By Rajan Philips –
“Even in those cases in which political and military leadership is united in the same person, it is the political moment which must prevail over the military.” ~ Antonio Gramsci
Honestly, when I started this short series of articles comparing the malaria epidemic to the current pandemic, I did not foresee it ending in today’s title. History and political logic have a way of asserting themselves, sometimes serendipitously, sometimes harmlessly, and ominously at other times. Nonetheless, the title of the article should be taken for its metaphorical effect, and not as literally accurate. For, there is more to the founding of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party on 18 December 1935, than the malaria epidemic of that year. Equally, there is nothing necessarily ominous about the association of Covid-19 mitigation and the military in Sri Lanka. At the same time, what may have been started as a matter of logistical convenience could turn into something sinister and treacherous.
That the malaria epidemic was an extraordinary catalyst in the founding of the Lanka Samaja Party is borne out by a passage from Hector Abhayavardhana’s presentation to a Peradeniya symposium in December 1985, to mark the 50th Anniversary of the LSSP, which is quoted below in homage and as history:
“The Suriya Mal activists who, quinine mixture in one hand and packed foodstuffs in the other, went into the raging malarial fever, could hardly have anticipated the conditions of misery and helplessness that they saw. The feelings that welled within them could not have been entirely of the gentler variety. Sterner emotions broke out of the text of the (LSSP’s founding) Manifesto. … The temper of the men and women who formed the LSSP was perhaps greatly determined by Marxist ideas they had gathered abroad and the national mindedness that increasingly came out of the Youth Leagues. But what solidified their resolve never to relent until imperialist and native capitalist exploitation had been extirpated from our society, was the indelible imprint on their memories of 90,000 to 125,000 men, women and children of all ages going to their deaths shivering fitfully and then blazing with the fever of malaria.”
The historical question is not what happened to the LSSP, but what has happened to Sri Lanka through the lifetime of the LSSP and beyond – its fighting birth, its stirring rise, the long decline, and now the twilight of the Left. Historically, it was the formation of the LSSP, the island’s first political party, that created the opportunity for Sri Lanka’s social classes to associate themselves with a political party. Almost a century later, the social classes have “become detached from their traditional parties”, in what Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, called a moment of crisis in the history of political societies, in which “the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic “men of destiny.”
A Man of Destiny
In 2019, Sri Lanka’s two major parties had become unmoored from their bases and were rapidly disintegrating. The Easter Sunday blasts reignited the fear of political violence and exposed the criminal negligence of the government in power. Underlying these developments was the restive Sinhalese apprehension that Sri Lanka was being shortchanged by the international community at the behest of Sri Lankan minorities over allegations of war crimes and restrictions to power sharing. The November presidential election was seen by a substantial majority of the Sinhalese as the country’s opportunity to resolve its multiple crises by electing a man of destiny, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as president.
There is nothing to suggest that the President and his supporters had pre-meditated plans to extensively involve the military in government administration. The arrival of Covid-19 presented him the pretext and the context to call in the military for spearheading the response to Covid-19. The involvement was initially welcomed by almost everyone because of the military’s capability to provide logistical support to public health and medical professionals in tracking and quarantining infected persons to contain virus transmission. But rather than stopping transmission many members of the tri forces (500 of the 915 confirmed Covid-19 cases) have become potential carriers of the virus. The breaking news after months of curfew and quarantines became an embarrassment for the government and a cause for ridicule in the social media.
But that should be the least of the government worries, nor is it the biggest annoyance for the people. The government’s challenge is in balancing the relaxation of curfew, while keeping virus transmission under control. The military alone cannot do this. Nor can the army contribute anything to addressing the economic impacts of Covid-19. And the military is of no use in dealing with election dates, recalling parliament, or arguing the government’s case before the Supreme Court. The only thing that the army can be asked to do is lock their buildings and keep everyone out. To do that, the government will have to declare emergency, summon parliament, and do everything else that the President has been steadfastly opposing. That will also mean making a lot of normal people very unhappy. The Administration has got itself into a bind and the army cannot help it to get out of it.
While there is concern that militarization of the state is in the offing, the question for the government is how anything will become different from what it is now even after increased militarization? The virus is not going to disappear through fear of the tri forces. The economy cannot be ordered into action by the army. And even if permanent closure of parliament is an option, what will the President do with the rest of the Rajapaksas? Organize special sittings at Temple Trees for the Old Boys of Parliament? The paradox is that before Covid-19, President Rajapaksa was riding high politically and he did not need the military to exercise power. After Covid-19, he has brought in the military but virtually nothing is going right. The only saving grace for the government is that the Doctors and Public Health officials are holding forth, and the virus is far less exponential in its transmission in Sri Lanka than it has been elsewhere.
After being ravaged by malaria for over ten years, Sri Lanka finally eradicated it when, DDT, the powerful insecticide became available. Without DDT, the disease may have been controlled by therapies, but could not have been eradicated. In a moment of brutal flippancy, Dr. Colvin R de Silva said in Parliament sometime the late 1960s, that “were it not for DDT, the name of DS Senanayake would not have been worth a mosquito.” The main institutional development out of the malaria experience has been the country’s public health system, its doctors at the top and Public Health Inspectors (PHI) in offices throughout the country. The public health system should be the main agency in the Covid-19 mitigation process. The government has not been giving the public health officials the same importance, support, and public praise as it has been giving the members of the tri forces.
There is neither therapy for nor vaccine against Covid-19 in immediate sight. Keeping a country under lockdown or indefinite curfews is not going to eliminate the virus in the end, but will irreparably damage the economy. Many of today’s world leaders will be judged by how they have guided their countries through the current pandemic. Calling governments and their leaders ‘clueless’ may seem a tad unfair, but there is nothing extraordinary about it. The Modi government is being called clueless in India. The Trump Administration and the British government certainly fit the description. Putin’s Russia is right up there with the two of them on top of the Covid-19 tallies of infected cases and deaths – looking like an Olympics medal table during the Cold War years: US, gold, and USSR and the UK sharing silver and bronze.
Hardly any government has got everything right on all fronts – fighting the virus, minding the economy, and being politically accountable. Very few are reasonably successful in all three areas. No country has seen the end of the coronavirus, and new cases are being reported in China’s Wuhan and in South Korea. The Sri Lankan government rushed to self-congratulate itself through its cheerleaders for containing the virus spread. A global pandemic is not an occasion for congratulations and celebrations. The Sri Lankan government’s weakest point is the economy. The Administration alone cannot be blamed for the country’s virtual insolvency. But it has shown no encouraging sign at all that it is capable of either conventional wisdom or creative tools when both are needed in full measure. As for Covid-19, the government will be ultimately judged by the support and resources it provides for the Public Health system and its Inspectors, and not for showcasing the military.