The military in Sri Lanka is being transformed from a politically non-partisan entity into the de facto praetorian guard of the Rajapaksa family – a force willing and able to overstep legal and constitutional limits in defence of Rajapaksa rule. Concomitantly, civilian spaces are being infused with a “Rajapaksaised” military, and civilian institutions compelled to submit to its authority.
Sri Lanka’s unexpected loss at the T20 World Cup finals in late 2012 plunged the country into despair. The fact that the defeat happened at home raised the shock to a new level. The day after the cricket fiasco, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary and younger brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, offered his take on why Sri Lanka lost its fourth cricket world cup final. At a function to mark the commissioning of 23 principals of leading national schools as brevet colonels, Rajapaksa attributed the defeat to the “absence of leadership training” (Sri Lanka Mirror, 8 October 2012).
Rajapaksa’s “analysis”, considered in confluence with the occasion on which he made it and his full official title (Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development), indicates both the extent of Lankan militarisation and its sui generis nature. In Sri Lanka, militarisation is advancing with disturbing rapidity, and making inroads into traditional civilian preserves. The motive force behind these meticulously planned waves of militarisation is not the military leadership. The authors and directors of Lankan militarisation are the country’s civilian rulers, the Rajapaksas. The militarisation drive is part – and a critically important one – of the grand Rajapaksa scheme to strengthen “Rajapaksa power”, concomitant with dismantling democratic freedoms and subverting judicial independence.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected the president of Sri Lanka in November 2005. Since then he and his family have moved ceaselessly to gather the reins of state and societal power into their hands. This orchestrated metamorphosis of Sri Lanka from a flawed democracy into a neo-patrimonial oligarchy is happening concurrently with the transformation of the Lankan military into a praetorian guard of the new familial power elite. The bloated military is being fed huge chunks of the national income, and used to crystallise Rajapaksa dominance of state and society.
“Leadership training” is the Rajapaksa regime’s code name for civilians being given courses in physical and psychological regimentation by the military. This process began in 2011 when all new entrants to universities were ordered to undergo a compulsory three-week leadership training programmes in army camps. Varying excuses were conjured to make this outrageous anomaly seem necessary and innocuous, ranging from promoting English and computer literacy to teaching rural students proper table etiquette. But the real purpose of the programme is to transform universities – hitherto immune to Rajapaksa influence – from breeding-grounds for dissent into epicentres of patriotic-conformism. Subsequently, some secondary school students and all ministers and parliamentarians of the ruling party were sent to army camps for leadership training. Subjecting 23 principals to a week’s “cadet and leadership training” by the National Cadet Corp marked the latest step in this process of administering a concentrated dosage of militarisation to civilians.1
The leadership training programme is a brainchild of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.2 Logically, any concordance between defence and urban development is hard to perceive. However the twinning of these two disparate areas has given the military legal entrée into a wide variety of civilian preserves. Even more pertinently, it has enabled the Rajapaksas to use the military to bypass democratic norms and legal boundaries and undertake questionable projects aimed at economic extraction, politico-ideological indoctrination and societal control.
Militarisation, Lankan style, is turning the Lankan military into an effective tool of Rajapaksa power and a total defender of Rajapaksa rule, well beyond the boundaries of democracy, constitutionality and legality.
Militarisation with Rajapaksa Characteristics
One of Asia’s most enduring democracies, Sri Lanka never lacked rulers who dreamt of a lifetime of power or tried to set up political dynasties. But none fully succeeded until Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency in 2005 and set out to create from within the entrails of an imperfect democracy a familial regime – government of, by and for a family. The Rajapaksa regime revolves round Mahinda the president and his two younger brothers, Basil, minister of economic development and Gotabhaya. This trinity occupies the country’s commanding politico-economic heights and accounts for around 70% of the national budget.3
Post-war, two diametrically opposite militarisation projects came into contention. The war-winning and hugely popular Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka advocated a militarisation of the classical type, under the dominance of the army and directed by him. His aim was the post-war perpetuation of the pivotal role played by the army in the Eelam war, and the preservation of his own place among the country’s decision-making elite. Soon after the war ended, he publicly advocated the expansion of the army with 1,00,000 new recruits, and the permanent garrisoning of the North and the East. His aim was not a coup, but a situation of dual power, with the military having a strong voice in governance, up to and including veto power in certain matters. Fonseka’s project would have created a process of militarisation rather similar to that obtaining in countries such as Pakistan and Egypt.
