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Sri Lanka is presently in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases with a lockdown enforced in parts of country. An island-wide lockdown earlier in 2020 witnessed the country coming to a standstill with no functioning Parliament for over five months and a multitude of entities created to tackle the pandemic. Among the many issues linked with COVID-19 is the prominence given to military personnel in the response and whether Sri Lanka’s experienced civil service, with expertise in health and other relevant subjects, is being replaced by technocrats and military personnel aligned to the President.

Going by past experiences, the military can play a role in disaster settings that is part of a coordinated response but concerns at present revolve around whether the pandemic is used to dislodge Sri Lanka’s civil service and legitimize some action that may have dire consequences.

These must be unpacked in the context where the success of managing the first wave increased the popularity of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), strengthening the image of a strong leader who prioritised efficiency, discipline and security. The response to the pandemic is also termed as a ‘war on the pandemic’ and a ‘national security challenge’. Further, key decisions linked to the pandemic are now mostly communicated by Army Commander Shavendra Silva, head of the National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO), thus becoming the public face of the response. With a concerted effort to frame the pandemic in security jargon and promote a military approach, militarization is at new levels in Sri Lanka, with the pandemic normalizing and legitimizing certain practices.

Moreover, in the backdrop of a landslide victory for the SLPP at the parliamentary elections in August, there is now an opening for major reforms that could result in an autocratic government or possibly, considering the influential role played by individuals with a military background, a stratocracy – a government led by military personnel. With the pandemic providing a justification for an expansive military and security sector, urgent attention is needed on the transformation of Sri Lanka’s political landscape where a departure from norms and democratic institutions, however temporary, will have serious and long term implications.

Militarization in post war Sri Lanka

Militarization is not new to Sri Lanka. In post war Sri Lanka the military has branched into administration, agriculture, tourism and other sectors. They have also played key roles in previous emergencies and disasters, with their capacity to organize, provide essential services and assist with logistics. Thus, when tackling a pandemic, the military can contribute but with roles and responsibilities clearly delineated, transparent and in adherence to laws of the country.

The victory in 2009 helped elevate the aura of a military to one that is efficient, organized and disciplined, and secured the position of the war hero to one that is beyond reproach and accountability. The image of the war hero who defeated terrorism was also carefully cultivated in popular discourse with public relations campaigns showing heroic forces marching to victory and providing safety to hapless citizens. And successive political leaders have exalted the military and bolstered an environment where criticism of any kind of the security establishment is considered unpatriotic. This sentiment was most recently captured when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke of the sacrifices of the war heroes and that he personally ‘will not allow anyone to exert undue pressure on them or harass them’. But the military has also played a divisive role in Sri Lanka. Amidst continuing allegations of serious rights violations, occupation of large tracts of private land and general triumphalist attitude, the military is perceived by the minority communities as having escaped reckoning for past abuses.

A decade after the end of the war, Sri Lanka was yet again confronted with security threats with the devastation linked to the Easter Sunday attacks. Amidst the chaos and fear, the call for a strong ruler who could prioritise on security and stability took new life. The timing was impeccable with the emergence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former defence secretary who had served in the Sri Lanka Army, as a presidential contender. With the electoral victory in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swiftly appointed former military and intelligence officials loyal to him to key decision making positions. This set in motion a trend of military personnel taking over civilian functions and changing the balance where the military who were previously subordinate to civilian rule increasingly playing influential roles in politics in Sri Lanka.

COVID-19 response and the role of the military and the security sector

The military and the security sector have played a key role in contact tracing, surveillance, building and running quarantine facilities and distribution of essential services. While some of this was necessary to contain the spread and assist communities in need, concern is raised with other functions that may fall outside what is legally permissible and target critics, minorities and opponents. Further, the pandemic also justified the re-emergence of a heavy military presence across Sri Lanka with check points manned by unidentifiable armed military men who not only stand guard but recently doubled up to check temperature. Apart from questions as to why armed military personnel are involved in temperature checking, concern is also on privacy and how information gathered is used and will be used in the future.

This period also witnessed changes to institutions. In addition to the NOCPCO, several task forces were appointed to respond to challenges linked to the pandemic. The legality and mandate of some of these task forces were raised with concerns also flagged with the composition that includes several with a military background. Apart from these, former and present military officials were appointed to positions in government including the post of Secretary to the Ministry of Health and the Director General of the  Disaster Management Centre, making the present administration the most militarized government in post independence Sri Lanka.

