By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Enemies of the President’s Promise: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Grumpy 5
I also suggested, as happened in Pakistan, the establishment of ordinary schools by the military, or taking over the management of existing schools in areas where the military had a presence. This had been essential in Pakistan, where the public education system had been inadequate in rural areas where there were military cantonments. The army had therefore begun schools to cater to the children of military personnel, and these were then opened to the public too for a fee.
Sri Lanka however, having had a good public education system, had not initially needed such establishments while, the country being small, military personnel had not generally had their families with them when they were stationed away from Colombo, since regular visits were possible. But while coordinating on behalf of Sabaragamuwa University the degree programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy in Diyatalawa, I had noticed how much more content were the officers whose wives and children were with them. This was possible only when the children were very young, since later on it was thought essential that they be admitted to good schools in Colombo, given the inadequacies of rural schools. But it struck me then that the SLMA could easily take charge of one or two local schools in Diyatalawa, something I had indeed suggested for Sabaragamuwa University and the local school in Belihuloya, since I saw how my academic colleagues suffered from having to send their children to schools in bigger towns.
Given the commitment of the more sophisticated parents who would now be sending their children to the local school, the standard of education there would improve, to the benefit too of the local children. And the managing institution would make sure that essential subjects, such as English and Mathematics and Science, which were grossly neglected in many rural schools, would be properly taught.
The Ministry of Defence had indeed taken over one school after the war, but this was in Colombo. But my suggestion as to this and other initiatives was not taken up, with Gotabaya laconically telling me that he would have to face even more criticism with regard to what was described as militarism. Later however, after a paper I produced for a Defence Seminar, he told me to go ahead, but I explained that I could do nothing, it was the Kotelawala Defence University and other military bodies that had to take the lead – though the KDU, given its civilian agenda, was uniquely positioned to move in this matter without criticism.
I did then take up the matter with the KDU but, perhaps because it had to work through civilian academics in many areas, there was hardly any progress on the matter. One Department did produce good ideas with regard to the training of medical support staff, but that alone was not enough, and soon I was not in a position, having protested about what happened at Weliweriya, to pursue the idea. I was put off, albeit very politely, with regard to a paper I had been asked to prepare for a symposium, and the Commandant later indicated wryly that the Secretary had not been pleased about my signing the petition.
I knew this, because he had in fact called me up and shouted at me for having, as he put it, signed something along with enemies of the government. He did grant that what had happened was wrong, but his point was that I was getting involved with those who were intrinsically opposed to the government. I did not think this was the case, and indeed I had toned down the initial draft which had thrown the blame for the incident on him almost personally, but I could understand his irritation. But I was surprised and saddened that he should have embargoed my participation in seminars organized by the military, because these had been amongst the most constructive in the recent past, in a context in which Sri Lanka had no real think tanks.
Indeed, just after the incident at Weliweriya, before I signed the protest, I had presented a paper at the recently established Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala, on the site of one of the Affiliated University Colleges where, twenty years earlier, I had coordinated the English course. I had found the senior officers there as worried as I was about the fact that the army had opened fire on civilians. They too recognized how bad this was for their reputation, because it would lend strength to those who claimed that the forces had targeted civilians deliberately in the war against the LTTE.
My continuing belief is that the senior officers well understood the rules of war and had worked in accordance with them during the war. After the war I had personal experience about how positive they were about the civilians they were in charge of. For instance, one of the toughest generals during the war, Kamal Guneratne, who was head of the Security Forces in Vavuniya, and responsible for the Welfare Centre where the displaced population had been housed, proved astonishingly liberal about releasing the vulnerable, even though he was told that several security checks were required before this could be done. And as noted previously, when efforts were made to delay the resettlement Basil Rajapaksa was trying to expedite, the generals in the field ignored the order they had received to recheck civilians and sent them back to their places of residence as quickly as possible.
So too it was civilians with a pluralistic outlook whom they invited to their seminar discussions. At Buttala for instance they called on members of the LLRC, who were generally blacklisted by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies, which was run by the Ministry of External Affairs. Serious discussion was impossible there, whereas at both Buttala and the KDU, and the Training Centre that another very bright general had set up at Kilinochchi, the former capital of the LTTE, open and frank discussion was encouraged.
