Colombo, Human Rights, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Architects of a military junta in Sri Lanka?

In this article, my objective is to focus on a crucial area of Sri Lankan political life, where significant developments have taken place: military successes against the LTTE coupled with the development of a culture of ruthless impunity. This can be described as the result of a mixture of very dangerous elements:

1.     Rise of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism
2.     A sentiment of intense ‘fear’ of the state and the military establishment
3.     A military force marked by impunity and immorality.

These three factors are complemented by acts of assault, imprisonment and murder of journalists and, and a policy of zero tolerance of any dissenting voices.

Insights into the situation can be glimpsed from the ideologies that tend to dominate within the island nation’s defence establishment. Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka , Sri Lanka’s Army Commander, publicly affirms that the ethnic minority groups of Sri Lanka are not citizens enjoying equal rights as the ethnic majority the Sinhalese. (See here. Accessed 15 February 2009). Not a comment one can afford to ignore given the violence the Sri Lankan Army has wrought upon hapless IDPs (see here - notably pages 96, 97. Accessed 15 February 2009). One is also painfully reminded of the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy case, and sheer brutality of the Sri Lanka Army soldiers who gang-raped a young school girl and slaughtered her and her family members.

Moreover, I invite all readers to take a minute to view this video on YouTube. (Accessed 14 February 2009)

It is a footage from a local TV channel’s news bulletin covering the electoral campaign for the Central and North-Western Provincial Council Elections (held on 14 February 2009). I draw your attention to the very first scene on the video, a speech made by the Hon. Ratnasiri Wickramanayake MP, Prime Minister of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Referring to the prospect of capturing the LTTE leader alive in northern Sri Lanka, the Hon. Premier says that he should be killed- and that the one who deserves death should be doomed to death. Furthermore, he says that if the LTTE leader were a ‘girl’, they [i.e. the soldiers] could have ‘touched’ or ‘fiddled with’ her body! We must not forget there are many who fully support views of this nature and continue to vote for the Prime Minister’s political party. 

Now, a word about Mr Gotabyaya Rajapakse (GR), former officer of the Sri Lanka Army, who returned home from expatriation when his brother assumed office as President of Sri Lanka. In fairness to Mr GR, he has proved to be a good manager, managing and spearheading military strategy in the war against the LTTE. His role, together with that of the good Army Commander, has been vital in the execution of successful military operations.

The problem with Mr GR, is that despite his management skills and commitment to his official duties, there seems to be a fiercely fascist persona in him. It is this second persona of GR that poses a problem to this writer and to almost all journalists and endorsers of free speech in Sri Lanka today. Here’s a telling example: in an interview with a BBC journalist (see here, also available here. Accessed 14 February 2009), a question is raised about the murder of the Senior Editor of the Sri Lankan weekly The Sunday Leader. Obviously, the late Editor was known to the Rajapakses. Besides, the late Editor was unarguably the most controversial character in Sri Lankan journalism, turning every possible stone to divulge the truth and the ‘inside story’ at any cost. He may not have been very diplomatic a person or an exceptionally skilled public speaker, but on paper, he was sharp and arguably a national figure in Sri Lankan journalism. As many articles by his former colleagues published after his demise affirm, he started his career in investigative journalism in the 80s, strengthening his position by producing his own broadsheet in the mid 90s.

In the BBC interview, Mr GR goes on to affirm that anyone who talks or writes against the defence establishment will not be tolerated. The BBC journalist asks if Mr. GR’s stance is similar to that of George Bush (on the war in Iraq): “Either you’re with us or not with us”.

The most revealing answer follows “Exactly”.

As a Sri Lankan what more can I add?

The Sri Lankan government views the LTTE as a terrorist organisation with a separatist agenda, and wishes to eliminate them. From the developments so far, they seem to have extensively inspired from the War against Terrorism and Israel’s war against Palestine, with most inspiration being gained from negative aspects. However, it is rather futile to compare the situation in Sri Lanka, an internal civil conflict, with the War against Terrorism, or with the Gaza question. Regarding the latter, the practices of the Israeli government against Hamas ought not to be copied by any land on earth, as no people deserve the tragedies Palestinians are enduring at this very moment. What then is the point? The point is that the Sri Lankan government, despite its military capabilities, has a mediocre understanding of the Sri Lankan conflict and the reasons behind it. 

Weakening the LTTE’s military might is commendable, as the latter has been an equally ruthless and violent organisation. Yet, such a strategy should be accompanied by a firm commitment to equality, and an equally strong fight against Sinhala nationalist forces, who are ruthlessly brainwashing the Sinhala community.

