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Presidential elections and the fear of a militarised government December 9, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , trackback

Jehan Perera

The entry of former army commander General Sarath Fonseka into the political arena as the common opposition presidential candidate has set off a vigorous debate about the danger it can pose to Sri Lanka’s democracy. At the same time, the retired General’s entry into the political contest has rejuvenated the opposition and revived public interest in the result of the elections. These are benefits to democracy that require an active opposition and public interest that keeps the Government on the alert and responsive to popular opinion.

The strength of Sri Lankan democracy over the years has been the unbroken commitment of its people and political leadership to the conduct of elections as the means of ensuring legitimacy in governance.  General Fonseka’s entry into national politics at the highest level has given rise to concern about the longer term fate of Sri Lankan democracy. The General has no experience of being a politician. What he has is a forty year record of being a professional soldier.  During this time he gained the highest position in the Sri Lankan army and led it to a victory over the hitherto tenacious LTTE during his three year tenure as army commander.

If General Fonseka becomes President by winning the presidential elections to be held in 26 January  next year, he will once again have authority over the army, as commander-in-chief of all the armed forces. It is no cause for surprise that concerns should be expressed about the possible blurring of lines between civilian and military rule in the event of General Fonseka winning the presidential election. On the other hand, the use of the military for political purposes in democracies is not new, either in Sri Lanka or abroad.  It does not require a retired General of the army to use the military as a means to achieve larger political objectives.

On several occasions past governments in Sri Lanka have been accused of setting political timetables for military offensives when there was the war against the LTTE. The proliferation of security checkpoints, even after the military defeat of the LTTE, and sudden removal of many of them with the announcement of elections, suggests a political motivation of utilising the security forces to intimidate and exert control over the general population.

Indeed, Sri Lanka is no stranger to the direct involvement of the military in governance of the north and east where the war was fought. Successive governments have appointed military commanders to oversee the governance of those areas, to whom the civilian administration had to report to.The military in those areas established Civil Liaison offices to which the civilian population had to go for various reasons, including travel. More recently retired military officers have been appointed to the most powerful administrative positions in the north and east, including those of Governors of provinces and Government Agents of districts.

The take-over of civilian administration in the north and east by former and serving military officers has reached a peak in the past three years and accompanied the escalation in the government’s war effort. After the end of the war the entire displaced population of the formerly LTTE-controlled areas, amounting to over a quarter of a million people, found themselves confined to welfare camps run by the military. But this military role has been regarded as legitimate because it is decreed by the elected political leadership of the country. Therefore the role of the military in the governance of the north and east cannot be considered to be a military takeover.

Apart from its prowess on the battlefield, the great strength of the Sri Lankan military has been its non-interference in politics. There have been no reported instances of top-level military commanders acting in defiance of the orders of the elected government politicians.  If they sometimes were seen to be acting outside the ambit of their legitimate role as the guardians of national security, it was invariably because some section of the Government leadership was ordering them to do so. There is little reason to doubt that extra legal activities that apparently targeted LTTE members and sympathisers, and which were often attributed to the security forces, were done with the political authorisation of the Government.

The obedience of the military commanders to the elected political leadership was perhaps best seen when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE in 2002. The new Prime Minister ordered the immediate removal of security barriers and opened up the roads. This may have been against the better judgment of the military commanders, but they obeyed the orders of the Prime Minister and his Defence Minister. Another example of the obedience of the military commanders to the orders of the political authorities was General Fonseka’s immediate relinquishment of his position of army commander even though he had requested for a short extension of his service to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Sri Lankan army.

In the event of General Fonseka becoming President after winning the forthcoming presidential election, he may utilize the military to ensure governance in the manner of his predecessors. If he does so, he will not be doing something new but what the political leaders who have come before him also have done. President Rajapaksa’s utilization of the services of retired and serving military commanders has been legitimate and is not considered to be military rule because it is at the elected President’s request. So long as the President can obtain the majority support of the electorate he may believe that he can do what he likes. But a democratic leader also needs to uphold democratic values.

As a former army commander, General Fonseka will always need to be especially sensitive to the charge that he will militarise governance in society if he is elected President. What he says and the commitments he makes during the course of the election campaign will be important in reassuring the national electorate on this score. President Rajapaksa on the other hand needs to reconsider the role of the military in governance, whether at security barriers or in the administrative offices of the north and east, if he is to obtain the electoral support of the ethnic minorities in particular.

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