Photo courtesy of WSWS
Despite the extravagant promises, policies and plans contained in its campaign document Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP government have failed miserably to deliver on practically all fronts, according to a report by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).
The report, Sri Lanka’s Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour: A Critique of Promises Made and Present Trends, provides an insight into the grave issues that are going largely unnoticed as a result of the global pandemic that is taking up public attention such as the Rajapaksa regime’s authoritarian governance and the slow movement from democracy to a militarized state, coupled with social inequalities that are causing widespread discontent and street protests throughout the country.
The interrelation of efficiency with discipline and a no-nonsense attitude was how the Rajapaksas ran their Presidential and Parliamentary campaigns; they were undoubtably successful, securing both the Presidency and a government with an almost two thirds majority in parliament. President Rajapaksa promised the public what it wanted to hear after the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, which was a country based on efficiency, prosperity and stability with a technocratic and military style of governance, spun as the best mode for achieving the proposed goals.
The report explains the dangers and implications of the process of a militarised state and increased authoritarian governance, as its weaknesses and failures began to show when the first wave of COVID-19 hit the country in 2020.
Despite promises that efficiency and security would be maximised, the government’s plans faltered due to its failure to live up to its own expectations. Initial successes in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 opened a door furthering the militarised government strategy. However the extra-legal measures, heightened militarisation and executive overreach that were adopted were, in hindsight, unnecessary and unrelated to the pandemic.
The rule by executive fiat with no functioning Parliament for over five months, together with the increasing reliance on powerful task forces were frightening, as it proved that the government’s respect for democracy and legal processes was non-existent, the report contends.
The hyper Presidential model supported by a loyal group of professionals and the military gained traction and popularity as the government celebrated its victory over COVID-19. Its strength and confidence after passing the 20th Amendment to the Constitution proved too early for celebration, however. The report states that multiple incidents of mismanagement in the subsequent months, together with corruption, and overall incompetence in a range of governance areas, exposed the failures of the technocratic and militarized governance model.
Moreover, the health and economic consequences involved with sidelining the advice and leadership of health workers in order to give prominence to the task force formed to fight the pandemic not only resulted in a serious threat to democracy but also had tangible economic and health costs that are still haunting the nation. The government’s reliance on the outdated Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance dating back to 1897 created confusion because proper leadership and control was not established and secured.
The government’s sudden lockdown policy drastically affected day labourers and minority groups who experienced discriminatory policies. Free Trade Zone workers and plantation workers who were forced to work long hours with no health standards during the pandemic were symbolic of groups of people who were ignored. The forced cremation policy legitimised the regime’s hold over its supporters even when the World Health Organisation underscored the impractical and offensive nature of the policy.
Moving on, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) are the two pieces of legislature the report highlights as being enforced to marginalise minority groups. The Muslim community was targeted through the cabinet’s approval of a proposed bill on the banning of face covering including the niqab and burqa, which was an effort to stigmatise women and condemn them as extremists in the public eye.
The report goes on to stress the lack of prioritisation given to the health sector even during the pandemic; evident through the government budget that allocated the majority of its funds to the defence sector even after 12 years of peace. Disinformation regarding unapproved cures and practices were supported by leading politicians in an attempt to cover up the chaotic struggle of a government that was unable to properly coordinate the vaccination drives, resulting in the hard-hitting third wave of COVID-19.
Financial accountability was called into question in the report with connection to the Itukama Fund – established to receive funds to counter the pandemic. Media reports indicated that only 23 percent of the Rs. 1.7 billion has been used, reflecting a lack of transparency in regards to disbursement of funds.
The CPA report further brings to light government policies that worsened several other issues such as the X-Press Pearl shipwreck, the country’s biggest environmental disaster. The catastrophe was exacerbated by the failure of the new and improved governance style that did not live up to expectations.
The targeting and detention of investigators, lawyers and others who in their professional capacity worked on cases of wrongdoing under the past regime, is addressed in the report. Also pointed out are the continuous delays in identifying those responsible for the Easter Sunday bombings.
The report discusses various mechanisms by which the government legitimises and involves the military in day to day governance. By painting the current process of democracy as dysfunctional and presenting the military as an institution authentic to the people, the government enforces and projects an unnecessary power on the institution. The report concedes that there is public trust in the military that does positively impact the nation, but adds that its image of being responsible is contradictory to the mismanagement seen in its response to the pandemic.
Land occupation by the security forces, which is continuing displacement and intensifying poverty, is another issue brought up by the report. Military run farms and tourism projects are being used as income generating ventures while the legal owners of the land aren’t able to share in the profits. Even more worrying is the establishment of new camps under the guise of national security and deradicalisation.
In the Northern and Eastern provinces, the forces still continue to occupy large amounts of land while the owners are forced to witness the destruction of their homes and religious sites with no comprehensive effort to provide any form of compensation. While all communities have been impacted by military occupation, the Muslim and Tamil people have been disproportionately affected. The absence of genuine efforts to repatriate minority groups into communities continues to foster frustration and anger, creating communal tension among the residents who are left vulnerable and without their properties.
There is no question that the government’s mandate is to reassert Sinhala Buddhist dominance, the report states, as seen with proposed laws, task forces and other developments; real fears of policy and legislative initiatives that perpetuate Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism.
The report goes on to highlight the government’s aggression against the rights of minorities; through for example, in preventing the Tamil community from memorialising their war dead, and through violation of the official language policy.
The report also holds the opposition party responsible for its inaction and inability to call out the government, allowing the regime to avoid accountability and justice for its actions. The report acknowledges efforts of opposition groups who have joined together to stand against the government, although even in such instances, there is a lack unity.
Ambitious projects to boost the economy and introduce new job opportunities, a major factor in the government’s campaign promises, has led to heated discussions about the viability and sustainability of the projects. The Colombo Port City Economic Commission Act is considered a serious threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and freedom; where many individuals and organisations have intervened to challenge aspects of the bill. The report goes on to discuss the dangerous geo political games Sri Lanka is participating in because of the nation’s strong allegiance to China and implications surrounding such alliances.
The reports concludes that Sri Lanka’s “new and improved” government has far more flaws than it would like to admit, and it is essential that the public recognises and holds the government accountable for its actions. It is only through the reestablishment of democracy, together with proper legal processes and a coherent justice system, can Sri Lanka move into true peace and proper development.
Read the full report here.