This heavy reliance on military personnel to function in civilian posts is troubling when Sri Lanka boasts of a civil service that has for several decades managed numerous disasters. Another worrying development is with key positions held by civilian administrators being left vacant during the pandemic such as when for several weeks Sri Lanka had no Director General of Health Services. Such vacancies leave a vacuum for others to stake claim and further relegate health professionals.

 The war against the pandemic

In the early weeks of the pandemic, there was recognition that the military could play an important role due to its expertise in disaster settings. Over the last few months, the increased militarization was justified on the basis of proficiency and organization. But several incidents reported in the media challenge the notion of military efficiency and highlight the use of brute force in the present response:

  • In October hundreds of workers at the Brandix apparel factory in Minuwangoda and their close contacts tested positive for COVID-19 with several factories subsequently shutting down. The conditions in which they work and reside need attention but the focus here is how they were treated when news broke of some testing positive. Media and civil society reported of workers being rounded up late in the night and early morning and forcibly taken to makeshift quarantine facilities with limited information shared as to where they were taken. Reports also highlighted that the makeshift facilities they were taken to were not clean and the food given inedible. This particular case is in direct contrast to what was reported by the Ministry of Defence in a press release that spoke of “extremely effective sanitization programs, military managed quarantine centres with commendable state of facilities for patients…”.
  • Last week the GMOA wrote to the Minister of Health alerting of an incident at the Sampathnuwara Hospital, Welioya where a senior military person named in the letter had threatened and used racial slurs against medical staff. The GMOA asked for immediate action for safe work conditions for staff and until which “we are compelled to withdraw the services at DH Sampathnuwara as a trade union measures, considering the safety of our members”. This was the first publicly reported incident where a military personnel had openly threatened and used racial slurs against health professionals.
  • Questions were also raised in April when over 900 navy personnel and close associates were infected resulting in what is known as the Navy Cluster. In this particular instance, navy personnel involved in tracking and arresting those evading quarantine did not have the adequate PPE and as a result were exposed. Further, without proper testing, navy personnel from the Welisara Camp were allowed to travel and visit family which resulted in the spread. The lack of planning and preparedness were evident with this incident with those working in the frontlines not having the necessary protective gear.

These unfortunate incidents demonstrate that a military approach alone is insufficient and the present health crisis requires a multi-pronged effort with the participation of experienced health professionals and others, with adherence to laws and procedures, transparency and the practice of swift dissemination of clear information in the three languages. Thus, the military can contribute in particular areas working along side others and treat this as a health crisis than resort to violence, threats and extra legal methods.

In addition to the above, recent events highlight the lack of preparedness for a second wave. For example, reports indicate to substandard quarantine facilities, lapses with the quarantine process and facilities, malfunction of PCR machines, insufficient health equipment and instances where frontline responders continue to be deprived of the necessary PPE and thus exposed to the pandemic. Such lapses are not merely oversight but negligent and puts frontline responders in harm’s way. Such lapses must be immediately corrected, ensuring those with expertise are included in the response. In this regard, the recent appointment of a new Director General of Health Services is welcome but more is required to address lapses and ensure the health and wellbeing of all citizens of Sri Lanka is priority.

Unchecked militarization and consequences

The above lapses resulted in sections of society marginalized and their rights violated. It also highlights incidents that could have been mitigated if proper planning and preparation had taken place. The promised military efficiency and organization failed in these instances and it is paramount the government take note of such failures and initiate change.

These are also worrying trends for a country where disasters and health emergencies are not new and have been successfully tackled by successive administrations with the involvement of multiple actors including civil servants, experts and the military. Instead, the present response has witnessed a militarized approach with civilian administrators and health professionals operating more as subordinates than equals.

Moreover, emergencies result in temporary powers bestowed on officials to tackle situations that fall outside of regular laws. In the present case, COVID-19 has bestowed broad and vague powers to some, raising the question whether such powers will be relinquished when there is no longer a health crisis. It may result in a situation where excuses are made to formalise and sustain military involvement in governance and other sectors and further consolidate their power. This is in a context with little to no effective scrutiny and accountability.

The government and others involved in the pandemic response must learn from the past including the most recent lapses. A multi-sectoral approach with the inclusion of expertise in different areas is key as opposed to a purely military approach. Also of paramount importance is the adherence to the rule of law with no space for extra legal and adhoc measures. Additionally, a robust demand must be made for structural and legislative reforms that overhaul archaic laws and provide for effective oversight and accountability. Inability or unwillingness to initiate these and other changes will put more citizens at risk, expose frontline responders and allow for the further entrenchment of the military project.