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When the Pandemic is a Portal to Militarization

Image courtesy the Economist

“11 years later: Back on the Frontlines, Fighting for You” announced an article by Gagani Weerakoon on Ceylon Today on the 23rd of May. She went on to draw parallels between the military operations in 2009 that led to the Sri Lankan government declaring the end of the 26-year civil war, and the ongoing efforts to address Covid-19 in the country that are for most part spearheaded by the military. Weerakoon also said President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is “directing the operation against COVID-19 by bringing the Health and Defence sectors together”. This analogy as well as the tone and framing of the article more or less sums up Sri Lanka’s response to Covid-19.

Arundhati Roy’s op-ed last month likens the pandemic to a portal to a different future and outlines the ways in which we could walk through it, the kinds of world-making we could engage in. While this brings hope for what a post-pandemic world could look like, it looks less than optimistic in a country with a dissolved parliament, effectively only ruled by the Executive, without any of the checks and balances the Legislative branch would bring. If ‘the pandemic is a portal’, then Sri Lanka is hurtling towards what could soon become a stratocracy. Covid-19 is not the first time Sri Lanka has addressed a crisis military-first. It is in fact the norm and is entirely unsurprising given that, as noted by Daniel Alphonsus, “even though there have been no conventional threats to Sri Lanka, there had been a continuity in the defence budget”. In the 2019 budget, the last government allocated Rs 306 billion to the Ministry of Defence and Rs.187.4 billion to the Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine Ministry.

“A pandemic requires rapid action. Military has the capacity and the resources — they are able to run quarantine centres [the military runs 54 centres, according to official sources], and maintain supply chains”, said Dr. Manuj C. Weerasinghe, head of Department of Community Medicine, University of Colombo, in an interview with The Hindu. He is not wrong. While Sri Lanka has strong public health infrastructure, including community level health services provided by a network of medical officers of health, midwives and public health inspectors, the health sector has been historically under-resourced with privatization of health services increasing existing inequalities. While broader reform is needed in terms of how the budget is allocated and spent – Alphonsus notes “a failure in public reasoning capacity, where the media and universities are think tanks that haven’t approached this question in a systematic way” –  it is impossible right now to imagine a Covid-19 response Sri Lanka that is not partnered with the armed forces, in terms of the resources, infrastructure, and rapid response needed. However, there’s much cause for concern.

Does such a partnership require militarization of a public health response?

 Does it require the military to be the face and decision makers of the Covid-19 response?

 Does it require the language, rhetoric and imagery of war?

As Tisaranee Gunasekara reflected on Groundviews, “Placing an army general at the helm of the campaign against the epidemic is as inane as asking a medical doctor with zero-military training to lead a war”. It is inane not just in terms of knowledge and expertise but also because the military in Sri Lanka has a serious accountability problem. Eleven years after the end of the war, the armed forces enjoy a high level of impunity with regards to war crimes committed against Tamil civilians. This impunity is reaching new heights in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, if the recent Presidential pardon of Sunil Rathnayake is anything to go by. A pardon that Amnesty International has rightfully calls an exploitation of Covid-19 to reverse one of the few instances of justice since the end of the war. All of this should also be understood in the context of ethno-religious nationalism in the country and the possibility of an upcoming election that has the President and his supporters pandering to the interests of a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist voter base, including enabling the stigmatisation of Muslims in the context of Covid-19. I share below, in no particular order, some of the reasons why Sri Lanka’s militarized response to the pandemic should be viewed with concern.

No civil oversight during a public health crisis

The National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) is headed by Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva who is the Acting Chief of Defence Staff and the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army. President Rajapaksa has also appointed retired and currently serving military officials to other key public sector positions including the Secretary of the Ministry of Health, the Director General of the Disaster Management Centre, and the Director General of the Customs Department. Himal Southasian reported that “a retired military official oversees the COVID-19 relief fund, and one-fifth of the members of the presidential task force formed for post-COVID economic response are from the armed forces.” I have compiled an ongoing list of instances of militarization under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime.

The organizational structures of the Ministry of Health and its Epidemiology Unit and Quarantine Unit as well as the organizational structure of the National Anti-Malaria campaign (Sri Lanka was declared free of Malaria in 2016) show that Sri Lanka has leadership, structures and oversight mechanisms in place to address a public health crisis, with no links to the Ministry of Defence or the armed forces for leadership. The organizational structures of the Ministry of Defence, the Sri Lanka Army, Office of the Chief of Defence Staff and the military healthcare services show links between each other through the Chief of Defence Staff but no links to public health services. So the military appointments mentioned earlier are deliberate, and override and undermine civil authorities. Military appointments also have a gendered impact. The appointments have all been high ranking military cronies of President Rajapaksa who are all men. I’m not proposing more gender balance in military appointments, they should be stopped altogether. But the appointments made so far have not done women any favors in terms of representation.

A group of trade unions including those of the public sector have also called on the President to bring the government’s Covid-19 responses including the NOCPCO under civil authority and oversight. Their letter highlights that the Disaster Management Centre is mandated and its staff specially trained to address a national crisis and that the relevant task forces and processes must be brought under its purview. However it is worth noting that as I mentioned earlier, the Disaster Management Centre is also headed by a retired military official since January 2020.

