Colombo, Elections, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

The Battle of the ‘Commons’ and (De) militarizing the Sri Lankan Society – Part 1

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety,
deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Benjamin Franklin

“Common candidate” Gen. Fonseka and “common man” Mahinda Rajapaksha must both face, in the upcoming Presidential elections, the problems caused by Sri Lanka’s long and ongoing process of militarization and the increasing politicization of “national security.”  Mangala Samaraweera alleges that President Rajapaksha bears primarily responsible for militarizing Sri Lankan society.  In his endorsement of Fonseka as the common candidate of the Democratic Alliance, Samaraweera compares the General to Charles de Gaulle, who ended the political chaos and violence that preceded his presidency.  But Fonseka was a key player in the Rajapaksha regime and cannot be absolved of blame as if he were merely a soldier following orders.   Though Fonseka and the government now blame each other for wartime excesses, during the war they both denied and excused those excesses, and also prevented investigations into them.   Voters are now asked to trust Fonseka to lead the way out of militarization, but he has no experience in civilian administration and his reputation is damaged by controversies surrounding his conduct in the war.   To understand what is at stake at this election, we must wrestle with three important questions: What is militarization, and what are its specific manifestations in the Sri Lankan society? Which Presidential candidate is likely to enact best policies to reverse the process of militarization?  And, finally; who will get my vote?

Militarization is a multifaceted and multilayered process that produces and institutionalizes aggression, hostility and violence at all levels of society.  It does not begin or stop with the end of war.  In fact, in the aftermath of the war, complexity of militarization and its consequences become more visible, at the same time that ideas and technologies developed during the war are put to use in civil society.  Unchecked, military ideology expands beyond the borders of military organizations and personnel until it begins to seem natural and reasonable to impose military order on civilian society. Militarization is dangerous because it progressively replaces democracy as the ideology shaping political, legal, economic, social, moral and ethical relations between state and society.  It reduces our capacity to be human.

Peace and militarism are not always opposites.  Peace without justice is a cause of militarization.  The institutionalized militarism Sri Lankans have experienced under Tamil militants, the JVP, and the State is incidental to the extent that it is a culmination of the way we as individuals and collectives think and act under ‘normal’ circumstances.  Demilitarization does not end with the military withdrawal, rather entails fundamental changes in society’s governance at all levels.  The narrow focus on the ‘terrorists’ ‘military’ ‘politicians’ ‘and ‘ethno nationalists’ as the culprits of militarization overlooks and depoliticize society’s experiences of dispossession and disempowerment, and the aggression and violence evident in the education, religion, memory, media, clothing, sports, entertainment etc, which are the root causes of militarization.

The way out of militarization is to expand the space for democracy.   Democracy is based on the constitutional separation of powers, which provides checks and balances to ensure that different branches of the government function according to their specific objectives. Those entrusted with authority in these institutions are expected to abide by the relevant standards.  Militarized societies rapidly retreat from these civilian principles: nothing to limits the exercise of powers by the rulers and hold them accountable.   Since 1977 safeguards to ensure the separation of powers in Sri Lanka have rapidly eroded.  The executive president, as the member of a political party, has unrestricted power to advance his political interests by suspending any safeguards.

The Sri Lankan constitution is neither secular nor inclusive; it does not separate religion from the state, but is biased towards the religious interests of the majority community.  Although the 1978 Constitution rejected many of the authoritarian and exclusive features of the 1971 Constitution and accommodated many minority interests, the interpretations of the constitution may become increasingly subservient to the demands of neoliberal economic policies and ethnoreligious nationalism.  Both ethnoreligious bias and economic pressure feed upon each other and corrupt the judicial branch, expanding the space for further authoritarian practices by all institutions.

