by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Last year when speculation was rife about former Army commander Sarath Fonseka announcing his candidacy for the Presidential elections this columnist was among those who warned of adverse consequences befalling the Country as a result of this unprecedented move.
Chief among these was the very strong possibility of an escalation in the continuous process of the military being politicised and society being militarised in the Country.
[Posters for Sarath Fonseka in Jaffna-pic. indi.ca]
I perceived the Fonseka phenomenon as the logical outcome this long process.
Writing in “The Sunday Leader” of November 15th 2009 I described this bizarre turn of events this way:
“On another level the current situation is also the culmination of a long process of militarisation of Sri Lankan society and a gradual politicisation of the military.
There has been a creeping militarisation that has eroded civic, democratic values. The military was afforded an unhealthy paramountcy over the years. It’s crunch time now!
This then is the situation. The nation has come to a sorry state where the former Army Chief is poised to wage an electoral battle against his former Commander-in-Chief. Whatever the outcome of this titanic clash there is no doubt that the country on the whole will suffer irredeemable harm”.
Writing in the “Daily Mirror” of November 21st 2009 I appealed to both parties not to go ahead with this “power struggle” as it would cause serious problems for the country in the long run and urged some compromise. This is what I wrote then:
“Ideally this is a contest that should not have happened. A scenario where an ex-army commander contests the presidency against the incumbent president could trigger off a set of unexpected developments and unintended consequences.
Chief among these is the distinct probability of politics pervading the armed forces and causing irredeemable harm for the Country”.
Events have moved since then and the Presidential stakes 2010 are on. In actuality it has whittled down to a two-horse race between the chief contenders namely the President and the General.
As the contest gathers momentum one of the consequences I was concerned about is very visible.
Despite denials the politicization of the military is on along with a militarization of politics albeit to a lesser extent.
Communist party stalwart and cabinet minister DEW Gunasekera referred to this process explicitly while addressing a seminar in Jaffna on Jan 2nd 2010.
Comrade DEW observed thus:
“With the entry of General Fonseka to politics, a new element has been introduced to our spectrum of politics which will lead not only to militarization of politics but also politicization of the military”.
While agreeing with him on the question of militarization of politics and vice versa I disagree with him about it being entirely due to Sarath Fonseka’s political entry.
As far as I am concerned the process of our military being politicized has been going on for decades. The militarizing of politics too has been on to a lesser extent.
The Fonseka phenomenon is the outcome of these processes.The entry of Sarath Fonseka into politics is their logical culmination.
Nevertheless Fonseka’s entry has accelerated and expanded these processes in a way never seen before. Regardless of who wins or loses in the election the impact of this politicization of military and militarization of politics does not augur well for the country.
It should be recognized that the twin processes of Politicisation of the military and militarisation of society and politics has to a certain extent become inevitable. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, “politics” cannot be avoided in certain spheres. But one would like some spheres to be kept “uncontaminated” by politics in the larger interests of the country. The armed services are institutions that should be “de-politicised” for the well-being of the nation.
In Sri Lanka there has been a tendency to politicise almost every sphere of activity. Even the armed forces particularly the Army has fallen victim to this course of events. While the roles played by political leaders and defence service officers and officials have contributed to this the personality factor is not the sole culprit.
There have been structural changes and systematic developments over the past years that render the concept of the armed forces being immune from politics an impossible task.
The defence budget has been increasing over the years. From a miniscule 1-2% in the years after Independence from the British Defence allocations and expenditure has increased to around one-thirds of the total budget. These comprise direct allocations as well as supplementary estimates. Essential services like Education,Health and Agriculture get less than defence in budget allocations.
On another level recruitment has increased rapidly. Together the three armed services number close upon three hundred thousand. Plans in the pipeline aim at increasing the army alone to 300,000 in the future. The army is the single biggest source of employment to males in rurl regions.
Against that backdrop the army becomes a politically attractive proposition. Any service or institution receiving massive fund allocation or providing employment to large numbers in a developing society such as Sri Lanka is very likely to be permeated by the prevalent political culture. It would be difficult to cocoon the armed forces from politics.When fruits ripen the fruitbats swarm.