Public trust during a public health crisis

Why is civil oversight important? In addition to technical knowledge and capacities, it would put a civilian and public sector face to Covid-19 programmes. While the public sector in Sri Lanka is far from perfect and very much enables the scourge of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, it is highly critical that all citizens, and not just the majority, are able to access health services during a pandemic without fear of repercussions or triggering past trauma. People who are marginalized and/or criminalized due to their ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexuality, citizenship status, livelihood, etc. need to feel safe to access information regarding Covid-19, declare their status if they show symptoms of the virus, obtain necessary health services, access dry rations or monetary allowances, travel during curfew for emergencies, etc. If the priority during a public health crisis is to ensure the wellbeing of all citizens and to curb the spread of a rapidly spreading virus, then citizens need to be reassured that they will not be penalized for supporting public health efforts. This kind of trust cannot be built if the armed forces are seen as in-charge and what the armed forces call “irrational fears” of people are actually well founded depending on their intersecting identities.

The heavy involvement of the State Intelligence Service is also of concern. While Covid-19 requires quick contact tracing, it once again cultivates among people fear, stigma and a chilling effect in coming forward if infected when contact tracing is being done directly by intelligence officers and the military without involvement of health officials and community leaders. There are reports of people going into hiding when they are diagnosed with Covid-19 or were in contact with someone who tested positive, and evading the military and the police. Such incidents as well as societal stigma around Covid-19 could be averted to a considerable extent if it were the public health inspectors, Village Officers/Grama Niladhari and community leaders who were leading the efforts while resources and adequate support are provided by the armed forces. The heightened surveillance by State Intelligence for contact tracing, including in the Northern province, is also not helping with public trust. “After the war, the army and intelligence played a big role in public life and, most Sri Lankans assumed, in the disappearance of critics of the government”, notes The Economist. Lack of transparency on surveillance done during and to address a public health crisis raises questions on what information is being collected, for how long it will be held on to, whether such information will be used beyond contact tracing, which state agencies are sharing information, etc.

Power and Accountability

“Governing institutions must be horizontally accountable through checks and balances between the three organs of the state, and vertically accountable to citizens through not only elections and fundamental rights but also through processes of good governance”, states Asanga Welikala, summing up what accountability should look like in a constitutional democracy. And in a constitutional democracy, the military is accountable to civilian political leadership which is the Executive and the Legislative branches of government. It is only such accountability that would imply the military’s accountability to the citizens and with the Parliament dissolved, the military is effectively only accountable to the President who has so far displayed no inclination to hold them accountable to their actions, whether during the war or during a public health crisis. In fact, just last week the President addressed the nation saying “I will not allow any room for attempts to discredit and destroy the dignity of our war heroes. It is a national responsibility to defend their rights,” furthering his call for legal immunity for the military for past atrocities.

Currently there is no public discussion or transparency about the actions and decisions of the armed forces during the Covid-19 response, their budgets and expenditure to address the pandemic, issues of due diligence and negligence given that currently the largest cluster of Covid-19 cases in Sri Lanka are being spread by and among the Navy (raising questions about what kind of training, information and protection members of the armed forces are given in order to carry out the Covid-19 response), and on the impact such negligence may have had on an already fragile economy. And given that the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) is headed by the Army Commander, all decisions related to a public health crisis are being made by a military official, with no Parliamentary checks and balances or public institutional processes informing those decisions and holding him accountable to them.

In yet another example of exploiting Covid-19 to their benefit, the Ministry of Defence ordered restrictions against Tamil people in the Northern province to prevent them from organizing and attending memorial events on the anniversary of the end of the war. “However, social distancing apparently went for a toss during the state sponsored National War Hero’s Day held in the Colombo suburbs a day later after the Mullivaikkal remembrance event, held to honour those armed forces that lost their lives during the war”, reported Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. It remains unclear if public health authorities were consulted on any of these decisions.

What’s next?

While public life is supposed to be gradually restored across the country starting this week, the militarization of the Covid-19 response is likely to have a lasting impact. For one, it has set a precedent on the ever expanding mandate of the armed forces under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A Presidential Task Force has been appointed under the Defense Secretary to protect archaeological sites in the country (some of the implications of this are explained here). A Gazette Extraordinary published on the 22nd of May has brought even more institutions under the purview of the Ministry of Defence including the Api Wenuwen Api Fund, and the Miloda Academy of Financial Studies which is the training arm of the Ministry of Finance.

There’s also lack of sustainability in a militarized approach to a public health crisis. Long term measures will have to be put in place to ensure safety and wellbeing of citizens and for this, public health authorities need to be able to make informed decisions. Resources, infrastructure and mobilizing capacities of the armed forces may continue to be needed in a staggered response, especially if the Parliament does not reconvene to make budgetary decisions. But the armed forces need to provide this support without undermining the authority or processes of public health officials. As things stand right now, it is not clear if this would ever be possible.

I conclude this with Yuval Harari’s cautionary message. “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes.” At the risk of mixing up two op-ed’s to make my point, we must go through the pandemic portal cognizant of what could become a fixture of a post-pandemic life. Militarization of the public sector should definitely not be one.

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