It was tragic then that, as time passed, Gotabhaya seemed to harden and prevent his senior officers from developing, together with liberal civilians, programmes that would have promoted reconciliation. Given both continuing security needs, and the comparative efficiency of the military, there was no doubt that they needed to remain active in the North. But ways and means could have been found of avoiding a heavy handed approach, and promoting civilian leadership which the military could support, rather than seeming to impose itself as an independent authority. The synergy that military training engendered within the forces seems to have been avoided with regard to the Tamil population of the North, and the impression that Gotabaya saw them as outsiders, not people he should care about as equals, became entrenched.
That he held similar views about the Muslims had also become clear. Indeed his presentation of himself as the champion of the chauvinists crystallized through his association with a group that targeted the Muslims. This was the Bodhu Bala Sena, the Buddhist Strike Force, which began in 2013 to engage in a vicious and violent campaign against Muslims.
Matters came to a head in this regard when, in June 2014, after some preliminary skirmishes, they provoked violent action against Muslims in the Aluthgama area, at the southern end of the Western Province, with the police taking neither preventive nor restraining action. Both the President and Gotabaya were out of the country at the time, which highlighted the absurdity of a situation in which the country had an octogenarian Prime Minister without the capacity to think or take decisions.
There were all sorts of conflicting stories about what had occurred, including the claim that Gotabaya had in fact ordered the police to ensure better control, but this had been ignored. Certainly the President behaved better than his counterpart JR Jayewardene had done in 1983 when there was violence against Tamils. But the plain fact was that the BBS had been permitted to engage in provocative rhetoric and the police had done nothing to stop the rioting that followed.
The President’s responses afterwards indicated that he was in a state of confusion, and was not being presented with the whole picture. Firstly he claimed that some Muslims were indeed trying to take up arms, which echoed both the claim by the security establishment that there were efforts to start a jihadi movement in the country and the assertion by the BBS leader that, since some Muslim politicians were trying to establish a Gaza strip in Sri Lanka, they would respond like the Israelis.
Such echoes of Gotabaya’s fascination with the Israelis perhaps explains why the President had not been told that Muslims in his own party had requested that the BBS rally be banned. He claimed that they had only gone to the affected area afterwards, but this was belied by a Muslim Minister in whom he had great trust, who confirmed that his plea had been ignored.
Second, the President granted that, despite the Muslim extremism he alleged, the BBS was a dangerous organization, but claimed that it was funded by the Americans and the Norwegians to destabilize the government. Certainly it was true that BBS personnel had, before the movement was set up, received some Norwegian funding, but it was also true that they had been patronized by the Secretary of Defence. The President claimed that Gotabaya had only attended a meeting at which the BBS was present at his request, but that did not explain why what Gotabaya said seemed to echo the chauvinist sentiments of the BBS. And it was at odds with the claim of the BBS leader that it was the Norwegian they were associated with, a shadowy figure the Embassy, which was more transparent in its activities, should have been wary about, who had asked that Gotabaya be invited as the Chief Guest. The President certainly had no answer to the question why, if the Americans were engaged in a programme aimed at weakening the government, Gotabaya so readily fell into their trap.
Despite his criticism of the BBS, the President insisted that he could take no action, because he thought the Buddhist clergy would protest. This was nonsense, because many leading Buddhist monks had spoken out against the BBS. It was also nonsense to claim that he would be accused of being a dictator if he were firm, given that it was precisely those who felt that civil liberties were being eroded who urged using the full force of the law against the violent agenda of the BBS.
But, assuming that the President was not himself involved in the move to heighten tensions, it seemed clear that he felt himself straitjacketed. Given that he seemed convinced that it was only hardliners he could rely on electorally, he was obviously not going to take action against such extremists with elections due soon. And doubtless he would be held to this position, given that Gotabaya had announced an intention to enter politics, combining this with the assertion that he would do much better than existing politicians. So, though he couched this apparent change of mind in terms of willingness to satisfy a request of the President, if he made one, he was making no bones about the fact that he subscribed to the mythology of his outstanding capacities.