President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reassured the people that he has no intention diverting from the democratic path and has no intention of resorting to the military to govern the country. Although he was brought to power by an alliance of political parties led by the SLPP, the president has not sought membership in any of those parties. He can be considered to be the first non-party president of Sri Lanka and, therefore, free from the obligations that bind a member of a political party to be subjected to the interests of the party. On the other hand, the lack of a party base can make the president less effective as he has no party to carry out his vision and plans and bring them to fruition on the ground.
The speculation about the nexus between the president and the military, and the increasing role of the military in governance, arises from the fact that the president has no alternative power base to fall back upon. The president spent most of his working life as a member of the military. He experienced two major periods of violence during his time in the military, during the JVP insurrection of 1987-89 and the LTTE war that preceded and followed the end of it. The bonds of trust and friendship forged in the course of events where one’s very life is at risk are among the most permanent in human relations. This has led the president to entrust major responsibilities to his former mates in the military.
Following his victory at the presidential election of 2019, the president has appointed a large number of military personnel, both retired and serving, to key positions in the state machinery. His period of governance is seeing a substantial increase in the military budget which continues to exceed those of education and health combined. This heavy investment in the military is not a new development but is part of a trend that has seen gradual increase. Today, salaries allocated to the military are about one half that of the total allocated to the public service. With conditions of peace having been restored for more than a decade there needs to be a reconsideration of these continuing investments.
The president has reaffirmed that the polity he presides over is a democracy. He has recommitted himself not to resort to military rule. This is being put into practice. There was concern in the country about two months ago when the country was put under a State of Emergency to deal with the shortage of food and fertilizer that had suddenly come into prominence. The declaration of emergency was supplemented by the immediate appointment of a Commissioner General for essential services who, as it turned out to be, was a retired military officer. Soon the general population had the satisfaction of witnessing raids on hoarders in which the raiding parties were accompanied by members of the security forces.
It needs to be noted that the state of emergency has been permitted to lapse. There was no request to parliament to extend it. With the lapsing of the emergency, the post of Commissioner General of Essential Services has also been terminated. The lapsing of the emergency without renewal may be due to the observation that the high profile raids that were carried out failed to bring down the price of the hoarded commodities. The crisis has worsened in the meantime and the price of rice is at an all time high. This would be a salutary lesson that economic problems cannot be resolved by the military or the use of force. These are problems that require the attention of experts in the field who make plans on a scientific and rational basis.
In his speech, the president said he had taken up office to make a positive difference, even a revolutionary one, and this was something he would continue to strive for. The president’s decision to ban the import of chemical fertilisers overnight has been controversial. The president stated that his concern was for the health of the people who needed to eat poison-free food, and for farmers to be free from the kidney disease blamed on overuse of chemical fertilizer. These are commendable aspirations that are accepted by the majority of the population. On the other hand, yields of food crops have dropped due to the absence of fertilisers and the hurried attempt to import organic fertilizer has generated further problems.
Another matter that the president brought up in his speech was his appointment of a presidential task force to recommend ways and means to become one country with one law. The slogan One country, One law was a winning formula in November 2019, just six months after the Easter bombing. There was a sense among the ethnic and religious majority community at that time that the ethnic and religious minorities had too much space to hide and engage in anti-national actions, and for which the government received the overwhelming mandate of the ethnic and religious majority community. The president explained his choice of the Ven Galagoda Atte Gnanasara as chairman of the presidential task force on the grounds that he had been campaigning for one country, one law for the past five years.
At a recent meeting of the Collective for Ethnic and Religious Harmony these matters were discussed by the highest level of Buddhist and other clergy. They agreed that the priority should be to ensure the equality of all citizens and to build amity between the ethnic and religious communities. They found the appointment of the Ven Gnanasara to have been extremely controversial. Even strong supporters of the president and of the concept of one country, one law have been put off by the appointment of the chairman. The one country, one law concept implies that the law should be equal to all. The second is that it can impact upon the personal laws of the ethnic and religious communities. Those who are tasked with leading a process of reform should have credentials that match their mandates or else the whole exercise can be discredited.
The core of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vision of revolutionary change ought to be to bridge the gap between the ethnic and religious communities that has led to years of strife from the time of Independence down to the present day. The religious clergy present and the civil society leaders invited by former speaker Karu Jayasuriya, the convenor of the Collective for Ethnic and Religious Harmony, were non-partisan and non-political. The former speaker who has eschewed party politics spoke of a change of direction which the religious and civil society leaders present were in accord with. With their learning, experience and all-encompassing vision, the membership of this group can be President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s kalyana mithuro in his quest for revolutionary change.
“No one can possess the whole truth or satisfy his or her every desire, since that pretension would lead to nullifying others by denying their rights.” — Pope Francis in his Encyclical – Fratelli Tutti (fraternity and social friendship)