Shraddha Pokharel, APMA 2019
The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed government and institutional leadership worldwide as infections and death tolls increase day by day. Amid the pandemic, weak public healthcare systems and deeply embedded systemic corruption have been exposed; government handling of the emergency has been tenuous. On top of this, state leaders have shown an inclination to shirk accountability by shifting responsibility. A key move in that direction has been the increase of military involvement in COVID-19 related responses. The expansion of military power beyond its remit is spreading in several countries in Asia, including Sri Lanka, as observed from the governments’ handing over the ongoing public health situation, a civilian responsibility.
The military deals with sensitive issues like national security, however, their operations are ambiguous, and they form an exclusive environment, thus making it rather difficult to hold them accountable for any action.
When their involvement incorporates nonmilitary matters, a problematic precedent is set. It becomes more of a challenge to prosecute them for their abuses against the civilian population, especially for those that go unreported. This trend is particularly worrisome for a country with a history of military intervention in a democratic society.
In Sri Lanka, several individuals with military backgrounds have, in recent months, been appointed to government positions, even before the onset of the pandemic. Following the outbreak of the virus, this trend has only exacerbated, most pointedly seen in the formation of the COVID-19 response team. This trend is of concern because of the powerful role the military has played in the country’s 30 years of civil war. It is no coincidence that all of this followed the presidential victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former army officer, and defense secretary with a controversial political journey, who has had a long history of favoring the military.
The government’s decision to deploy the military, who has been accused of gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, as the first responders to the health crisis, was questionable. The duo, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also acted in leadership positions in the last government (the former as president and the latter as the Defense Secretary) with records of war atrocities. Also, the present government withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in investigating alleged war crimes soon after assuming leadership and went on to pardon a former staff, Sgt. Sunil Ratnayaka, who was accused of killing civilians towards the end of the conflict.
For a country with a volatile conflict situation and unresolved past grievances between the army and civilians, this leadership could have serious repercussions. Minorities have already voiced out against the government’s prejudice in its curtailment of their religious rights, as seen in the denial of funeral rites to Muslims who succumbed to the COVID-19 virus. For many Sri Lankans who are still fighting to get back their lands occupied by the army, seeking justice for the crimes committed during the civil war, and inspiring to be equal partners in the country’s democratic process, the increase in military overreach has not only instigated fear but also further eroded their faith in the government.
Photo from Peoples Dispatch
*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.