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Why would Sri Lanka, which successfully fought three civil wars using the National Security Council, require a militarised Presidential Task Force to build “a secure country” in peacetime?

by Dayan Jayatilleka

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a Task Force of the heavy mob, which will press its collective knee into the neck of the new, socially legitimate Parliament that will arise thanks to the Supreme Court judgment which cleared the way for the Election Commission to name a date for voting.

Lankans live at the overlap of two hinge-points of contemporary history.

The Lankan hinge is stamped by the two gazettes issued on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s instructions on the night of 2 June 2020 setting up the Task Forces, the first comprised exclusively of serving or ex-military and Police brass, the second overwhelmingly so.

The global hinge is marked by the uprising within the pandemic: the killing of George Floyd; the multiethnic, multicultural youth rebellion in the USA; President Trump’s militaristic-authoritarianism; the global anti-racist Justice movement manifesting in Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Israel/Palestine, Syria, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan…and Sri Lanka.

Virtue via Task Force

Why would Sri Lanka, which successfully fought three civil wars using the National Security Council, require a militarised Presidential Task Force to build “a secure country” in peacetime?

President Gotabaya’s gazettes must be analysed with reference to text, context and timing. There is the ‘greater’ gazette and the ‘lesser’ (provincial) one. The greater one sets up a Task Force “to build a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society”. “Caring” and “just” didn’t make the cut.

Presidential Task Forces are set up to handle specific, targeted tasks, not overarching/thematic ones. The objectives set out in this one brings everything under its purview and one would be hard pressed to identify something that could not be brought within its scope.

Which article of the Constitution or law empowers a President or Presidential Task Force to define/decide upon what is or isn’t “virtuous”?

Apart from the tasks relating to drug trafficking and the prisons, which are subjects of the sort that task forces are appointed for, there are other “activities” which are curiously worded, such as: “Necessary immediate steps to curb the illegal activities of social groups violating the law, which is (sic) emerging as harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society at present in some places of the country” and “Necessary measures to legal action against persons responsible for the illegal and antisocial activities conducting (sic) in Sri Lanka while locating in other countries”.

The language is Orwellian. What is the definition of “a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society”? Who defines it? Is a “disciplined, virtuous and lawful society” one in which you can be “secure” in the knowledge that if you skin an unarmed civilian and slash the throat of a five-year-old child, and you’ve been in the right uniform and the child is of a suitable ethnicity for you to do so, then even if you have been found guilty by a High Court and your appeal dismissed and the sentence upheld by the unanimous verdict of the Supreme Court, you can still be pardoned—with the pardon publicly justified—by the President who has appointed the Task Force and greeted upon release by the Secretary/Defence who is Chairman of the Task Force for a “disciplined, virtuous and lawful society”?

Perhaps a “disciplined, virtuous” society is one in which policemen are disciplined by interdiction when they aren’t disciplined and virtuous enough to have arrested an autistic 14-year-old, afflicted since age four and possessing the mental age of six?

Or perhaps “discipline” is brutally manhandling non-violent youngsters protesting George Floyd’s killing.

Zero-tolerance, “our way”.

Who decides what constitutes “illegal activities of social groups violating the law, which is (sic) emerging as harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society at present in some places of the country”?

If there are such activities why can’t they be handled by the existing institutions under the existing laws or new laws passed by the new Parliament?

In a democratic republic, the challenge “to build a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society” is entrusted to the elected leaders and representatives of the people, in whom sovereignty resides and from whom sovereignty flows. In Sri Lanka this would mean the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet and Parliament.

In genuinely “secure, disciplined, virtuous and lawful” Singapore, the transformation was never wrought by Task Forces of military brass.

The wide sweep of the mandate of the Task Force, the exclusion of the Prime Minister and Ministers from it, and the appointment of the Secretary/Defence, General Kamal Gunaratne as chair, leads to the inescapable conclusion that in Sri Lanka today, the General Gunaratne is, generally speaking, more important than Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The mandate of the Task Force pre-empts many functions of the Cabinet. The chain of command clearly bypasses the PM, the Cabinet, and Committees of Parliament. Ministers will find that their officials have to take orders from and report to the Task Force. The Task Force, consisting of unelected military and police brass, will stand above the elected PM and Cabinet Ministers who are elected by the people (even the National List is based upon the electoral process).

If it looks like a junta, walks like a junta and talks like a junta, it is a junta.

No discipline, no justice?

