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Implication of COVID-19 Pandemic for South Asia:

By Nimmi Jayathilake

Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Asia has adversely affected all domains of social, economic and political life in the region. This global pandemic which engulfed every nook and corner of the world in the wink of an eye, entered South Asia in March 2020. By the beginning of the second quarter it had spread to all South Asian countries to a varying degree. The shock injected to South Asia by COVID-19 resulted in closed education institutes, stalled factories, idle ports, empty roads, and life standstill, at least initially. It filled hospitals and deserted public spaces, reversing the process of globalization to “slowbalization”.

Decisive and far-reaching developments are set in motion at present in South Asia and yet the true proportions of the blow and its real impact on the region are yet to be encountered in the coming future. However, it seems that South Asia would surely witness a decisive alteration post-COVID-19. In this context, the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) organized a successful two-days virtual workshop titled “The Implication of COVID-19 Pandemic for South Asia: Civil Society Perspectives” as an initiative to create a common platform for experts and young scholars from South Asia to present and discuss research that they had carried out for the past six months exploring and analyzing the various aspects that have emerged as a result of the pandemic and the future prospects for a way forward from a civil society perspective.

South Asia has always been recognized as one of the most volatile and conflict-ridden regions in the world. The South Asian nations have been experiencing both inter-state and intra-state conflicts. The inter-state conflicts mostly occur as a consequence of the tensions created by identity-politics and intra-state conflicts spark particularly in between the smaller nations and India due to unsolved border disputes. These countries have still not overcome the political and emotional baggage that they have carried since historical times and hence the suspicions and tensions have not eased off especially between India and Pakistan and thereby continue to remain in the same environment which has been marred by mutual antagonism and an uncompromising attitude. Moreover, over the last 15 years, the region has experienced an increased scale of terrorist activity in comparison to the other regions across the globe. Under this situation, where Afghanistan is seeking for peace negotiations with the Taliban, Sri Lanka was barely recovering from the unfortunate Easter Attacks and India was facing protests from all over the country due to its Citizenship Amendment Act, ‘Hindu Rashtra’ movements, people’s disenchantment with the government, youth bulge and so on what would be the implications of COVID-19 for the existing multi-layered conflict-dynamics and peace-building processes in this unstable region?

South Asia also comprises 40% of the world’s poor. The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap between the rich and the poor and thereby affected the vulnerable, marginalized, discriminated and subaltern groups disproportionately in a region where one third of the people struggle with poverty for their everyday existence. It tends to even further widen inequalities and deepen insecurities in the society, specifically among the disadvantaged and alienated sections. Thus, COVID-19 did not simply slow down the economic progress of the region, it has exacerbated and brought forth the already existing issues to the forefront too. The South Asian countries might well experience its worst economic performance in 40 years, with at least half the countries falling into a deep recession. It has already triggered sharp jobs and earnings losses. Tens and thousands of migrant laborers have returned home and thereby the flow of foreign remittances to the South Asian nations have decreased considerably. Overall, as a consequence, the crisis arising from the economic front would lead to an accentuation of preexisted issues with multiplied effects such as the citizens’ dissatisfaction with the functioning of the government and the expanding youth bulge. Thus, social discontent, tremendous reproduction of social class inequalities, extension of poverty and the incapacity to generate any new economic opportunities or employment would ultimately result in an equally grave social and political crisis with furious and restless citizens and a militarized government trying to contain civil protests.

Therefore, to what extent would public policies instituted by the South Asian countries prove its strength in mitigating the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, by paying adequate attention and honest concern to the marginalized and economically disadvantaged communities victimized by the already existing abstract ideological constructions of social class, caste, gender and even language? Further, the breakdown of world supply chains, shrinking of the global market, decline of air travel and constraints on international trade have severely affected the South Asian economies from broken pieces to shackles. In such a condition, what would be the long-term economic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for South Asia?

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic occurred at a crucial time when the western hegemons feared over the gradual global power-shift towards Asia. The Asian superpowers displayed tremendous improvement in the power-play to a point where it was estimated that they would surpass North America and Europe combined in global power based on GDP, population size, military spending and technological investment by 2030. In effect, South Asia was declared the fastest growing region in the world in 2016 and proved its economically stable position during the last five years. In relation to shifting the centre of gravity in global politics from the West to the East, South Asia’s recognition in the global order was also going through a phase of positive alteration. Nevertheless, how would the impact of the global pandemic on the evolving global balance of power alter South Asia’s position in the post-COVID world order?

The multi-dimensional threats posed by COVID-19 and the manner in which they are addressed at present will bring forth profound implications for the role and stature of the state and state-society relations in South Asia. With regards to this factor, it brings into attention the impact of emergency measures adopted to cope up with exigencies of COVID-19 on democratic political structures and processes in South Asia. The theory of surveillance has been familiar in the critical discourse of the West since the times of Bentham and Foucault. Surveillance developed with time from its physical mode of a ‘Panopticon’ to power-play with the datafication of society and transition to network surveillance. Today, some states in the South Asian region too employ ‘intrusive surveillance methods’ to keep tabs on vulnerable sectors in identified pandemic hotspots. Though it effectively saved lives by curtailing the spread of the virus, possible covert implications of such methods for civic activities in democratic governance are a matter of serious concern.

