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Gotabaya Rajapaksa and National Security: The Kotelawala Defence University lecture

Photo courtesy Business Today

As a citizen of Sri Lanka, naturally I was keen to know what the country’s secretary of defense thinks about the current security situation and the military history of Sri Lanka. Therefore, I went through his “lecture”  under the National Interest Module of the inaugural MPhil/PhD Programme of the Kotelawala Defense University. Usually, any “lecture” is followed by a question and answer session unlike “speeches”. I am sure the secretary of defense allowed this tradition to happen in the free country. However, I couldn’t see such details of a Q&A session in the above link on defence.lk. Therefore, I thought of posing some of my thoughts as a citizen, not as an academic or any kind of defense expert, for the contemplation of the distinguished academics involved in the above MPhil/PhD programme and the secretary defense himself.

Heavy handed state reaction to public descent and National security: First, the secretary of defense gives an indication of how the need for a military was first felt in 1960s – “The military was largely ceremonial. It only had to assist the Government on occasions when there were issues such as public sector work stoppages or riots”. I got confused here. Did he mean military was needed in occasions of public sector work stoppages, or did he mean the need of a well trained and disciplined police was felt to manage public sector work stoppages or riots? If he meant the former, he inadvertently missed one reason as to why Sri Lanka witnessed three successive armed uprisings after independence. The heavy handed reactions from the state to public unrests using military force than through a police to enforce rule of law, has been widely felt as a reason behind militancy and radicalization of descent.  I pose this as a topic for further investigation by the distinguished academics in the new MPhil/PhD Programme. The distinguished academics may also refer to Capt. L. De Bussche (late acting deputy adjutant General of Ceylon) “Letters on Ceylon-particularly relative to the Kingdom of Kandy”, J.J. Stockdale, No. 41, 1817, for the social consequences and vulnerability resulting from heavy handed suppression of public descent. I quote from pages 12-14 where he highlights how the political situation ripened to launch an invasion on Kandy: “The necessity of these preparations became more pressing, from the increasing disaffection of his own subjects, alienated by his oppression, and looking towards us as their only source of relief….amongst many and flagrant instances of cruelty and injustice which this monster was daily guilty of, I will only mention three of the most prominent. ………the wife of Eheylepola, and his four children were butchered in the presence of the King, with every refinement of cool-blooded cruelty. The infants were decapacitated in the presence of their agonized mother, who was then forced to pound their bleeding heads in a mortar. After this, her own throat was cut, and the body, with the remains of her children, cast into lower tank of Kandy…”. He then mentions how the civil society was horrified by these brutal acts and sought refuge in the British rule. Therefore, I hope the distinguished academics at the Kotalawala Defense University will deeply investigate the role of these recurrent incidents of state brutality on its own citizens in the long term deterioration of National security.

International cooperation and National security: The secretary of defense also mentioned that broad military links with international counterparts in the early stages of independence in Sri Lanka made the country safe to an extent that the need for an expanded military was not needed – “In the first several years after the achievement of Independence, National Security did not need to be a primary concern of the Government of Ceylon. As an independent Dominion of Great Britain, and as a non-aligned nation with excellent relationships within and outside the region, there were few pressing threats that the Government had to deal with”. Later, he mentions how Britain, India, and Pakistan gave military aid to counter the JVP insurgency in 1970s. This tradition of military cooperation is still present in blocks like the NATO, that gives some enhanced sense of security to those cooperating countries that their own military capability cannot accomplish.  The gradual loss of the non-aligned spirit, and isolation of the country from the rest of the World, and its role in the vulnerability the secretary defense later highlights, deserves to be addressed properly before understanding how the LTTE could grow internationally. He somehow skipped to mention that it is the same international community that helped Sri Lanka by banning LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization. Therefore, the holistic nature of National security that transcends domestic military capability alone maybe another topic for investigation in the new  MPhil/PhD Programme.

Private militia, peace, and National security: At some point he mentions – “Today, Sri Lanka is a country enjoying the full benefits of peace”. I encourage the distinguished academics in the new MPhil/PhD Programme to study the role and co-existence of private militia and the state in this context, with particular reference to how non-state thugs were freely mingling with the police and the special task force during public protests to release Sarath Fonseka and to oppose the unconstitutional impeachment of the chief justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake. Since Colombo has a network of security cameras, that has been so useful in many occasions of  public security, you may gather hard evidence to study this research area to assess the quality of the “benefits of peace” the secretary of defense is referring to.

Social media and National security: Then, he goes only pour out his paranoia against social media – “The final threat to Sri Lanka’s National Security that I will highlight during this lecture is the emergence of technology driven new media including social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and other websites on the Internet. We have seen the potential of this new media to destabilise nations and affect serious change in the case of countries like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt etc. Although the likelihood of events such as the Arab spring transpiring in Sri Lanka is minimal as a result of it being a democratic nation with an extremely popular political leadership that enjoys a very large electoral majority, this is yet another threat that needs to be monitored. Particularly due to increasing Internet penetration and computer literacy in Sri Lanka, many of our youth are familiar with social media and use it as a tool to gather information as well as propagate ideas. Those with vested interests can exploit social media to cause problems in Sri Lanka by propagating certain ideologies online and mobilising and organising people. This can be done with a minimal physical presence, and therefore forms a threat that is difficult to contain through the traditional tools of national defence”.  The secretary of defense once mentions that Sri Lanka is a “democratic nation with an extremely popular political leadership”, and then expresses fear of free public exchange of ideas! Why should an extremely popular leader in a truly democratic Nation be scared of free propagation of ideas? Did the cat jump out of the bag here? I urge the distinguished academics on the new MPhil/PhD Programme to study the role of pseudo-democracy in the deterioration of public security with a bold academic approach. In this regard, I refer the distinguished academics to a statement shown on the Roosevelt Memorial –  “they (who) seek to establish systems of Government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers…call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order.”

Finally, I wish the distinguished academics at the Kotalawala Defense University, success in their academic endeavors. Dare to go beyond narrow tunnel visions and limits shown by politicians with vested interests, often plagued with nepotism. Dare to unearth the real irritants that have lead to three bloody armed uprisings within the last 60 years. Publish your findings in journals without boarders. Contribute to all countries and communities that are continually agonized by radicalism, and armed unrests. Go beyond. You will be recognized as a respectable academic institute by the whole World. But, never die a death in a cell of a politician.