By Kumar David –
Apart from the question of propriety and conduct unbecoming of a national institution like the military, the criminal charges of a serious nature filed in the courts by the police against the infamous Tripoli Military Intelligence Platoon, is a tinderbox political issue. The Rajapaksa Brothers and the SLPP are incensed by allegations that this unit and its commander Major Prabath Bulathwatte were instruments of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government for abduction and assassination of suspected LTTE cadres and anti-government journalists. Two cases filed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in American courts allege such wrong doing. When the Paksas and their cohorts holler that intelligence units vital for national security have been dismantled they mean that their apparatchiks have been demobilised under public pressure about human and democratic rights. In just seven words: The Bulathwatte case is a political issue.
Furthermore the Tripoli Platoon is deeply enmeshed with Gotabaya, therefore these political implications are also partisan in nature. Was Commander Mahesh Senanayake unaware of these corollaries? To be generous let us say that when he made his fateful decision he did not realise its full political dimensions. But the outburst of public condemnation afterwards has been so pronounced that by no means can he be still unaware. His minions surely have brought the following to his notice.
The Financial Times of 13 May reported under the title ‘Major Bulathwatte who commanded the Tripoli Military Intelligence Platoon, allegedly responsible for assassinations, abductions and attacks on journalists recalled to active service’ as follows: “The main suspect in the abduction of journalist Keith Noyahr in May 2008, Major Prabath Bulathwatte, who also led the shadowy military intelligence unit suspected to be behind the 2009 murder of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, has been restored to active service, Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake said. Making a shocking statement during a television interview aired on Saturday night, the army chief claimed that side-lining Bulathwatte had resulted in intelligence setbacks after the interviewer revealed details that the terrorist behind the Easter Sunday bombings, Mohammed Zaharan, had been on the intelligence officer’s radar”.
Colombo Telegraph carried, Lasantha’s Daughter Slams Army Reinstatement of Death Squad Leader: “Prabath Bulathwatte’s reactivation in a prominent post will not only pose a serious threat to and have a chilling effect on those army officers and witnesses who had the righteousness to speak up against Bulathwatte’s alleged wrongdoing says Lasantha Wickematunge’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge”.
The (international) Committee to Protect Journalists slammed Senanayake: “Promoting to active duty an intelligence officer implicated in the killing of a journalist and torture of two others severely undermines Sri Lanka’s claim that it is fighting impunity for crimes against journalists,” said CPJ Coordinator Steven Butler in Taipei. “The move creates threats to journalists in Sri Lanka, who are not safe to do their jobs.”
The Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association “Strongly condemned the decision to restore Bulathwatte, the main suspect in the abduction of journalist Keith Nair and leader of a shadowy military intelligence unit suspected to be behind the murder of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wichremetunga”.
Articles by Tassie Seneviratne (retired Senior Superintendent of Police Titled “Security Forces should not harass Innocent Public” in the Sunday Island of 12 and 19 May give details of many instances of communal oriented abuse of power by the security forces.
Believe me what I have quoted is not the worst being being said, particularly in the vernacular media and in private conversations. And what was Mr Senanayake’s response to this tirade? “Nobody should tell me what I should do”.He did not say he had cleared it with the President and Prime Minister; had he said so it would have put a different complexion on the matter. Then it would be a decision by politicians and there would be no undignified suggestion that the army was dabbling in politics.
Leaving aside the political dimension there is a matter of propriety. Police investigators by all accounts have a strong case, but presumably there is nothing in the law preventing the reversion to state service of a person charged with the crimes, even abduction and assassinations. In India, candidates on murder charge are permitted to run for election to the Lok Sabha but they are turfed out if convicted. This ruling was to prevent governments in office filing fanciful charges to block opposition candidates from contesting elections. Bulathwatte’s case is in no way similar; his restitution to service is undesirable.