The Rajapaksas too wanted a militarisation, but of a different sort. In their script, it would happen under their control and will be shaped according to their needs. The purpose would not be the strengthening of an autonomous military, but the utilisation of the military to shore-up Rajapaksa power. The military will be the monkey to the Rajapaksas’ organ grinder.
In the contestation between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka, the Rajapaksas won. Fonseka was kicked upstairs as an impotent defence chief and a colourless Rajapaksa supporter was made the army commander. Fonseka retired, contested the presidency as the common opposition candidate, lost, was accused of financial malpractices, tried and convicted by a military court and sent to jail.
With Fonseka neutralised, the Rajapaksa project of militarisation commenced in earnest. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa assumed its uncontested leadership, taking upon himself the mantle of the sleepless-guardian of a feckless and hapless nation:
My primary concern is the security of this country…Day and night I work to prevent the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] from coming back… I work for the country – no one knows the work I do.4
Historically, one of the main strengths of Lankan democracy had been the military’s determination to stay out of party politics and to maintain strict neutrality during elections or non-electoral intra-elite contestations. A key task of the new militarisation process is the transformation of this hitherto politically neutral military into a partisan entity whose primary loyalty is not to the Lankan state but to the Rajapaksa family. In a symbolic and symbiotic development, during the 2010 presidential election several top military commanders appeared on state television in their uniforms and praised candidate Rajapaksa.
As soon as the presidential elections ended, the purging of the army began. Senior officers, generals downward, suspected of being either over-friendly towards Fonseka or insufficiently loyal to the Rajapaksas were sacked or retired en masse.5 Those officers deemed Rajapaksa loyalists (or more malleable) were promoted and rewarded with plum postings, post-retirement. The contradistinctive fates of Rajapaksa-loyalist general Shavendra Silva (rewarded with the post of deputy permanent representative to the UN, post-retirement) and Rajapaksa-opponent general Sarath Fonseka, were meant to teach every officer and soldier a lesson in submission.6
Lankan militarisation thus consists of two interrelated processes. The military is being transformed from a politically non-partisan entity into the de facto praetorian guard of the Rajapaksa family – a force willing and able to overstep legal and constitutional limits in defence of Rajapaksa rule. Concomitantly, civilian spaces are being infused with a “Rajapaksaised” military, and civilian institutions compelled to submit to its authority.
Militarisation with Rajapaksa characteristics is thus creating a gargantuan and richly endowed but politically flaccid military. This military is capable of defeating any “threat” to the government but totally incapable of exercising its will against the Rajapaksas, even in defence of its own. A recent incident, in which a ministerial offspring assaulted a major of the military intelligence, epitomised the military’s total powerlessness vis-à-vis Rajapaksa kith and kin. Since the ministerial father is a key Rajapaksa loyalist, the injured major was compelled by his superiors to withdraw his police complaint, publicly exonerate the ministerial offspring and plead guilty for wrongdoing.7 The major’s distinguished service record did not suffice to save him from a humiliating dénouement; even more tellingly none of his peers or seniors came to his defence.
Lankan militarisation is thus a guided one; the Rajapaksas are the real decision-makers and the military’s role is to concur with and implement their decisions, including ones inimical to its own interests. The military is a tool in Rajapaksa hands and militarisation enables the use of this tool in hitherto unthinkable ways and in previously out-of-bounds areas, in furtherance of Rajapaksa power.