Given the views both Mr GR and the Army Commander have publicly expressed, any force that criticises their common agenda is silenced, and that is the fate that befell all journalists who criticized the Rajapakse administration, the military, the Defence Secretary, the Army Commander, Sinhala nationalist political parties and their leaders, proposed bills against conversion/change of one’s religion and violent attacks on non-Buddhist places of religious worship.

I really fear that these two gentlemen can easily create (and ironically not without, at least today, a large measure of public support) a military-controlled junta in Sri Lanka.

Turning a thoroughly blind eye or preventing this dangerous move is up to us Sri Lankans to determine.

PS: The views expressed in this article are meant to be totally impartial. They are very strictly those of the writer, and in no way reflect the views any other organisation, group or individual.

  • rajivmw

    If it is the intention of this writer is to inform the public of the dangers posed by the current regime, and thereby mobilize a critical mass of resistance, then I'm afraid that this article is simply not going to do it.

    For a start, demonizing the army is almost entirely counter-productive. At the very least, it opens the author to the charge of bias, especially when the only reference to the LTTE is a grudging acknowledgement that they are "equally" violent and should be "weakened".

    The writer also fails to understand that Sinhala Buddhists too have a sense of grievance. Some of this is absurd, but not all. Casting the Sinhala Buddhists as the main villains, hurting their pride and ignoring their concerns, this opens the door for demagogues and fascists.

    If liberals want to transform the Sri Lankan state and polity, they will surely need support from the majority community. That's not going to happen if all they have to offer is disdainful hectoring.

    On the other hand, if the writer feels that local opinion matters not, and external pressure is what will do the job, well good luck with that. I think it's courting disaster.

  • Alex Pandian

    It can be Sighala or Tamil "No body" can't devide the country and stop fesible business investment in any part of the country. Govt's False alegation on useless War on terror won't bring peace to SL. This madness is will help only to bring very painfull memories on Tamil's heart forever .(War is not a path or option to peace, It was said by Buda 2500 years ago by seeing all the foolish kings around this region) . Tamils want internal self determination only, this what LTTE also asked for to in the peace talk . Since independance Contineous culture of impunity and deaf year to reasonable political aspriation is the root cause.

  • Dante

    You are eating your own shit man!

  • Kumara

    Some corrections and then some comments.

    George Bush gave the "you are with us or against us" speech after the US was attacked and when he launched his war on terror. It was an appropriate comment at that time which has been misquoted by journalist who fail to check facts. At that point in time, either you support the Al Queda and similar organizations that planned to or carried out attacks against the US and the west or you were against such attacks. What is so hard for you to understand that line?
    The current situation in Sri Lanka is very different as the LTTEs goals are not to destroy Sinhala Sri Lanka, but to fight for the control of Tamil homelands, as Tamils have been treated shabbily and were living as second class citizens. Now this is not a clear cut solution accepted by all Tamils, but a good majority used to support this.

    The present Sri Lankan governments strategy of using the same slogan of war-on-terror is more of a political move than a good description of the reality. This is more of a civil war than a war on terror. Otherwise how do you justify bombing your own land and people. Just that fact itself is proof that the present government of SL does not consider Tamils in the North as an intricate part of Sri Lanka.

    We can all wallow in this liberal nonsense and political correctness or just speak in plain terms. The Tamils are unhappy living with the Sinhalees and want to separate and have their traditional homeland. They are not asking for one square inch of Sinhala land. They just want control over what was once theirs. So they decided to fight and now they are loosing. They will come back with some other ways of getting there, if it's the will of the people living in the North & East. So far the last few governments of Sri Lanka have NOT proposed a reasonable solution. So the war will go on. The mechanics might be different but the goals will be the same.

  • Observer

    Army commander doesn't care for PC (political correctness), so don't hang on it too much. Also in a democracy majority gets what they want. So if the elections give them Hon. Rajapakse and Gen. Fonsek then so be it! End of story.
    If the LTTE's actions don't claim them as terrorists I don't know what sort of sensibility you adhere to. How would you feel if someone blew apart your close family? What would you call them? other than criminals of course…?
    I agree with the first commenter that this article is poorly structured and conceived.
    In fact it portrays a poorly developed and expressed liberal mind.
    This is not a military junta but action required by current climate. You would have said the same thing about the US right after 9/11 with their drastic anti-terror legislations and screening. People know what they want, and we have the right people to deliver it. That's all I know!

    • Ravi

      "If the LTTE's actions don't claim them as terrorists I don't know what sort of sensibility you adhere to. How would you feel if someone blew apart your close family?"