There is also the question of the role of the armed forces expanding over the years.The army, navy and Air Force are no longer “token” institutions performing exhibition duties. The days of soldiers marching in Colombo with unloaded rifles are long gone. Thiugh they are yet to fight a battle with an external enemy the armed forces have become battle-hardened by fighting a very long war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Even before the war escalated the politizisation of the military has been going on. Due to political causes the Sri Lankan soldier has over the years been “converted” into an ethnic “Sinhala Buddhist soldier.This image has become widespread in the contemporary era. Propaganda efforts by the Government have given a larger than life aura to the army.Projects such as “Api Wenuwen Api” have portrayed the army as an exalted entity in the Country.
The recent years have seen fierce fighting of positional warfare between the Army and LTTE. The nation was galvanised into dizzying heights of patriotic support for the army. Almost everyone referring to the soldiers called them “Valiant soldiers”. The adjective and noun were inseparable in contrived public opinion.
Sections of civil society have undertaken much activity aimed at catering to the welfare and needs of soldiers and families. The kith and kin of soldiers have acquired a new prominence. In rural areas,family members of soldiers are treated with some amount of respect.
This naturally elevates the Army to a superior status in society. Each and every politician tries to cater to the whims and fancies of the militaristic hierarchy.
Opposition politicians who question the “misconduct” of the army are reviled as traitors. The soldiers regadless of individual shortcomings are held up as role models for society.
The influence of the Army has been impacting heavily on Society and even re-shaping norms and values. The army has not only pervaded society but has become a very dominant force in society.
Sri Lanka has also seen a decline of civil liberties as the anti-tiger war escalated.The pursuit of war was given paramount importance. Several draconian measures were undertaken against tigers, tiger suspects and those perceived as being sympathetic to the tigers. Individual freedom and rights were sacrificed on the altar of national security.
Since most of the victims were Tamils there was very little protest from the majoritarian public. There were some voices who cried out against this erosion of liberty but were drowned out by a raucous cacophony of pseudo-patriotic nationalism. Thus a national security state was in formation.
The army naturally acquires a higher status in a national security state. This is what happened in Sri Lanka that has all the trappings of a national security state behind the thin veneer of democracy. Such a trend could only result in a direct military dictatorship or a dominant role for the military in politics.
In such an atmosphere the Army cannot be kept in quarantine from the hustle and bustle of nitty-gritty politics. More importantly politics and politics cannot be kept away from the armed forces.The politicisation of the military therefore becomes inevitable.
This however is not a healthy prospect for the nation. While noting the socio-political forces at play here and understanding the underlying factors behind these processes it must be realised that these developments are not desirable. Recognizing that such processes are in progress does not necessarily mean acceptance.
Today we see the politicisation of military process and militarisation of political process proceeding steadily in the country. Both processes have reached a controversial confluence in the form of Sarath Fonseka.
The progressive politicisation of the military has resulted in an Army chief throwing his “beret” in the ring of a presidential contest. The progressive militarisation of society and politics has enabled the polity to be broadly receptive to the notion of a general invading electoral politics and challenging his former commander in chief politically.
Sarath Fonseka therefore is the historic meeting point of these processes. He is the product and personification of these processes. At the same time his entry into politics is transforming the political environment in new directions.
The politicisation of the military has gathered terrific momentum. The political fall-out of such phenomena will be with us for a long time.It does not matter whether Fonseka wins or loses but the consequences of this contest will be felt in the days to come.
To his credit Sarath Fonseka had refused to discuss electoral or party politics publicly as long as he was in uniform. But he did make comments of a political nature against those who wanted the war to end or the political demands of ethnic minorities.After retirement and the plunge into politics the ex- army chief has been very outspoken on local political issues.
He has been critical of the government,defence secretary and high-ranking officers from the defence services. Fonseka has also been frequently playing his favourite tune of claiming sole credit for the war victory.
