Colombo, Human Rights

Lt. General Sarath Fonseka: military dictator, saviour or both?

Lt. General Sarath Fonseka was interviewed in the Daily News and Sunday Observer recently. This wasn’t just an interview with an Army Commander; this was a man with political aspirations, who just happens to control an armed force of 162,000 soldiers with another 3000 joining every month.

The purpose of a military is to protect the nation and the democracy-in essence, to protect you and me. IF the system works correctly, we the people are the real rulers. We elect members from amongst us to represent our interests, and the military protects our right to do so. The military serves us. But the General thinks differently; he thinks we serve the military.

Here are a few sound bites from the interview that will help you get better acquainted with the General:

The common masses: “… they have to go through hardships. They have to spend a lot of money. They have to sacrifice.”

Ok, ok, I get it! We need to tighten our belts so that the military can recruit, train, and arm themselves to protect us. But why did they purchase a 44 million rupee Mercedes S-class for the General? It isn’t even armoured, and therefore not suitable for use by a high-risk target, which the General certainly is. The Sunday Leader’s sources said the car was for the General’s wife, though the army had denied this. Either way, how much belt-tightening is a Mercedes worth?

The nation: “the Sinhala nation has to sacrifice if you want to protect the country and survive.”

The Sinhala nation? I thought I lived in the multi-ethnic nation of Sri Lanka. Have we already been divided into a Sinhala nation, a Tamil nation, and a Muslim nation? This seems to be the world the General knows, shaped by his personal experiences as a child. He speaks of being a victim: “I can still remember how the villagers used to run to a rocky cliff when Tamils attack our village. We spend two to three days there until the situation comes back to normal.”

And there’s more-his opinion on the ethnic problem: “I don’t think the people in the North and East are subjected to any injustice…This country will be ruled by the Sinhalese community which is the majority representing 74 percent of the population.”

Well, good thing I was born Sinhala! We Sinhala can all give ourselves a collective pat on the back for putting this guy in charge of our security-he’s really looking out for us. Or is he? Read on…

On the 11th of May this year, the deputy editor of the Nation newspaper, Keith Noyahr, wrote an article titled: “An army is not its commander’s private fiefdom.” It criticized the General for depriving senior, capable, and deserving officers of reaching command positions, and instead promoting junior officers with little battlefield experience. The article pointed out a whimsical (should we say dictatorial?) style of leadership where a Major General who spearheaded the victory in the East was thanklessly removed and kicked out of his official quarters, while the commander responsible for the Muhamalai debacle was rewarded with a promotion. When it came to nominating officers for service awards, the General was a scrooge, recommending a grand total of one person for the Vishista Seva Vibushanaya… himself. He determined that only he was fit to receive it, even though he was overlooked for a lesser decoration, the Uttama Seva Padakkama, by no less than five previous army commanders (they must have had their reasons, says Noyahr’s sources). The article clearly seemed to have the tacit cooperation of officers within the service: officers who felt that the army was transforming from an institution run by military professionals with an established procedural code, to one that operated on a cult of personality-the personality of Lt. General Fonseka.

Less than two weeks after the article was published, Keith Noyahr was abducted and tortured. The Chief Opposition Whip, Joseph Michael Perera, said in parliament:

“We are told by those in the army itself that journalists are abducted and subjected to grievous injury by none other than a special unit under the army commander.”

The General’s opinion of Mr Noyahr:

“If he has done some damage to our organisation or to a person, especially when he has done something which he is not supposed to do, then it is natural he must be living in fear. If they think that they have done something of that nature the best thing for them is to correct themselves and rectify the mistake…These so called media guys are not responsible to the people and they are not entitled to such media freedom.”

So here’s what we have so far: a man who is racist, egotistical, dictatorial, and extravagant. Add to this a contempt for public freedom, an inability to appreciate other points of view, and a tendency to hold personal grudges against any who defy him.

We have our leading man. Now we need a play. So here’s where we peep in to our crystal ball and look at a possible scenario in the not too distant future:

The conventional war against the LTTE is won; the Vanni is taken. The General is celebrated as a national hero and President Mahinda Rajapaksha basks in the glory of victory. And then…the people start asking questions: why is the cost of living still so high; why are politicians so corrupt, with even provincial councillors travelling in motorcades of luxury limousines; why is Mervyn Silva still on the loose; why are obvious black holes of public money like Mihin Lanka Airlines still existing; why are political hangers-on and suck-ups selling their influence to the highest bidder; why is the country so morally decrepit, and rife with casino kings, drug peddlers, and liquor bars? And here’s one more: why are bombs still exploding in the South? Didn’t we just win this war?