      Using the precise logic of the above lines…I have to call the government of SL "Terrorist" as they bombed and blew apart my family, and my close friends family.

      • Observer

        because of the LTTE. LTTE chose to continue a cycle of violence, It is sad Tamil people have to suffer for that.

  • rajivmw,
    You make a good point – with most Sri Lankans, the harder you push, the lesser chance you have of moving them. However, I am not convinced that it will be difficult to get the support of the majority for progressive social reform by exposing facts about how their actions and attitudes are contributing to the problem. The late Gangodavila Soma Thero did so with remarkable success – to the extent that the more he exposed and criticised the inanities of the majority’s beliefs and attitudes, the more popular and even politically powerful he became.
    I do not fully agree with how he went about his mission – because I noticed that he did sometimes have a hint of hatred and animosity in his tone – but I have no doubt that his method; albeit in a more tolerant and pluralistic tone, can be used very effectively for social reform. I also feel that the ‘messenger’ is more important in our society than the ‘message’… which is why it is important that popular figures such as the defence secretary and army commander should be more watchful of what they say – and why people should have the space to debate what they say openly and without fear of reprisal.

  • Miltary in Sri Lanka, from the trend of events, will be like Hitler's army in the future. First against the Tamils under the cover of terror. Then it will be the Sinhalese. When the Sinhalese face genocide, then the world will keeep stone silent, and they should, becuase it is the accepted culture of the Sinhalese as shown in recent election results, if the polls were not rigged!

    The present dangerous Buddhist cult, encouraging killing, bombing, maiming, wiping off families, torture and murder, now being justified by the Sinhalese, will also be considered as a part of their culture by the International community.

    In essence, the Sinhalese would perish.

    The Sinhalese who care for their children and children's children should act before it is too late.

    • Dayan Jayatilleka

      Hey Justin,

      The Armed forces put down two Sinhala based insurgencies , in 1971 and 1987-89, didn't you know? Still, they are probably the most popular institution in Sri Lanka. So there goes you theory. Secondly whatever the other faults of the Sinhalese, they never permiitted themselves to be enslaved by any leader or party; they always fought back and supported fightbacks against any totalitarianism which threatened to take away their individual rights especially the right to vote; they never called anyone Sun God or tolerated such nonsense; and they never rolled barebodied on hot tarred roads behind chariots carrying pictures of Sun Godly leaders. Which is more than I can say for some…

  • Dayan Jayatilleka

    George Bush was wrong, very wrong, but that doesn't make him a fascist. And what was most wrong about what he did was to invade Iraq, which had nothing to do with al Qaeda. Sri Lanka has not invaded any country.

    The writer opines about "A sentiment of intense ‘fear’ of the state and the military establishment". Perhaps true, but that has to be qualified. Fear on the part of whom? According to all opinion polls, the vast majority of Sri Lankans admire, respect, support and even love the military. So about whom and on whose behalf is the writer expressing these sentiments of 'fear"?

    Sri Lankan liberal-progressives simply must learn lessons from Barack Obama, who was rightly against a specific war – Iraq- but is pro-military and said in a TV interview a day or two ago that "it is possible to win in Afghanistan…it is possible to stamp out Al Qaeda".

  • muzammil

    There has always been national harmony existing in all parts of the country about
    three decades ago. Of course there's been some nasty incidents which can be
    described communal,barbaric and so on, but generally , communal harmony has
    been good until it was taken into the hands of destructive anti social and anti national elements.So called "nationalist" elements are not genuinely nationalists.Nationalists should embrace whole nation and not part of it. Racism has raised it's head through the bulk of nationalism.It's like the old communist
    using communism for political survival and everybody knows they are capitalists on reverse and you know where people sent them.But surely,those on top can not behave short sighted.Dry jokes by people like our PM won't amuse the audience.There are mixed feelings and uncertainty in the whole country about their future.Who's responsible?

  • neem

    The reality is is that you reap what you sow. The present state of politics in SL is a result of years of cause-effect disasters. NO one community can be entirely blamed, neither can be called the only victim. The entire society has contributed to extremes on both sides of the political spectrum. If the present govt is seen as chauvinistic, it is simply because of the pandering given to neo-liberal, pro-western/globalization facets of society whilst ignoring the less fortunate masses who turned to nationalism to voice their worth! I'm sure if such people could spend time in a swim pool on weekends and send their kids abroad whenever there was a problem at home, they would agree with the writer too! The view represented here by us (moderately well-off elites who can afford an internet subscription, period.) is not shared by those who don't have the money and time to sit and blog about their complaints. People need to investigate the root causes of political cultures before branding governments. We can't keep yelling at the monster we create….we have to cut down the root causes