Image courtesy Sunday Leader

Late last week we witnessed the scenario where the Army spokesman, a brigadier in rank, made the unusual claim that current UNP spokesman and former Rajapakse Administration Foreign Minister, MP Mangala Samaraweera had compromised national security by alleging at a press conference, that state intelligence agencies or at least some intelligence chiefs, were supporting the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and that the Aluthgama and Beruwela anti Muslim violence was in fact an organized operation with state intelligence backing.  An update to that allegation or rather to the traction that it gathered, was that the Defense Secretary, in a media interview published on July 1st,  felt compelled to deny any personal involvement in alleged defense establishment assistance and help to the BBS or other extremist groups. He offered to resign if the allegations were proved.

Army Spokesman crosses a line

Firstly the Army spokesman crossed an important line in a democratic system by directly taking on an opposition political leader.  As a former presidential spokesman, I would contend, that the role of the Army spokesman is to inform the public what the Army may be doing, not comment on what others, especially civilian politicians are doing. The Army getting involved in politics is a really bad idea.

Civilian oversight of the military is an important aspect of a democratic system of governance and if the defense establishment was aggrieved about any comments at an opposition press conference, the recourse was certainly not to directly take on the civilian democratic leader by a military officer in uniform. If the issue was political, then the rebuttal was up to the government. If the bone of contention was a security issue, based on the substance of the UNP spokesman’s claim, then the matter should have been referred to the Attorney General, for a determination as to a violation of any relevant law. Which according to press reports have now occurred, together with a complaint to the police. However, given that the issue has now been tried in the court of public opinion, with Mangala Samaraweera seemingly coming out on top, it is doubtful if a court of law can adjudicate fairly on the matter. The Army grievance does not seem so much to be with the allegation, as with the revelation of the identities of the intelligence chiefs. However in any democratic society, the identities of the senior most intelligence agency chiefs are public knowledge. The heads of the American CIA, the Indian RAW and the Pakistani ISI are not a state secret. In fact the Americans have a very public US senate confirmation hearing for the appointment of CIA chief.

Alleged Intelligence Chiefs assistance to the BBS

The Defense Secretary has in a media interview published on 1st July, denied that he is involved with the BBS. What is public knowledge in that regard is of course that he was the chief guest at the opening of the BBS Galle office and that Minister Rauff Hakeem tried desperately through the President to get the Defense Secretary not to go. He went. However, in the Defense Secretaries defense being a chief guest does not a conspiracy make.

Intelligence agencies as part of their core activities are often engaged in covert operations in support of their nation’s national security. For countries which assess their national security threats as being external, their intelligence agencies are active overseas, collecting information and thereby  providing analysis for policy makers back home, but also engaging in covert operations. Sadly in the case of Sri Lanka, for much of our post independence history, we have to our shame, defined our enemies and consequently experienced our national security threats as being internal and coming from within ourselves. In the 1970’s it was the first JVP insurrection, in the 1980’s it was the Tamil militant movement, in the late 1980’s it was back again the second JVP insurrection and thereafter we had a full blown civil war with the LTTE. Now five years after ending the war with the LTTE, we have opened up a new conflict, this time against the Muslims.

Given this situation and that Sri Lanka is South Asia’s most militarized society, going by the ratio of security services to the population, when one includes in that number, in addition to the three services, the police, the STF,  the auxiliaries and the civil defense force, it is hard to believe that state intelligence was either unaware or uninvolved in the new flash point and fault line in society, at least even in a benign way. Given the hate speech and vitriol spewed publicly by the hate groups, deemed incitory by all except for the police spokesman and the attorney general, going by the fact that no action is being taken against the BBS, despite a formal complaint by the Bar Association to the Attorney General. It is difficult to imagine that state intelligence was hands off the issue. Either way it was a colossal failure of security.

The rather obvious question that arises in the minds of independent observers from Sri Lankan citizens locally, to the international community and indeed our mayhem in Aluthgama and Beruwela was carefully noted by the UNHRC in Geneva, is whether the failure of security was due to a lack of ability or a lack of will. Given that Sri Lanka is highly militarized, few doubt the ability of state security to enforce law and order. The suspicion, which opposition spokesman MP Mangala Samaraweera voiced out loud was, that it was a matter of the administration’s will. Allowing minority bashing burnishes its Sinhala Buddhist nationalist credentials and increases support ahead of national elections. It works. Buddhist nationalist elements which dissented from the Rajapakse Administration over the casinos was back to defend the government on the anti Muslim violence. In Colombo’s diplomatic cocktail circuit for the past many months, after the phenomenal rise of the BBS and the enabling environment in which they operate, the vehicles they travel in, the buildings and offices they use and the deference of the police towards them,  has been that the BBS has covert state patronage.

MP, Mangala Samaraweera was only stating publicly what many are stating privately and the opposition spokesman must be given the democratic space and opportunity to make his claim. Mangala may be faulted for many things, but a lack of courage is not one of them. Democracy and our future as a free society, demands that we defend his right to say it.