Moreover, COVID-19 has also facilitated the tendency for Democratic South Asian nations to move towards an executive friendly mode. The emergency situation created by the pandemic seems to be utilized almost as a tool of distraction to instrumentalize and solidify executive authoritarianism by citing the discourse of public health as a principal reason for greater executive control and consolidation. Hence, COVID-19 has definitely magnified certain impulses and dynamics of conflict and governance within the region rather than ameliorating the existing trends towards anti-democratization, populism, militarization and currently altered our everyday government and its governance. In this regard, what would be the directions of democratic governance in post-COVID South Asia?

South Asia still remains as one of the least integrated regions in the world and its intra-regional trade accounts for a mere 5% of its total trade, manifesting a low degree of economic bonding in the region. Despite several attempts to foster cooperation among its member states, SAARC appears to be in limbo since 2016 after India’s boycott of the Islamabad Summit. Yet it brought some hope into the faltering SAARC process when all the eight South Asian nations’ leaders gathered together on a virtual platform to address the emergency situation created by the pandemic and to contribute funds to combat the pandemic as one region. Will the COVID-19 pandemic prepare for the re-awakening of a new era of regional cooperation and compel the SAARC member-states to cooperate with each other to encounter the virus that does not take man-made divisions and boundaries into account in its itinerary. Would practical requirements in dealing with the COVID-19 threat act as a lever to minimize the trust deficit among the South Asian countries and hence create a novel chapter for regional cooperation?

Thus, it is clear that the arrival of COVID-19 halted the progress of South Asia at a historic crossroad and created a barrier over the many potential directions and options which stood before it along with various opportunities for global recognition and integration. And at the moment, we are left in an unpredictable situation with many questions unanswered, issues unsolved and a bleak tomorrow. Thus, RCSS in a joint-venture with GPPAC South Asia gathered a panel of distinguished South Asian academicians from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan namely Prof. Gamini Keerawella, Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Dr. Mallika Joseph, Prof. Suba Chandran, Dr. Nishchal Pandey, Ms. Saloni Singh, Prof. Moonis Ahmar, Dr. Salma Malik and Miss Lailuma Nasiri respectively to bring to the table their thoughts and views on this historic juncture with regards to the significance of civil society intervention in a responsible manner and contribute to generate policies that are more effective, equitable and gender-sensitive and those that could be capable and influential enough to mobilize societal capacities in order to mitigate adverse social, economic and political effects of the pandemic and to shape the direction of post-Covid South Asia on a better and effective track. It was also noteworthy that young researchers from the above mentioned South Asian nations too participated and presented informative and well-analyzed Country Reports in an attempt to map the impact of COVID-19 pandemic in South Asia and to share each country’s experience on a common platform in order to examine the policy responses to counter adverse effects and to promote recovery from a civil society perspective and of course to generate a discourse in civil society as to its role in post-COVID South Asia.

The Keynote address of the inaugural session was delivered by Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colomabage, Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His participation to this regional workshop was indeed an honour for RCSS. Admiral Prof. Colombage made a significant and informative speech on the current proceedings of Sri Lanka in countering the various challenges posed by the second wave of COVID-19 and the measures taken by the government in order to adapt to the “new normal” without disrupting the progression of the country. He also referred to the current repatriation process which keeps ongoing despite the outbreak of the rapidly spreading second wave and where over 40,000 stranded Sri Lankans were brought back to the motherland.

The first technical session brought forth into discussion the trends towards the retreat of democracy and the kind of impact it would have especially on two of the oldest Democratic nations in South Asia- India and Sri Lanka. And if this would ultimately result in a democratic backlash from the civilian side? Several aspects with regards to regional governance and multilateralism in the COVID-19 world were also brought into attention. And there was further discussion on the implications of COVID-19 for the existing conflict patterns and the process of regional cooperation in South Asia.

The second technical session included the presentation and discussion of the country reports of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The third technical session focused on the country reports of India, Pakistan and Nepal. The six research reports from six different South Asian countries brought into discussion several common issues that have been concerning the region as a result of the pandemic situation such as rising inequalities, increase in smuggling, health-care challenges and responses, increased domestic violence, the digital gap that has affected students from rural areas at large in continuing their education online and the extent to which the vulnerable communities suffer from food and health insecurity as these groups won’t be able to hold any longer till the economy recovers at a slow pace. And country wise, the country report on Pakistan pointed out how the citizens acted irresponsible pertaining to different myths on COVID-19 and the dilemma of the government in choosing to protect life and livelihoods. In the case of India, COVID-19 has vastly impacted the manufacturing sector, disrupted the supply chain and led to job losses. The inability to make proper and timely announcements especially with regards to the lockdown of the country pushed the migrant laborers into a very uncomfortable situation. Nevertheless, several small states such as Kerala have continued to perform well despite the damage caused by the pandemic. Moving onto Afghanistan, its citizens who reside in the provinces which are being controlled by the Taliban remain unable in reaching out to the services provided by the government. And on top of that, the suicide bombings too have not decreased and the people keep losing their lives both from the pandemic and from terrorist attacks.

History depicts the end of a catastrophe as the beginning of social, economic and political change and revival from one age to another. When one way does not work, mankind has always proved to be creative and thrived their businesses and institutions in a novel way. They have been remarkably quick to discover innovations to recover and reemerge once again. Catastrophes created a pause in the usual universal procedures and provided space for mankind to rethink and make necessary changes to the manner in which they live, to the modes through which goods and services are produced and distributed and to the institutions through which collective decisions are made and implemented. Thus, in this phase of the modern era, will COVID-19 pandemic serve as a propellant for social, economic and political change?

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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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