Multi-track diplomacy generally refers to international peacebuilding that is not limited to government to government engagements, but also brings in non-governmental actors such as the media, business community and civil society into the frame as well. The meeting between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the US embassy, including USAID which is the development arm of the US government, indicates a possible broadening of the government’s approach to meet the concerns of the international community to which the United States provides leadership. The meeting received wide media coverage although the substance of the coverage was the same, to the effect that steps would be taken to expedite development activities powered by USAID grants.
The US government has decided to include Sri Lanka as one of the countries to which it will donate the excess stock of Covid vaccines it has purchased. The US announced its framework for sharing at least 80 million vaccine doses globally by the end of June and the plan for the first 25 million doses which will include 7 million to specified Asian countries, including Sri Lanka. This is a welcome action that will have a tangible impact on the lives of millions of people in the beneficiary countries. The explosion in the numbers of Covid victims, particularly in poorer countries that have less access to vaccines, has driven up the demand which outstrips supply and to an increase in prices. Sri Lanka which originally was paying only USD 5.50 for a single dose is now paying USD 15 which it can ill afford.
A government minister has pronounced that the vaccine alone may not resolve the Covid perhaps to comfort those who are not able to access the vaccine. For a similar reason another government minister has said that a second dose of vaccine may not be necessary to give effective protection from the coronavirus. Yet another minister has stated it may be possible to give a second vaccine that is different from the first and that research is underway in the country to ascertain this. There were high expectations when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected that the country would de-politicise its decision making and a new era of expert decision making would end the role of politicians in it. This would have reversed the downside of the constitutional change made in 1972 that elevated the power of elected politicians over the state bureaucracy to make decision making more accountable to the people.
The debate over Colombo Port City will not end with the passage of the law in parliament that will govern the new territory claimed from the sea through Chinese investment, technology and negotiations skills. The dream holds out billions of dollars of foreign investment that will be pumped into the national economy and a fast track to development. The bill was passed last week into law even as the country prepared for emergency lockdown in the face of rampaging Covid that has now even infected the Leader of the Opposition and his wife and compelled several parliamentarians to go into quarantine. The vote was 149 in favour with just 58 against, a large majority, but still less than the 2/3 majority needed to permit the enactment of laws that are inconsistent with the constitution.
The 12th year after the end of the war falls this week. Not many people will be thinking of the war at this time unless the matter is consciously brought to their attention. It may have lasted for three decades but it is a receding memory for most. The war is far from the minds of most people as they live harmoniously side by side or separately in their different areas of the country. For those under 20 years of age the war will have no memory at all, unless they were living in an area where the war was fought or attacks took place. Other issues loom large in the minds of the people, in particular the third wave of Covid that confines people to their homes and makes the burden of the economic crisis weigh more heavily upon them.
The sudden resurgence of the Covid pandemic in Sri Lanka was totally unexpected by the people at large though it was expected and predicted by those in the scientific and medical communities. The people had been reassured by the political leaders and sections of the media that Sri Lanka was a success story unlike other countries, including more developed ones that had been devastated by the pandemic. However, the country had received an early warning in the second wave which had commenced in October last year with the spread that was believed to have originated in the garment industry. But much before this the country’s top medical associations had been warning that community spread of the coronavirus had already commenced. These warnings were neither heard nor acted upon by the vast majority of the population. The mainstream view until the shock of the third wave in April, was that Sri Lanka was a success in Covid management.
The fact that the economic crisis looms large in the government’s calculations can be seen can be seen in the decisions to save money by replacing the import of chemical fertilizers with locally produced organic fertilizers and unwillingness to tackle the rapid spread of the Covid virus with the same zeal as last year. The Covid spread at this time would call for a total lockdown at least in the crowded urban areas. By Sri Lankan standards, the virus is on the rampage, up from less than 200 per day a month ago to 2000 a day at this time. But the political pressure on the government from the people and from commercial enterprises is to keep the country open. When asked about how Covid is in their areas, most people would say that their greater fear is of lockdown than of Covid. Those in the urban areas, who have to earn their daily wage, prefer to run the risk of Covid rather than face the economic hardship of another lockdown.
The Chinese embassy was bold to question what the big fuss was about their invitation to parliamentarians to a tour of Colombo Port City which China has recovered from the sea through an amazing feat of technological prowess. An opposition MP asked why the embassy was directing this study visit when in the past it had been done by the Urban Development Authority. In a tweet the embassy replied, “Why not? A field visit will help to understand better about the project. Seeing is believing. Thousands of visitors from all walks of life have visited the site, even during the pandemic.” The issue of national sovereignty that the parliamentarian was concerned has induced governments to give up possible foreign investments in the past. But because it is China this time it seems to be different.
The government was elected on a platform that stressed national security and unity. The elections took place in the aftermath of the Easter suicide bomb attacks of 2019 that caused the highest numbers of casualties in Christian churches. As the bombers were all Muslim, the Muslim population in the country came under public suspicion which was spontaneous and widespread. There was also equally widespread fear and anxiety about follow on attacks that could target Christians in particular and also the population in general. The cause of the attacks and the master minds behind them were a mystery then as they are now.
One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future. The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Viswalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future. According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness. Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest. There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.