in place and called for urgent action to avert an Indian type disaster. There are medical specialists warning about Oxygen tanks already disappearing from the market which will shortly trigger an acute national Oxygen shortage as well. Still Sri Lanka is in a state of denial and prefers to adopt an ostrich style approach.
In early March 2020, as the first case of local COVID-19 transmission was recorded and Colombo geared up to face the crisis, Gotabaya immediately signalled the militarised path that his regime would follow. He set up a task force to deal with the outbreak and placed the current head of the Sri Lankan army, Shavendra Silva, at its helm. There was widespread criticism of this militarization strategy as it was deeply troubling. Nevertheless, Gotabaya, shrugged off criticism and persisted. Troops were deployed to airports, and an increasing number of checkpoints were set up. Drones and intelligence software, alongside military intelligence officers, were deployed to track down anyone potentially infected with the virus and patients. Mobile phone companies agreed to share information with the state. And thousands of people were forcibly sent to coronavirus “quarantine centres”, set up predominantly in the island’s Tamil North-East. Those who refused, or even absconded, were hounded by the authorities, with their photographs splashed across national media.
Sri Lanka, however, brushed off those concerns over rights and claimed that its militarised approach has been the key to its coronavirus success. And though the regime drew initial praise for reportedly containing any major outbreaks, the latest outbreak of hundreds of cases raises questions over possible community transmission that authorities have so far denied. Even after severe Covid situation in India, the government and its military management wing appeared reluctant to impose any restrictions on Avurudu shopping and festivities. Even few TV stations too were allowed to flout the public guidelines. The consequences were disastrous.
The regime’s highly militarised and politicised approach to a public health crisis had even more sinister undertones. Security forces used the pandemic as an excuse to try and shut down Tamil commemoration events and marches. Demonisation of the Muslim community also became quite common. The Muslims, who already suffer from deep-seated racism and Islamophobia, were also targeted by state policies. The government mandated compulsory cremations for Muslims who had died after contracting the virus, going against Islamic burial practices and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. This discriminatory policy persisted until the international pressure led to its reversal in March 2021.Some State sanctioned mainstream Sri Lankan media outlets, like Hiru and Derana catering to the southern Sinhala majority, began almost daily reporting on rates of infections within the Muslim community, whilst unsubstantiated rumours were spread that Muslims were gathering in mosques and breaking curfews.
As Arundhati said, ‘If ‘the pandemic is a portal’, then Sri Lanka is hurtling towards what could soon become a stratocracy’. Covid-19 is not the first time Sri Lanka has addressed a crisis military-first. It is in fact the norm. As Tisaranee Gunasekara said in a recent article, “Placing an army general at the helm of the campaign against the epidemic is as inane as asking a medical doctor with zero-military training to lead a war”. It is inane not just in terms of knowledge and expertise but also because the military in Sri Lanka has a serious accountability problem. Currently there is no public discussion or transparency about the actions and decisions of the armed forces during the Covid-19 response. Besides, there’s also lack of sustainability in a militarized approach to a public health crisis.
Twelve years after the end of the war, the armed forces enjoy a high level of impunity with regards to alleged war crimes committed against Tamil civilians. This impunity reached new heights in the Gotabaya’s regime, if the oft-quoted Presidential pardon of Sunil Rathnayake was anything to go by, which Amnesty International rightfully called an exploitation of Covid-19 to reverse one of the few instances of justice since the end of the war. The Health authorities and its organizational structures showed that Sri Lanka has civil leadership, structures and oversight mechanisms in place to address a public health crisis, with no links to the Ministry of Defence or the armed forces for leadership. Many trade unions too in 2020 called on the President to bring the government’s Covid-19 responses including the NOCPCO under civil authority and oversight. But, Gotabaya with his high ranking military cronies ignored all such calls.
Boram Jang, Legal Advisor at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Asia & the Pacific Programme said ,“Sri Lanka’s involvement of the military at every level, with limited parliamentary and civilian oversight, raises serious human rights and rule of law concerns. Having the military to oversee the public health policy and to act as the State’s first responders also normalises military occupation, exacerbates the existing ethnic divides, and further deteriorates human rights in Sri Lanka”.
In this failing management scenario in containing the covid pandemic, the effectiveness of Gotabaya’s leadership to present Sri Lanka need to be questioned; given, that he was elected with a massive majoritarian , and ( much claimed) Sinhala-Buddhist mandate in November 2019. Gotabaya in a message on the completion of on one year in office in November 2020 also said, that the ‘Public opinion will measure my success or failure’. Quite so!