Given the globalisation of the slogan ‘No Justice, No Peace!’ it is significant that President Gotabaya has on a most solemn occasion (Poson) placed on the record his view on the question of Justice, thus: “It is my belief that justice for all prevails in a spiritually virtuous, disciplined and prosperous society.”

His definition puts the cartwheel before the oxen, because no society can be regarded as “spiritually virtuous” and would remain sustainably “disciplined” if it is not based upon justice, and justice is a precondition for any society to be adjudged “spiritually virtuous”.

The view that discipline can exist without justice and is in fact a precondition for justice, and justice would inevitably result from a society that is spiritually virtuous, disciplined and prosperous is historically false, because there were many societies which regarded themselves as such, which were based on the hideously unjust systems of slavery, serfdom and/or caste oppression.

Racism and militarism

The other Task Force that was appointed on 2 June was for the Archaeological Heritage Management of the Eastern Province. This is a wire-snare around the neck of the minorities of the Eastern Province, which if taken together, are the provincial majority.

General Kamal Gunaratne is the head. Hardly a news-flash. Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, “Archaeological Chakravarti” (as the gazette refers to him) whose views on the subject are quite pronounced—and shared by Governor Yahampath—is a member, as is another venerable monk, the Chief Prelate of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

As Chandani Kirinde and P.K. Balachandran note, the Task Force has no Tamils or Muslims though they constitute two-thirds of the province’s population, and contains Buddhist clergy though none of Hindu or Muslim faith. Will the Eastern Archaeological Heritage Management Task Force effect unilateral changes of cultural cartography?

For the first time in our post-independence political history, we have a leader who does not regard it as necessary to appoint a Task Force that reflects to any extent, the composite reality of the area or citizenry concerned.

It is a leadership that ignores or is oblivious to any perception that imposing a Sinhala-Buddhist Task Force on a province in which Sinhala-Buddhists are only one third of the populace, is racist. Would the President appoint an entirely Tamil, or Muslim, or Tamil and Muslim, or wholly Sinhala Christian Task Force for the Southern Province? Having appointed a Sinhala-Buddhist Governor for the east, how likely is he to appoint a Sinhala Christian as Governor of the Central Province or NCP?

Only rather less racist is the appointment of a 99.9 % Sinhala Task Force to transform a society which is 75% Sinhala—leaving a quarter of the populace unrepresented.

Ours being a multireligious society, why is it only a Buddhist Advisory Council that the President meets every month instead of a Multi-Religious Advisory Council with suitable Buddhist preponderance?

Going by the evidence, racism and militarism are the twin motifs of the new normal; twin pillars of the new order.

Presidential pre-emptive strike

The context and timing of the twin Task Forces born of the night of 2 June render the intention discernible. It happened in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict, but not because the verdict facilitated it.

The verdict re-legitimised the space of the independent Election Commission and helped impede the project—publicly stated by a venerable bhikkhu in the President’s presence at an official conclave, without interruption or contradiction by him—of shutting down Parliament for a three-year period, and substituting democracy with a Presidential-Military Council. Latin Americans term this a “civilian-military junta”, coined when President Juan Bordaberry of Uruguay declared a State of Siege in 1973 and shared power with the military.

The Presidential Task Forces of 2 June seem pre-emptive strikes aimed at creating a framework of a Presidential-military rule prior to the electoral revival of the Parliament, the Cabinet and the Prime Ministership.

As someone whose US political comfort-zone has long been the Republican ‘Tea Party’ Right in California and the wealthy Sinhala friends (including ex-military buddies) in LA who contributed lavishly to the Trump campaign and partied jubilantly when he won, President GR’s reflex has been to do what Trump couldn’t/cannot: project military power domestically. It may also be a political fortification in case of a Trump defeat.

The Task Forces pre-position the military to “dominate”—to use Trump’s keyword—the Parliament, state and society. It is not only the State but also society itself (“social groups” … “disciplined, lawful and virtuous society”) that is the target, as is evident from the title of the foremost of the main Task Force.

Had the target been solely the State, the Presidential project could be classified under the political theory category of “authoritarianism”, but since the target is also society, this shifts the classification from “authoritarianism” to the wider, deeper, more dangerous one of “totalitarianism”.

Will it succeed? That depends on five factors.

(I) The majority the Government gets: If it’s a sufficient majority but decidedly out of reach of a two-thirds, there is a chance that the see-saw will tip back to the long tradition of Lanka’s representative democracy.