Who can solve these problems? Our hero in uniform of course: Lt. General Sarath Fonseka. He’ll promise to wipe out corruption and stop the bombs in the South-all he needs is complete control of the nation. He will return Sri Lanka to the morally pure dharma-dveepa that we keep hearing about. There’s already hinted support from the JHU. Athuraliye Rathana Thera in a recent interview (again with the Nation newspaper, bless them!) voiced his support for militarisation: “we think that military service should be compulsory…Two years of military service will inculcate the values of simplicity, labour, strength and discipline in our young men.” When military dictatorship comes, looks like some of the Buddhist clergy may be their cheerleaders.

Some of you will think this is a far-fetched idea. It will never happen, not in this country, you say. Think again. Why is it that the only viable candidate the UNP could come up with for the North Central Province election is former General Janaka Perera, who by the way was General Sarath Fonseka’s superior. The military is the only institution in Sri Lanka today that really commands respect among the people (or to use the General’s vernacular, among the Sinhala nation). They are also blessed with the most funding: estimates of 200 billion rupees for this year. Compare this to a mere 20 billion rupees for education and 25 billion rupees for higher education. If we spend so little on educating our people and giving them the means to climb the economic ladder, we are compelling them to be soldiers; it is a conscription of sorts. An article by the Associated Press titled “War is only job available in Sri Lankan village,” interviewed a mother who said, “but there’s no option. What can we do?” By militarising our society to this extent, are we not strengthening a hand that could threaten us with a fist? Once these boys are done fighting the LTTE, whom will they fight next to earn their keep? If a hot-headed General orders them to turn their guns on us, they might just obey-they need the job.

Some of you will think, well why not have a military dictatorship? An oft-heard comment is that democracy has failed in Sri Lanka. It has brought us nothing but grief to the masses, and riches to the influential few. The people are so jaded by the incompetence and dishonesty of our politicians, and the clear failure of our political system, that they will celebrate a military coup. We will lose our freedoms, our right to vote, to protest, and to disagree. But surely these are just small sacrifices for the good of the nation. In any case, our vote is meaningless. We vote for an MP from a particular party, but they just jump to the other side after they get our vote. There are rumours of large payoffs for an MP to cross over; they sell the power that we gave them.  So why vote? Why have elections? Why have democracy at all?

Let’s answer that with another question: how bad can a military dictatorship be? Are there examples we can learn from? Yes. We can point to the brutal dictatorships of General Franco of Spain, or General Pinochet of Chile; both countries have returned to democracy (that might be a clue). The vicious military dictatorship in Burma has been in the news this year (and in the movies-see Rambo). When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, the military rulers did little to help the 1 million homeless, and hindered others from assisting, watching callously as thousands died long after the storm had passed. But the military dictatorship we can learn most from is the one that is closest to us geographically. I refer to the military dictatorship in the Vanni, led by (General) Prabhakaran.

Prabhakaran promised the Tamil people that he would free them from persecution by the Sinhala-dominated government. All he needed was unquestioning control and complete submission to his dictatorial rule. Thirty years on, after murdering a long list of Tamil moderates simply because they dared to disagree with him (even though they still believed in the Tamil struggle), and with more than 20,000 LTTE cadres dead (a great deal of them young conscripts), the Tamil people’s submission to Prabhakaran’s dictatorship has brought them no closer to their liberation. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) has this to say about the LTTE:

“The civilian dead, including the thousands the LTTE killed in mass executions for real or imagined political reasons in its dreaded mass prisons in the early 1990s, and in regular individual killings, would be even higher.”

They describe life in the Vanni under the LTTE:

“Life in the Vanni is something between outright fascist repression and a horrid joke gone too far… It appears to people that the LTTE endangers them as a matter of policy… There are hardly any services but mainly extortion…The LTTE’s control hinges on poruppalars (persons-in-charge or divisional heads)…They are the virtual maharajahs or fiefs. Many of them live in luxury houses amidst so much drabness and poverty.”

This then is the danger of allowing a dictatorship: he who pretends to be your saviour can soon become your oppressor. Although it is tempting to write off our democracy as flawed (and it has been especially oppressive to the Tamil community), there is always a possibility of change. Governments have changed several times since independence: the socialist regime of the 70s that brought queues and rationing was flung out by the vote; the murderous and profligate regime of the 80s was flung out by the vote. We’re all still waiting for a government that can bring real peace and real prosperity. If the political choices available to you seem poor, then come forward yourself and form your own party, run for office. That is your right. Do not give it up. Once you have sacrificed your freedom and your right to vote, you have opened up a Pandora’s box of evil that you will pay dearly to close.

So look out, be vigilant: the General is coming.