Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sri Lanka: The Danger of the General

Professor Laksiri Fernando - Sri Lanka seems to be going through some unusual times. What appeared as a bright future for the country just six months ago, after defeating the LTTE, is now clouded with doubt, intrigue and uncertainty.

No doubt that the country will come out of this crisis, as it did in previous times, perhaps much stronger. But it will be at an unnecessary cost and strain. But it will be at an unnecessary cost and strain.

A premature presidential election has to be declared to clear the doubts as to who would hold the people’s mandate, the government or the opposition. It will be held on the 26th January. Otherwise, what is due is parliamentary election before April. It is more than intriguing that the apparent contender is the former Army Commander challenging the incumbent President. The tricks of the main opposition, that vehemently opposed the war against the LTTE, and the remaining LTTE rump abroad, are uncertain as they seem to be in unison in destabilizing the country.

Near Escape

Sri Lanka perhaps did not realize fully that it escaped an impending military coup by a stroke of luck a few months ago. The political ambitions that the former army commander has very clearly expressed and the doubts that the government entertained about a possible military takeover are not accidental. It was to circumvent that eventuality that the former army commander was removed from his commanding position in mid-July by elevating him as the Chief of Defense of Staff, with more ceremonial and no actual power. As the facts have become revealed, the army commander has had different views from the government during the last stages of the operations against the LTTE on timing and logistics. Thereafter, his ambition has been to expand the army further, under his tutelage, without recognizing the end of the war or the costs involved. What may appear as a professional aspiration was very clearly linked to political ambitions.

It is not unusual for army commanders to step into politics when a country is in a crisis or when the army is at the helm. Though not unusual, it would be the end of democracy. During the thirty years of war, there were instances when a military takeover was suspected. The lack of proper political leadership or support to fight against the LTTE was the main grievance of the army or the potential spur to takeover. What prevented that eventuality was uncertainty or professionalism. It was uncertain that the army alone could face up to the LTTE, while governing the country, with an obvious opposition in the South. Sri Lanka also has been well known for a professional army. Only few generals have had temptation for politics before, and none of them seemed to entertain the full desire while in the service. The present General apparently is an exception.

The Profile

The present General undoubtedly was a professional soldier with training, qualifications and experience. He was also a nice gentleman under normal circumstances. He only seemed to lose his cool when disagreeable questions were asked. This was clear when he came before TV interviews. During the controversial ceasefire agreement, he held on to his professional views and advised the government against the adverse effects of the CFA. For that crime, he was disliked by the international peace advisors and the peace nicks alike.

He was of course hated by the LTTE. He was put on hibernation for his views on security matters until the present President made him the Army Commander immediately after his ascendancy to the presidency. That was the General’s ascendancy to virtual power. It was to thwart that ascendancy that the LTTE attempted to assassinate him.

There is no doubt that the General made a major contribution to defeat the LTTE although it is doubtful whether he could claim it all alone even on the military front. There were two other forces, the Navy and the Air Force, and the Police and their commanders or chiefs should be given appropriate credit, if not an equal one. In addition was the Ministry of Defense, not to mention its strategic planning or skillful coordination of all the armed forces involved.

For any independent observer, the political leadership was undoubtedly the crucial. It is also undisputed in military theory. Even at a most recent interview (Daily Mirror, 27 November 2009), the General has claimed the sole credit to him saying, “I led the army to win the war” and castigated “those who sat in air-conditioned rooms in Colombo giving political speeches.”

This is in sharp contrast to all others, including the President, who has given due credit to the army commander without overlooking the other armed force leaders, equal to the army commander or subordinate to him, and the enormous sacrifices that the ordinary soldiers have made. The list of credit might not end there. One may say that the last battle, if not the war, in fact was won by the field commanders on the ground.

War for Prestige

Sri Lanka has apparently become a laughing stock among the outsiders for its unique ‘war for prestige’ after the actual war. In any enterprise, war or not, there is always the possibility of friction or dispute among the key players. There is no recorded history, however, that those disputes were brought into the public life as they have in the case of Sri Lanka. Perhaps it was an element in the ancient history. There is a kind of archaic primitivism in the prestige claim, completely alien to professionalism in any modern profession, let alone the armed forces. The aberration could have been lightly ignored if it had not come from an army commander just after a decisive military victory.

