There are multiple signs that the country is in a major crisis that is most visibly manifesting itself in the economic downturn but also in the moral sphere, law and order and international relations. The reopening of the country after the 40 day lockdown saw lines of people forming outside of local milk production outlets in their attempt to purchase milk food for their families. There were accompanying media reports of a shipload of milk powder being diverted to another country’s port due to the inability of the Sri Lankan importer to obtain the foreign exchange necessary to pay for the containers they had ordered. It is not only that imported goods are unavailable, their prices have also shot up. Social media has shared visuals taken from the early 1970s when queues formed in Sri Lanka for rice and basic staples during the time of the world food crisis. It happened due to external forces on that occasion, which cannot be applied at this time. It happened, therefore it can happen again.
The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly in New York last week was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the challenges besetting the country. The president covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his speech, the president went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government on an entirely different platform, which emphasized ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, seem at a loss.
The drama over Prisons Minister Lohan Ratwatte could not have come at a worse time for the government. But it can also be the turning point. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is due to address the UN General Assembly in New York this week. The attention of the international human rights community has been focused on Sri Lanka during the past week due to the recently concluded sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka was a country of interest due to its checkered human rights track record, especially in relation to the war, and subject to a special address by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. Next week will see an EU delegation visiting Sri Lanka to assess the human rights situation in relation to the GSP Plus tariff privilege that the country obtained again in 2017 having lost it for seven years in 2010.
The 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council that started this week in Geneva will not be having any new UN resolutions with regard to Sri Lanka. This session will only see the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet make her report. But that report can set the direction for what will follow, with an EU assessment of the GSP Plus tariff privilege set for November. Sri Lanka is one of a handful of countries singled out for special attention as a follow up to the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka passed in March this year. This was not the scenario anticipated by the government last year in March when it withdrew from UNHRC Resolution 30/1 that was co-sponsored by its predecessor in October 2015. Despite the withdrawal, Sri Lanka has fallen into an unfavorable spotlight due to the new UNHRC Resolution 46/1 which was passed earlier this year over its objections by means of a vote.
The presidential proclamation declaring a state of emergency did not immediately provoke a negative reaction. In his proclamation, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that he was of the opinion this was necessary to ensure public security and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community in view of the prevailing emergency situation in Sri Lanka in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The media has been showing images of hoarded sugar stocks being unearthed and taken away by the security forces to be distributed to the public. But those who hoarded the sugar or any other item were not arrested and the government has apparently paid for their goods. These could have been done without declaration of emergency. It is unclear whether the power of the government with its 2/3 majority was inadequate to handle this crisis without the emergency.
The government’s readiness to restart the reconciliation process and to engage with civil society organisations involved in it has been subject to both appreciation and scepticism. Those from civil society who have been involved have felt positively about the recent meetings they had with government leaders including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The president’s unexpected tweet that he would work with the UN to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms came as a surprise as they were out of sync with the stances previously articulated by the government. Both the presidential and general elections that brought the government to power emphasized the enemies within and without rather than reconciliation.
There are indications that the government wishes to restart the reconciliation process that came to a halt with the defeat of the former government in November 2019 after four years of its rule and with many of its pledges unfulfilled. The victory of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential elections brought the internationally backed reconciliation process to a halt. During the time of the previous government international experts set up offices, some even in the Prime Minister’s Office to work on reconciliation mechanisms. Two of them saw the light of day—the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations. However, the potentially most important one, the Truth-seeking Commission fell off the table due to the infighting between the former president and prime minister.
The withdrawal of the Kotelawala National Defence Academy (KNDU) bill which was to be debated in parliament this week offers more time to the government to reconsider its plans for higher education. The bill generated opposition from multiple parties. Trade unions, including ones supportive of the government such as the GMOA, political parties and civil society groups united in their opposition to the increased role for the military that was explicit in the bill. Due to their success in the war sections within the government and military have come to the conclusion that the military model, with its emphasis on discipline, unity of purpose that arises from a clear top-down chain of command, and ready availability of large numbers to perform tasks at short order, is a desirable model for governance in Sri Lanka. The super performance of the military in performing record numbers of vaccinations in an orderly manner has provided further evidence of the positive role of the military.
The government is making a resolute effort to turn Sri Lanka around and put it in the direction of rapid economic development. The systematic manner in which it has been conducting the Covid vaccinations has earned recognition by WHO as well as the international community. The value of the military in getting things done on a large scale with minimum of delay has been manifested in the partnership that they have struck with the health authorities. The memory is fading of how some of the government leaders dabbled in alchemy and the spirit world to find an antidote to the COVID virus, despite being vested with the responsibility to strengthen the health of the country’s people. There is also increased space being given to civil society to engage in protests, such as the protracted teachers’ strike and the agitation against the expanding mandate of the Kotelawala Defence University.
The government comfortably overcame a vote of no confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel. Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost. Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences. The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together. The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together.