In a bid to counter this the Govt has departed from military protocol and tradition and “arranged” for serving army officers to speak out against Sarath Fonseka both directly and indirectly.
The govt has also ensured that maximum propaganda mileage is derived from these militaristic pronouncements. Enhanced media coverage is provided.
Thus we have seen statements attributed to the serving army commander Lt.Gen Jagath Jayasuriya in the media. Some of these refute Gen Sarath Fonseka openly. Even meetings addressed within army premises by the army chief find their way into the media courtesy of the Defence ministry websites.There is implicit criticism of his predecessor by his successor. This has never happened before.
Army spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara has often exceeded his designated mandate by commenting specifically on matters related to Sarath Fonseka.
Apart from this many other high-ranking army officers have been giving media interviews . Chief among them is Maj-Gen Shavendra Silva.
Since Gen.Sarath Fonseka referred critically to Shavendra Silva in an interview given to “The Sunday Leader” the major-general has some reason for defending and clearing himself. Neverthless the practice is not something desirable in the long run.
Other army officers like Maj-Gen Kamal Gunaratne, Maj-Gen Chaggi Galage, Maj-Gen Prasanna Silva and Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe have all given interviews to the state media.
Most of these interviews ostensibly relate to military matters and the war against the tigers but there is no mistaking the patent political sub-text.
They are all part of a political agenda aimed at undermining Sarath Fonseka and promoting Mahinda Rajapakse. This type of brazen politicking by military officers was something unheard of in the not so distant past.
The conduct of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse has been quite controversial in this respect. Despite the fact that he is a top government servant the defence secy has been engaging in political discourse while addressing public meetings.
[Gotabhaya Rajapakse-pic: bbc-Feb 2009]
No ministerial secretary has made direct political speeches before like Gotabhaya in this country. The fact that he is in charge of the all-powerful Defence ministry that oversees the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police sends down very wrong signals that defence personnel playing politics is appropriate procedure.
He has also been giving interviews with political overtones to some of his lapdogs in the media. Gotabhaya does not encourage official press conferences where all journalists can question him openly. He only dishes out interviews to his lackeys like hand-outs.
The Defence ministry website also goes to town regularly with news items against Fonseka and in favour of Mahinda Rajapakse.The Defence ministry and Media centre for National security websites have acquired a notorious reputation for vilifying and attacking people who fall foul of the Rajapakse regime.
The websites have even attacked lawyers appearing for people charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Despite protests there has been no sign of this practice stopping as iit has the full backing of Gotabhaya Rajapakse. It is now the turn of Sarath Fonseka to be at the receiving end.
It is as if “open season” has been declared on the Swan and its supporters.
There is also a marked change in the tone and content of the website items nowadays. There is a concerted effort to bolster Gotabhaya’s image. It is as if there is a “build-up” of Gotabhaya for political purposes. Even the interviews given by army officers are full of praise for Gotabhaya as a military genius and architecht of the victory over the LTTE.
There is no denying Gotabhaya’s role in the war victory and Fonseka is wrong to claim sole monopoly for the credit but these moves to prop up Gotabhaya comprise a naked exhibition of how the defence services in general and the Army in particular are being politicised.
The government has also been paranoid about a possible coup d’etat by the General and his cohorts within the army.
An important factor contributing to the rupture between the Rajapakses and Fonseka was the suspicion and fear that Fonseka was building up his own “empire” within the army and could possibly stage a military coup.
This paranoia hastened the process of Sarath Fonseka being sidelined quickly by the Rajapakse regime.
Fonseka has repeatedly denied that he was plotting a coup but his denials lack conviction at times when the general boasts that he could very easily have captured power when in office by simply sending a few battalions down to Colombo.This fuels suspicion that the General had indeed been thinking on those lines and revives the bogey of an imminent military coup.
Against that backdrop many officers suspected of being partial towards the general have been transferred out strategically important positions and/or assigned to insignificant “powerless” posts.