The Rajapaksa-Security State
Post-war, defence expenditure continues to claim the largest chunk of the budget. For 2013, Rs 290 billion has been allocated to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, a 25.9% increase compared to last year. Mammoth military spending is a financial black hole which consumes a considerable proportion of the peace dividend. But opposing these gargantuan allocations is taboo in Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka; according to presidential sibling and minister Basil Rajapaksa, “Only those who support terrorism can request to reduce allocations for defence”.8
Christopher Clapham identifies “the lack of organic unity or shared values between state and society” as the “single most basic reason for the fragility of the third world state”.9 Fidelity to Sinhala supremacism (masquerading as patriotism) and idealisation of the military are the shared values the Rajapaksas are exploiting to create and maintain an organic unity between the Lankan state (under their near absolute control) and the Sinhala society. The military is a chain which binds together the Rajapaksas and their Sinhala constituents. And the Rajapaksas portray themselves as the defenders of the military, the sole barrier between it and an inimical international community led by a diabolical Tamil diaspora.
Fourty-two months after winning the Eelam war, the military is everywhere, doing everything, from park maintenance to teaching principals how to run their schools. Even the non-governmental organisation (NGO) secretariat is under defence ministry control. When cricket authorities ran into financial difficulties, the military was asked to take over the management of three Test venues. Plans are afoot to systematically induct the military into the economy and to garrison every district. “Military camps (must be) maintained in all parts of the country in order to accept it as one land” opined Basil Rajapaksa, winding up the 2012 budget debate.10 Most Sinhalese regard the almost exclusively Sinhala military as “Our boys” and the Rajapaksas are using this natural affinity to depict the ongoing militarisation of civilian spaces as a positive “pro-people” development (and not an anti-democratic intrusion).
For a dynastic project to be viable, it must be placed within an ideological framework which legitimises the rule of one family by making its interests coterminous with the interests of key segment/s of the populace. Using the stupendous victory over the Tigers (won without making a single political concession to the Tamils and after rolling back many of the progressive measures implemented during the 1987-2005 period), the Rajapaksas have succeeded in persuading a Sinhala majority of the correctness of their family-centric narrative. This narrative redefines Sri Lanka as a country of “one nation, one people, one leader”; patriotism is loyalty to the one leader who embodies the spirit of the one nation and expresses the will of the one people. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who defeated the LTTE and reunited the country, is the “one leader”; Rajapaksa rule is a necessary-cum-sufficient precondition for the protection of the “one nation” and “one people” from inimical forces.
By implicitly transferring the sovereignty of the nation and the people on to the leader, the new commonsense has enabled the creation of a national security state, with a difference, one committed not to the protection of rule by an ethnic/religious group or a class but to the protection of rule by one family. In this Rajapaksa security state, the military’s sacred duty is to ensure the continuation of Rajapaksa rule, from brother to brother or father to son.
A suitably reshaped military has another critical role to play in the Rajapaksa dynastic project. Mahinda Rajapaksa is the current leader of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The SLFP has been a family-centric formation almost from the inception, but its allegiance had been to a different family – the Bandaranaikes. S W R D Bandaranaike founded the SLFP and his widow and younger daughter led it during 53 years of its 60 year existence. Given this almost lifelong association between the SLFP and the Bandaranaikes, the Rajapaksas would be suspicious of the ruling party’s fidelity to their fledging dynasty, especially if a new scion of the Bandaranaike clan enters politics.11 Though the Rajapaksas have been working with ruthless assiduity to negate the Bandaranaike genes and memes in the SLFP, for the foreseeable future, the ruling party can only be an unreliable conveyance for their dynastic project. Consequently, the siblings need a vehicle which is unconditionally loyal to them, and over which the Bandaranaikes have no control. The military is to be that perfect vehicle, the Rajapaksas’ supporter and protector of last resort, their impregnable rampart against Bandaranaike ambitions, SLFP discontent and voter anger, in lean times. And lean times cannot be far away in a country which has a 20% youth unemployment rate, is plagued by escalating income inequality12 and struggles with a mountain of debt.13
The Rajapaksas are also using the popular military to carry out unpopular tasks. The military often acts as the Rajapaksa-enforcer in implementing projects which endanger local communities and/or cause environmental degradation, such as expelling urban poor, displacing pavement-traders or grabbing farmlands/fishing areas.14 It has also been alleged that the Rajapaksas use the military to engage in illegal activities such as treasure hunting and abductions. In May 2012, residents of a village in Anuradhapura caught a group of uniformed and armed members of the special task force engaged in treasure hunting.15 Some weeks previously, a group of army men were intercepted, as they tried to abduct a ruling party politician who had incurred the wrath of the Rajapaksa siblings.
