By Jehan Perera –
The signs of elections and the short term changes that they bring are upon us today. Posters of candidates are coming up with their party symbols, preference numbers and their vote-catching mottos. Despite the difficulties that people are undergoing at the individual level due to economic hardships that personally affect them, the reality of politics today is that the electorate does not have a viable alternative to the government. The opposition has still to recover from its weak performance during the last year of its governance in 2019 when it was internally divided between former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. By way of contrast the present government gives an image of strength and competence that is reassuring to the general population.
In addition, at the macro level, the government has notched up two successes that are being constantly repeated by government members and echoed by the supportive media, and which the opposition cannot easily counter. The first is the fact that the members of the current government were the leaders who successfully ended the three decade long war, which few thought possible during the time of war. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as Defense Secretary at that time, is today credited for the war victory. Although this happened more than 11 years ago, it still counts as a living memory due to constant repetition.
The second major macro issue on which the government has gained great credibility with people is in regard to how it dealt with the Covid pandemic. These days there is a feeling of normalcy in the country with regard to this crisis even though continued vigilance is necessary to prevent a second wave of infections. The ongoing crises in other parts of the world, including our immediate neigbourhood, highlights the very positive track record of Covid handling in Sri Lanka. The credit for this is given to the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The unity of purpose within the government is attributed to his strong and decisive leadership which is contrasted to the dismal experience of the previous five years epitomized by the failure to pay heed to the Easter Sunday warnings.
There is, however, a confluence of two factors that makes the present situation a potentially unsustainable one. One is the belief that the security forces were behind the success of both the campaigns against the LTTE insurrection and the Covid epidemic. With regard to the latter this has been due to their ability to swiftly contain outbreaks of the infection by sealing off areas, tracking down those exposed to it and sending them into quarantine and ensuring that they stay there till the infectious period was passed. Based on this understanding there appears to be an uncritical acceptance of the efficiency, discipline and strategic ability of the security forces who played the frontline role in these two great achievements.
The danger in Sri Lanka today arises out of the politically charged messages being given to the general public that the security forces are capable of doing what the politicians and public servants are unable to do or should do. The disappointment with the previous government, which came to power on the promise of clean and transparent government, which started doing many things that were good, but could not take them to their conclusion due to internal conflict and venality, is now cited as evidence for this. This failure has led to a loss of confidence in the system of representative democracy and to the strongly articulated position that the present democratically elected president and his appointees can be a substitute for parliament in this time of Covid due to the postponement of general elections.
There is experience worldwide that when the security forces are brought in, or step in, to bring order where there is chaos the experience has not generally been a positive one. So far the Sri Lankan security forces have never sought to be decision makers in politics. They have faithfully followed the leadership of the elected political leadership and been implementers of government policy even when they have had to suffer the consequences. This remains the case today even, as it is the democratically elected president who has appointed them to take charge of ministries and to be members of presidential task forces. This is different from other countries where the security forces seized power by overthrowing democratically elected governments for various reasons.
The danger is that once the military gets entrenched in government they tend to go the way of all flesh and it can become next to impossible to remove them. In Myanmar the military has insisted that 1/4 of the seats in parliament should be reserved for them, with the requirement that any change of the constitution requires a 3/4 majority. This makes the system impossible to change without the consent of the military who exercise a veto power over the elected civilian authority. An attempt to change the constitution in March to reduce the military representation in parliament failed to obtain a 3/4 majority in parliament. This is the plight to which Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been reduced. This is why it has been said for many centuries that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
There are troubling signs that the government is beginning to over-rely on the security forces for answers to issues of governance. This is seen by the appointment of two presidential task forces. The first is the Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society and is composed entirely of military, intelligence and police officials. It has been entrusted with the power to “conduct investigations and to issue directions as may be necessary in connection with the functions entrusted to it.” This includes issuing instructions to government officials to comply with its directives or be reported to the President. The second is the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province. Once again a group comprising high level security forces personnel for most part will be tasked with dealing with complex issues of history, identity and land use.
At the present time there are many people who might believe that these security forces personnel would do a better job than discredited politicians and public administrators. But the better solution to the infirmities of the public service would be to provide them with better opportunities for training and incentives for recruitment. There was a time when the civil service in Sri Lanka was regarded as second to none in terms of efficiency and commitment. The pride in the civil service got eroded by politics entering the picture and politicians interfering. This is why the 19th Amendment to the constitution, passed in 2015 by the parliament with virtual unanimity, needs to be further strengthened and not undone if there is constitutional reform in the future. The strengthening of civilian institutions including parliament is the need of the hour.