By Gamini Weerakoon
A raging debate on ‘militarisation of academia’ has been sweeping through the ‘Paradise Island’ for weeks. Paradoxically, indications of ‘militarisation’ of government for over a year and half, since former Lt. Col. Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Retd.) was elected the president, appear not to have been taken as seriously as the move — as alleged — that may militarise universities.
We have lost count of the number of highly decorated retired military officials taking the seats once occupied by powerful civilians in government service since Gotabaya Rajapaksa took over as the president. It is a move unprecedented in the country’s 73-year post-Independence history.
But not even a whimper of protest has been heard from the associations of administrative services officers or even the usually garrulous clerical services unions and those of lower ranks. More so the general public that has been so vociferous in the criticism of this Rajapaksa government on other issues developed a chronic ‘locked Jaw’ on this issue of militarisation of the public service.
The stoic silence maintained by powerful public service officials in contrast to the vigorous resistance that seems to be developing in the universities makes us wonder.
Were public servants who had supported Rajapaksa by and large at the presidential election in agreement with the president bringing in armed service personnel into government service though it deprived them of some of the plum positions or were they scared unlike university dons who had resisted inroads being made into their academic freedom?
The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) that includes most academics in state universities has unequivocally expressed its opposition.
Officials of the armed services seem to be of the opinion that the civilian people should be dancing on the streets over this ‘militarisation’.
Rear Admiral (Retd) Hon. (Dr.) Sarath Weerasekera, MP and Minister of Public Security, was reported to have expressed surprise that while people express gratitude to the armed services when they are rescued from flood waters, they grudge armed service personnel being awarded a PhD. The Rear Admiral is no doubt qualified to talk on the subject being a recipient of MA and Mphil degrees in Buddhist philosophy. But we ordinary citizens find it hard to comprehend the nexus between gratitude expressed for rescue from flood waters and the academic exercise of awarding PhDs.
Vigorous and heated political debates are swirling over Lanka and the ‘militarisation of academia’ has attached itself to the whirlpool that could develop into a tornado that could take off the roofs over our heads. Some of the earthy arguments going back to the historic past do not do the past, present or future any good. For example, on the fertiliser issue, it is queried how Lanka could have been the ‘Granary of the East’ during Parakrama Bahu’s time when only organic fertiliser from natural resources was available and not the inorganic imported varieties. Queries such as: When and where was it recorded that Lanka was ever the ‘Granary of the East’?; the estimated population of Lanka at that time and the inevitable exhaustion of soil nutrients in fields cultivated since the great king’s time, only result in the challenger of such patriotic beliefs being daubed as an agent of multinational fertiliser companies.
There is much speculation, in whispers of course, about Gotabaya’s aspirations: A democratic president bringing in prosperity and splendour; an authoritarian ruler enforcing discipline on an indisciplined people, or a dictator or strongman running an administration with military officials.
However, his election manifesto makes no such references and stresses on the importance of national security, development of the national economy and all individuals coming under one law. He ensures that he will ‘remove all inefficiencies and make the public sector responsive to the people’ and the country’s needs.
Is the introduction of military officials into the public sector an attempt to make it work more efficiently?
Thus, is he aiming at creating hybrid structure of administration — part military and part civilian — like an electric-fossil fuel powered automobile?
Already, the constitution has been amended granting him tremendous executive presidential powers — and with a two-thirds majority in Parliament at his beck and call, he has the power of a fully-fledged autocratic ruler. A new constitution with such powers and even more power will grant any president absolute power but of course a subservient parliament cannot be a perpetual guarantee as is evident of some hiccups already witnessed in the ranks of the Pohottuwa.
Pure military dictatorships are not in fashion in the 21st Century and one such country is Myanmar where, in February this year, the military staged a coup and arrested the undisputed leader of that country Aung San Suu Kyi with her party leaders. Most other countries with strongmen or military men in power are those whose leaders were elected to power by the people only to suppress the people using the armed and other security forces.
Most strongmen and dictators at the pinnacle of their power pledge to hold elections and return the country to civilian rule. Myanmar’s military leader has pledged to hold elections next year, most probably after Suu Kyi has been banned from contesting. The problem of authoritarian rulers, however, is their accountability for criminal acts committed by them or their governments. An example is Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine’s strongman whose term of office comes to an end this year and it is widely reported that he is not willing to give up office. Some reports say he wants to contest the next elections as vice president and his daughter Rose will run for presidency. Duterte is being widely accused of being responsible for vast numbers of youths who have disappeared on being arrested for drug offences.
Sri Lanka’s achievement has not been that of a country whose administration worked with the precision of a Swiss watch, after the ‘Revolution of 1956’. But we were and are a democracy, throwing out incumbent governments regularly, perhaps having ejected the most number of governments in Asia after Japan. Our virtue has been that of throwing out incumbent rascals at an election but the sin committed is voting in the same set of rascals at the next election.
If the karmic cycle of recycling the same two set of rascals can be halted, much could be achieved.