As economic factors erode the Rajapaksa support base in the south, the military can help the regime win elections and suppress democratic dissent. The military would also be indispensable in case the ruling family is compelled to resort to the Togolese mode of succession. When the long-term ruler of that west African nation died abroad, the army, in violation of the Constitution, bestowed the presidency on his son, Faure Eyadema. Constitutionally the speaker should have succeeded the president, but the military reportedly prevented his plane from landing. Militarising Sri Lanka with a Rajapaksaised military is a sine qua non for the Togo-path, in case fate renders it necessary.
Leadership Training: Lessons in Obedience
“Our aim is to produce a learned citizen who has gained physical and mental discipline coupled with positive attitudes and love for the country”,16 President Rajapaksa announced at the commencement of the first ever leadership training programme for university students. Rank upon serried rank of identically garbed university-entrants listened to his peroration in blank silence.
In military ethos, “good” has a meaning antithetically different from civilian ethos. A “good” soldier must be ready to kill and die, whenever ordered to do so. Discipline is his god and unquestioning obedience the required mode of worship. Militaries are hierarchical systems; their members must extend servile obedience to superiors and are entitled to lord it over subordinates in return. A militarised value system is thus profoundly anti-democratic. Militaries are holdouts of the pre-Enlightenment ethos which regarded inequality not as an (often unavoidable) evil but as a necessary virtue.
A militarised society discourages critical thinking and dissenting outlooks. As Victor Jara, who as a young man was a conscript in the Chilean military, explained,
…I remember having to polish an officer’s boots or do the cleaning in his house and I thought it very natural…indeed, I thought it almost a privilege to be called upon to do it, because it meant that I was a very disciplined bloke who could be trusted to do the job properly. But looking at it now, without innocence, I think it was a conditioning – it conditions the servility of the private, just as it conditions the superiority of the officer.17
By instilling military values such as unquestioning obedience, inequality and mindless discipline in the young, the Rajapaksas can ensure that a sizeable segment of the next generation becomes pliant subjects rather than thinking citizens. Since Sri Lanka has a volunteer military, the regime is using devises such as leadership training to condition Lankan society in these pro-authoritarian attitudes.
The Rajapaksa aim is nothing less than “a total counterrevolution of the mind”. Inculcating an anti-democratic ethos in civil society will be of immense help in the Rajapaksa project of transforming Sri Lanka from an imperfect democracy into a family oligarchy based on the dynastic principle. Timely and correct indoctrination can neutralise key segments of civil society likely to play an important role in any future politico-social movement against Rajapaksa rule, such as university students – and perhaps even harness them into the Rajapaksa-chariot as foot-soldiers and shock-troops. A successful indoctrination effort via leadership training and other methods would make it possible for the Rajapaksas to prolong their hegemony in the Sinhala south.
Will Gotabhaya Rajapaksa order Lankan cricketers into army camps to learn how to win matches? The prospect, though preposterous, is not wholly unthinkable, given the distance Sri Lanka has travelled along the path of infusing the military into civilian life.
Mono-Ethnic Military in a Pluralist Land
The Lankan military is Lankan only nominally; in actuality it is a Sinhala military. A largely mono-ethnic/religious military (with a Sinhala-Buddhist ethos) becoming enmeshed in an ethno-religiously pluralist society is an especially combustive development.
