BY Dr. Jehan Perera
(The writer is the Executive Director of the National Peace Council)
The primacy being given to the defence budget at a time of cost-slashing in virtually every other area is a pointer to the Government’s reliance on the security forces to maintain and exhibit political stability, and tighten its grip on power. It is also a reflection of the Government’s fears that the worst is still to come.
This does not bode well for the people, who are hoping that the country will overcome its worst-ever economic crisis soon. President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s accession to power was greeted with the hope, beyond its query of legitimacy, that he would be able to navigate through the prevailing political instability and access international support through his familiarity with international systems. This hope has yet to materialise. The last significant economic support to the country came from India before President Wickremesinghe took office.
At present, hopes are pinned on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) giving the country the loans it needs, which will be a green light to other credit agencies to resume business with Sri Lanka, which has been ostracised since it defaulted on its debt in March of this year. President Wickremesinghe has been forthright in saying that the Budget reflects the economic targets set by the IMF. The President has also promised to disclose the IMF proposals, which have so far remained a tightly guarded secret to the general public, which has in turn created doubts as to its impact on the standards of living for the majority of the people
The anger at the sacrifices that the IMF package is likely to call for may be directed against the President by potential successors. Other aspiring leaders in both the Government and the Opposition have been conveying the message that they will protect the people better if they get the chance.
In such a context, it appears that the President and his team do not wish the people to express their opposition to the economic reforms, either through elections or public protests. The sudden appointment of a National Delimitation Committee for the demarcation of wards for Local Government authorities and to reduce the number of Local Councillors and Members by half has been explained as a cost-cutting measure that takes the economic crisis into account.
It may be seen as a clever ploy, as it will almost certainly lead to a postponement of the Local Government elections, due in March next year. This will prevent the people from expressing their opinion regarding the Government’s performance. The large defence budget, which exceeds that of health and education combined, will ensure that the security forces are motivated to suppress any uprising against the Government.
Ever since the economy started to collapse this year and the protest movement took to the streets, the Government has been facing a crisis of legitimacy that it is unable to shake off. The resignation of the President (Gotabaya Rajapaksa), Prime Minister (Mahinda Rajapaksa), and the Cabinet in the period from May to July of this year seems to have scarred the Government and made it insecure.
The arrest of two female protestors this past weekend, who were marching by themselves on the road carrying a placard demanding the release of two student leaders, is an indication of this governmental insecurity. The Government was not taking any chances in dealing with the two women. Dozens of Police surrounded the two women prior to forcing them into a vehicle. In the melee, male policemen were seen on social media videos treating female police officers very roughly, even squeezing the neck of one and shoving them for reasons unknown to the onlookers.
It is very unfortunate for the country, and indeed for the Government itself, that it has become so preoccupied with its security concerns that it does not perceive how others may perceive its actions. The insistence on keeping two student leaders incarcerated for over three months without charge under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act is costing the Government dearly in terms of outrage on the part of any sensible person, let alone human rights activists.
The costs can be high to the economy as the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) tax concession which is hugely beneficial to Sri Lankan exporters comes up for review next year, and its extension is dependent on human rights-related considerations. The violations of human rights that have taken place in the past and which continue into the present are being taken up in the UK Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council among others, to the country’s detriment.
The House of Commons last week discussed the human rights and economic situation in Sri Lanka with several Parliamentarians accusing Sri Lanka over the continued violation of human rights in the country. They called on the UK Government to act on Sri Lanka in the form of sanctions, which included referring Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court, urging Sri Lanka to meet its GSP+ commitments, and to reduce its military spending. One MP recommended that the Global Magnitsky Act, the first of a new generation of human rights sanctions’ programmes be applied. The Act, in contrast to traditional sanctions targeted at individual countries, can be flexibly applied to alleged perpetrators from all over the world, regardless of their geographical location.
Regrettably, the Government’s security-centric approach is going to be counterproductive in the longer term as well. It can only suppress the symptoms for a while. The latest UN report titled “Sri Lanka: Multi-dimensional crisis – Humanitarian needs and priorities June – December 2022” by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on behalf of the Humanitarian Country Team and partners, says that an estimated 13.5 million, or 61.1% of the population, are using food-based coping strategies, and that 47.7% of households use livelihood-based coping strategies.
The report, published on 8 November 2022, stated: “About 5.3 million people, or 24% of the population, are reducing the number of meals, and the same percentage of the population are reducing adults’ consumption so that children can eat, with women being the last to eat in the household. The proportion of households with unacceptable diets is 10 times higher compared to the end of 2021.”
This shows that people literally are starving. Especially in a context in which elections are being postponed, and the people cannot elect the representatives that they have confidence in, the tendency will be to come out and protest against the hardships that the people experience. The Security Forces cannot be expected, and will not be able to, suppress the masses of people when there is a desperate need as was the case in the period of the “aragalaya”, when prices shot up, fuel and fertiliser were not available, and power cuts stretched for half the day.
The main need at the present time is for the Government to allocate its scarce resources to meet the needs of the people rather than suppress their legitimate protests. On the other hand, the Government appears to be relying on the Security Forces to keep the people in check, and to cope with the potential unrest of the future.
In a speech at the Kotelawala Defence University, President Wickremesinghe acknowledged that there may be questions raised as to why the Government is focusing so much on the armed forces, and why the Government is looking at Defence 2030. He is reported as having said: “When we were born, there was no tussle for the Indian Ocean. At one stage, no one wanted it. Today, it is not so. If we are to survive, the skills, the security skills, strategic studies, all that has to be utilised.”
The President is also reported to have said that the country cannot have an export-oriented industry unless it has the freedom of navigation. This answer was not convincing, because the bulk of the defence budget goes to support the Army, which is bigger in numbers than the British or French Army.
Such claims and justifications, redirecting or misdirecting the public, are precisely what have taken the country to its present status over the 74 years since Independence. Holding elections on schedule and negotiating the way forward with the political representatives who emerge is the democratic way to sustainable political stability is what is needed for economic development.