What are we to make of the argument that Bulathwatte is privy to useful information and/or that he is a capable investigator. Sure, both may be true but do not justify renewal of active service. Really Mr Senanayake is the 350,000 strong Sri Lankan military not able to find 10 to 20 officers of spotless reputation and high ability to man a top-class investigative unit? Current and retired police and military officers are incensed by the implication that the services are incapable of staffing a proficient intelligence unit without recourse people who are on trial. And as for information Bulathwatte may be privy to; why it’s simply a matter of debriefing him thoroughly. Or is it being said that he has declined to reveal critical information unless offered a post?
My next point is important. Times of political unrest and instability and periods in which a state of emergency prevails are dangerous for democracy. There is no denying that there are circumstances in which such measures are necessary, at the same time these are the circumstances in which plotters thrive and conspiracies abound. Historically when democracy has been abrogated and a dictatorship imposed anywhere in the world it is during turmoil; plain vanilla out-of-the blue dictatorship is rare. Taking all things into consideration I am not worried about the military per se in this respect in Sri Lanka at the present time. My concern is whether this or that political “black-hand” (there is more than potential culprit) may attempt to make a move behind the scenes. Such a thing was not possible in 1983 since we had a strong personality as President with 2/3 majority in Parliament and a stable government. Today the government is fractured, personalities at the helm plastic and the opposition ambitious. The atmosphere created by this double whammy (a terrorist assault followed by several days of communal mob rioting) is bad. The worst thing terrorism and mob rule does is to open the door to power grabbers. At such times strictly proprietary conduct of the military is most desirable.
There are two more basic safeguards: Normalcy must the restored fast and the armed forces recalled to barracks, and second and more important, the primacy of civilian rule must remain absolute and unquestioned. The latter safeguard implies mobilisation of the people: Mobilisation in this context means openly and extensively discussing the dangers, vigorously opposing the idea in the media, and if the need arises, confronting it with a general strike.
I do see the things returning to normal and the supremacy of civilian power being soon restored. Unfortunately, thereafter the three main candidates for the Presidency, Gota, Ranil and Sira are a poor slate. There are human rights charges against Gota and Tamils and Muslims perceive him as a threat. Will he try to hang on forever like brother Mahinda? Ranil is steward of a government that even UNPers call a failure and as for Sira the less said the better. None of this triumvirate will mobilise the people to meet a threat were it to materialise from one of the other two or from another source. The grapevine and social media are saturated with lies and speculation about potential presidential candidates – Dhammika Perera, Sarath Fonseka, Naganda Kodithuwaku, you name anyone and his/her name is floating in cyper space. The reality however is that there is a near universal demand for an alternative candidate. See for example the two web-links below or numerous others:
In these circumstances, how should one cast the second preference vote? No ways should any of the deplorable Gota/Ranil/Sira triumvirate get a first preference vote? This topic I will return to nearer the date and after Gota’s citizenship puzzle is clarified. Forget the triumvirate, Lanka needs an alternative that reflects ‘the fed-up voter’, those who rallied to the January Eighth Movement of 2015, the Left, Liberals, Democrats, TNA, Mano Ganesan, women’s and non-governmental bodies, the and if it wants to join the JVP. It’s not at all too early to call a Unity Forum(s) to take up the idea. Of course we won’t win or come second but Rome was not built in a day and I daresay the builders toiled for a while before the job got done. If the people in their majority choose Gota, Ranil, or some other rascal nominated by the SLPP or UNP they will suffer for five more years but the effort to get past such obstacles has to start now and the builders have to be tireless. Many people say this, but a concrete call for a Forum has yet to be issued.
A core element in the programme has to be rejection of ethno-politics – slavery to the identity obsession. Eradication will require intervention on many fronts; education, creating a new consciousness and changing the constitution. Embedding religion (the so-called rightful place of Buddhism) and special mention of Sinhala in all constitutions since 1972 has encouraged a narrow and profoundly divisive state of mind in the people. A plural, democratic, modern and progressive philosophy cannot be stimulated in the country unless the Chapter on Buddhism is repealed by assertion of secularism and all differential or unbalanced references to language are removed. None of this is going to happen overnight but it is time to boldly place these matters on the agenda.