By Kumar David –
General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is America’s highest serving military officer. He made a mistake when he appeared in a photo-op with Donald Trump, following forceful dispersal of peaceful protesters outside the White House on 1 June. He apologised, admitted it was a mistake and said “my presence in that environment created a perception that the military is involved in domestic politics”. What is more crucial for Lanka’s Presidents, Prime Ministers and military brass to digest is what Gen. Milley said next: “We must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military which is deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic”.
Several former generals have spoken out against Trump’s partisan approach to a human rights issue – equality for black Americans. His first Defence Secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, said he never dreamed that troops would be ordered to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens. However, it is this declaration from Gen. Milley, the current top serving officer, that is stunning; it is a public rebuke of the President.
Fast forward to the role of the military in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Administration. So many generals, admirals, inspector-generals, retired and serving, piles of kaki and bristling medals shine around, about, within, between and adjacent to his person. They jostle for positions and crave for Ministry Secretary-ships and Chairmanship of Corporations. Task Forces are so over-populated with generals that they trip over each other’s regalia. True it is still not time to call this Administration a military junta but that for sure is not for a scarcity of soldierly personages in the squad. The fundamental distinction between the culture and the traditions of the top echelons of America’s military and our own is that the former boldly tell the President: ‘We hold dear the fundamental principle of an apolitical military, an ethos deeply rooted in the essence of our republic’. Can we say this of Lanka’s military? Only a careless analyst will stake his intellectual reputation on such an assertion!
Though the regime has used coronavirus as a smokescreen to strengthen its stranglehold on society it has still not declared itself a ruling junta or suspended the constitution. Gota and poropaya are confident of winning the elections and have outflanked both flavours of the UNP and rendered them impotent. The SLFP is a miserable rump and crackpot Sira may lose his seat in Polonnaruwa – good riddance. The Tamils and the TNA are exhausted and have given up the fight. The ghost of Tamil polity can do no more after the LTTE pranced with the devil and the army buried thousands. The TNA and Sumanthiran have offered to boot-lick the putative dictatorship if humble pleas are entertained till 5 August after which the lick will end. Shades of GGP, but at least the old rogue got a Cabinet post in lieu of 30 pieces of silver. MAS, Sambanthan and Mave come cheap; no such offers will materialise without the monks’ blessings and fat hopes of that! Lead counsel MAS bowed his head in sheepish humility when the Court kicked him resoundingly on his soft posterior; I guess he didn’t want to displease the President. The Muslims cower in fear with no capacity to protect themselves from President, military or the disdain of a most Sinhala people.
To come back to my theme, ours is a military that is not prepared to tell the President “We want no part of anything that smacks of politics; we want no part of bossing around with public health, archaeology, food distribution, intimidating minorities, collecting corporate and state sinecures, or accruing glowing medals on a burnished uniform for carrying your political spittoon”. If the military leaves room to be sucked into politics it must take the blame – another share of the blame must be assigned to their overlord and his ilk.
The graver danger is long-term. Imagine that Gota departs for some presently unfathomable reason. What after that? The military having tasted power will continue to seek successors who ensure a military-aligned state to which their appetites are now being honed. Imran Khan is a case in point; his rise and continued stay in power is partly a gift from the military. Participation, the overbearing involvement in power of military brass is a dangerous development that cannot be reversed merely by political actors even as brave and distinguished as Imran. This is a task that will one day need the direct intervention of the people. That is the real as yet unaccomplished lesson of Pakistan.
A piece called “Wounded Democracy” Pradeep Peiris et. al in the Daily Mirror of 16 June quote a CPA survey which shows that over 90% of Sinhalese consistently “trust the military” since 2011; while 2018 parliament and political parties score a miserable 16 to 17%. This is a consequence of the Sinhalese victory in the Civil War. It was the same in Serbia despite genocide in Srebrenica. In Iraq Saddam’s atrocities against Shias and Kurds earned him the loyalty of the majority Sunnis, and everywhere the way to the affections of a race is to massacre an adjacent race or faith. Love of the military is deeply embedded in the Sinhala psyche because it won the war and Gota is playing from a strong hand when he bids for a grand-slam for a military dominated regime.
Therefore, there is an unavoidable contradiction in championing democracy. It is the people themselves who make a mockery of democracy. The grotesque Mervyn de Silva polled 150,000 votes in Gampaha in 2012, ladies of easy virtue outpoll proven, uncorrupted politicians and 90% of Lanka’s parliamentarians have not passed the O-Level. Such MPs, the corrupt, drug dealers and thugs win most elections. This is largely due not to vote buying, but is the outcome of a fairly free franchise. The incongruity to which there is no easy answer is what then are we attempting to shield when advocating democracy? The question is as old as democracy itself! The contrarian exclamations with which one throws up one’s hands in horror are: “We must preserve democracy!” “The masses are asses!”
The riposte to this charge is intellectually flabby but at the same time empirically impregnable. “No better form of government has been invented”! One and all call themselves republics (Latin res publica, a public affair) rule by the people, not excepting the Republic of Singapore and the People’s Republic of China. Madam Elizabeth holds titular rank in a place where her ancestors since 1648 (or at least 1688) are ceaselessly reminded that Parliament is supreme. Can you believe it, even an ugly tyranny like Egypt feels obliged to use the fictional name Arab Republic of Egypt?
The masses may be asses but a dangerous and profoundly false subtext is slipped in. “Since the masses are asses nothing could be better than the military taking power; great progress will flow; great achievements can be made”. I am providing a list of military regimes of the last two centuries (condensed from Wikimedia). I impress on readers the frequency and duration of the cancer once it takes root. What progress? What achievements? Show me one from each box – I challenge you!