Fonseka’s parent “Sinha” regiment once the pride of the army has been relegated into duties in non-strategic spheres.
It is as if the Sinha regiment is untrustworthy due to the Fonseka connection.Were the regiments one-time mascot “Kandula” alive today the elephant would be shedding “kandulu”.
According to some media reports the parent regiments of the defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse (Gajaba)and army commander Jagath Jayasuriya (Armoured corps)are deemed more reliable and loyal and are entrusted with key responsibilities nowadays.
Loyalty however is not necessarily the exclusive preserve of Medamulana alone. The “Ambalangoda Sinhaya” too has his own following in the army.
[General Sarath Fonseka visited the first school he attended in Ampara, on Jan 6, 2010-sarathfonseka.com]
According to an “intelligence” report roughly 75% to 80% of the rank and file is extremely loyal to the retired army commander. As far as the officers are concerned around 40% belong to the Fonseka fraternity. A large number of these are in the Captain to Colonel ranks.
The Fonseka phenomenon has had a tremendous impact on the army. Deep divisions are emerging. There is both a vertical and horizontal split.
Due to necessity the maverick General has been relying to a great extent on the Triple “A” factor. Most of his trusted deputies and lieutnenants are from Ambalangoda, Ananda College and the Army.
Several retired army officers are part of his campaign team. Many old soldiers are helping out as volunteers. These include several “deserters”. Even serving personnel are taking “leave” and joining the general’s election effort.
This has led to all leave being cancelled to the military. This is both to keep the army alert for “election developments” and prevent “vacationing” soldiers doing propaganda for Generalissimo.
In the North and East there is visible a new troubling political trend.Several Military officers serving in those regions are indirectly supporting Fonseka by telling civilian acquaintances to vote wisely by voting for a “Change”.
Ordinary soldiers are more direct and blunt. They are telling members of the public in Tamil to vote for “Fonseka mahathaya” or “General Aiyah” or “Sarath Sir”. There is a groundswell of support for Sarath Fonseka among Tamils and Muslims in the North and East. The flagrant support of ordinary soldiers for Fonseka is also a contributory factor.
A consequence of this tendency would impact on the voting pattern.The need to manipulate and rig voting becomes imperative for the Rajapakse regime. Any large-scale vote rigging or booth capturing in the North-East is possible only if the army co-operates or at best does not object.
Given the track-record of past polls there prevails the strong probability of polls being rigged by Tamil groups aligned to the govt. This has become absolutely essential as the voting among the Seven Southern provinces is likely to be a close fight if elections are held free and fair.Thus rigging North-Eastern votes could tilt the balance in favour of Rajapakse.
The outfits led by Kathiravelu Devananda alias Douglas in Jaffna, Dharmalingam Siddharthan alias Sithar in Vavuniya and Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias Karuna in Batticaloa-Amparai are in a position to manipulate voting in favour of Mahinda Rajapakse.
But this would not be possible to a great extent if the army maintained strict vigil and neutrality. Already soldiers are telling Tamil civilians to vote without fear for Sarath Fonseka and that they (the army) would ensure a free and fair poll.
Another matter causing concern to the Rajapakse regime is the role played by ordinary soldiers in the rural areas. Almost every Sinhala village has some of its people serving as soldiers in the army.
In a climate of patriotic fervour prevalent nowadays the soldiers despite their humble origins enjoy much respect and influence in rural society. As such their views play an important part in shaping village opinion.
The soldiers perceive Sarath Fonseka as one of their own. Generally most soldiers feel that it is they who make sacrifices on the battlefield and that civilian politicians reap the credit and profit. This tendency is prevalent not only in Sri Lanka but in other countries also.
However in Sri Lanka this issue has become pre-eminent. The split between Rajapakse brothers and the General was greatly due to Fonseka resenting the Rajapakse family benefitting politically from the war victory whereas the ex-army chief felt he deserved all credit.
This clash in a sense was a symptom of the love-hate relationship between soldiers and civilians.Many soldiers sympathise and empathise with the General on this account. They carry chips on their shoulders about politicians exploiting their sacrifices and reaping a beneficial harvest.
