By N Sathiya Moorthy
Weeks after the Easter blasts that rattled the Sri Lankan State, nation people out of their post-war slumber, we now have Army chief Lt-Gen Mahesh Senanayake (alone?) often briefing the media about the progress of the investigations and arrests. What more, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Adm Ravindra C Wijegunaratne, briefing West Asian diplomats based in Colombo.
In normal times, and even during war-time, much of this job was left to civilian counterparts, be it an elected Minister or official spokesperson. Where the uniformed services alone were believed to be qualified with the required information and answers for possible queries in fora like news conferences, their designated spokesperson alone handled it.
If the incumbent spokesperson was seen as giving away too much, or incommunicado or abrasive, he used to be changed, but another official way above him, never handled the media. As war-time Army chief Sarath Fonseka, since created Field Marshal, proved, every time he opened his mouth, he sought to put Ma Lanka’s feet and arms into it.
More important them all, never ever did military officials, of whatever rank, briefed foreign diplomats, without the dominating presence of a senior official of the Foreign Ministry or the domineering presence of a political administrator or a political appointee (like then Defence Secretary Gota Rajapaksa), making it look as if the presence of a military commander was incidental to such proceedings.
The reverse, as the post-war scenario has evolved, is truer. The military men in the nation should have known by now that the political class and the Sri Lankan State is incapable of and/or unwilling to defend them where all it mattered – like the UNGA first, and the UNHRC, later. It should not be, and should not have been the reverse, even.
No political leader or political administrator could tell those western nations that barred Field Marshal Fonseka, whom they hail otherwise, and purely for domestic political reasons to embarrass rival former President, Mahinda Rajapaka, and his one-time team members. Fonseka, who keeps jumping the gun at every turn, as he had been used to in his long years in the Army, too is sitting quiet, eating the humble pie and the personal and professional humiliation that came with it – and continues with it.
It is much more than — and not just as much as — the humiliation that the Rajapaksa regime inflicted on Fonseka. Pain and privation apart, for a soldier, now created the nation’s first and only Field Marshal, Sri Lanka should have come first. Yet, in the melee of political humdrum, Fonseka has played for and against ‘war-crimes probe’, as dictated not by his conscience always, but by the political exigencies of his own self-preservation, not even of the party, which he once founded only to be forgotten, and joined since… Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, that is.
As fellow Sri Lankan citizens, the men in uniform would have to only look at their Supreme Commander, President Maithripala Sirisena, and how this tiger – or, lion, if that term (alone) would please some – has been changing his stripes. At a time of national crisis such as the present one, he handed over the Defence Ministry to the care of Ruwan Wijewardene, State Minister for Defence, and not even to a Cabinet rank Minister of his own choice — leave alone to the prime ministerial ‘rival’ of the time.
In his time, at least on two or three occasions, President Rajapaksa put senior-most Cabinet Minister and party colleague in Sirisena, in charge of Defence portfolio, when he went overseas at the height of the war. That included the decisive, last phase, when Rajapaksa went away to Jordan – for what, his god alone should know.
Independent of the issues involved, the President’s Office declares one day that the controversial BBS boss, Gnanasara Thero’s name would not figure in the year’s ‘Victory Day’ list of prisoners pardoned away back to their homes. Yet, Sirisena would visit the Thero, who is credited with triggering the continuing wave of ‘anti-Muslim riots’ in the post-war era, in the prison-hospital.
What kind of a message that the President the politician was conveying to the nation? What kind of message the Supreme Commander was sending out to those men and women down the line, who has fought the nation’s battle – all of them internal – with his blood, flesh and life?
Less said about PM Wickremesinghe the better. Clearly, he is fast-tracking events at the same pace as Sirisena is pulling it on the other side. If then the men in uniform think that they have little choice but to take charge, and tell the nation and the world as to what was being done – and not necessarily, what was not done – again, it is not their job to do it.
Recall last year’s Batti-Kandy ‘anti-Muslim riots’ that was effectively brought down mainly through the single act of shutting down the social media and then beginning the combing operations, wherever required. Overnight, the very same western diplomats who wanted order restored here and now, wanted the social media restored, even faster and earlier.
Nation and State
For a nation with an Independence history that is just 70 years young, Sri Lanka has faced more than a fair share of challenges to its Statehood nationhood, in the form of the two JVP insurgencies and the LTTE. It had begun with the forgotten and thankfully failed coup bid in the early sixties. There is thus enough substance for the political class to fear the uniformed services and the latter to loathe the other…. and for the nation and the people to feel uncomfortable with both, jointly and otherwise.
It is the job of the security forces to secure a nation, and reassure their people and the political class that it is very much so. After a gap, trials, errors and tribulations, the Sri Lankan forces achieved precisely that almost since the commencement of ‘Eelam War IV’. It is the job of the Government, and the political masters, to ‘govern’ and also tell the world what Sri Lanka is all about. There cannot be any role reversals of any kind without jeopardising the fate and future of the Sri Lankan nation and the Sri Lankan State.
There is a lot of difference between the security forces ‘securing’ the nation, and the nation itself being made a ‘Security State’. Same words, but the phraseology is different, so are the meanings and more so the implications. Sri Lanka has had it all, and the new generation, mostly cut off from the past as the social media has become their one and possibly only source of information and communication, is both a perpetrator and victim of a mind-set, even more than their parental generation.
There is a lot of difference now between a midnight knock on the door now, and a decade and more back, and at the turn of the century. In the last class, one would have been sure that neighbour needed an urgent help, in the next, it definitely was the security forces but looking for someone else. Today, the new generation is convinced that they are going to be picked up, and for no fault of theirs. That is because they had already done some mischief with their social media accounts, and have always feared that they could be implicated even at some distance in time.
This kind of fear psychosis has to end. The Easter blasts environment may have recreated what an earlier generation was beginning to forget, and the new generation did not know existed. Symbols and symbolisms of the kind can make the difference – or, end breaking up the nation all over again.
After all, here in Sri Lanka, people did hope that rumour-mongering would convince the voter that on the eve of Elections-2010, the Rajapaksas, all but incumbent President Mahinda R, had already fled the nation, fearing sure-fire poll-defeat for the man, and that Gota and/or Basil Rajapaksa, his other brother, had fled the nation with their families during Elections-2015. These were verifiable facts but no one cared to verify until those concerned too heard the same and made their public appearances or issued their public statements!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)