Ironically, one and a half years later, the disillusioned electorate has begun to call into question the efficacy and suitability of his leadership style. He appears to display Laissez-faire leadership, despite his wide powers under 20A. The much hyped up memes ‘ Sir Fail’, but hilarious ‘I only did it well’ which are agog in the social media, are giving an inkling of the general views of the electorate. One post read that ‘you cannot expect a king by just putting a crown on a clown’s head’. Splits are being seen in the ruling SLPP ranks, with heavyweights such as Wimal, Vasu and Gammanpila trio showing dissent openly with the leadership line. Many Maha Sangha groups and prominent MPs are openly speaking up against the President. Recent telephone conversation between Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and the President spoke volumes in this regard. His Public security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera has become a public clown regularly entertaining the country with his short lived comedy clips, based on anti-Muslim tough talk!
Covid crisis apart, the nation is facing a multitude of crises – public debt, rule of law/impunity, with Gota and his unprofessional team of ministers losing their credibility image both locally and internationally. National assets are being brazenly auctioned while the sovereignty of Port City is also being openly challenged. Sri Lanka is fast becoming a satellite state of China, with loan facilities being liberally granted to Sri Lanka to tide over temporary budgeting issues. Gota’s attempt to repair his torn image by recruiting prominent media personalities like Kingsley and Sudeva, is widely seen as futile as an attempt to stop the diarrhoea by trying the loin cloth tighter.
Recently, human rights activist Thush Wickramanayake, daughter of a former PM, in an interview with SLVLog Anchor Abisehka Fernando frankly stated that President Nandasena Gotabaya is a weak, cowardly leader who has failed miserably. SLPP Politician SB Dissanayake in a conversation with a well known monk also referred to leadership issues; so did Ven. Muruthetuwe Ananda Thero who made a similar sentiment asking Gota to seek the help of his brother MR. Interestingly, the racist line, Rajapaksas have been using liberally, to divert public attention to gain or stay in power, has not been working any more. The same Sinhala Buddhist populace, which brought him to power to allay their unfounded fears (imposed by the political vested interests and their media cronies) about threats from minorities, has now begun to expose his political nakedness! An irony indeed! As Arundathi said, it should be said in a Sri Lankan connotation, Gotabaya! ‘This is a crisis of your making. You cannot solve it. You can only make it worse. This virus prospers in an atmosphere of fear and hatred and ignorance. It prospers when you clamp down on those who speak out’.
As for now, priority is to ensure that battle against Covid is won at all costs, above all other crises. As the covid military management style and Gota’s leadership are miserably failing, it behoves on the professionals and intellectual community to step in and compel the political classes to follow a viable medical and public health strategy, without entrusting public health care to the military men and idle boasting political set of clowns. Sri Lanka’s involvement of the military at every level, with limited parliamentary and civilian oversight raises serious human rights and rule of law concerns. Going by past experiences, the military can play a role in disaster settings that is part of a coordinated response but concerns at present revolve around whether the pandemic is used to dislodge Sri Lanka’s civil service and legitimize some action that may have dire consequences.
Civil oversight is therefore important, allowing civilian and public sector to manage Covid-19 programmes, although the public sector in Sri Lanka may not be perfect. It is a fact that the public sector very much enables the scourge of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, and therefore it is important that all citizens need to be reassured and feel safe. All citizens, and not just the majority, should be able to access health services during a pandemic without fear of repercussions or triggering past trauma. to access information regarding Covid-19, declare their status if they show symptoms of the virus, and obtain necessary health services.
As ICJ said in a statement, ‘The government will only be able to implement successful public health measures and maintain public support and confidence when its policies in response to the pandemic are evidence-based, human rights compliant, and transparent”. The government and others involved in the pandemic response must learn from the past including the most recent lapses. A multi-sectoral approach with the inclusion of expertise in different areas is thus key as opposed to a purely military approach, adhering to the rule of law without resorting any extra legal and ad-hoc measures and without putting more citizens at risk, expose frontline responders and allow for the further entrenchment of the military project. There has thus being recent calls to immediately nationalise the country’s response to Covid control by immediately setting up an all-political party apex body to be co-chaired by both the President and the Leader of Opposition.
Freedom House, which works to defend human rights and promote democratic change, with a focus on political rights and civil liberties, highlighted recently that Sri Lanka’s experience illustrates a global trend in which the response to the coronavirus has led to abuses of power, the silencing of dissent and an undermining of systems of accountability. This will undoubtedly have long lasting consequences. Sri Lanka’s approach to dealing with the pandemic has also thus been a worrying reminder of its violent past.