The Rajapakse-Fonseka power struggle personifies this soldier-civilian divide. Thus soldiers are increasingly supporting the General as a result.The Rajapakse regime is worried about this and resorting to extreme manoeuvres to counter it.
One such disturbing feature is the “whisper” campaign underway in terms of “caste” within sections of the army.The Rajapakses are Govigama while Fonseka is of Karawe-Salagama parentage. The Govigama caste is the single-largest Sinhala caste group in Sri Lanka. Apart from the “exception” of Ranasinghe Premadasa all Prime Ministers and Presidents of Sri Lanka since Independence are from the Govigama caste.
It is not fashionable to discuss caste publicly or on political platforms. Nevertheless it is a harsh reality. Recent Provincial council and local authority elections have witnessed the “caste” factor being played up overtly to secure “Manape” or preference votes for candidates from particular caste groups.
The Rajapakse regime has commenced working the “caste” campaign within Army rank and file in a bid to dent and damage the solidarity shown by soldiers to Fonseka. There are also rumours that some officers from the Karawe caste group are being treated shabbily. It remains to be seen as to how successful this “caste campaign” would be. But once again the politicisation process of the military continues this time on crude, caste lines.
Under these circumstances there is bound to be much friction before and during elections between the pro-Sarath and anti-Sarath elements in the army as well as society at large. This friction is likely to continue after polls too with ominous forebodings for the future. Again the Army is becoming a casualty of the political war.
There are reports that transfers have been done within army echelons and those high-ranking officers suspected of Fonseka sympathies are being moved out and replaced with Rajapakse loyalists.
There are instances of officers demanding soldiers engaged in postal voting to vote for the President and to show whom they voted for. Several officers with Rajapakse leanings are in “consultation” with para-military elements about the elections.
All this points to a massive vote-rigging exercise being plotted and planned with the connivance of “politicised” officers. This may have prompted Sarath Fonseka to warn publicly that officers indulging in “politics” would be court-martialled when he became President.
Likewise the military grapevine is also buzzing that two serving major-generals and four Brigadiers will be among officers earmarked for “disciplinary action” as “closet Fonsekaites” after a Rajapakse triumph.
If on the other hand Fonseka wins the election there is a distinct possibility of a crack-down on top defence service officers and ex-service chiefs. Ex-Navy chief Karannagoda, army chief Jayasuriya and all army officers who have been doing anti-Sarath politics openly could feel the general’s jackboot.
In Sri Lanka almost every institution has been politicised and eroded. The Police service being a disgraceful example. Now it seems to be the turn of the Army. Dirty politics is destroying the institution from within and without.
These unintended, negative consequences arising from the legitimate political exercise of an election are what I was concerned about when I wrote earlier that the Rajapakse-Fonseka duel could cause great harm to the Country.
[President Rajapakse at the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, Jan 10-pic:Sudath Silva-InfoLanka]
On another level it can also be said that the Rajapakse regime which sowed the wind is now reaping the whirlwind.
The processes of military-politicization and politics-militarization have been going on for quite a while in the country.
It was however the Rajapakse government that provided gigantic fillips to these in a bid to win the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the shortest possible time.
A fetish was made out of the military and widespread propaganda was unleashed to get the youth to volunteer to join the armed forces. These efforts were successful
The Rajapakse regime encouraged the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) to visit army camps and boost the morale of soldiers. They also played a part in promoting recruitment
Such politicization of the military enterprise would not have been tolerated under earlier governments but the Rajapakse regime paid scant heed to norms and established procedures
As a result the JVP enjoys much clout among ordinary soldiers while the JHU has influence among officers. Today the JVP is officially supporting Sarath Fonseka and the JHU Mahinda Rajapakse
But loyalties are fractured and there are sections among both parties supporting the candidate opposed by their party hierarchies. This is reflected within the armed forces too.
