After Covid-19, would Lanka be the same again? Only scientists and specialist medics are supposed to be qualified to tell us when or whether the virus will come to an end but they are non-committal. Only those of us who know next to nothing about Covid-19 predict with certainty about the future. And our predictions [...]

Sunday Times 2

Militarising and politicising Covid-19

By Gamini Weerakoon

After Covid-19, would Lanka be the same again? Only scientists and specialist medics are supposed to be qualified to tell us when or whether the virus will come to an end but they are non-committal. Only those of us who know next to nothing about Covid-19 predict with certainty about the future. And our predictions will be what we are hoping for what we want it to be.

The Covid virus is greater than those who claim to be the ‘Greatest’. Ask Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte or Recep Tayyip Erdogan who have all been humbled by this microbe. It has also visibly impacted potty little presidents looking forward to be ‘Great’. Covid has already devastated the best laid plans of lesser leaders right round the globe and it appears that Planet Earth would not be the same again as in ante-Covid times.

In Sri Lanka, there was ‘militarisation’ of governance that has seeped into day-to-day life of citizens starting with the Military Police complementing the traffic cops in their duties and now we see on TV ex- military top brass projecting power through the only functional and devastatingly effective media, television, and to a lesser extent by radio. The Sri Lankan press — the Watchdog of the Nation — has been locked up for over a month and limited to a few online newspapers.

Medics, true enough, are given some time and occupy the centre stage briefly but the whole exercise is underpinned on well-known ex- military personalities — on and off on TV in their military splendour and at times in civvies — running an effective juggernaut under their supreme commander and president of the country, an ex-military man.

Military personnel have done a commendable job in keeping the spread of the virus under control as compared to some other countries. Sri Lanka was fortunate in having lesser number of returning expatriate workers and migrants and also being an island with few entry points — few sea ports and one main airport.

Even though, on TV, the military personalities do not effuse politics and appear to be apolitical, it was inevitable that these personalities and the Covid virus would become politicised for two reasons: These ex-military men fighting Covid are recognised loyalists of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and were appointed by him. The second reason is the general election which cannot be held on the scheduled date because of the Covid virus and political supporters of the Pohottuwa, the political party of the Rajapaksas, claiming in conversations, but not officially, that the ‘success in the War Against the Virus’ is an achievement of President Rajapaksa and his team of ex-military men — a political achievement.

Pohottuwa wants a victory with a two-thirds majority in parliament to implement Gotabaya’s visionary manifesto: ‘Visions of Prosperity and splendour’ — but the Opposition fears a two-thirds majority will turn out to be a big stick to establish a military styled autocratic regime which should be thwarted.

At the time of writing, there is a constitutional crisis in the making on the scheduled date for the election and summoning of parliament.

Much praise has been lavished on the ‘Buddhi Angshaya’ (Intelligence Unit) for its success in trailing suspected virus carriers who have broken the rules of quarantine and spread it among those whom they have come into contact with, leading to subsequent quarantining contacts in groups and even entire neighbourhoods. Those used for this operation are said to be members of a special operations force known for their bravura and awesome nature, inspiring admiration and also fear among the public.

Some, particularly those of militant political bent, fear that if this kind of investigations or operations are regularised for detection of ‘offences’ considered not inimical to the state but to political interests, it could lead to the drastic invasion of privacy and violations of human rights.  However, it has to be stressed that those deployed in the detection of Covid virus carriers so far have not been accused of straying beyond their limited field of operations.  But it is well known that, in highly security conscious developed and even developing countries, well established security agencies tend to spy on innocent citizens invading their rights to privacy and violating their political rights on behalf of those in power.

In history, even western liberal philosophers have advocated keeping watch on suspects without them being aware of being spied on.

Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher and jurist, who believed that exercise of power should be visible but unverifiable, tried for long years to make successive English governments adopt a proposal for the establishment of a jail with a Central Observation tower in a circle of surrounding towers with cells in which a guard from the central tower could see into surrounding cells and watch their inmates but the inmates couldn’t see into the tower. This, prisoners would not know whether they are being watched or not.  This system was called a Panopticon which Bentham failed with successive governments to accept despite his wealth and influence.

Michael Focault a 20th Century French philosopher and critic of Panopticon compared it to a medieval village under quarantine in order to stamp out the Plague. Focault used Panopticon as a metaphor in describing a modern disciplinary society in enforcing discipline.  He argued: Discipline had replaced the pre-modern society of kings and that Panopticon should not be understood as a jail but as a mechanism of power and a diagram of political technology.

Whatever the results of the general election under consideration may be, post-Covid Sri Lanka will be determined on whether the militarisation of the administration — Military Police as traffic policemen, ex-military personnel heading key government institutions — will remain, disappear or expand. Can this all-important issue be decided on at the forthcoming general election held under high pressure with voters exercising their franchise at the risk of being infected by the deadly virus?

While Sri Lankan government officials and political supporters are backslapping one another on the success achieved so far in containing the spread of the pandemic, a threat with devastating potential could be developing just 22 miles away across the Palk strait in neighbouring India. The Covid-19 pandemic is stepping up each day in this nation of more than 1 billion people and has spread right across the sub-continent. If a devastating ‘Covid virus bomb’ builds up in India and there is a near ‘Covid vacuum’ in Sri Lanka, such a difference could unleash havoc here. This is a challenge that our Virus Warriors have to anticipate without basking in the glory of what has been achieved already.

There could also be political viruses that could precede the Covid. Last week, the Indian media reported that the ‘Indian army is readying separate teams to be deployed in South Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, to help them boost their capabilities to deal with the coronavirus’. Sri Lanka Defence Secretary Maj Gen.(Retd) Kamal Gunaratne the next day issued a statement that the Sri Lanka Defence Force and Police had already proved their capabilities in containing the spread of the virus. Sri Lanka has had enough experience of having an uninvited peace keeping force about three decades ago.

The arrival of a foreign force even for strictly humanitarian purposes at the time of the political crisis over conducting a general election would undoubtedly be an addition to the roiling political imbroglio.

Maintaining good relations with our neighbour at all times and particularly in times of crises like this is essential and the altruism of the Indian premier Narendra Modi in pledging USD 10 million to SAARC should be appreciated even though his actions that have paralysed SAARC is hard to comprehend.

(Gamini Weerakoo is aformer editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader.)


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