It serves the agendas of a very few...who fall in line are simply duped by patriotic rhetoric
What does the corpse care who was right and who was wrong?”
- Manuel Azana
The militarisation of the State apparatus in all areas of authority over social life continues unabated in the post November 2019 Presidential Election era in Sri Lanka. Many aspects of administration that can easily be performed by civil authorities are being entrusted, seemingly without any second thoughts, to military or retired military officers. Be it COVID 19 responses or tourism promotion, archaeological site conservation or rebuilding the North and East in the second decade after the end of the civil war, the presence and dominance of the military is unmistakable and to a civilised mind, ominous.
The onset of the COVID 19 pandemic, if anything, accelerated the speed at which the military was being entrusted with and deployed to oversee purely civilian tasks. Even before the Coronavirus onslaught, appointment of retired military officers as governors, heads of Departments and Bureaus, which hitherto have been run by civilian authorities was taking place unchecked. Yet the deployment of the armed forces as the country’s first responders to the outbreak was total, dramatic and emphatic. Although there were concerns raised by a few, a large majority of the populace did not appear too worried about the encroachment of the military uniform in to mainly civil areas of life. A mindset of venerating the armed forces coupled with a pumped-up psychosis of fear about everything that is not monolithically majority, Sinhala and Buddhist, which goes hand in hand with the National Security mantra, that supplied the background music to the election of the present President, who himself was at one time, a high ranking Army officer, is very much a remnant of the thirty-year-old brutal civil war.
The COVID 19 response of the government, i.e. handing over the control of running the entire response and combat of the threat, including detection, quarantine, maintaining lockdown as well as control over medical and health workers was placed squarely on the three armed forces. Officers either serving or retired, but loyal to the Rajapaksa family, without exception, were placed at crucial decision making and implementation posts, making it a blanket cover of military presence over purely civil enterprises of administration.
Many countries have sought the assistance of the military in responding to the unprecedented threat of a quickly spreading virus and in most cases the military has responded successfully. Even in those European countries, where civil liberties are guarded at any cost and military interference is frowned upon with suspicion, France, Germany and Italy to name a few, the armed forces were deployed for certain crucial activities, which in the circumstances could not be carried out by the civilian officials and members of those administrations. But the overall control never slipped from and remained with civil administration.
Who controls who?
Yet encapsulating all the decision making and control over the response mechanism in a Task Force run by the Army Commander and the overwhelming presence of so many military officers, was questionable from a rule of law perspective, in particular, as the expansive mandate given to it by executive order simply undermines the powers and duties of civilian bodies created by Acts of Parliament for those very same activities. Yet no legal challenge was forthcoming and to be honest, did not seem viable, at the seemingly alarming nature of the growth of the pathogen within the country.
The fact that a military officer who has been accused by the West of being guilty of atrocities during the last phase of the civil war being appointed as the head of a public health enterprise of this nature has not gone unnoticed internationally as several human rights organizations have had their eyebrows raised.
"Many aspects of administration that can easily be performed by civil authorities are being entrusted, to military or retired military officers. Be it COVID 19 responses or archeological site conservation, the dominance of the military is -to a civilized mind, ominous"
The Curfew, which the Army Commander called ‘quarantine curfew’ and the police spokesman kept on labelling a ‘police curfew’, in itself was legally questionable; but over sixty four thousand individuals had been arrested and detained for violation.
It had not been imposed in terms of the Public Securities Ordinance, as it was not possible to extend it beyond a period of one month with the Parliament in dissolution. Leaving the strictly legal questioning of the curfew and the restriction regulations, the manner in which the military implemented the curfew specially, in the North and East has come under criticism specially, in terms of relief distributions to affected people. The alleged incidents of the army taking over such supplies and then distributing them under the military banner was one type of military highhandedness in the relief work, which could have been done equitably and efficiently by civil administration, if necessary, with the support of the forces.
The conflicts that simmered between the medical professionals and the military officers who were appointed to ‘boss over’ them, though not publicised , speak of the suitability of assigning to the military, in a time of peace, complex public health and relief measures, by their nature, require coordination by civil officers of the government administration.
In a backdrop of such unchecked militarisation, came the commemoration of the war victory over the LTTE by the armed forces. As has been the case with the Rajapaksa regimes, although restricted in scale by the exigencies of the pandemic, it became a platform not merely for venerating those heroic soldiers who sacrificed life and limb but to justify and glorify a continued military mentality and militarisation of civil life. As the President himself said Sri Lanka were to distance itself from international bodies that put the security forces in ‘discomfort’. His brother the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed the view that appointment of retired military personnel to seemingly civilian designations of authority could not be termed militarisation as they were ‘retired’ and fell under the category of civilians.
As much disturbing, if not more, was the absolute indifference and sometimes eager, support that came from the populace, at least the most vociferous segments of the majority, that not only condoned the military takeover of the public health issue, but which went as far as invitations for the military to take over control of entire governance, if social media is an indicator of public opinion. The highly biased websites and media outlets glorified the expansive mandate given to the armed forces and even demanded that parliament be permanently disbanded as the men in uniform were ‘doing a great job’. Woefully oblivious were they of the reality of political history of the world, where military takeovers, initially intending good, as in Iraq or Pakistan, have metamorphosed in to brutal and trenchant dictatorship, demanding bloodshed to be overthrown, finally.
Sri Lankan military is disciplined, experienced and capable of holding its’ own with the best of the world. The tremendous workload they shouldered to end the civil war will be remembered by any decent-minded citizen irrespective of race, caste or creed. Yet the fact remains that we are a representative democracy that has survived two violent insurgencies of the South, a thirty-year-old brutal civil war, bloody communal riots, a constitutional coup and many other precarious situations without giving into despotism. To yield to such tendencies for militarisation, when the war had ended more than a decade ago, does not serve the interests of the populace of a vibrant democracy.
It serves the agendas of a very few. The majority who fall in line, are simply duped by patriotic rhetoric.