Colombo Telegraph

Governing Under Siege: Rules & Minorities

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Law Enforcement and the Security Services: Politicisation and Demoralisation – 22

The erosion of rules and legal accountability paralleled the State acquiring the self-image of a Sinhalese-Buddhist State. It resulted in governments with a siege mentality, protected not by professional and democratically accountable law enforcement agencies, but by agencies padded with sycophants. But once that is done, the temptation for abuse becomes too strong to resist. Jayewardene went the full length to make such abuse the art of governance.

Meddling with the security services may be partly attributed to the paranoia felt by governments after the attempted coup in 1962. But that too happened after the communal violence of 1956 and 1958 and when the polity seemed unable to resolve the Tamil question in a lifetime. Democracy was already sliding into crisis. But has the practice of padding the services with sycophants made the country or governments any safer?

It is police officers who made their way up the ladder when Athulathmudali was national security minister who connived with and failed to investigate his murder. Even more remarkably they failed to protect President Premadasa and left his murder a mystery.

The system is moreover one that has alienated the minorities, and the Tamils to a point of almost total exclusion. Has the loss of their services made the State any more secure?

The State appeared to miss Tamils in the security services rather late in the day. This was in the 1990s when the Army was losing many lives and Sinhalese youth were reluctant to join up. Attempts to recruit Tamils have been a failure and this is hardly surprising. No government should expect the Tamils to join until there is a political solution to restore among Tamils the legitimacy of the State.

Take how the Tamil officers attached to the Jaffna Police (e.g. Inspector Gurusamy) were used by their Sinhalese superiors to play a role in fomenting the 1977 communal violence (see Sect. 2.8). The Sinhalese officers who cultivated political patronage rose to the ranks of IGP and DIG. The Tamil officers who obeyed their unlawful orders were made to look traitors before their own people and their lives were sacrificed. How much has changed to this day?

The case of two army commanders in recent times who were Christian raises some interesting questions. Both of them have been commended as having been even-handed by their subordinates and above financial corruption – the lack of both even-handedness and incorruptibility having been a problem in the security services for some time. It is also said that the appointment of Gerry de Silva as commander marked the beginning of a change for the better after years of demoralisation.

But what is the truth? Both de Silva and Srilal Weerasooriya, the other Christian commander, are answerable for grave human rights abuses which took place under them – de Silva when he commanded the East during 1990 and Weerasooriya in Jaffna during 1996.

Those who are partial to them hold that they are gentlemen who would never have done anything of that kind, but had to cover up for those who were really responsible. That can by no means exonerate them, but if that is true, why did they fail to stand up for the rule of law they were sworn to uphold? In this respect, several Buddhist officers have come out more creditably – to a point where Tamil civilians felt that they could be trusted.

However, this is not unexpected in a system where rules have ceased to apply and everything goes by favouritism. The minorities give their best in a system that plays by the rules and are at a loss otherwise. Members of minorities functioning in the Sri Lankan state system do so under the psychological inhibition of serving under the sufferance of a state structure that is self-consciously Sinhalese-Buddhist. It cannot bring out the best in them.

Gerry de Silva served just over two years. His successor, Daluwatte, served two and a half years. Weerasooriya was then, in December 1998 appointed for a year and was extended for a further year upon expiry. A retired general, who felt that such short-term appointments instead of three-year terms were very damaging to the Army, raised the matter with one of the defence secretaries. The answer he received was that the Government did that to guard against a possible coup. The general felt that this was an invalid excuse since the President had the power to remove the commander. He observed, “Everytime a short appointment comes up for extension, others in waiting start sharpening their knives. Canvassing of the political establishment begins that this fellow is a Christian fundamentalist, a Sai Baba devotee, something or the other. It is too much of a strain on the Army. The real reason the politicians make short appointments is that they want to make sure that the army commander is very obedient to them.”

Is not rather the prospect of a coup brought nearer by undermining the authority of the Army Commander and driving the Army into defeat and demoralisation? From Jayewardene’s time all governments wanted the Army to fight a war, but deliberately maintained a certain amount of anarchy in the command structure. Finally no one is answerable and no one is responsible! Once merit is undermined as the principal criterion for career advancement in the interests of communal preferment, even narrower considerations come into play, progressively destroying the system as a whole.

*To be continued.. next week “Dangers of Perpetuating Partisanship”

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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