President Rajapakse will probably go down in history for two achievements: he put down the LTTE rebellion and he has prevented the military coming to power. The first achievement is widely, and correctly, bruited about as the foundation for his enduring popularity with the Sinhala masses. The second achievement – preventing the military coming to power – is not bruited about at all, and perhaps is not even recognized. But it seems to me a major achievement for which the nation has to be grateful, even though it is an achievement of an ambiguous and provisional order. However, that achievement has left him with the dilemma of finding a role for a victorious army in peacetime.
It is arguable that too much credit should not be given to him for the military victory over the LTTE. It was, after all, a military victory, not a civilian one, in which the major role was played by Sarath Fonseka and the soldiers who did the actual fighting, and the major credit should therefore go to them and not to any civilian. Furthermore the President was not a charismatic figure of the order of Churchill who in 1940 transformed Britain’s darkest hour into its finest hour and imbued a nation with the fighting spirit. His detractors would say that he was the average Sri Lankan politician, though endowed with above average cunning, whose primary preoccupation was the feathering of his own nest and that of his relations, with not much more than residual concern for the national interest.
It remains, however, that the war was won under his Presidency, and I believe that he, unlike the previous Presidents, made that victory possible. I must recount at this point what I gathered while I was Ambassador in Moscow from 1995 to 1998. Shortly after I assumed office there the three Chiefs of Staff of our armed forces came to Moscow on arms purchasing missions. They included Major General Daluwatte who later became Army Commander. He said something to the following effect – not in his exact words – which germinated in my mind: “Give us the men and the weapons in sufficient quantity, and we will finish the job”. What that meant quite clearly was that since 1984, which saw the beginning of the civil war, until 1995 our armed forces had not been provided the men and the weapons in the requisite quantity to finish off the LTTE.
Why not? The answer was suggested by what was told to me by an important personage who visited Moscow not long afterwards. I cannot go into specifics about who it was and what exactly he said, but he was quite explicit on the point that the armed forces should be given just the requisite quantity of weapons to defeat the LTTE and no more, because anything in excess of that could be used against the people for a military coup d’état. That could have been just his personal and eccentric point of view, or he could have been reflecting the thinking going on in the highest echelons of the then Government. The latter I think is quite likely because he was after all declaring a commonsensical point of view. After a military victory a military leader could emerge who might want to take power, which would not be possible without sufficient weapons to contain a democratic counter-thrust.
I don’t want to make irresponsible allegations that our leaders prior to MR deliberately starved the armed forces of the weaponry requisite for defeating the LTTE. I am suggesting rather that the logic of the situation outlined in the preceding paragraph dictated prudence in limiting the weaponry to what was strictly requisite for a military victory. Obviously that could lead to serious miscalculations, which was perhaps the reason for the horrifying military debacle at Elephant Pass in 2000. Our army did not have the kind of weapons to withstand the LTTE thrust, and could reverse the tide of war only because Pakistan rushed to our help with those weapons. All that, arguably, belongs to the realm of speculation. But what is hard fact, not speculation, is this: a political leader facilitating a military victory could face the prospect of the emergence of a war hero who might want to take power through a coup d’état or through elections as might have happened with General MacArthur in the post-War US. Some of our leaders prior to MR would have balked at the prospect of a military victory, but MR forged ahead, and in doing that he showed that he was willing to place the national interest above his self-interest. It is proper to give him due credit for that.
His second achievement, to which I pointed in the first paragraph of this article – preventing the military coming to power –, is hardly recognized. For decades it had been a fairly widespread expectation that sooner or later a war hero would emerge, take power and set things right by chasing away the corrupt and inefficient politicians, with the full backing of the people. It was thought that Denzil Kobbekaduwe was that war hero, and therefore it was suspected that the then UNP Government had got him assassinated. 2009 saw the emergence of another war hero in Sarath Fonseka, a fully authentic one because he actually led the army to victory. It was believed by many that it was not necessary for him to resort to the unconstitutional means of a coup to take power as he could win at democratic elections. But President MR won handsomely, after whichSF was jailed and it was shown that he had nothing like the mass appeal expected from a war hero.
