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Sri Lanka’s Expansion into Despotism Goes Unchallenged by Western Democracies

Gotabaya Rajapaksa became Sri Lanka’s president in November promising to protect Sri Lankans from terrorism and violence. He is now exploiting the novel coronavirus pandemic to undermine the few checks and balances remaining against authoritarianism and sharpening tensions between Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, thereby setting the stage for more violence.

Western democracies should call out Rajapaksa, as he works to sow division and grab power. Muting reprimand because they see him as a future ally in combating Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean is short-sighted. The Sri Lanka president’s rhetoric and actions to contain the pandemic will destabilise Sri Lanka and make him a poster boy in the expanding list of populist-led governments that Western democracies view as a threat.

Rajapaksa’s election rhetoric was part of the classic playbook of a populist – elevating the numerically largest group in Sri Lanka – the Sinhalese – as the authentic people needing protection from Tamil and Muslim “minority” terrorists. In the election, Rajapaksa also cast himself – the individual – as embodying the will of the people, another attribute of a populist.

The sectarian campaign Rajapaksa ran is reflected in his victory. He won 52.25% of the vote but lost in all districts in the country’s north and east where Tamils and Muslims form the majority of the electorate.

Following this, Rajapaksa began putting in place what lay behind his call for a strong state to protect the Sinhalese – accumulating power under his direct control. For instance, he brought under the ministry of defence – which includes the armed services that report directly to him as commander-in-chief – at least 31 government institutions.

It was about this time that the coronavirus struck Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa’s reaction was to declare indefinite curfew on March 20 throughout the country. He then undertook three sets of actions to sow discord between Sri Lankans and acquire more power for himself.

First, Rajapaksa insisted that the curfew be enforced zealously. The police detained curfew violators that by March 28 had risen to 4,600 and by mid-April to 22,000.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, raised the alarm on countries, including Sri Lanka, which among other violations had made mass arrests and detentions. A statement quotes Georgette Gagnon, the OHCHR’s director of field operations, “…As the High Commissioner highlighted, police and other security forces are using excessive and sometimes deadly force to enforce lockdowns and curfews.”

Second, Rajapaksa made Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva head of the national operations centre preventing the spread of COVID-19. Silva, who was a field commander in the final assault on the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2008/2009 is accused of war crimes and foreign governments protested when he was made commander of the Sri Lanka Army in 2019. Silva is feared and disliked by the Tamils for his role during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war but was made the head of an operation to contain a pandemic, which is essentially civilian in nature.

As Silva assumed leadership of the national operations centre, Rajapaksa packed the team responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with more loyalists. While Basil Rajapaksa is his brother, others in the group are retired officers from Sri Lanka’s army, navy, or air force, some of whom are accused of war crimes like Rajapaksa and Silva.

Soon thereafter, the government and Silva displayed their clear bias. When the government set up a rehabilitation centre for COVID-19 patients in the Sinhala-majority Western Province, protests erupted. Public sentiment was heeded, and the quarantine centres were moved to the Tamil and Muslim majority Eastern Province. The people there, already overwhelmed by years of militarisation and afraid of the rehabilitation centre spreading the virus protested as well, but they were ignored.

The military has been integrated into the campaign against the spread of the coronavirus in other ways too. The dreaded State Intelligence Services (SIS) was placed in charge of tracking persons who are infected. SIS works with the military, police, and public health inspectors. In other words, what should be a civilian-led initiative is being undertaken by intelligence and military personnel down to the level of “isolate(ing) or quarantine(ing) persons,” which means they physically deal with patients. As recently as 2017, Human Rights Watch accused the police of systematic torture of suspects in custody. The International Truth and Justice Project recorded torture and rape of Tamils by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the police, and the military in 2016/2017.

Third, Rajapaksa is using the pandemic to stifle freedom of expression. On April 1, the police were issued instructions to “take legal action against those who publish posts on social media criticising government officials and obstructing their duties.”

Among the consequences of this blanket gag order was the arrest of a citizen and an official complaint against a public servant. A citizen, not identified in the media, was arrested and charged for “posting on Facebook that the medication and food for people under quarantine were not given and that proper testing to identify probable coronavirus patients [was] not done.”

A Tamil doctor from northern Sri Lanka who posted on social media that new cases of COVID-19 could have emerged from the quarantine centre in Jaffna was vilified by the Government Medical Officers’ Association, which accused him of expressing “views detrimental to the Health Department and the Sri Lanka Army.” Under Sri Lankan law, expressing views detrimental to the Sri Lanka Army is an offence punishable under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Sri Lanka’s opposition political parties do not have an effective response to Rajapaksa’s authoritarian governance. And parliament not functioning has not helped. Parliament was dissolved on March 2 when elections were scheduled for mid-April. Although elections are postponed for June 26, parliament has not been recalled.

While domestic criticism of Rajapaksa remains ineffectual, the international community too has been silent. Western democracies offer only muted criticism of leaders who exploit the pandemic to enhance their already robust powers in questionable ways. This only encourages Rajapaksa to follow in the footsteps of Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi among others.

One reason for the silence could be that these countries are pillars in West’s game plan in dealing with two threats: armed violence by Islamic groups and Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, Sri Lanka’s strategic location is ideal to contain China. It is an important reason why the U.S. conducts joint military exercises, shares intelligence and assists with defence hardware, although of late the relationship is encountering obstacles on the renewal of the status of forces agreement (SOFA).

Not reprimanding Rajapaksa to shore up military alliances could however be shortsighted. He and his ilk at the head of populist regimes use every opportunity to strengthen themselves. For instance, Colombo is poised to exploit the plaudits of the World Health Organisation, and others are heaping on it for a good job in containing the virus.

Imposing a strict curfew, using the military in civilian roles to contain the pandemic and quashing freedom of expression places Rajapaksa in the group of strongmen who demonstrate what is needed for populist leaders facing any emergency – not only a pandemic – is the ability to take decisive action disdaining citizens’ rights and freedoms. Now, while Western democracies might muffle their criticism on how populist strongmen exploit COVID-19 to push antidemocratic objectives, democratic governments often voice concern about expanding numbers of populist-led governments in the world and their damaging effect on democratic values.

It is imperative, therefore, that Western democracies challenge Rajapaksa for the undemocratic concentration of power in the office of the president and undermining national cohesion by pitting the Sinhalese against Tamils, Muslims, and Christians. Because it is a small step for him and other leaders of his persuasion to make the extraordinary powers they have accumulated to fight the coronavirus as part of their permanent arsenal to unleash against their people even after the pandemic is gone.