Fear when combined with falsehood and insular inward-looking nationalism make a potent combination that can lead to the brutalization of society in the short term and possible disaster in the longer term. Sri Lanka is gaining international notoriety on this account. The issue of enforced cremation of those who die of Covid, or are suspected of it as a possible cause of death, has shocked the sensibilities of the world to the extent that four UN Special Rapporteurs have called on Sri Lanka to permit burial of such fatalities. Significantly, these were the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
The initial optimism that accompanied President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ascension to the presidency is wearing thin in the face of the seemingly insurmountable problems he has to deal with including the economic crisis and most unexpectedly the Covid spread. But there are also the more traditional issues of abuse of power, corruption and inter-community tensions that are raising their heads. The recent prison riot, which has seen brutality, is what people remember of the past and must not recur under a government that cares for its people regardless of their stations in life or communities. When he won the presidential election in November 2019 there was a great deal of hope that the president was a leader with strong convictions who would immediately take charge and put things right in an efficient manner.
Despite its small size Sri Lanka has occasionally been prominent on the world scene for both good reasons and bad. Sri Lanka gained much positive publicity for having the first woman prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960. This was one of the factors that helped Sri Lanka to host the non-aligned conference in 1976 which was attended by 86 heads of states or their representatives and enabled Sri Lanka to play a lead role on the international scene. In the decade of the 1960s and 1970s Sri Lanka was also known internationally as a model of a country that could provide its people with a relatively high quality of life on a relatively low income. At that time Sri Lanka had economic policies that emphasized income re-distribution and subsidies that kept inequalities significantly lower than what they are today.
The budget debate taking place at this time is when the country has suffered a setback in its efforts to keep the Covid pandemic at bay. There is increasing criticism being voiced especially in the social media and civil society at the government’s utilization of the military at the expense of civilian leadership in meeting this health challenge. The increase in the military budget and the diminished health budget in the context of the enormous increase in the budget deficit is indicative of the government’s priorities. The military is playing an increased role in civilian affairs, not only leading the battle against the coronavirus but also in terms of administrative presence in the government bureaucracy, with retired military personnel being deployed to positions of leadership. This seems to reflect the president’s personal faith in the military forces he served both as a combat officer and later as Defense Secretary.
The sudden spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus has caught both the government and larger society by surprise and generated collective alarm. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been chiding the people for failing to be more careful about their safety and taking the necessary precautions. Until the recent outbreak took on serious proportions, people felt obliged to wear face masks to avoid being questioned by the police rather than for their own personal safety and that of those around them. Participants at social gatherings frequently put aside their masks after they got inside the venue. The belief that was propagated by the government that Sri Lanka was the second most successful country in the world in terms of containing Covid took a firm grip on the popular imagination.
In 1961, shortly after his election victory, President-elect John F Kennedy quoted one of the first colonists of the US, John Winthrop who, in the year 1630, said “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. This was one of the first examples of the belief that America would be exceptional, and that it would become a country that would set standards for the world to follow. The significance of the United States throughout the world and the protracted vote count and the roller coaster nature of the recently concluded presidential election ensured that it was keenly watched throughout the world.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus has become the focus of national attention. The extension of the three day lockdown and 24 hour curfew that was imposed on Colombo and the entire Western Province over the weekend has now been extended by a week with the implication that the threat of uncontrolled spread is very serious. The external manifestation of the crisis came with the discovery of the Brandix factory cluster in early October. There appears to have been many failures in regard to its control. Religious clerics have appeared on media to say that this is the nature of things. Following the latest lockdown President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made an appeal to the general population to be more responsible in their attitudes. However, the laxity appears to have been contributed to by the state authorities and their agents responsible for the implementation of the Covid control system.
The passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution has taken place at a time of unprecedented crisis in the country. For the past months since it surfaced as a draft, the government leadership had been giving it priority attention to garnering support for the legislation in the face of mounting challenges. Despite securing an enormous majority of seats in parliament, and only 5 short of an outright 2/3 majority required for constitutional change there were times when the challenge seemed too big to accomplish. The peculiar feature of the 20th Amendment was that it called on the parliamentarians to voluntarily give up their existing powers as a collective and entrust it to the presidency.
The ongoing investigation into the Easter bombing in 2019 which created hundreds of victims and brought the country’s economy to its knees, reveals more and more the lack of responsibility and failure on the part of the government authorities at that time. Everyone being questioned in regard to the security failure seems to be seeking to pass the responsibility onto someone else or to say that all are responsible and so no one is. The 19th Amendment which reduced the powers of the president and distributed it to the prime minister, parliament and other state institutions has been made the scapegoat for those human failures and unwillingness to take responsibility. The political problem with the 19th Amendment is that it has enabled those who wish to shirk their responsibility many ways to point their fingers at the others.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s statement that his verbal orders should be considered as circulars to be implemented has generated considerable interest as it goes against the norms of state administration. There has been much commentary on it, not all of it positive. The president issued this directive at a meeting organised for him in one of the country’s most underdeveloped areas. His desire to cut through layers of bureaucracy on the spot could be based on his previous experience as a serving military officer and later as Defense Secretary. The large number of requests made by the residents of the village of Vilanwita in the Badulla District could have been the reason the president made this announcement to ensure that the decisions he was making would be implemented.