Even before the end of the war, there were instances when the General did step outside his professional limits, making statements on political matters. One instance was when he criticized the leader of the opposition after some unsavory remarks made by the latter on him. More glaring were his repeated comments about the minorities or ethnic communities in the country and the media. By doing so he even tainted the government policy on the subjects of both minorities and the media. What he emphasized was the ‘hegemony of the majority’ and ‘fair treatment’ for the minorities however you interpret it.

The commander or the military spokespersons did have a duty to inform the public on permissible military matters to keep them informed. But there were instances when he went further and made emotional remarks on the need to annihilate the enemy to the extent that even the prisoners of war should not be spared. The caliber of the person could be discernible from those statements and the remarks.

Another side of his personality is his virtual somersault to enter politics with the political forces that were dead against the war that he claimed to lead and won against the LTTE. Now he has said that “there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends in politics.” This is more than intriguing. It would be interesting to see how his ‘friends and enemies’ change in the coming future. It is possible that he is given a ‘dead rope by someone’ for him to go to that extent.

It might not be unfair to say that he is driven by revenge taking perhaps believing what he does is fighting against personal injustice. It might be the case that he was extremely offended or even insulted by the government, inadvertently or advertently. But that is not a good enough reason to enter politics under dubious circumstances and create confusion and uncertainty in the whole political system. The uncertainty is not so much about whether he would win, but about the choices that the Sri Lankan voters are given with.

The confusion is not created by the General alone but by the two main opposition political parties, the rightwing UNP and the leftwing JVP. For the first time, the UNP has not fielded its own candidate for the presidency, opting for a common candidate with the objective of defeating the incumbent president. The JVP has done a similar adventure by aligning with its former arch rival, the UNP, to take revenge from the incumbent president for splitting its party into two, a strong moderate section joining the ruling people’s coalition in recent times. Both outfits use the same jargon of ‘marching separately and striking together.’ The common striking slogan seems to be the abolition of the presidential system which in fact was introduced by the UNP in 1978. The additional one is the ousting of what they call the ‘family banditry’ by President Rajapakse and his brothers.


At least the JVP seems to be consistent in its near idealistic slogan that the presidential system should be abolished. The party in fact supported two presidents from the same people’s alliance in 1994 and 2005, with the promise to abolish the presidential system. But no steps were taken to make the promise a reality thereafter. What reliability that the JVP has from the General to abolish the presidency is a question. There is no doubt that the presidential system is inimical to parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka. Linked with the presidential system is the inimical electoral system, and abolishing or changing one without the other is wholly illogical.

The General promises to abolish the presidential system forthwith after his election. This is quite exciting. He obviously has no power to do so even he has the will. The presidential system is entrenched in the constitution. The best option Sri Lanka has had is a democratic president like the incumbent from a democratic party. The power to change the constitution is vested with Parliament subject to a referendum. Parliament requires a two thirds majority to change even a word in the constitution. It is a near impossibility unless a two thirds majority is obtained by a well formed party or a coalition at the next parliamentary election due before April. Under the circumstances, electing a General to the position of the executive presidency is the greatest danger that would pose to the already threatened democracy in Sri Lanka.

The agreement between the General and the UNP specifies that the former should appoint a caretaker government with the UNP leader as the prime minister, immediately after his perceived election to the presidency. This is wholly undemocratic, though imaginary. The majority of the present parliament is with the ruling people’s coalition which will not change until a new election is held or a major crossover is taken place. The agreement does not talk about a cross over.

What can be suspected is an undemocratic maneuvering unless the government and the civil society remain extremely vigilant. The UNP has had previous leanings towards the military, when it was deprived of power for long periods. The 1962 aborted military coup was an example. Even in recent times, the UNP has cultivated some military leaders for political gain. This is a mistake that even the present government has committed. Perhaps less than the UNP, the JVP also has a history of conspiracy. Although not well known, it is a fact that the founder of the JVP, Rohana Wijeweera, tried to infiltrate the army by the name of Tissa. This was when the organization was in the making in the late sixties. Perhaps now the JVP ranks would be the first to realize a military threat to democracy more than the UNP.

The threat or the danger also should not be overestimated or blown out of proportion. It is counter productive. The democratic traditions in Sri Lanka are still in tact and vibrant. The best deterrent should be the people’s involvement in the democratic process and questioning of all the deviations and dangers. After all, the General has come before the ballot box.

What should be finally noted, with exclamation, is what the General said recently about the rumor of a possible coup before he was elevated to the symbolic CDS position. He has said, “I could have sent troops to Colombo if I wanted. There were no such thoughts in my mind.” (The Sunday Times, 29 November 2009). This speaks a mind if not action.

© Asian Tribune

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