By Gamini Weerakoon
(Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)
War is a continuation of politics by other means’ is a saying of a Prussian general, Karl Von Clausewitz around two centuries ago.
In recent times in this country, the use of this Prussian military and political wisdom is observed in the reverse. Politics, it appears, continues to be subject in multiple ways from the outcome of a ‘war’ that ended 11 years ago.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the defence secretary and Mahinda Rajapaksa the president of the government that won ‘The War’ against terrorism and they were proclaimed the leaders and victors of ‘The War’. General Sarath Fonseka, the Army Commander who led the forces and staked a claim to the title of the ‘Leader and Victor’ of the War, found himself behind bars. The Duumvirate of Mahinda and Gotabaya gained acceptance as the Leaders and Victors of ‘The War’. The resilient Sarath Fonseka, undaunted too took to politics and is now running in the General Election for a seat in parliament while holding the rank of Field Marshal.
The extent of the fallout of ‘The War’ in contemporary mainstream politics is greatly evident from the election of Gotabaya as the president of the country mainly on the claim that he was a ‘War Leader and Victor’ that won the ‘War against Separatist Tamil terrorism’ along with his brother. Now under the banner of the ‘Pohottuwa’ party, brother Mahinda is leading an election campaign to win the General Election with a two-thirds majority to remove constitutional amendments restricting brother Gota’s executive presidential powers to change the constitution.
Another significant fallout of ‘The War’ is the emergence of a new social force — the ‘Rana Viru’ — war heroes. The Rajapaksa political party has, to a certain extent, been able to politicise it in its favour and called it to be accorded the status equivalent to one of the five forces — the Pancha Maha Balavegaya (Monks, Ayurvedic physicians, teachers, farmers and workers) — that enabled the victory over the UNP for the first time by the SLFP. Rana Viru are supposed to be those who fought in ‘The War’ and fell while fighting including those who survived. Whether recruits to the security forces after ‘The War’ too fall into this category is not known. They are being hyped up, eulogised and sanctified to the extent of granting immunity to offences committed while in action or after ‘The War’ ended.
Certainly, the armed forces personnel who risked their lives fighting for the sovereignty of Lanka deserve honour and respect. Every country respects men and women in the defence forces. But politicising, eulogising without rhyme or reason, sanctifying them and granting immunity for violation of law and order and politicising them are not practices observed in most countries adhering to democracy.
Attempts are made to group them into voting blocs by settling the heroes in housing schemes and converting these settlements into political enclaves. This is tantamount to militarising electorates. The ‘Rana Viru’ politicisation is already in motion.
Lt. Col (Retd) Gotabaya Rajapaksa exhibits military instincts in implementing political challenges. His response to most major challenges that have come up since he was elected to office eight months ago has been of military orientation. He has appointed military officials to posts held by highly senior and qualified senior civilian officials. Is there a dearth of officials in the administrative service or officials from professional ranks? We are not aware of IQ tests of military officials or their performance at examinations. However, there is a belief among sections of the people that ‘army men’ can get a job done.
True, civilian administrators have not proved themselves to be super-efficient administrators. But the Opposition parties are questioning the performance of the star class service crack-shots in the past eight months.
True, the Covid epidemic, where Army Commander Shavendra Silva was made to appear the de facto or de jure head of the control team, has done reasonably well to control it. Various ‘international reports’ are cited by election propagandists to claim that Lanka are at the top of the pops.
The pandemic is far from over. So, let’s wait for the final report considering the sizes of countries, population, behaviour of people and most important those at the frontline: nurses, doctors, hospital workers right down to the mortuary and crematorium attendants who risked their lives. To us the unsung heroes are always those who risked their lives at the frontline — not those strategists in comfortable offices far away from actual battle.
Finally, the fallout of ‘The War’ appears to be the transformation of the 72-year-old democracy into some sort of military regime with the appointment of military and ex-military officials to key posts in civilian administration.
Sri Lanka may not have galloped to be a developed democracy as dream states of some of us such as Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan or even Vietnam. But for 72 years it has been a democracy.
The man on the street may possess only the shirt and sarong he is wearing but will tell a pompous ass in full suit or an overbearing cop or military man in his full regalia: Palayang Yakko — go to hell. He may suffer severe thrashings but his spirit is unbroken. That is what we saw on TV last week when those gutsy women of Angulana took on the police whom they were convinced had killed an innocent member of their community for an alleged violation of a traffic law.
They were wrong in resorting to violence and breaking the law. But their flaming spirit such as young girls picking up stones and going on attack while a frail young woman charged headlong into a burly cop well-armed was affirmation of the belief of Sri Lankans in democratic rights.
What form of government Gotabaya Rajapaksa hopes to create by bringing in ex-military and perhaps later military officials to run a government is not clear. Prime Minister Mahinda has claimed that ex-military officials brought in are not the same as military officials in service. This, to ordinary people, is like expecting a leopard to change its spots.
A government run by military officials may be described as a stratocracy (Greek for army being stratos and kratos meaning dominion or power). History records stratocracies in the ancient Greek state of Sparta, Rome under its last king Tarquinius Superbus and Cossacks in the Ukraine region. According to Wikipedia, the closest equivalent of a modern-day stratocracy is Myanmar’s State and Development Council which ruled from 1977 to 2011.
Wikipedia states: Arguably it differed from most other military dictatorships in that it abolished the civilian constitution and legislature. A new constitution that came into effect in 2010 cemented the military’s hold on power through mechanisms such as reserving 20 percent of seats in the legislature for military personnel.
Aung Sann Suu Kyi who fought valiantly to free her country from the military junta and holds the post equivalent to the prime minister is still held back from making her country a fully-fledged democracy by the junta that still holds power in accordance to the military imposed constitution.
To those who want to change the current Sri Lankan Constitution and perhaps desire a stratocracy, Myanmar is food for thought.