President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to appoint a presidential task force “to build a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society” signals a major shift towards authoritarian leadership on June 2, 2020, the very day that a constitutionally mandated deadline lapses for the convening of Parliament, legal and political observers noted.
With the Supreme Court decision on June 2, 2020 paving the way for unchecked executive rule, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa looks to be sidelining even the Cabinet of Ministers and establishing control over the whole state machinery with his generals, legal experts said.
The Task Force comprises exclusively military men, including Brigadier Suresh Sallay, once the country’s much-feared director of Military intelligence. The Task force is led by Secretary to the Ministry of Defense Major General Kamal Guneratne. The 13 member ‘dream team’ also includes Maj. General Jagath Alwis, an officer who cut his teeth in the brand new Military Intelligence Corps pioneered in 1990 by Lionel Balagalle. Alwis is also a Gajaba regiment soldier, like President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his defence secretary Kamal Guneratne. Alwis and Guneratne served together in 1987. Alwis currently serves as Chief of national Intelligence in the Gotabaya administration. The task force includes the directors of the army, navy and Air Force intelligence units.
Uniquely, the presidential proclamation establishing the special task force to build a disciplined, virtuous and lawful society is that it makes all public officials answerable to the 13 member task force – all of them men in uniform. Fragile though Sri Lanka’s democracy has been the principle that the military is subject to civilian authority has always been steadfastly upheld with government protocols in place to ensure military chiefs ranked lower than ministry secretaries and MPs.
For the first time in Sri Lanka’s republican history, the President of the country has made the civilian authority – the public service – subservient to military officials.
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa proclamation orders all Government officers and others to compl with the instructions of the Task Force. The President also ordered the Task Force to report to him all cases of delay or default on the part of any public officer or officer of any Ministry, Government Department or state corporation in the discharge of these instructions. The provisions mean the Task Force will rule the roost and any public official challenging its authority will face the wrath of the President himself.
The Task Force also has a strange and ominous brief.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has tasked the uniforms with execution of:
1. Taking necessary immediate steps to curb the illegal activities of social groups which are violating the law which is emerging as harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society at present in some places of the country
2. Take necessary measures for prevention from drug menace, prevent entry of drugs from abroad through ports and airports and to fully eradicate drug trafficking in the country and to prevent other social illnesses caused by drug abuse
3. Take necessary measures to take legal action against persons responsible for the illegal and antisocial activities conducting in Sri Lanka while locating in other countries
4. To investigate and prevent any illegal and antisocial activities in and around prisons
The proclamation does not specify or define “social groups”, legal experts said, leaving the interpretation broad and abstract and liable to be abused to crackdown on civil society activists, religious groups and even journalists or publishing houses.
“There can be no other meaning. We are going to see increasingly ‘Rule by Task Forces’ directed by the President within a fully militarised state. From Poverty Education to Higher Education everything will be run by Task Forces,” said attorney at law and Jaffna University faculty member Dr K. Guruparan on Twitter.
Other constitutional experts voiced concerns that with the Supreme Court decision on Tuesday to disallow leave to proceed in eight petitions filed challenging President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s refusal to reconvene Parliament despite the constitution mandating that Parliament can only remain dissolved for a three month period and “no later”, constitutional democracy had “gone into Triage” in Sri Lanka.
Activists are concerned the Supreme Court decision to stay out of the complicated constitutional question and allow presidential rule without a Parliament for an unspecified amount of time permits the President to consolidate power and entrench ‘rule by the generals’ – rendering even his prime minister and cabinet of minister helpless observers in the face of the development.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who marked 50 years in politics very recently, is facing the biggest political challenge of his lifetime political observers remarked on Twitter clearly alluding to growing tensions between an a president intent on militarization and a political party led by his elder brother.
On 2nd June the President also appointed a second Task Force led by Secretary Defence Kamal Guneratne for the “management of archeological sites in the Eastern Province”. Media moghul Dilith Jayaweera is also a member of this task force in his capacity as Chairman of Derana Media. To deal with the sensitive issues of contested cultural heritage and land acquisition in a ethnically diverse province, President Gotabaya has picked an exclusively Sinhalese 11 member team.
When Colombo Telegraph contacted Jayaweera about his appointment to the task force on archaeology, he responded: “i is a subject I have had and interest in since i was a child”