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Falling out of love with the Army

2013 Aug 10

Guest Column by Dr. Kumar David  

How quickly a besotted Sinhala public turned from adoration to angst of the country’s military and police has taken me by surprise.

Perhaps this is but a passing lover’s quarrel which will blow over and adulation of the “brave heroes who vanquished the most ferocious terrorists on the globe” will soon return. Or perhaps a paradigm has shifted. I am referring to the change in public mood evident after the shooting of civilian protesters at Waliveriya village on 1 August 2013. The ingredients for a wakeup call have been long present; but an introductory paragraph is necessary to put things in perspective.

In all cultures, and Lanka is no exception, the heroes of a tribe, race or nation are the conquerors of a historical enemy. The first great hero of the Sinhalese race is Dutugemunu who vanquished the Tamil king Ellalan in 160 BC; the Sinhalese mass sees the victors of May 2009 in a similar light. One might add, en passant, that another lesson of these two events is that the 15% cannot militarily defeat the 75% without substantial overseas aid. Conversely, the occasions on which catastrophic defeats were inflicted on the Sinhalese were when powerful South Indian kingdoms undertook invasions, or when colonial powers brought to bear their superior technology. The two best known examples of the former are the sack of Anuradhapura by Raja Raja Chola in 993 AD, and the seizure of Polonnoruwa by Kalinga Magha in 1215 AD using Chola and Pandyan mercenaries. (Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are the oldest seats of Sinhalese civilisation though two thousand years more recent than counterparts in China and India).

Waliveriya

It started as a localised problem; drinking water was being poisoned by the discharge from a factory owned by a subsidiary of one of Lanka’s largest companies, Hayleys. It could have been settled at the local level but government party cronies in the local administrations were on the take. A not very large demonstration led by youth was organised, and it still remained a minor local affair. Then came the fireworks, first the police and then the army rolled in, assaulted the villagers mercilessly, made the youth kneel down and continued to beat them with blunt weapons, and finally for reasons that absolutely no one can understand, opened fire. It is beyond comprehension why firearms were used against a small protest rally by unarmed villagers – civilians. Three of the injured have died so far. The anger that has poured out all over the country, not just in that locality, but nationally in the electronic and print media, in statements and petitions, and in Lanka oriented international websites, has been prolific. As a fried of mine said: It’s stunning, it’s as if a dam has burst and all the pent up anger is pouring out.

The government is dumbfounded; neither President nor his brother and all powerful Defence Secretary have opened their mouths is public up to this time of writing. An attempt to pass the buck and have a military spokesman carry the can misfired badly. The Brigadier made such a monumental ass of himself, making references to the diaspora, a hidden black-hand and miraculous flying rocks, that it confirmed the old story that marching too much in heavy jackboots emulsifies the brain. It looks as if a kind of political turning point has been reached but it’s a month too early to say. Three Provincial Council elections will be held in September; the government will be trounced in the Tamil Northern Province, that’s sure, but the outcome in the Central and North Western Provinces will test the barometer; let’s see. If the UPFA loses even one of these, it will sound the tocsin of the Rajapakse Regime.

The obscenity of race politics

In essence what happened in Waliveriya and the slaughter of tens of thousands of unarmed civilians in the final stages of the civil war in early 2009 are the same; what is different is only an astronomical disproportion in scale. Sinhala society remained dumb at that time though the warning was sounded by some, like this writer, that the guns the state was discharging against the Tamils would soon point at the Sinhalese themselves. The obscenity of race politics is that until this actually happens, those of one race remain dumb about the slaughter of the other. Still, better late than never; the Sinhalese are at long last learning that a military suckled on blood, like a vampire, is indiscriminate about where to gorge its blood-lust next. The function of the repressive organs of the state is not to protect the people, perish that thought; its role is to the people in subjugation to the rulers. The Rajapakses of Lanka have not relinquished one iota of their desire for a Corporatist Dictatorship; this explains their silence, their conduct, and their relationship to the military-police establishment.

I have been approached more than once to participate in statements and activities to condemn the Waliveriya shooting. If the request came from a Sinhalese quarter or someone previously linked to the Rajapakse Administration, invariably they wish to remain silent on the slaughter of Tamil civilians in the civil war. This hush must not be permitted; there must be no cover up of the obscenity of race politics.

Has Mahinda lost control of Gota; or Gota lost control of the army?

An essay that I presented in Lanka’s Sunday Island and the website Colombo Telegraph on 21 July was widely read. It discussed a nagging concern; is there a conflict between the siblings Mahinda and Gotabahaya Rajapakse. Does the former tango softly-softly for the international community while the latter devil-dances to keep Sinhala-Buddhist extremism on board? I had to leave the answer open three weeks ago, but the probability has shifted since in the direction that there may indeed be conflict and dissension within the regime. There are only two options now; either President Mahinda has lost control of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya, or they are both steadily losing control of the army.

I will give three reasons. For years it has been said that organised widespread human rights violations in Lanka was a cooperative effort by the organs of military repression hand in hand with the political powers. Now has the Rottweiler broken the leash and marauding on its own? That is possibility number one. Second, the Weliveriya incident has caused the government great embarrassment and may even lead to electoral setbacks. This suggests that the siblings no longer see eye to eye, or that a section of the army has decided to go its own way and tell them both to go to hell.

The third reason may look small but it says a lot.  Minister Meryn de Silva, hated by all, is a kind of a Rasputin. His son, like father, has been throwing his weight around and recently even assaulted an army officer in public. Well, let me now reproduce a newspaper report that says it all.           

The Island (31 July 2013). QUOTE: “The police suspect security forces were involved in Monday’s attack on Malaka Silva, son of Public Relations Minister Mervyn Silva at the Odel car park. The police said that the manner in which Malaka Silva had been attacked by the gang suggested that a group of experienced security forces men was responsible for it. Investigations have revealed that the attackers were wearing boots similar to those worn by the security forces personnel. The police said that the attack had been recorded on the CCTV cameras at the car park, but the attackers could not be identified. The video footage will be sent to the Moratuwa University for further examination. The police said that the attackers had been waiting for Malaka at the car park”. END QUOTE.

Is the political establishment being told to get out of the way? I rest my case.

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