As the new year dawns the government appears to be moving in the direction of more inclusivity in both domestic and foreign policy. The most contentious domestic political issue over the past nine months, and growing in intensity to include public demonstrations, has been that of the disposal of bodies of persons who succumb to the coronavirus. The Sri Lankan claim to be exceptional in the world in respect of the practice of enforced cremation has been met with the opposition and increasingly public agitation of the Muslim community to whom burial is a matter of religious faith and is a human right guaranteed under the constitution and international law. Until recently the experts in the medical and scientific field consulted by the government and elevated to government committees were adamant in taking the position that burials should not be permitted on safety grounds.
The map of Covid infection in the country is steadily spreading to more remote parts of the country radiating from the Western province which has been the worst affected and the site of origin of the second wave of infection. There was an expectation that the government would institute a lockdown during the final week of the year to prevent people from traveling and celebrating the beginning of a new year. This impression was strengthened by Public Health Inspectors collectively making their disquiet known by calling on the government to order a stop to inter-provincial travel. The government might have been reluctant to put such an inter-provincial travel ban into effect when it is trying to persuade foreign tourists to commence international travel to the country.
The loss of the USD 480 million grant opportunity provided to Sri Lanka by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was on the cards for some time. The two projects it was meant to implement became too controversial, though on their face they were about promoting economic development. The Transport Project aimed to increase the relative efficiency and capacity of the road network and bus system in the Colombo Metropolitan Region and to reduce the cost of transporting passengers and goods between the central region of the country and ports and markets in the rest of the country. The Land Project was to help the government identify under-utilized state land that might be put to more productive use and maximize rents from lands that the government leases. Both of these projects were interpreted in a negative light to make them a threat to Sri Lanka.
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.