Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Unsurprisingly but nonetheless worryingly, a seismic shift in positing the military front and centre of Sri Lanka’s governance framework was pronounced in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement this week, issued on the eleventh anniversary of the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Powerful imagery and symbolic thrust
Lost in the general storm of covid-19 updates which still crowds out virtually every other happening, this Prime Ministerial statement, given its powerful imagery and symbolic thrust, must not be lost sight of. And for those seeking illusionary comfort in imaginary divisions among the Rajapaksas, that statement should put such frivolities to rest.
Indeed, the Prime Minister’s statement went so far as to rework the historic five force influence in Sri Lanka into a political narrative of militarisation which has significant impact on the democratic process. It is not so much the words used per se as the justification behind them which has concerning undertones.
Those familiar with Sri Lanka’s history would know that the ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya,’ namely the ‘Sangha’ (priesthood), ‘Weda’ (medicinal men), ‘Govi’ (farming community) and ‘Kamkaru’ (workers) was the cannily manipulative banner with which the ‘Sinhalisation’ movement of the late Premier SWRD Bandaranaike rode into battle against the scorned colonised Westernized liberal elite of the day, not long after the country attained independence.
It did not take much time before Bandaranaike was assassinated by a fanatical adherent of one (the ‘Sangha’) of those same five groups but thats ancient history to be sure.
Now we have a Rajapaksa addition to these five historic forces, namely the ‘Ranaviru’ or the armed forces. We are officially in the age of the Sixth Force as it were. In his May 18th statement, the Prime Minister rubbished claims that the public administration was being overrun by the military, propounding with flair that the difference between ‘military’ and ‘civilian was artificial. In other words, as he said, ‘if a retired member of the armed forces is appointed to some position in the government, that is being portrayed by the opposition as ‘militarisation’…a person who has retired from the armed forces is a civilian and no longer a member of the military” (News First, 18 May, 2020).
Stripping tendentious arguments bare
To equate a retired military officer to a public servant is of course, tendentious logic of a particularly obnoxious kind. In the first instance, the principle is that positions in the public service are filled on merit and seniority. This is, in fact, the basis on which such appointments are challenged in the courts and elsewhere. There is a carefully constructed institutional system in which these actions take place, underpinned by the law and the Constitution.
Never mind the fact that Sri Lanka’s public service has now been mostly reduced to a gaggle of obsequious yes-men bowing down to politicians. The roots for that decline may be traced to the seventies, when under a different Bandaranaike, the 1972 Constitution drafted by clever men who should have known better, undermined an independent public service. That process was taken further by the Jayawardene Constitution six years later, thus dividing the blame among the two primary political parties. But we are now venturing on new terrain altogether. And to airily justify the appointment of (retired) military men to civilian positions by saying that the distinction between both is ‘artificial’ is to stretch one’s imagination a little too far.
To be clear, advancing this critique is quite a separate issue from the position that the military may be called upon, in times of extraordinary emergencies that a nation faces such as most recently in confronting the global pandemic, to assume defined roles in the management thereof. But this must always be within clearly defined legal parameters and while keeping civilian oversight. To forget that distinction is to transform a democracy into a military regime in all but name. This is the exact reason as to why such arguments must be stripped bare of their pretences.
Should not the Tamils mourn their dead?
Let us not be coy in calling out the Premier for blurring the lines between the military and the civil/public service. This is not even artful, let alone logical. In one sense, Northerners would argue quite rightly that this is just a perpetuation of what their communities underwent in the years following the LTTE’s military defeat in 2009. The seeping of the military into all areas of civil administration in the post-war theatre was not a secret.
So let us also question the Prime Minister’s assertion, as he did on Monday in that very breath justifying the militarisation of governance, that the war fought in the North was not an ‘ethnic’ war and that it was not against the Tamils but ‘only against the LTTE.’ As he said, ‘Tamil children are no longer forcibly recruited by the LTTE…Tamil politicians no longer live in fear of LTTE assassins.’ All that may be true. And those who persist in uncritically seeing only the liberator in the LTTE may be castigated for the extreme Tamil nationalism that they espouse.
Even so, and leaving aside the LTTE, what of the Tamil children who live in fear of the Sinhala State? Or are we to pretend that there is no such thing?
For these children, the Prime Minister’s words will mean very little. Indeed, the minorities continue to be targets of populistic fury drummed up by his own party and his politicians. And the one sure barometer, the law, is employed only against those acting contrary to the majority or majority beliefs.The question is painfully simple. If the Sinhalese mourn their dead, should not the Tamils also be allowed to do so? This time around, covid- 19 restrictions are used to ban remembrances of the Tamil dead in the North. But that transparent excuse will fool no one.
Clashing victimhoods instead of common loss
The pity of this is that, such state excesses only feed into the Northern nationalistic discourse and ferments new hatred among those who delight each time that the (Sinhala) State overreaches itself. These are lessons of history that we should have surely learnt, as much as the Mahinda Rajapaksa-fathered Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) cautioned that that the Tamil people should not be prevented from remembering their dead. This is basic humanity to say the least. The State should step in only when the dead is sought to be politicised in a way that impacts law and order. It is as simple as that.
But instead, communalism rides high by ‘patriots’ parading their stuff while the majority and the minority lay claim to distinctly clashing victimhoods instead of a common loss. Now as we hail the advent of the Sixth Force (the ‘Ranaviru’) as added to the ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’, those fissures can only deepen.
How much more should Sri Lanka fall into acute economic, social and legal decline for people to realise that these clever political slogans are just that and nothing more?