The constitution allows the executive to use power with impunity.  Every social institution (e.g. memory, media, education, religion, and security apparatus) is brought under the control of the executive, who directs them to shape our thoughts, feelings and attitudes and the executive disciplines their actions in accordance with his interests.  The political programs presented to the public under the rubric of “Darmishta Nivahal Samajaya,” “Democratic Socialist Republic,”  “Mahinda Chinthanaya” “national security,” and “war against terrorism” not only lack substance, but are morally bankrupt, incoherent and inconsistent in application. They provide the executive with the flexibility to negotiate in his own interest with friends and foes alike, including and excluding them at will while he mobilizes the popular legitimacy of the regime and justifies authoritarian rule.

Militarized authoritarianism is sustained by blatant and unapologetic use of nepotism, favoritism, and politicization of the judiciary, civil and foreign services.   The sophistication and complexity of the redistribution of powers and responsibilities since 1977 makes improving democratic governance an extremely difficult task.  All stake holders (politicians, media, religious leaders, intellectuals, diplomats, businesses) join in the work of coercing and sustaining the public consensus that ensures the stability of the regime.  Because responsibility is diffuse, no one person or group can be held directly responsible for human rights violations and the blame is passed from one person to another.  In moments of crisis the President becomes the peace maker, appealing to our common values and aspirations.   For example, during the current regime Sri Lanka has suffered its worst period of suppression of freedom of expression. Journalists are abducted, intimidated, and murdered when they describe the regime’s corruption and mismanagement.  At the same time, the President has held a record number of banquets and conferences for journalists, and has appointed commissions to investigate these crimes.  Corruption and violence are simultaneously condemned and rewarded while the regime maintains stability by continuously reproducing the division of powers and responsibilities of governance according political expediency.

The regime uses the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to maintain the illusion of its commitment to democratic institutions, while it subordinates the entire justice system in the name of national security.   The PTA act has been invoked to penalize all types of political dissent, and its application has not been consistent even according to its own stipulations.  Under PTA the distinction between guilt and innocence has blurred, and punishments are not commensurate with crimes.  Those responsible for of hundreds of civilian murders are rewarded with ministerial portfolios, while a dissenting journalist was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The PTA reduces the courts’ ability to decide guilt and innocence, and enhances the arbitrary use powers of the police, military and defense establishment.  Intimidation of, and attacks on lawyers, in which they are publicly denounced as traitors in the media, has greatly reduced their ability to defend their clients.

The national security state promotes civilian insecurity and terror in a calculated fashion, and it invents “paradigms of freedom, independence and autonomy,” which lead to more militarization.  Mass media images and stories in combination with public opinion polling and surveys contribute to the militarization of the civilian population, inculcating terror through manipulating the fragile boundaries between real and the imagined threats.   In the process, the psychological (re)organization of civil society produces and legitimizes violence and becomes an administrative imperative of the state.   The objective of “national security” becomes confused with the desire to safeguard the neoliberal economic interests and “primordial subjectivity” of the constitution.    The national security paradigm that encourages fear of foreign/NGO/Western conspiracies against Sri Lanka has only made the country more vulnerable to manipulation by outsiders (particularly to the emerging nuclear and economic powers such as India and China) and has provided cover for concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a minority.

During the war, widespread culture of fear and militarized mindset of the population legitimated the shifting of authority from the civilian institutions to the executive. During peace times, the civilians have become cynical and distrustful, which further undermines the stability of the regime.  The executive himself has grown to fear his own military, and is busy using any means to consolidate his power.  End of the war does not automatically lead to demilitarization because the former is sustained by myriad of civilian institutions and its consequences are born by women, children, displaced population and the environment.

All religious institutions in Sri Lanka have either been complicit with or endorsed militarization. Some have even militantly suppressed non-violent approaches to conflict resolution.    In the process, religion itself has been militarized further normalizing militarism in public consciousness, while the existing criticisms of this process are disproportionately applied to minority religions (the soft targets), resulting in organized violence against them.  Depoliticization and demilitarization of all religions is an essential prerequisite for demilitarizing state and social relations.  Media outfits also fail in their responsibility: they experience direct suppression of freedom of expression by the state, but also voluntarily self-censor when they closely associate with the forces of militarization.

To be continued…