There could have been several factors behind that victory, one of which was probably the people’s preference for democracy against what would have been seen as a disguised military dictatorship under SF. We must bear in mind the significance of the fact that the assassination of Premadasa, who was even more dictatorial than JRJ, was greeted with island-wide celebrations. Under a less democratic, and politically less adroit, leader than President MR those elections might have been won by SF. I must clarify at this point that I am not forgetting that the democracy that we had was a flawed one, but it was not a dictatorship.
We must also bear in mind that dictatorship, more specifically military dictatorship, is of all forms of government far and away the worst. The evidence for that charge, provided by the huge number of dictatorships in the third world, is overwhelming. The Latin American dictatorships under American hegemony were notorious for corruption, inefficiency, brutality, and the prevention of equitable economic development. The horrors of African dictatorships under the Idi Amins, the Mobutus, the Bokassas are well-known. In the Arab world the performance of democratic Lebanon far outshone all the Arab dictatorships. In South Asia democratic India provides a striking contrast to Pakistan which for most of the time had military dictatorship. Myanmar’s performance after decades of military dictatorship has been dismal. There have been very few successful dictatorships against the huge number of failures. Turkey alternated between military dictatorship and democracy, and kept doing well under both systems, until democracy was stabilized, and something of the sort seems to be true of Thailand as well. The economic and other performance of Taiwan and South Korea under military dictatorship was spectacular.
So, President MR could go down in history for enabling the defeat of the LTTE and also for preventing the military coming to power, but the second achievement – as I pointed out in my first paragraph above – is of an ambiguous and provisional order. It is of an ambiguous order because of the progressive militarization of the society. The number of top jobs given to military personnel could whet the military appetite for more and more and more, since it is known that in the matter of goodies the appetite grows in the eating. Then there is the alleged presence of 150,000 troops in the North about which the Tamils have been complaining. What we have been witnessing is not a covert stealthy creeping militarization but something akin to the galloping of wild stallions let loose on a boundless plain. This militarization should be considered in conjunction with another development: after the 18th Amendment the President has been going in a dictatorial direction, setting in motion a process which could lead – without the President quite intending it – to a de facto dictatorship which comes to have progressively a military character. So, the achievement in preventing the military coming to power is of an ambiguous and provisional order.
Perhaps all this is a consequence of the dilemma facing the Government: what peacetime role should be assigned to a conquering army? Each Budget witnesses a rise in the expenditure on the armed forces, which is understandable because they cannot be just disbanded in substantial numbers. Since ours is not a highly developed economy there are no fitting jobs to be offered to them. In this situation the armed forces encroachment into the civilian sphere seems to be inevitable. The alternative would be a new terrorist threat to the nation, which would keep the armed forces occupied with strictly military duties. Was that the logic behind the State-backed anti-Muslim hate campaign? I have been analyzing that campaign in terms of a neo-Fascist drive towards an authoritarian ultra- nationalism aimed at national regeneration, a drive which would entail the kicking down of the Muslim and other minorities. There could also have been a secret motive behind the hate campaign: to provoke the Muslims into a jihadist terrorist reaction. No such reaction has occurred, and for reasons that I cannot go into here it is most unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.
It appears therefore that the anti-Muslim hate campaign is a failure. In this context it could be significant that Chief Minister Wigneswaran has recently spoken about the Government trying to use an ex-LTTE Commander to resurrect a bogus LTTE to serve the purposes of the Government. I don’t want to speculate on that partly for lack of space. More important is that the fundamentals seem to be quite clear. Neo-Fascism, racism, the kicking down of minorities, evasiveness on finding a political solution to the ethnic problem will only lead to a further gory mess. The way forward has to be through more and more and more democracy.