Tasks Forced

Sri Lanka’s excessively militarised response to COVID-19

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election is scheduled for 5 August. The government has imposed severe restrictions on campaigning. Getty Images
31 July, 2020

The armed resistance of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended at Mullivaikkal in 2009, when the army indiscriminately shelled a “no-fire zone” for civilians, killing over forty thousand people, according to some estimates. Eleven years on, the Sri Lankan government and military have not been held accountable for the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and disappeared during the 26-year-long military conflict. The right of Tamils to commemorate the dead and missing remains precarious, not just in Sri Lanka. The government has continued to encroach on Tamil lands and commit violence against the country’s Tamil minority with impunity.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who directed the campaign against the LTTE a decade ago as defence minister, was elected president last year. His brother Mahinda, who was president at the time, is the prime minister. Both have been accused of overseeing war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The COVID-19 pandemic has given them an excuse to extend their campaign.

In March, within two weeks of Sri Lanka’s first case of COVID-19 being reported, the government set up a task force to prevent the spread of the disease. Instead of putting a medical professional or civil servant in charge of the task force, the Rajapaksa government picked Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, an alleged war criminal, to head it. The task force’s members include another Rajapaksa brother, Basil; another alleged war criminal, Major General Kamal Gunaratne; and Major General Sumedha Perera, who presided over Joseph Camp, a torture site, for two years.

The task force has reflected the government’s bias towards the country’s Sinhalese majority. Its first act was to shift quarantine centres set up for migrant workers returning from Italy and South Korea away from Colombo, following protests by the capital’s residents. These were moved to the majority-Tamil district of Batticaloa, over three hundred kilometres away in Sri Lanka’s northeast. The army took over more than fifty schools in Batticaloa to set up quarantine centres, despite civil resistance. The task force has prevented numerous organisations, and also elected officials, from providing rations to civilians, but has not stepped in itself. This has left the area’s mostly agrarian Tamil community extremely vulnerable to food insecurity.