Militarization of Lankan Presidential election

By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

Two weeks ago, the chairman of the National Elections Commission (NEC) came out strongly against using the war victory of 2009 as a campaign prop in the November Presidential election.

Prohibiting such usage he said credit for the war victory could not be claimed by any political party as it belonged to the State of Sri Lanka. The NEC Chairman may have deemed it illegal, but the question is, can one expect any political party to respect his instruction?

It is a fact that war victory has been profusely exploited by political parties as a campaign theme in all the elections so far, not only after the end of the war in May 2009, but also well before that.

Militarism has dominated political opinion of the majority of the Sinhala people. This was an inevitable outcome of the intense campaigns conducted by the Southern Sinhala polity in politicizing the military operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the last four decades. And it remains so even today, despite the fact that ten years have passed since the war ended.

A regrettable reality is that politicians are not allowing the country to move on from the military might/military victory mindset.

The Rajapaksas, who proudly claimed that the security forces were able to defeat the LTTE military only because of the political leadership given by them to the war, have used the war victory for their political purposes and derived maximum advantage from it in almost all the elections during their rule.

They were convinced that by intensifying the triumphalist campaign among the Sinhalese, they could rule the country forever. And so they deliberately designed and directed their political approach and actions towards immersing Southern Sri Lanka in militaristic politics.

These regressive developments saw opposition political parties being compelled to field war-winning General Sarath Fonseka against President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 January Presidential election. It was the first national election after the end of the war, and was called by the President one year before it was due, in a bid to cash in on his war victory-induced popularity.

The combined opposition believed that by pitting Fonseka, their common candidate against Rajapkaksa, they had wrested the ‘right’ to competitively claim credit for the war victory.

By doing so, the opposition camp also contributed considerably to the militarization of Sri Lanka politics. But, Gen.Fonseka was as expected, soundly defeated by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who successfully sold the idea that wars are not won by Generals but by a nationalistic, astute and strong political leaders at the helm of the State.

With war-time Defense Secretary retired Lt.Col Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in the fray as the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the 2019 edition of the Presidential election, militaristic politics has come to the fore in the campaign circuit.

Gotabhaya is a former military officer and was the defence secretary during the last stages of the war. And when he started preparing for the Presidency two years ago, he began enlisting many retired military officers who played a major role in the war.

Functioning as a de facto Defence Minister during his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nine-year rule, Gotabhaya has always bragged about the war victory as his greatest accomplishment. This is now being propagated among the people in the election campaign trail.

In his campaigns across the country, he has been warning about imminent dangers to national security, citing the incumbent government’s inadequacies and incompetence as reasons for terrorism raising its head again. He is asking the people to elect him as the President to safeguard national security.

The importance given by Gotabhaya to war victory, military and national security in his election campaign has seen the political discourse being dominated by militaristic political sentiments. He has openly said national security can be protected only by electing him as the President of the country.

The main speakers in his campaign rallies also warn that it will be impossible to protect the country unless Gotabhaya is elected President.

In this context, it is all too evident that without the maximum use of the war victory, the Rajapaksa camp will find it difficult to conduct a sensational and active campaign. Irritated by the instruction of the Elections Commission’s chief, some politicians of the SLPP had demanded details about the laws that prohibit the use of war victory and slogans in election campaigns.

Addressing the media a few days ago, parliamentarian Bandula Gunawardena said the LTTE could not be defeated by any of the previous Commanders – in – Chief because they did not have a Defence Secretary like Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

“None of the Previous presidents were able to defeat the LTTE as no Defense Secretary was able to strategize the war properly. Without Gotabhaya’s efficient strategies, the LTTE could not have been defeated. That’s why we request the people to rally behind him when there is a terror threat again. No one is committed to national security like Gotabhaya. If the Elections Commission is prohibiting the use of war victory in the campaigns, may be we can talk about the reasons that led to the earlier military defeats in the war,” he said.

Not to be left out and not to be outdone, Sajith Premadasa, the Presidential candidate of the United National Party (UNP)-led New Democratic Front (NDF), in his drive to counter the campaign of the Rajapaksa camp, has now become an ardent advocate of militaristic politics giving much importance to national security and the welfare of the security forces.

In his inaugural campaign rally at the Galle Face Green last month, Sajith announced that he would appoint Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as Defence Minister and entrust him with the responsibility of safeguarding the country’s security. He went on to elaborate that Fonseka, who as the army commander led the military to victory against the LTTE, was the most suitable person to protect the country.

Following this declaration, Fonseka, who has become an important figure in the campaign rallies of Sajith Premadasa, has been loudly bragging that it was his leadership and the strategies devised by him that paved the way for the war victory.

He has also ridiculed Gotabhaya, saying the Defence Secretary didn’t have any knowledge of the strategy devised by him.

In this context, it is also interesting how Gotabhaya responded to a question from ‘The Hindu’ correspondent in Sri Lanka during is first press conference as the presidential candidate.

The correspondent asked the candidate, as someone who gave leadership to the army at the end of the war, to comment on the fate of the persons who surrendered to the military.

Pointing out that the journalist was mistaken, Gotabhaya retorted with his signature laugh that he never led the army, saying that it was the then Army Commander who gave leadership. Interestingly enough, he didn’t mention Fonseka by name.

In the aftermath of that press conference, ‘The Hindu’ correspondent’s query and Gotabhaya’s evasive reply have been reverberating at every campaign rally of Premadasa’s. Speakers have proclaimed that Gotabaya had openly admitted it was Fonseka, the former army commander, who was the mastermind behind war victory. The purpose of the propaganda is aimed at showing the people that the Rajapaksas have falsely claimed the entire credit for the war victory and deceitfully exploited it to consolidate their political power.

Now Premadasa is not only talking like the Rajapaksas at every meeting when it comes to national security and military matters, he is even trying to be one-up on them. When Gotabhaya says he cannot recognize the United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolutions on Sri Lanka because it is illegal, Premadasa declares he is ready to take responsibility for any allegations made against the Sri Lankan security forces and suffer any punishment on behalf of them.

Both the main candidates are making numerous pledges to appease the security forces. Since their campaigns are dominated by militaristic politics, they automatically stir up the anti-minorities sentiment among the Southern voters and turn the Presidential election into a communal contest.

(The author is former chief editor  of Thinakkural newspaper and currently Consultant Editor at the Express Newspapers, Colombo)