Post-war, the North has experienced a Sinhala-supremacist peace characterised by a glaring absence (no political solution) and a searing presence (a de facto military occupation), augmented by a development model which focuses on mammoth physical-infrastructure projects and de-prioritises the urgent necessities of the war-devastated populace. The military is keeping a tight control over the civilian Tamil population, in the name of national security. The Lankan armed forces would regard the North as their country but they are unlikely to regard its populace as their own people. An army in a territory it considers its own, with total control over a population it considers alien is a recipe for abuse and repression. The situation is likely to become even more fraught as the plans to settle families of military personnel in the North come to fruition.
The militarisation in the North is aimed not only at imposing a non-consensual peace on Tamils but also at implementing a project of demographic re-engineering. Military cantonments represent a novel form of state-managed colonisation of traditional Tamil areas, with military personnel and their families substituted for landless Sinhala peasants. These cantonments would break the contiguity of Tamil villages in the North and act as control centres and as symbols of dominance. They would form expanding Sinhala islands in a contracting Tamil sea. These relatively privileged and empowered Sinhala enclaves will be the locus of Tamil resentment and Tamil anger.
The Rajapaksa prescription for the North seems a replica of the Israel strategy – breaking the contiguity of Palestinian-presence through the creation of Jewish-settlements. That policy is obstructing a sustainable-peace; it pits Palestinians against Israelis and compels both communities to languish in a state of fear and insecurity. This may be the destination the Rajapaksas want for Sri Lanka. Frightened people are more likely to barter liberty for security and that is a state made for despotism. And the Sinhala soldiers and families can become an excellent first line of defence against any Tamil struggle for political rights and democratic freedoms.
The 1978 Constitution gave Sri Lanka an extremely powerful executive presidency with a two-term limit. After he won his second presidential term in 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa hastened to introduce the 18th Amendment which enhanced presidential powers and removed presidential term-limits. Had the term-limit provision remained, Rajapaksa would have had to retire by 2017 and the family’s dynastic project would not have survived his departure.
The Rajapaksa regime has been engaged in a vicious battle with the judiciary, over the Supreme Court’s refusal to give a free pass to a Bill aimed at expanding the economic empire of Basil Rajapaksa, in violation of the constitution. The regime’s onslaught to subdue the judiciary to its will might include an impeachment motion against the chief justice.
Neo-patrimonial regimes (be they dictatorships or oligarchies) have a world to lose. Consequently, leaders of such regimes fear political demise, as do their families. This fear is a key catalyst in the creation of a state-form which has mushroomed in the third world in the last four decades: familiocracy – a republic manipulated and distorted into a de facto monarchy, where presidential father is succeeded by presidential son. Such regimes, even when composed of civilians, cannot survive without the military.
But militarisation is a double-edged sword, which can harm its user as much as its intended victims.
In post-war Sri Lanka, a mammoth military is a financial burden and a politico-social danger. A system of voluntary retirement, based on the golden handshake model could have been a fair solution to this problem. It would have had many takers since poverty and unemployment are the two main reasons most youth join the military. A programme to treat the invisible wounds caused by the war is another neglected necessity. The recent spate of violent incidents involving serving military men (including rape/child rape and lethal attacks on superiors, comrades and family members) signals the danger of allowing these invisible wounds to fester through denial and neglect.
It is this numerically intact and psychologically unreconstructed military which is being enmeshed with society, by and for the Rajapaksas.
The myth of humanitarian operation justified, ipso facto, everything which was done to win the war. The notion of a perfect military is a part of this myth. That fallacious notion is now being expanded to include developmental-attributes such as total efficacy, absolute incorruptibility and unlimited capability, to justify the steady militarisation of the administration and the economy. The underlying assumption is that civilian officials are inept and corrupt, and thus unworthy, unlike the pure and efficient military. This romanticisation of the man in uniform has already put in place a key psychological premise of coup-making and military rule.