(II) The strength of the Opposition: If the pan-Sinhala bloc reconfigures along normal pro-Government vs. anti-Government lines which had been effaced by repeated, expanding Sinhala pushback against Ranil’s UNP and takes a moderate patriotic-populist Opposition to reconstitute, then the democratic impulse will be resuscitated and the totalitarian impetus retarded, restrained.

(III) The economy: As the electoral fate of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-led 1970-77 regime proved, no preaching of Sinhala nationalism and the virtues of “austerity” and “self-sufficiency” can prevent the erosion of popularity that accompanies the hardships of economic scarcity; hardships that inevitably follow the closed economy/import substitution model. The use of the military to meet/manage social discontent will erode popularity further, causing polarisation and radicalisation.

(IV) The ethnic/ethnoreligious/ethno-regional dynamics: archaeology, re-mapping, military encampments and land annexation is classic Israeli strategy in the Occupied Territories. In Sri Lanka’s East it cannot but lead to alienation and radicalisation. The Far-Right may hope to provoke precisely such polarisation so the ultranationalist-majoritarian bloc will be solidly durable as in Israel. However, the disaffection of the minorities cannot but have ripple effects on their vastly numerous co-ethnics/coreligionists in the region and the world.

(V) The external factor, divisible into two issues: (i) the US-China-India triangle and (ii) the US election.

The regime seems to be proffering oil tanks in Trincomalee and a pier in Colombo to keep India on-side while it proceeds to dismember the Indo-Lanka Accord. Lankans rightly applaud the rise of China and India, but regime discourse overtly cites the Chinese domestic model, governance doctrines, values and ethos as replicable successes to emulate, as even Nepal’s Communists do not. Such sentiment is not welcomed in Putin’s Russia either. Will GR’s ‘Trumpism with Chinese characteristics’ model succeed on India’s doorstep?

Trump’s re-election would catch Colombo in a cross-fire between two role-models. US-China contestation even under a Democratic administration would prove problematic.

Flattening the far-right curve

“America’s Top Brass Break with Donald Trump: The president’s threat to send the troops into American cities alarms commanders” headlined The Economist referring to “Mr. Trump’s demand for an iron-fisted security response to days of protests and riots in American cities.”

Former Supreme Commander of NATO, Gen. Wesley Clark explained that the problem was that Trump “had no sense of strategy”, because if he did, he’d know that deploying the US military domestically would mean that the military may come to treat some section of the US citizenry as foes and some section of the US citizenry would regard the US military as foes. Domestic deployment would also give ammunition to foreign foes of the USA. He concluded optimistically that “in the USA the tide is now turning”.

Gen. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Republican, criticised Trump on CNN for “drifting away from the Constitution”. 280 top former National Security officials, retired generals and ex-ambassadors signed a petition denouncing military deployment in US streets, against “free speech and expression”. They were followed by 89 former officials including four former Defence Secretaries and former Chiefs of Staff. The outrage was bi-partisan: both groups of signatories consisted of appointees of Republican and Democratic administrations. Former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined demonstrators outside the White House.

In his homily at the Minneapolis funeral service for George Floyd, (televised live by CNN and the BBC) Rev. Al Sharpton used the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes as reference, and listing signs in the streets and the consciousness, concluded with a determined prophetic optimism that “the season has turned…there is a new season and a new time” which is no longer the moment of Trumpism.

The Movement is defining the moment. The Zeitgeist is changing. As Joe Biden told the Houston congregation, the George Floyd Movement is “changing history, changing the world”.

Candidate Biden “warns about the rising tide of populism and nationalism around the world”. (https://www.cfr.org/election2020/candidate-tracker/joe-biden) In a major foreign policy address (2019), he promised “a global Summit for Democracy” during his very first year in office, focused on “defending against rising authoritarianism and advancing human rights…in the cause of preserving open democracies and free speech”.

Video-addressing the Houston congregation, Biden disclosed that he “grew up with the Catholic social doctrine”. Today, combatting “systemic racism” and instituting “racial justice” is his foremost priority.

The American Revolution of 1776 catalysed the French Revolution of 1789. The now-unfolding second American Revolution, completing the unfinished anti-racism agenda of the Civil War, could usher in a ‘Global Spring’ for Democracy, Liberty and Freedom—opening spaces for Justice.

Chomsky is correct: humanity’s fate hinges on the American people’s choice.

Courtesy: DailyFT