Colombo Telegraph

Does Gotabaya Drag Military Into Politics?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

It appears that the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is openly taking inspiration from ‘terrorism.’ He at least defends his actions on the basis of terrorists. According to the lead story of ‘The Island’ newspaper yesterday (15 December 2014), reported by Shamindra Fernando, he has said, “If terrorists can enter politics, why not forces personnel?”  

This is a dangerous trend. If the same logic is extended to human rights violations or war crimes, he can argue, ‘If terrorists can do such and such things, why not forces personnel?” The citizens of Sri Lanka (including myself) would like to know whether this is just an argument or whether this is the way he has been acting and intends to act.

He has used the terrorist title for the LTTE (rightly so), and for the JVP (correct for the past), and claimed the same entitlements for the armed forces personnel. I do hope that the professional soldiers and their officers/commanders completely disengage and distance themselves from this kind of thinking and stick to their ‘code of discipline’ free from partisan politics.

It was like cat out of the bag. The occasion for this revelation, as reported by ‘The Island,’ was as follows.

The Maithripa la Sirisena’s Camp yesterday told the media that Defence Secretary Rajapaksa was using Urban Development Authority (UDA) in President Rajapaksa’s campaign. Addressing the media, Opposition spokesman attorney-at-law Shiral Lakthilaka alleged that the UDA was operating digital screens in Colombo 24 hours a day to promote President Rajapaksa. Lakthilaka said that the Opposition had a list of serving military personnel campaigning for the incumbent president.”

Not Denied

Let me take the most serious matter first, with my emphasis in the above quote. Defence Secretary has not denied the accusation that “serving military personnel campaigning for the incumbent president.” What he has said is the following.

The vast majority of military would support the government because whatever the allegations, no one could deprive President Rajapaksa of giving political leadership to the successful war effort.”

Of course he has not admitted the accusation directly either. What he has clearly admitted is the use of “retired military personnel in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign,” according to the report. He has defended that ‘use,’ citing the example of Sarath Fonseka.

However he has gone some distance to prove that Fonseka entered politics while he was in office which clearly gives the indication that he most probably using serving officers or the military for the election campaign. Two examples that he has given are the resignation letter of Fonseka as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to the President, and his consultation with the JVP in late 2009 when he was in the US, still holding the CDS position.

I was one (among others) who criticised Sarath Fonseka’s entry into politics at that juncture as a wrong precedence and also as a major military danger. That was one reason why I supported Mahinda Rajapaksa at that election. However, one wrong does not make another wrong (in this case a bigger one) excusable. Similarly, I have also criticised the retired judges entering into politics, whatever the reasons. There is no doubt that those who supported or promoted Fonseka at that election was imprudent whatever the discrimination or harassment that he had undergone under Rajapaksas. It is not personal hatred or judgements that should govern our positions, but good governance and democratic principles.

Present Dangers

It is on record that many retired military and police officers have entered active politics. If it is just one or two, that may be ignored. However, when there is a trend or a horde, then that is alarming. If people enter into politics from sectors where independence is required, then those persons’ independence during the service become questionable.

I remember an ASP’s name allegedly implicated in repression in Jaffna in early 1981 when I visited there on a fact finding mission. Then he became a DIG and later entered politics.

Politicization of the armed forces (or police) is one of the major dangers of any society. That cannot be excused by referring to terrorism or taking the example of terrorism. Civilized world expect different norms and behaviour from security forces to that of terrorists. The argument that “If terrorists can enter politics, why not forces personnel?” is undoubtedly a strange and an abhorrent argument. All professional soldiers and the officers should reject the equation of the armed forces to terrorists.

It is very clear that the Defence Secretary is utilizing (some) forces personnel for his brother’s election campaign. He is also doing this as a ‘civil servant’ and as a Secretary of a Ministry. This is a very clear violation of election laws and ‘free and fair elections.’ One proof of this violation is his utterances themselves and the press interview that he has given to ‘The Island.’ He has already admitted the violation.

For the opposition accusation that “Defence Secretary Rajapaksa was using Urban Development Authority (UDA) in President Rajapaksa’s campaign” and “operating digital screens in Colombo 24 hours a day to promote President Rajapaksa,” he has admitted the use of the screens but has said “those advertisements didn’t carry pictures of him or the President.”

The problem in Sri Lanka under the Executive Presidential Constitution is that not only the President is immune (with impunity) of any wrong doing, but his brothers also believe and claim that they have immunity with impunity.

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