By Jehan Perera –
The primacy being given to the defense budget at time of cost slashing in virtually every other area is a pointer to the government’s reliance on the security forces to maintain and exhibit political stability and their grip on power. It is also a reflection of the government’s fears that the worst is still to come. This does not bode well for the people who are hoping that the country will come out of its worst ever economic crisis soon. President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s accession to power was greeted with the hope beyond its query of legitimacy that he would be able to navigate through the prevailing political instability and access international support through his familiarity with international systems. This hope has still to materialize. The last significant economic support to the country came from India before President Wickremesinghe took office.
At the present time hopes are pinned on the IMF giving the country the loans it needs which will be a green light to other credit agencies to restart doing business with Sri Lanka which has been ostracized since it defaulted on its debt in March of this year. President Wickremesinghe has been forthright in saying that the budget will reflect the economic targets set by the IMF. The president has also promised to disclose the IMF proposals which have so far remained a tightly guarded secret to the general public which has created doubts as to its impact on the living standards of the majority of people. The anger at the sacrifices the IMF package is likely to call for may be directed against the president by potential successors. Other aspiring leaders in both the government and opposition have been conveying the message that they will protect the people better if they get the chance.
In this context, it appears that the president and his team do not wish the people to express their opposition to the economic reforms either by elections or public protests. The sudden appointment of a National Delimitation Committee for the demarcation of wards for local authorities and to reduce the number of local councillors by one half has been explained as a cost cutting measure that takes the economic crisis into account. It may be seen as a clever ploy as it will almost certainly lead to a postponement of local government elections which fall due in March of next year. This will prevent the people from expressing their opinion regarding the government’s performance. The large defence budget, which exceeds that of health and education combined, will ensure that the security forces are motivated to suppress any uprising against the government.
Ever since the economy started to collapse this year and the protest movement took to the streets, the government has been facing a crisis of legitimacy that it is unable to shake off. The resignation of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers in the period from May to July this year seems to have scarred the government and made it insecure. The arrest this past weekend of two women protestors who were marching by themselves on the road carrying a placard demanding the release of two student leaders is an indication of this governmental insecurity. The government was not taking any chances in dealing with the two women. Dozens of police surrounded the two women prior to forcing them into a vehicle. In the melee, male policemen were seen on social media videos treating female police officers very roughly, even squeezing the neck of one and shoving them for reasons unknown to onlookers.
It is very unfortunate for the country, and indeed for the government itself, that it has become so preoccupied with its security concerns that it does not perceive how others may perceive its actions. The insistence on keeping two student leaders incarcerated for over three months without charge under the Prevention of Terrorism Act is costing the government dearly in terms of outrage on the part of any right thinking person let alone human rights activists. The costs can be high to the economy as well as the EU’s GSP Plus tax concession which is hugely beneficial to Sri Lankan exporters comes up for review next year and its extension is dependent on human rights considerations. The violations of human rights that have taken place in the past and which continue into the present are being taken up in the UK parliament and UN Human Rights Council among others to the country’s detriment.
The House of Commons last week discussed the human rights and economic situation in Sri Lanka with several parliamentarians accusing Sri Lanka for continued violation of human rights in the country. They called on the UK government to act on Sri Lanka in the form of sanctions which included referring Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court; urging Sri Lanka to meet its GSP+ commitments; and to reduce its military spending. One member recommended that the Global Magnitsky Act, the first of a new generation of human rights sanctions programmes be applied. The Act, in contrast to traditional sanctions targeted at individual countries, can be flexibly applied to alleged perpetrators from all over the world, regardless of their geographical location.
Regrettably, the government’s security-centered approach is going to be counterproductive in the longer term as well. It can only suppress the symptoms for a while. The latest UN report titled ‘Sri Lanka: Multi-dimensional crisis -Humanitarian needs and priorities JUNE – DEC 2022’ by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on behalf of Humanitarian Country Team and partners, says that an estimated 13.5 million, or 61.1 percent of the population, are using food-based coping strategies, and 47.7 percent of households use livelihood coping strategies. The report published on Nov 8, 2022 says that “About 5.3 million people, or 24 percent of population, are reducing the number of meals, and the same percentage of the population are reducing adults’ consumption so that children can eat, with women being the last to eat in the household. The proportion of households with unacceptable diets is ten times higher compared to the end of 2021.” This shows that people literally are starving.
Especially in a context in which elections are being postponed and people cannot elect the representatives they have confidence in, the tendency will be to come out and protest against the hardships that people experience. The security forces cannot be expected, and will not be able to, suppress the masses of people when there is a desperate need as was the case in the period of the Aragalaya when prices shot up, fuel and fertilizer was not available and power cuts stretched for half the day. The main need at the present time is for the government to allocate its scarce resources to meet the needs of the people rather than suppress their legitimate protests. On the other hand, the government appears to be relying on the security forces to keep the people in check and cope with the potential unrest of the future.
In a speech at the Kotalawala Defence University, President Wickremesinghe acknowledged that there may be questions raised as to why the government is focusing so much on the armed forces, and why the government is looking at Defence 2030. He is reported as having said “When we were born, there was no tussle for the Indian Ocean. At one stage, no one wanted it. Today it is not so. If we are to survive, the skills, the security skills, Strategic Studies, all that has to be utilized.” The President is also reported to have said that the country cannot have an export-oriented industry unless it has the freedom of navigation. This answer was not convincing, because the bulk of the defence budget goes to support the army which is bigger in numbers than the British or French armies. It is such claims and justifications, redirecting or misdirecting the public that has taken the country to its present status over the 74 years of Independence. Holding elections on schedule and negotiating the way forward with the political representatives who emerge is the democratic way to sustainable political stability which is needed for economic development.