The government’s plans to have early general elections have suffered a setback with the decision of the Election Commission to have them on June 20 and not on May 28 as the government had hoped for. The pressure on the Election Commission to give an early date even led to fissures within it that have become a matter of public knowledge. The keenness of the government was such that the Health Minister even predicted that by April 19, the crisis would be under control with the inference that an election campaigning would not be a problem. The example was given of South Korea which held its general election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. This may not have been a fair comparison as the combination of early voting and electronic voting in South Korea will not be possible in Sri Lanka at its present stage of economic development.
A year ago on April 21 on Easter Sunday the country’s peaceful life for ten years since the war’s end, free from large scale terror attacks, came to an abrupt end. The people who went to the three churches and three hotels that Easter morning were subjected to simultaneous suicide bomb attacks would not have had the slightest inkling of the terrible fate that was going to befall them. At 9 am the six synchronized attacks took place and took the lives of over 250 hapless men, women and children and injured more than 500. The puzzle then, and which remains to this day, was the motivation for the attacks and who was behind them. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, whose diocese suffered the heaviest casualties, has been the most dogged of the country’s leadership in pursuing this line of inquiry.
The government is continuing to take actions to keep the country in lockdown mode with which the general population has been cooperating with even though it is creating economic hardships to wide swathes among them. These include the imposition of a 24 hour curfew that is now into its fourth week in some areas. Despite the hardships there is widespread support for what the government is doing as the fear of COVID infection is also widespread. In the more rural areas most of the houses have kohomba leaves hanging in their doorframes as they are believed to have medicinal properties that will ward off diseases. The security guard across the road recounted that when he goes home he is compelled to first have a bath and put his clothes to be washed before entering it.
The battle against the COVID virus is becoming more protracted and requiring of greater sacrifice than originally envisaged. This is leading to correspondingly increasing tensions in society, especially in the hotspot districts including Colombo, as the curfew gets extended and daily wage earners find it more and more difficult to sustain their families. So far there has been little or no manifestation of dissent against the serial extension of the curfew. Due to intense media coverage the gravity of the crisis has become embedded within the public consciousness. People appreciate the government’s concerns about limiting the spread of the virus, which their concern as well.
The unprecedented 24 hour curfew is stretching to its second successive week. This first week is ending after more than a week of semi-lockdown where work from home was encouraged. The government appears to be taking no chances to ensure that it will rid the country of the threat of coronavirus infection. About 7000 curfew violators have been arrested. The hardships to the general population are significant with appeals coming from around the country that those who are daily wage earners and living on the margins have no reserves either of cash or food to fall back on.
The government’s inability to obtain the support of the ethnic and religious minorities was visible in the outcome of the presidential election. The popular vote in the districts in which the minority communities predominated went overwhelmingly to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s main challenger, Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa. At his swearing in ceremony, President Rajapaksa was straightforward enough to acknowledge this reality. He said he had been elected president on the votes of the ethnic majority. But in a statesmanlike manner he promised to govern as the president of all Sri Lankans. This is a pledge that the president has repeated on other important occasions, most recently on Independence Day.
For three months Sri Lankans watched the burgeoning coronavirus crisis in other parts of the world with a measure of equanimity as something that was faraway and international rather than national. There was a belief that the country’s warm climate would better protect it against inroads by COVID- 19. More than the discovery of the first 19 victims of the virus as of Monday it has been the decisiveness of the government’s delayed response that has caused a measure of alarm. Initially the government imposed quarantine restrictions on those passengers coming from countries that had already been affected by the global pandemic and followed this up by stopping the issuance of visas and flights from them.
The US government has rejected the war crimes allegations against it in regard to its conduct of the war in Afghanistan. This is yet another indication how governments across the world seek to justify their actions in times of war. Three decades ago, when the war with the LTTE was heightening, there was a debate about whether President J R Jayewardene had misquoted the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero as saying that “In times of war, the laws fall silent.” Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned a decision by the International Criminal Court to probe alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan by US forces. He said, “we will take all necessary measures to protect our citizens from this renegade, unlawful so-called court.”
The significance of Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s speech at the ongoing UN Human Rights Commission session in Geneva must not be missed. There is a possibility it will be, in the greater attention given to the issue of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. The government of that time co-sponsored the resolution, which set out in detail a process for reconciliation and justice in the country, in order to demonstrate its good faith to the international community. In the previous five years there had been several occasions on which Sri Lanka was subjected to strictures by the UNHRC acting collectively, and two occasions in which Sri Lanka lost in the voting despite its strenuous efforts to win. The willingness to comply with the UNHRC in 2015 permitted the government to gain both international goodwill and time, first two years, and then another two years, in which to implement its commitments.
The spread of the Coronavirus is an international calamity. Even though an island, Sri Lanka has not been able to insulate itself from the global impact of the pandemic. The country had an opportunity to miminise the impact of the pandemic if it had acted earlier. It had an early warning when, at the end of January, a Chinese tourist developed symptoms of the virus while in the country and was treated successfully. This incident could have set off alarm bells that others too might be similarly infected. The rescue operation by Sri Lankan Airlines in early February to fly into the heart of the pandemic in Wuhan to bring back Sri Lankan students stranded was hailed as a heroic act. It could have been used to rally the entire country to face the looming catastrophe.