By Emil van der Poorten -
Writing about militarization in Sri Lanka is a challenging task because the subject seems to grow exponentially as one begins to explore it. The more I examined the subject, no matter how cursorily, the bigger the elephant in the room became! And this was before I even considered examining the new military-run commercial enterprises which I was told were growing like Jack’s Beanstalk in Sri Lanka’s north and east.
I claim no particular expertise with regard to the militarization of commerce and industry in places like Egyptbefore the Arab Spring to compare and contrast our reality with what was theirs. However, even a cursory examination suggests that Sri Lanka is well on its way to establishing an empire with its own complexion – an umbilical connection between what passes for Sri Lanka’s 21st Century version of a mediaeval Royal Family, the Rajapaksas, and the armed forces. That tie-in is reinforced by the fact that the President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces and his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, by virtue of his position as Secretary of Defence & Urban Development, a veritable “chairman of the board” and the chief executive officer of this military/business empire. Another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, is the czar of “economic development,” and enjoys an unprecedented level of power with little accountability in traditional democratic terms. The military, while not overtly active in his areas of “enterprise,” is an ever-present reality for the security thereof.
The militarization of rugby
While cricket is considered “Sri Lanka’s Fifth Religion,” rugby, the game of “muddied oafs,” comes a respectable second in popularity to the sport of “flannelled fools” and has not been spared the reach of the Rajapaksas. All three of the President’s sons play for the Sri Lanka Navy team and the second son has been made captain of the national team as well. The Kandy Sports Club (KSC) team, which has won both the league and knockout tournaments during the past dozen years, has been targeted by the Navy, with assistance from the Air Force commander who was installed as head of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU) as a result of Presidential influence. The Sri Lanka Air Force team has also been employed against the Kandy Team in a “defeat the common enemy at any cost” effort. That this state of affairs was given “official sanction” was evident in that the SLRFU ignored every appeal for action by the teams victimized by the Navy and Air Force despite eye-witness and video evidence of the violence visited upon KSC players and spectators and those of other clubs. While the SLRFU is no longer headed by this man, his successor, allegedly a financial advisor to the Royal Family, also turned a blind eye to massive violence by navy personnel last year. On August 8th, 2012, dozens of KSC supporters were hospitalized when a mob of better than 1200 Navy personnel, with tickets and transport paid for by the Navy, attacked anyone appearing to be a KSC supporter. No punitive action was taken by the SLRFU, the navy authorities, or the police against any of these criminals!
The events of the past three years that culminated in that violence is very obviously a part of getting the message out that what the military (and the ruling family) wants it will get, irrespective of any rules that might seem to stand in their way . Even when an Air Force player discharged an assault weapon on the field, during a game, no action was taken and there was not even an acknowledgement of the letter of complaint from the aggrieved club! In addition, the local police chose not to take any action whatsoever to deal with this firearms offence, despite evidence – spent shell and video footage. This was the most dramatic of a series of acts of unbelievable thuggery unequalled by even the Lager Louts of European soccer a while back. Even prior to this event, the violence had reached a stage when the Kandy Municipal Council passed a unanimous resolution condemning the violent conduct of Navy personnel. A KSC player, considered by many as one of the best three-quarters to have ever played rugby in Sri Lanka, was hospitalized after an on-field assault. Apart from the SLRFU turning a Nelsonian eye on these transgressions, no action whatsoever has been taken by the police and, perhaps even more important, by the armed forces to deal with the criminal conduct of their men.
While the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union was the most prominent example of military control of sports organizations, several of the other national sports bodies are headed up by service personnel. Among these are the national athletics (track and field) organization and the apex organization for disabled athletes who compete in such as the Paralympics)
Rakna Arakshaka Lanka: building a private army
Rakna Arakshaka Lanka (RAL) is Sri Lanka’s version of the infamous Blackwater Security operation of the USA, simply, the beginnings of a private army. It symbolizes the extension of military control into activities usually treated as the preserve of corporate or state endeavour.
A visit to RAL’s website, with its emphasis on its intended capacity as a repository for ex-servicemen, is illuminating to say the least. It has already been used as a resource to provide university students with military education in the name of “Leadership training” and has continued to repeat this exercise despite serious resistance to the entire concept and philosophy from educators. It seems like no one is aware of Post-World War II history when compulsory military service for youth spawned an epidemic of violence epitomized by the infamous “Teddy Boys” in Britain. “National Service” exacerbated a problem rather that provided a solution to it.
