Sri Lankan government uses covid 19 state of emergency to bolster its political power

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Covid 19 is spreading extremely rapidly across the globe. Countries have taken various steps to curb it but have still not been able to stop the virus from going further. The Sri Lankan government of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksha initially took the threat of this disease very lightly and did not take necessary steps to prevent it.

Government politicians were heavily involved in preparing for the parliamentary elections scheduled for 25th April. They ridiculed demands made by opposition parties, NGOs and others for a postponement of the election in view of this looming threat. The ruling party was of the view that, due to a split in the main opposition party, they should take advantage of having a relatively clear field in the election.

The only important action taken by the government was to close all schools from March 5th. It worked very slowly even after the coronavirus was first seen as a very real threat in this country. No-one was in any doubt that Covid 19 was widespread in Italy? But the Sri Lankan government did not take immediate action to stop people who were arriving from Italy (and South Korea) from going into the population.

Government priorities

The government was paying its main attention to the parliamentary election and gave a very low focus on taking measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. For example, a ruling was announced, with no particular justification, to keep on accepting the election nominations in the districts. It was totally irresponsible to be waiting to get the nomination procedure finished before taking measures on the coronavirus to save lives.

The president made a special statement on 16th March. It was not aimed at preventing the spread of Covid 19 but was to urge people to vote for his party and give it a two-thirds majority in parliament so that constitutional changes could be made to allow his brother, prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksha, to have more powerful executive powers.

Without shame, in the speech to the nation, he promised to reduce the price of salmon and dahl. It was blatantly aimed at getting votes, not relieving the suffering of the poor people at a time of crisis. Meanwhile, he made no mention of anything to do with the world economy like the collapse of the price of oil from $67 to $32 and other grave warnings of things to come as a result of the pandemic spreading rapidly worldwide.

Political parties and independent groups which intended to stand in the upcoming elections had to go through a complex procedure in handing over nominations and faced a serious situation. There was no guarantee that party secretaries who went to sign nomination papers and election officials who were involved in accepting them were immune from the virus. Even Basil Rajapaksha, a key leader of the ruling SLPP (People’s Front), has had to undergo quarantine due to a suspicion that one of their party’s candidates who had a fever had contracted the virus. The government eventually felt the need to end taking nominations for the election after understanding all the risks.

Clamp-down

A common feature of the present government’s way of ruling has been attempting to provide military solutions to all issues. In the past, the military was not permitted by law to play the role of traffic police in Colombo. When they did, there was chaos. However, the army is now involved in dealing with the health emergency but is coming in for considerable criticism. It is not allowing the participation of the health department trade unions or considering the women who work in the health service. The Government Medical Officers’ Association, which backed the present government coming to power, has criticised the army involvement and blamed its control for a number of important errors and failings in this emergency.

The government, which delayed many decisions on what it should do about the epidemic, did a 180-degree turn and insists on being “leaders of action” in the country. The airport has now been closed to stop the virus entering into the country. Even so, the sons and daughters of ministers abroad have been brought home. Even though the people understand that action needs to be taken, there will be great problems in the future for the leaders of under-developed countries like Sri Lanka. The economic activity of the country will have been seriously damaged by this situation. The country has already lost $7 billion foreign exchange brought to the country by exports and $5.5 billion from money usually transferred from ex-pats abroad.

With the shut-down in public life, there have been huge problems. A large number of people live on daily pay and will be starving from lack of income – the tens of thousands of women day wage-workers in the tea plantations, involved recently in a struggle for just 1,000 rupees a day, now have nothing and are already literally dying from hunger. There are also hundreds of thousands of three-wheeler drivers who live on daily earnings of a few dollars a day and who now have nothing. In fact, without being able to work, large parts of Sri Lanka’s population are in grave difficulties. Small bus owners and van owners now face a calamity. The big leaders in government and business and the middle class in the cities can spend time at home in their houses. For most of the common people and laid-off workers, it is another story.

It is a serious issue that the head of the health action committee is another Rajapakse – brother of the president and the prime minister. The Rajapaksh family is using the Corvid 19 crisis to build up its political power. It is clear that their dream of setting up a new form of military rule has been partially achieved on the basis of emergency action to deal with the coronavirus.

State brutality

The government will be ready to assert its brutal control, not stopping at cold-blooded murder. We saw what they are capable of a couple of years ago when 39 unarmed prisoners were brutally murdered in Colombo’s main prison. Now, in this crisis, the army has already killed two prisoners who were simply asking for more protection against coronavirus.

Two Tamil people have also been killed in prison under the present emergency. This brutal act was clearly aimed at intimidating all the island’s Tamil-speaking people and confirming the message that the president is not concerned about them. They will never forget it was Gotabaya at the head of the military that ordered the mass killings of Tamils at the end of the civil war ten years ago.

During this crisis, President Gotabhaya has used the opportunity to pardon and release a convicted murderer, Army Seargent Sunil Rathnayaka, who was awaiting the death penalty for killing eight Tamil civilians, including three very young children in Mirisuvil in Jaffna, in 2000. This move was clearly aimed at bolstering support amongst the Sinhala Buddhist electorate – the backbone of Gotabhaya’s victory as president. These layers of the population have been getting restless due to the stringent emergency measures imposed even in the areas where they are living. It is a clear affront to all right-thinking people even in the south. In 2019 this murderer’s appeal against his conviction by the lower court was rejected unanimously by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court.

Public health, not private wealth

The health sector in the country has managed to face this situation better than elsewhere in Asia because of the free health service, introduced by the British imperial rulers due to struggles of the working class. But the supply of medicines and other essential items are totally inadequate to face infection of this magnitude. For example, the number of ICU beds is below 500 for the whole country. Now government leaders are saying they will provide all the necessary things for the health sector, but this is attempting to hood-wink the mass of the population as to what should be being done in the face of the Covid 19 epidemic.

In these conditions, the work of the medical doctors and hospital staff should be applauded – the sacrifice of every worker, not just what the armed forces are doing. Also, it should be noted that all the work fighting the disease is done by the government hospitals, not the private ones. It is important to remember that people would have to face paying large sums for treatment if the public health service is destroyed.

The present crisis shows that wealth and personal profit is not able to deal with a national emergency. The most important thing is to protect health services, including health education and transport services. It is a disgrace that the government has been using the state of emergency to bolster its own political power. The important conclusion to draw is that in present-day society, the needs of the rich and privileged come before the needs of the majority of the population. It takes the tragedy of the current situation to expose this.

 

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April 2020
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