Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in office and outside, was never shy of speaking her mind. Her recent remarks on “rampant militarization’’ in an interview with the weekend edition of the Aththa newspaper has predictably drawn the ire of the Defence Ministry. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the former president has spoken out on a subject that is worrying a number of Lankans, not merely those who are opposed to the present Rajapaksa administration. The President and his brother, the Defence Secretary, have been widely commended across the political spectrum for ending the LTTE menace. Even those inclined to the view that appointing members of a leader’s immediate family to top positions in any administration does not enhance good governance agree that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, given his military background and unfettered access to his brother, who is both Commander-in-Chief and Defence Minister, was an ideal choice for the job that was given him. The war victory clearly vindicated that appointment.
There are many who simplistically expected massive demobilization once the war was won. While enormous manpower was necessary to take on an enemy as formidable as Velupillai Prabhakaran and the ruthless war and terror machine he built, they thought than once the war was won, the men in khaki could be patted on their backs for a job well done and sent home. Their thinking was in essence that the country could do away with massive defence expenditure and return to the days when the armed forces were largely ceremonial, doubling as an internal security force when circumstances so demanded. That obviously was not possible. Thousands of men trained in warfare could clearly not be let loose on society with nothing to do and no means of income. The consequence of doing that, apart from being immoral, would have been truly horrendous. While security considerations were no longer what they were before the war ended, there is an effort by expatriate groups sympathetic to the LTTE cause to further push the separatist agenda. They have achieved notable success in the international sphere, winning foreign backers for an anti-Sri Lanka project that continues to gathered momentum. Although there is little or no evidence of any effort on the part of an LTTE rump or some other to embark on the military/terror trajectory of the past, such possibilities cannot be discounted and the guard lowered.
Nevertheless it can be debated whether the lack of a cutback in military strength five years after the war ended is justifiable. The government, if at all, is increasing the military forces and pouring more money into the defence establishment. Post-2009, the Defence Ministry has assumed responsibility for urban development and the Defence Secretary is leading a drive of urban beautification and renewal employing human and other resources of the armed forces. Here then are the people whom CBK is talking about when she says “today even the roads are swept by military personnel.’’ She has gone on firm record stating that her worry is that one day, they would throw away their brooms and take up arms against those who rise against the government.’’ Rising against a government the way the JVP did in 1971 and 1988-89 and the LTTE did subsequently must certainly be dealt with in the manner Mrs. Bandaranaike did in 1971 and President Premadasa did during the JVP’s second adventure. Successive Presidents starting from JRJ through Premadasa, Wijetunga, CBK herself and Rajapaksa threw the armed might of the state against Prabhakaran. That is as it should be. Terrorist groups cannot be permitted to overthrow democratically elected governments. That is the job of the people at free and fair elections.
The fears that the former president, who has been mentioned as a common opposition candidate against the incumbent, has expressed relate to the government’s very visible efforts to keep the military in good humor. A large number of serving and retired soldiers have been posted to civilian jobs with many serving in the country’s diplomatic missions abroad in the style of Egypt and Pakistan under military rule. A lot on public funds are poured into keeping servicemen happy and there are fears, right or wrong, that the regime would use the military to prevent the people from voting the incumbents out if they wish to do so. Such fears need expression in a democracy. It can be argued that CBK has done the job that is more that of the Leader of the Opposition than hers. But with Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe opting to hold his tongue, the former president filling the breach must surely be welcomed. An unidentified defence ministry official was quoted last week by The Island criticizing CBK for what she has said. This senior official who was not identified has accused the former president of discussing the post-war role of the military “in a rather disparaging manner.’’ It must first be stated that Kumaratunga’s criticism was political and it is not the business of an official to respond. The response should rightly have been made by the political head of the ministry.
Apart from that impropriety, the substance of the comments is a desirable facet in the democratic space which demands both sides of a story. It has been stated that CBK and the TNA which is led by a separatist party has taken a common stand against the military; that the forces have been redeployed after the war in line with an overall plan to ensure post-war security; sending the troops home immediately after hostilities ended would have caused a massive upheaval; and it is untrue to accuse using the military for purposes of spying because the military does not have that capability. He alleged that Kumaratunga’s comments were timed to coincide with the ongoing UNHRC sessions in Geneva. Whether the Defence Secretary is an official or a politician is a grey area. Remember he campaigned at the Colombo Municipal elections – something a ministry secretary cannot or must not do.