Also, the replacement of the companies providing security services in all the universities with RAL is simply an effort to militarise a civilian security function and intimidate potentially militant students.
This organization is the brainchild of retired Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, with Maj. General (Ret.) Egodawela as its Chief Executive Officer. In the matter of enhancing its information technology capacity, it has Leisha Chandrasena de Silva , past head of Sri Lanka Telecom in its upper echelons of management. The government’s intrusion into electronic communication, hacking internet communications and tapping phone lines in a manner unprecedented in Sri Lanka was raised by MP Mangala Samaraweera in Parliament. I have myself documented my own experience of this nuisance in my column in The Sunday Leader of March 12th, 2011, appealing to those intercepting email communications between my daughter and grand-daughter in Canada and me not to do so.
RAL’s recruitment of de-mobilized servicemen might seem like a reasonable alternative to simply cutting loose on urban and rural Sri Lanka large numbers of those trained as killing machines. However, the government has given no evidence of an interest in applying the time, expertise, and effort required to “de-program” such people emerging from traumatic circumstances.
While having soldiers clean drains and sell vegetables keeps them occupied and puts a benevolent and peaceful face on people who have proven ability as warriors, such pursuits cannot provide the excitement required to keep those fighters happy for too long!
There are also ongoing initiatives for RAL to enter into various facets of the hospitality industry. A piece of this length does not permit an examination of the totality of the financial, ecological and other implications, of such initiatives. However, the simple fact that people trained to ensure the military security of a nation are being utilized for commercial, profit-making enterprises should provide cause for concern by those concerned about democratic practice.
The Prospectus of RAL is so broad that it can create all kinds of “opportunities” for ex-servicemen with the only real challenge being to ensure that those “opportunities” fit in with the primary need to ensure the absolute, long-term authority of one family, keeping all such efforts away from public scrutiny. The implications in the matter of accountability, responsibility and good governance in a democratic society are only too obvious.
In keeping with the basic Rajapaksa strategy of using a shotgun- rather than a laser-approach to dealing with needs, even secondary education has been invaded and selected school principals made Brevet Colonels. I can do no better than quote from a recent release from the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) which reads, in part,
“ ……Despite all protests by the public, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, who is retired lieutenant colonel of the Sri Lanka Army, a green card holder of the United States of America, and one of brothers of the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has appointed select school principals as “brevet colonels”…… This curious militarization of state schools, which involves selecting school principals after 10 days of armed training and appointing them as “brevet colonels”, may well have another agenda beyond the obvious. Control of the armed forces after the war, as well as the arrest of the former army chief, who led the country to victory, has been a debacle. Many veterans have been forced into retirement and the possibility of internal conflict hung in the air. The regime thus felt it had to think about, not only appointing a few yes men, but, also of destroying the dignity and power of the service.”
The enormity of the problem that this militarization represents is revealed in the simple fact that the budgets of the Defence and Urban Development sectors has gone up since the end of the protracted and expensive war against the LTTE and was anticipated to be the largest of all the budget allocations at nearly Rs. 290 Billion in 2013, an increase in excess of 25% from the year before. Juxtaposed against the allocation of a mere Rs. 37.9 billion to all education (less than 2% of the national budget), it speaks volumes as to the direction that has been chosen for Sri Lanka. Again to quote the AHRC “This is a numbers game in a country where more than 20 million people live, but 70% of the national budget is controlled by one family. ….In other words, the regime is engaging in methods that were used during the Nazism and Stalinism where education was none other than a tool of total social control. “
This is no less than a plan to build a para-military structure to solidify absolute control over a civilian population in peace-time. Military coups usually occur when the civilian authority has pretty much abdicated its power to the military or deliberately begun the transfer of authority to that sector, something that we appear to be in the process of witnessing in Sri Lanka right now. However, while Mohamed Naguib removed King Farouk of Egypt, he was soon replaced by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Similarly, Juan Peron in Argentine and Augusto Pinochet in Chile used other military men as stalking horses in their successful efforts to establish long-standing military dictatorships in their countries. Those in this country taking Sri Lanka down the road to military dictatorship need to remember George Santayana’s admonition that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”