The Rajapaksas seem to think that by preventing the emergence of any charismatic military figure into national prominence (like Sarath Fonseka) and by precluding a unified command, the danger of a coup can be obviated. But questions about the future path of a militarised Sri Lanka remain. Will the military’s subordinate role change as the Rajapaksa hegemony in the South wanes and the regime’s dependence on the military for its very survival becomes total? Will the Rajapaksa-military relationship gradually even out and begin to tilt in the military’s favour? And what will happen if the waning of the Rajapaksa hegemony in the South happens in tandem with the lessening of the military’s own popularity and acceptance among the Sinhala majority? How will the minorities react to a militarisation of their lives by a Sinhala military?
Will the military decide to save itself by sacrificing the Rajapaksas? Faced with a general crisis, will the military opt for what Samuel Huntington called a “breakthrough coup”?
According to an old Lankan folk tale, a Buddhist monk summoned a demon to build a temple wall. The demon, having fulfilled his task, began hounding the monk demanding more chores. Bringing the military into civilian spaces and feeding its ambitions is a dangerous game. When a military becomes a propertied-caste with a stake in the economy, when it comes to believe in its own infallibility and indispensability, can it be prevented from intervening in politics, in defence of its general or particular interests, even against its one-time masters?
1 According to opposition parliamentarian Karu Jayasuriya, the regime is planning to confer the rank of brigadier on all government agents (Daily Mirror – 30 October 2012).
2 The Minister is President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
3 Other Rajapaksa relations are ubiquitous through the length and breadth of the Lankan state, giving it a definite and pronounced Familial flavour. The oldest Rajapaksa sibling, Chamal, is the Speaker of parliament while his son, Shasheendra, is a provincial chief minister. The president’s oldest son Namal is a parliamentarian. Colombo’s envoy in Washington and Moscow are close relations. So the list goes on.
4 Daily Mirror – Hard Talk.
5 For instance, in January 2010, 12 senior army officers, including three major generals and two brigadiers, were sacked. “Sources said President Mahinda Rajapaksa sent the officers on ‘compulsory retirement’ for hatching a ‘political conspiracy’ during the (Presidential) polls” (PTI – 1 February 2010). The defence ministry accused them of being a “threat to national security”. “Rajapaksa is also understood to have transferred several senior military officers loyal to the former army general who he defeated in elections” (ibid).
6 When Fonseka was a key Rajapaksa ally, the siblings defended him pugnaciously. Once Gotabhaya Rajapaksa berated several media personnel for implying that Fonseka was involved in the abduction of a senior journalist; “Tell me one thing you have done for this country compared to Lt Gen Fonseka”, he ranted (The Sunday Times – 1 June 2008). But when Fonseka fell from grace, the same Gotabhaya accused him of a multitude of crimes including attacks on media personnel: “We know there was no other person…. Some of the media people harmed had never criticised any other person except him, or people close to him. Nothing happened to those who had been criticising me or the President….He was definitely responsible for five or six cases of (disappearances) where media people were involved” (The Hindu – 11 February 2010).
7 The Final Medal for a Major’s Service – Chanaka Roshan (The Sunday Leader – 28 October 2012).
8 SLBC – 30 November 2011.
9 Third World Politics: An Introduction.
10 Sri Lanka Mirror – 1 December 2011.
11 Either the daughter or the son of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
12 Asia Pacific Labour Market Update of the International Labour Organisation – April 2012.
13 The total government debt has increased from Rs 4,975.2 billion in July 2011 to Rs 6,161 billion in July 2012.
14 For instance, in Kalpitiya, in the north-western province, the Navy was accused of helping in the land-grab of tourism-industrialists. According to fishermen of the area, “The Tourist Industry is Utilising the Navy to take Hold of Land….” (BBC – 9 May 2011).
15 The STF men were allegedly digging up a tank bund using a mechanised backhoe. When the enraged villagers tried to intervene, the STF personnel reportedly resorted to the use of force: “….they assaulted the villagers and attempted to shoot them. Several villagers including women were injured in the incident….Police recovered tools and equipment and a tray of offering near a 10 ft pit dug up in the tank bund by the suspects” (Daily Mirror – 2 May 2012).
16 Daily News – 24 May 2011.
17 Counterpunch – 28 August 2008.