The Rajapakse regime converted military victories on ground into political capital. In the exercise to co-opt military “credit” for political “merit” the then army chief, Sarath Fonseka was projected to the public alongside President Rajapakse on an equal dimension.
Sarath Fonseka was given virtual “Carte blanche” to say anything he wished or do anything he liked. Very often Fonseka stepped out of line as a serving army chief and made political statements castigating political opponents of the Rajapakse regime.
He also vehemently criticised sections of the media.It is strongly suspected that Journalists like Keith Noyahr and Namal Perera were assaulted severely by a militarary unit working under Fonseka.
Gotabhaya Rajapakse warned media association representatives that the people who loved Fonseka and the Country could resent the media and take counter action against journalists perceived as being disloyal or traitors.
Fonseka also made derogatory remarks about the ethnic minorities of the Country to the foreign media and asserted like a Sinhala supremist that Sri Lanka belonged to the majority Sinhalese.
If a serving army chief of any democratic, multi-ethnic country had made such remarks that person would have been dishonourably discharged from active duty. Not so in Sri Lanka where Fonseka was hailed as a hero.
The point I want to emphasise is that the Rajapakse regime has had no qualms about politicising the military and tolerating the erstwhile army chief making controversial statements in the past. Discipline in the defence services was deliberately allowed to deteriorate among the upper echelons as long the politics was favourable to the government.
Cabinet minister and Communist comrade Dew Gunasekera who now laments about the military being politicised by Sarath Fonseka contesting the presidency was eloquently silent earlier when Fonseka supported by the Rajapakse brothers was running riot. Fonseka is a symptom of an on-going process.
Though the military has been systematically politicised over many decades it was the Rajapakse regime that virtually institutionalised this process as an integral part of governmental policy. The lines of demarcation were systematically blurred.
It is an open secret that army personnel were used to paste posters and put up giant cut-outs with the knowledge of superior officers . Thus the politicisation of the army was fostered at a very crude, street level by the Rajapakse regime.
Unfortunately for the Rajapakse’s their “creature” like that of the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein had a mind of its own and began refusing to play second fiddle.
The general had other ideas and thought of cashing in on his martial image for his own benefit instead of propping up the Medamulana oligarchy as was expected of him.
So the earlier posters showing Mahinda and Sarath together were replaced with those showing the Rajapakse brothers –Mahinda, Gota and Basil.
Things changed and it is now the turn of opposition politicians to entertain notions of manipulating Fonseka for their political gain. Once again the perceived “puppet” is likely to show the would be “puppeteers” who the master is if and when success is achieved.
It was also the Rajapakse regime that militarised civil administration to a very great extent by appointing retired defence service officers to key high posts of the country.
Though earlier governments have also done this it was Mahinda Rajapakse who transformed this tendency into established practice.
Several key positions were given to these ex-officers who discharged their responsibilities in a militaristic manner. This is very visible in the North and East where “civilian” posts were manned by ex-defence service officials.
This govt also nominated ex-army personnel to their lists of candidates contesting local authority and provincial polls.
Of course there have been instances of former army officers entering politics as in the case of Richard Udugama, Anuruddha Ratwatte, Sarath Munasighe and Janaka Perera. Both the SLFP and UNP have been responsible.
There is nothing wrong or illegal in a retired army officer entering politics but there is no doubt that the process of society and politics being militarised has accelerated as a result.
Even now speculation is rife that a number of top army officers would be contesting the Parliamentary elections on behalf of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance. Some of these potential “candidates” are bringing disrepute to the Army by their blatant partisanship towards the Rajapakse regime.
Sadly as a result of these developments the military gets mired in politics and politics gets mixed up with the military.
But as stated before this process did not begin with the entry of Sarath Fonseka into politics. It will not end with him either.
How then did this unhealthy trend of politics pervading the military sphere commence?
Once again the finger of guilt points to the man blamed by many for ushering in the age of irresponsible,populist politics-Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike.
It is widely believed that it was under SWRDB that the steep decline of values and standards in the country began.
[Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike and Sirima Bandaranaike]
SWRDB riding the crest of a populist wave had set up a government described as “Apey Aanduwe” or “Our Government”. The rot began setting in with majoritarianism replacing merit and mob rule assailing the rule of law.
It was during SWRDB’s rule that discipline in the army began declining and a debilitating political process began.
The first instance of military discipline being flouted through political pressure was an incident in Mannar.
18 soldiers of the Artillery regiment had a grouse against their superiors for not being given training in vocational skills and began a “fast unto death”.
Under SWRDB “fast unto death” campaigns had become fashionable and an easy way of pressuring the Prime minister into doing the wrong thing or refraining from doing the right thing.
The army top brass was not permitted to deal with this breach of discipline. The Prime minister “helicoptered” to Mannar and pleaded with tha fasting soldiers to give up their fast. Promises were made and the soldiers called of the fast with the premier returning triumphantly after providing orange juice.
In another instance SWRDB appointed a “Buddhist” civil servant as Inspector General of Police instead of letting a serving Deputy Inspector-General become IGP. This was because all three DIG’s waiting in line on seniority basis were Christians.
Ethnic relations began deteriorating under SWRDB and the armed forces were called in to quell the anti-Tamil violence of 1956 and 1958 by the Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke . When trade unions went on strike certain services were declared essential services and the armed forces were deployed in those sectors.
This practice was followed by his widow Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike also.
Furthermore in a blatant display of administrative abuse the military in 1961 was assigned the task of breaking up a non-violent civil disobedience campaign by the Federal party seeking equal rights for the Tamil language.
It was then that communal politics entered the army.The 3rd field artillery regiment to be deployed in Jaffna was commanded by Lt. Col Wilmot (Willie) Abrahams. He was ordered not to go to Jaffna at the last minute on the grounds that he was a Tamil.
Ironically his second in command Major W Ignatius Loyola was a Tamil too.
So it was left to the next in line a Burgher Major Wilton A White to take command.
The secretary of Defence at that time was NQ Dias
This was perhaps the first time that politics played “pandu” within the military realm when a commanding officer was disallowed from commanding his troops due to his ethnicity.
It was an “open secret” then in army circles that it was at the behest of “Col” Richard Udugama that Mrs. Bandaranaike ordered the “pullback” of Willie Abrahams.
It was Udugama who supervised the break-up of the non-violent Satyagraha by the army in Jaffna.The sight of Udugama standing on a balcony with megaphone and urging hesitant soldiers to use force on the unarmed civilians is a scene etched in the memory of those Satyagrahis to this day.
Udugama was feted as a great hero who conquered the Tamils after putting down this non-violent protest through force.
The army was being thrust into politics.
The continuous pattern of utilising the armed forces to counter civil protests and trade union strikes was resented by the upper echelons of the army.
Most of these officers had been officers in the Ceylon Defence force under the British and absorbed into the Army of independent Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) later. These officers were heirs to the old, honourable military traditions of service and preferred to remain aloof from politics.
Yet the army was being used by the govt as an instrument of force for political purposes.The Tamil satyagraha for instance was a political issue to be resolved through negotiations. Instead the army was ordered to crack down with brute force. Violence was used against non-violence.
1962 Coup Attempt
Increasing disgust at the manner in which the country was being run resulted in some top officers of the Army and Police planning a bloodless coup d’etat in 1962. It was indeed ironic that disdain for politics polluting the armed services resulted in these officers getting involved in politics.
Ethnicity-wise the army at that time was 70% Sinhala, 7% Burgher, 11 % Muslim (mainly Malays) and the rest Tamils. The officers however were more than 40 % Christian. These included Sinhalese,Tamils and Burghers.
The coup never got off the ground as information leaked out and the planners called it off. Investigations were conducted and at least 26 were charged in courts.
The aborted coup had a negative consequence. Since an overwhelming number of suspected conspirators were Christian, Mrs. Bandaranaike became ultra- sensitive to this factor thereafter.
Political “interference” into the administration of the armed forces increased.
