For several governments, including those in South Asia, the Covid-19 pandemic is today’s 9/11: sudden and deadly, global in impact and an opportunity for establishing a deeper security state to mitigate risk through surveillance, regulation of citizens’ mobility, and at times, even centralized control. These signs of the times are manifest in Sri Lanka as well, noticeably in how the country has veered towards greater militarization in its “war” on the virus and a constitutional crisis. This article explores these trajectories, highlighting the conditions that have enabled the Sri Lankan government to mitigate the virus’ footprint quite creditably on the one hand, but with serious costs on the other.
On 18th May 2020, Sri Lanka’s case load of patients infected with the new coronavirus crossed a watershed one thousand mark. That same day, the government commemorated the 11th year of the end of the country’s civil war (1983-2009). The military was at the forefront of both events. Celebrated by the majority of Sinhala Buddhists as heroes of both the ‘old’ war and the ‘new’ one against the virus, the military has, nevertheless, also been the cause of a growing disquiet at its expanding footprint in the government of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse who has appointed top military men to high-level taskforces to combat the virus. Dominating the airwaves in the messaging on the virus, its daily status and strategies of mitigation, security forces personnel have often sidelined elected political representatives including the Minister of Health, bureaucrats and even medical experts.
The military has stepped in as first responders in disasters before, whether to rescue and recover, or aid in supply delivery. The 2004 Asian tsunami in which 35,000 Sri Lankans died within a matter of half an hour and caused widespread destruction of coastal areas is a case in point. Its current involvement in the Covid-19 crisis points, however, to a shift in scale, enabled not only by its postwar legacy as an army that defeated terrorism, but also its close ties to President Gotabhaya Rajapakse, a pro-nationalist, pro-military strongman.
This military exceptionalism led, however, to an own goal of sorts. Given that the first Sri Lankan patient with the virus was diagnosed on 11th March, the country’s track record, as of 25th May, of 1,089 cases and 9 deaths for a population of 21.4 million, with no wide community spread is commendable. What helped was swift government action in closing the island’s international borders, aggressive tracking and tracing, and a stringent curfew to minimize social interaction while buying time to build or refurbish quarantine centers and intensive care units. Centralized quarantine procedures under the management of the army, testing and treatment were also provided, free of charge. Friendly relations with China, India, South Korea and Japan also led to gifts or swift purchases of necessary medical equipment, testing kits and drugs.
The early optimism waned, however, when a military operation went wrong. This was when the Navy took part in a Covid 19-narcotic drug related raid without proper health and safety procedures. Catching the virus during this raid, navy men brought it back to their cramped Welisara naval base where it spread like wildfire. As of 25th May, 685 cases, or more than half of all Sri Lanka’s internal infections, were amongst navy personnel. While other citizens were under a strict embargo from traveling between districts, these navy men were permitted to visit their families. The result was an extra 36 infections within family and village clusters which also enlarged the virus’ ‘heat map’ across the country.
The episode led to attacks on the military from within their own native communities. To mitigate this reversal in fortune, Derana, a government aligned TV station took out from storage, the popular pro-military ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ (‘Together for All’) ads it had last telecast over 12 years ago in the final phase of the civil war. In re-telecasting and updating them with visuals and lyrics relevant to the current health crisis, the virus was not only framed as a new war in a continuum with the old, but also the military as essential to both. Sri Lankans were shamed for turning against their war heroes. Using nationalistic scripts, the ads called upon the population to win this new war through self-discipline and sacrifice. Indexical of the embarrassment caused by the navy infections, the ads were also a response to the pushback by, for instance, the public health inspectors’ union which openly criticized the military for treating Covid-19 as if it was a security threat rather than a public health one.
Seemingly separate from the military but linked by a common approach to governance, is a constitutional crisis currently brewing in Sri Lanka. Covid-19 forced the postponement of a general election scheduled for 25th April. With night-time curfews still in place and rising infections (albeit amongst repatriated migrant workers who are already in quarantine centers), it has been argued that elections cannot be held anytime soon. The Sri Lankan constitution stipulates, however, that the new parliament should sit within three months of the dissolution of the old one, a requirement that now cannot be met. The health of Sri Lanka’s democracy hangs in the balance: in-between calls by the opposition to declare a public health emergency and reconvene the old parliament (to also vote on financial expenditure), and the government’s stance that under a doctrine of necessity the executive can spend without parliamentary approval. For the second time in just seven months, the Supreme Court has been asked, through various fundamental rights petitions, to adjudicate on constitutional violations and be the arbiter of the democratic process.
The President and his style of leadership remain popular, however, amongst a public hankering for decisive leadership, particularly after the incompetence of the previous government under whose watch the Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels occurred just over a year ago, despite prior intelligence of the threat. Chasing a 2/3 majority at elections in order to amend the constitution, the Rajapakse government is, however, not invulnerable to Covid-19’s effects. The severe challenge it poses to an already battered economy with a debt ratio of 87% to GDP poses a threat to incumbency. But it also elicits popular support for the muscular style of leadership that Rajapakse lays claim to, and how Sri Lanka’s political leadership chooses to balance it priorities and consolidate will signal the country’s overall health.