by Jehan Perera
The signs of elections, and the short term changes that they bring, are upon us today. Posters of candidates are coming up with their party symbols, preference numbers and their vote-catching mottos. Although this is only a caretaker government and hence restricted in its ability to spend state funds and make far reaching structural changes, government ministers are making promises of many things, giving more loans, printing more money and producing more jobs. The economic hardships facing people are very real and acute.
Despite the difficulties that people are undergoing, at the individual level, due to economic hardships that personally affect them, the reality of politics today is that the electorate does not have a viable alternative to the government. The opposition has still to recover from its weak performance during the last year of its governance, in 2019, when it was internally divided between former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. By way of contrast, the present government gives an image of strength and competence that is reassuring to the general population.
In addition, at the macro level, the government has notched up two successes that are being constantly repeated by government members and echoed by the supportive media, and which the opposition cannot easily counter. The first is the fact that the members of the current government were the leaders who successfully ended the three-decade long war, which few thought possible during the time of war. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as Defense Secretary at that time, is today credited for the war victory.
The second major macro issue on which the government has gained great credibility with people is in regard to how it dealt with the Covid pandemic. These days there is a feeling of normalcy in the country with regard to this crisis, even though continued vigilance is necessary to prevent a second wave of infections. The ongoing crises, in other parts of the world, including our immediate neigbourhood, highlights the very positive track record of Covid handling in Sri Lanka. The credit for this is given to the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
There is, however, a confluence of two factors that makes the present situation potentially unsustainable. One is the belief that the security forces were behind the success of both the campaigns against the LTTE insurrection and the Covid epidemic. Based on this understanding, there appears to be an uncritical acceptance of the efficiency, discipline and strategic ability of the security forces who played the frontline role in these two great achievements. This is currently manifesting itself in the presidential appointments being given at different levels of the state to security forces personnel, both serving and retired.
There is no doubt that the victory over the LTTE was accomplished by the Sri Lankan security forces on the battlefield at great human and monetary cost. But there is also no denying the multipronged effort that included obtaining the support of members of the international community that included financial, diplomatic and intelligence inputs. This would also be the case with the Covid containment strategy, which is not only the result of the security forces but also of the health service personnel in the country who have been performing their duties with professionalism, dedication and care.
Arising out of these successes by the security forces, there is the possibility of politically charged messages being given to the general public that the security forces are capable of doing what the politicians and public servants are unable to do or should do. The disappointment with the previous government, which came to power on the promise of clean and transparent government, which started doing many things that were good, but could not take them to their conclusion due to internal conflict and venality, is now cited as evidence for this. This failure has led to a loss of confidence in the system of representative democracy. There are many who argue that the present democratically elected president and his appointees can be a substitute for parliament in this time of Covid.
There are troubling signs that the government is beginning to over-rely on the security forces for answers to issues of governance. This is seen by the appointment of two presidential task forces. The first is the Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society and is composed entirely of military, intelligence and police officials. Its powers include issuing instructions to government officials to comply with its directives or be reported to the President. The second is the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province. Once again a group comprising high level security forces personnel for most part will be tasked with dealing with complex issues of history, identity and land use.
At the present time there are many people who might believe that these security forces personnel would do a better job than discredited politicians and public administrators. But the better solution to the infirmities of the public service would be to provide them with better opportunities for training and incentives for recruitment. There was a time when the civil service in Sri Lanka was regarded as second to none in terms of efficiency and commitment. The pride in the civil service got eroded by politics entering the picture and politicians interfering. This is why the 19th Amendment to the constitution, passed in 2015 by the parliament with virtual unanimity, needs to be further strengthened and not undone.
Experience worldwide is that when the security forces are brought in, or step in, to bring order where there is chaos the experience has not generally been a positive one. To their credit, the Sri Lankan security forces have never sought to be decision makers in politics. They have faithfully followed the leadership of the elected political leadership and been implementers of government policy even when they have had to suffer the consequences. This remains the case today even, as it is the democratically elected president who has appointed them to take charge of ministries and to be members of presidential task forces. This is different from other countries where the security forces seized power by overthrowing democratically elected governments for various reasons.
The danger is that once the military gets entrenched in government they tend to go the way of all flesh and it can become next to impossible to remove them. In Myanmar, the military has insisted that 25 percent of the seats in parliament should be reserved for them, with the requirement that any change of the constitution requires a 75 percent majority. This makes the system impossible to change without the consent of the military who exercise a veto power over the elected civilian authority. In March this year such an attempt was made but failed to obtain the required 75 percent majority in parliament. This is the plight to which Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been reduced. This is why it has been said for many centuries that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Instead of more reliance on the military for governance purposes, what Sri Lanka needs today is a collaborative relationship across political parties so that the political leaders who are elected by the people can join together to face the coming challenges. Those who represent religion, business and civil society could also be brought into this consultation. Leaders of some of the main opposition parties have openly said that they would like to work with President Rajapaksa as they recognize his importance to the masses of people who are looking for the country to take a new and better path. So might leaders of other sectors if they were given the chance.