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.