A clear bias was shown against Christians and a Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness began growing in recruitment and promotions.
Earlier one out of three officer cadets admitted to Sandhurst military acdemy in Britain was Christian. Under Mrs. Bandaranaike they were all Buddhists.
New recruitment was on blatant religious and political lines. Defence secretary NQ Dias personally vetted the intake and it was said that at least 195 out of a batch of 200 recruits was regarded as being “politically correct” on religious, racial and ideological grounds.
Another glaring example of religious bias was in 1964 when Brigadier Heyn a Burgher who should have been appointed army chief in terms of seniority was overlooked. Richard Udugama, a Sinhala Buddhist was made commander.
1966 Coup Attempt
Ironically, Heyn became army chief in 1966 when Udugama was disgraced for alleged complicity in another suspected coup attempt.
1966 saw the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake passing regulations allowing the limited use of Tamil in North – Eastern administration. The SLFP-LSSP-CP combine in the opposition whipped up opposition on communal lines against it.
It was in this situation that a coup attempt was suspected, detected and foiled. A number of young officers in middle and lower ranks were implicated. An intelligence reprt prepared for the Government of the day warned that about 20% of the army was strongly politicised against the UNP regime and believed the overnment was betraying Sinhala-Buddhist interests to the Tamils.
Three important persons allegedly involved in the 1966 coup attempt were the serving army commander Richard Udugama, former defence secretary NQ Dias and an influential Buddhist priest Ven Henpitagedara Gnanasiha Thero. Rohana Wijeweera known by the nom de guerre “Dr.Tissa” was also suspected of being involved.
1970 saw Udugama contesting on the SLFP ticket and winning. But Mrs. Bandaranaike did not appoint him to any office. Disgruntled he quit govt ranks and together with Prins Gunasekara formed his own party.
The 1971 JVP revolt had its own repercussions. Once again the recruitment process was highly politicised and only those seen as loyal to the government were absorbed into the army.
It was the age of the KGB. Kandyan Govigama Buddhists were given priority. This was the time when Up-Country youth who had never swam in the sea were taken into the Navy while Catholics from sea-faring coastal stock were left in the cold.
Anuruddha Ratwatte ~ in 1998
This period also saw naked nepotism to the fore. The young lieutenant Anuruddha Ratwatte was made Lt. Colonel and given a prominent role.Later he was given administrative responsibilities. Ratwatte was of course a member of the ruling clan.
In later years Ratwatte entered active politics and was national organizer of the SLFP. He was deputy-defence minister under his niece President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Just as Gotabhaya Rajapakse ran the “war” for his brother it was the Uncle who ran the war for Chandrika.
The return of the UNP in 1977 also saw a reverse form of the armed forces and Police being politicised.Former DIG of Police TB Werapitiya now an MP was put in charge of internal security.
When Stanley Senanayake retired as IGP the next two in line in terms of seniority were two Tamils Rudra Rajasingham and AC LawrenceI. But JR appointed the third in rank Ana Seneivaratne as IGP.
Rudra Rajasingham overlooked as IGP was to succeed Seneivaratne later.Of course the Jayewardena regime then displayed the Tamil trio of Rudra-IGP, Sharvananda-Chief Justice and Shiva Pasupathy-Attorney General as proof of non-discrimination to Tamils.
Under JR it was the turn of the green elephants to politicise the armed forces Political loyalty was the criteria for recruitment.Gradually this practice of politicised recruitment decreased. So too was the case in promotions.
The practice however did not cease entirely but continued throughout the past decades on a low scale. It was however the emergence of the Rajapakse regime that provided fresh oxygen to this process of politicising the military.
The Sarath Fonseka phenomenon therefore has to be seen as the logical outcome of this process of politicisation of the military. He is not the cause but only a consequence of this long process.
However there is no denying that the advent of Sarath Fonseka on the political horizon has torn the military fabric apart. The politicization of the military is reaching peak levels.
Regardless of who wins at the presidential polls the Country will suffer the long-term effects of the politicization of the military in the days to come.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com