Image courtesy Ceylon News

Eastern Province Chief Minister Nazeer Ahamed’s recent row with a Navy Officer has now become infamous. In response, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) evidently jumped the gun, ordering (and later withdrawing) a military-wide boycott of the Chief Minister. The incident and its aftermath raise two concerns. It points to the ability of the state security apparatus to operate with little democratic accountability. It also reveals the government’s deeper failure to ensure the post-war reorientation of the security sector.

The Chief Minister’s conduct has been framed an unjustifiable attack on the particular Navy officer involved, Captain I.R. Premaratne, and on the military as a whole. The MOD’s directive attempted to rectify this perceived injustice by preventing the Chief Minister’s entry into any military camp and military’s participation in events attended by him.

Military virtue and democratic legitimacy

The MOD’s impulsive action raised eyebrows, including within government. It essentially designated the Chief Minister persona non grata on request of the security forces. Yet the Chief Minister is neither a common delinquent nor an enemy of the state; he is an elected representative of the Eastern Province. It would be unrealistic to presume that he presented a security threat of any significance by virtue of being present at a military camp.  Viewed in this light, the MOD’s actions gave the impression of irresponsible one-upmanship, a pointedly political response to public anger.

Meanwhile, discussions surrounding the issue resurfaced a narrative of irreproachable military virtue, contrasted with the unscrupulous politician. Recent allegations of ‘forcible’ entry into a military camp by Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan unfolded in a similar vein: both Sampanthan and Ahamed were cast as miscreants seeking to undermine Sri Lanka’s national heroes. The military currently enjoys a high moral legitimacy in the eyes of the public, particularly in the Sinhala south, where the dominant mind-set struggles to imagine the military’s capability for illegitimate action and is quick to defend it against perceived slight.

As such, public understanding of military legitimacy has become extricated from ideas of democratic accountability and legitimacy. In this context, the MOD’s swift decision gained widespread approval as satisfactory redress for perceived injustice.  Yet this decision was taken with little democratic oversight: there was no evidence of the MOD’s consultation with or referral to Parliament, the Cabinet or the judiciary. The suspension of the directive suggests it caused sufficient unease within the political establishment to effect its reversal. Yet, the legitimacy initially attached to the directive reveals the challenge at hand: the military’s high moral legitimacy enables it to circumvent democratic oversight unchecked. The incident also indicates that democratic control of the military remains discretionary rather than institutionalised.

Security reform is imperative

In the popular imagination, the military unquestionably aids the interests of peace and reconciliation. Thus its oversized presence in non-military spheres of life is perceived as intrinsic rather than inimical to peace. The statement issued by the State Minister of Defence after the incident demonstrates this sentiment. It expresses dismay over Ahamed’s failure to recognize the Navy’s ‘admirable role in rebuilding the lives of the Sampoor area’, and chastises his ‘unacceptable’ behaviour.[1] Absent from this narrative is the fact that vast swaths of military-occupied land in Sampur legally belong to private citizens. As such, return and resettlement are citizens’ rights that the state is legally bound to fulfil; they are not gifts of goodwill from the military to which people must be beholden. The Sampur Maha Vidyalayam, where the altercation occurred, incidentally sits on land the Navy released only in March 2016, almost seven years since the war ended, and around ten years since the recapture of the East.

The military currently maintains an abnormally high level of peacetime deployment in the former warzones. Land release in Sampur has been accompanied by assurances that overall deployment in the area will remain unchanged. While recent progress in demilitarisation was welcomed, the fact that it stemmed from the 2015 government transition is concerning; it indicates that the military’s high concentration in the North and East and continued occupation of private land is maintained by political inclination rather than a rigorous assessment of security threats and interests. Such an assessment would be integral to developing a coherent and effective national security policy. The question of what security interests were served by the military’s occupation of schools, places of worship, homes and privately owned land must now be answered.

Continued militarisation of the former warzones can be partly attributed to the high political and material costs of reforming the security sector, including the costs of demilitarisation and reintegration. Yet maintaining current levels of deployment comes at the cost of the peacetime imperatives of normalising civilian lives and strengthening civilian institutions. Such imperatives necessitate extricating the military from livelihood activities, such as tourism and agriculture, and from local-level administration. Progress in demilitarisation will certainly address the public’s economic, cultural and political insecurities associated with high levels of militarization in the former warzones. These goals are not at odds with the interests of national security. De-militarisation and broader security reorientation in fact represent progression from ending the war towards securing peace. It upholds rather than betrays the security gains made in May 2009.

While regrettable, the Chief Minister’s indiscretion is not ultimately unforgivable. However, an indignant rush to defend Officer Premaratne from the abuse of a politician has come at the expense of much-needed introspection on how the state security forces interact with civilian and democratic functions in post-war Sri Lanka. As such we have continued to morally and politically excuse the state security establishment for the daily injustices and indignities it inflicts upon its citizens, by denying them their rights to return home, to access their rightfully-owned property, and to an effective and accountable state security force. Perhaps there is a greater injustice in these lapses than what the much-maligned Chief Minister is guilty of.