When the Sri Lankan government implemented a lockdown in late March to contain COVID-19, its actions did not take place in a political vacuum. Rather, the government’s efforts reinforced its existing push to mobilize majoritarian social forces, consolidate power, and forestall an economic crisis.
The coronavirus pandemic hit Sri Lanka just as the country was grappling with its democratic future with a significant parliamentary election ahead. Having won a divisive presidential election in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament in early March, on the earliest date constitutionally allowed, six months before the end of the parliament’s term. While the opposition was caught infighting over its leadership and scrambled to select its candidates, the president’s party capitalized on an orderly nomination process and prepared the ground for a major victory. With confirmed cases of the coronavirus slowly increasing after March 10, the president postponed a nationwide lockdown until the day after nominations were over on March 19. However, authority over the electoral process then shifted to the Election Commission, which postponed the parliamentary elections due to public health concerns.
With elections still on the horizon now in June, the president has aggravated polarization by disregarding calls to reconvene parliament and address the crisis with the opposition’s support. Parliament remains dissolved, and the ruling party has sought to take sole credit for what Sri Lankans widely perceive as a successful response to the pandemic. Indeed, Sri Lanka has controlled the spread of the virus better than many other countries, mainly thanks to Sri Lanka’s free healthcare system and robust preventive community health infrastructure.
The government’s militarized response to the coronavirus crisis undermines democratic space and reinforces a polarized political culture. Rajapaksa was defense secretary during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war (1983–2009), while his brother, the current prime minister, was president. Drawing parallels to their wartime efforts, which they billed as a “war against terrorism,” the Rajapaksa regime has given the military a dominant role in the pandemic response. Army Commander Shavendra Silva heads the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak, along with other military personnel holding prominent positions. Crucially, the government has also promoted a militarized mindset in dealing with the pandemic, and as during the civil war, militarization has been combined with nationalist ideology alienating minority groups.
Further complicating the political situation is an impending economic depression. With weeks under lockdown, Sri Lanka’s already fragile and indebted economy has now been pushed over the cliff into a downward spiral of falling foreign exchange earnings in key sectors, including tourism, migrant worker remittances, and garment exports. And over a month after the lockdown began, the government is attempting to resume production, particularly in the export industries, and hastily hold parliamentary elections before the economic pain fully hits. In addition, a chauvinist narrative has already emerged that scapegoats Muslims for the spread of the pandemic. This narrative conveniently disregards the government’s own lapses; while the first cases of the coronavirus were traced to European tourists, their arrivals were not blocked for weeks due to the economic costs.
Anti-Muslim violence has been on the rise in Sri Lanka over the past decade, and the pandemic has provided fresh fodder for intolerance and abuse. The government has mandated the cremation of those who have died from COVID-19 and denied Muslim families the right to bury their dead, contrary to the World Health Organization’s guidelines. Furthermore, the media has demonstrated anti-Muslim prejudices, and social media discourse has targeted Muslim communities as an “other” that will not comply with the state’s militarized dictates to address the pandemic. Through such means, the government and allied societal forces have clearly sought to mobilize Sri Lanka’s Sinhala ethnic majority in a bid to consolidate support ahead of the parliamentary elections. Throughout Sri Lanka’s history, this combination of polarizing leadership at the helm of state power and majoritarian social movements has not only led to authoritarian repression but also to prolonged instability and social crises.
Ahilan Kadirgamar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Jaffna in Sri Lanka.