Civil Service Essay Sri Lanka’s militaristic legacy
Rolling back the military in Sri Lanka
There is no gainsaying the fact that Muslims and Tamil minorities voted in large numbers for Maithripala Sirisena in the 2015 general election in Sri Lanka leading to his spectacular victory over his powerful rival Mahinda Rajapaksa, the sitting president. Rajapaksa had failed to endear himself to these groups who perceived him to be majoritarian and not inclusive in his political outlook. Sirisena capitalized on such disenchantment and rode to victory surprising the pundits.
That the voters wanted a roll back of Rajapaksa’s authoritarian and family-centric rule is a clear signal coming from the election results. At the same time, the voters wanted the lengthening shadow of the military to recede, and a free, un-hindered democratic atmosphere to return to the country’s polity.
The triumph of the nation’s army against the LTTE gave them a larger-than-life image among the public. For some years, the public adored their military and did not resent their increasing influence over politics, administration and economy. However, as the sentiment associated with the victory began to fade, the adulation of the war heroes waned.
People in the Tamil-majority north eastern province did not quite understand why the military should maintain such a large visible presence in their areas. Rajpaksha’s foot-dragging on devolution of powers to Tamils added to their suspicion. The Tamils have turned their face away from militarism of the past decades. This was demonstrated by their eagerness to participate enthusiastically in the elections of the fast few years. They felt, quite rightly, that Rajpaksha’s government continued to doubt that the Tamils still harbor their misplaced desire to secede and form an independent country. Obviously, such fears are exaggerated and pose a threat to the process of reintegration of the Tamils to mainstream politics.
Rajapaksa, out of his gratitude to the armed forces gave them a long lease. The military spread its wings to benefit from the commercial regeneration of the post-war years. They began to intrude into areas like tourism, education, police, civil construction, and transportation sectors.
All these happened with the tacit approval of Rajapaksha, who could not realize the backlash such preferential treatment could generate among the civilian population. Quite naturally, the civilians, particularly the Tamils expected the new president to reverse such largesse for the army.
Independent observers point to the fact that Sri Lankan government, so far, has paid lip service to the cause of reconciliation between the aggrieved Tamils and the rest of the populace. The Oakland Institute conducted a survey between December, 2014 and January, 2015 and came to a similar conclusion.
Much to the chagrin of the Tamils, the military continues its over-sized and intimidating presence in their areas. Those displaced from their homes and farms during the insurgency years on orders of the military wait for the latter to wind down their presence quickly and hand them back their lands. This is not happening. The Tamils are, as a result, restless.
Devolution of power has proceeded in a snail’s pace. War crimes investigation, assured to the Tamils by Sirisena during campaigning, has not taken off the ground. Devolution of power remains a far cry. All these had begun to fray the nerves of the Tamil leadership.
But, things have happened to change, at least in some respects. Army is pulling back from the areas under its control in the Northern Province. This should be good news for displaced Tamils. The other step is the setting up of a Presidential Task Force on Reconciliation. This body is headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, eminently suited for the responsibility.
While these steps bring a fresh air of optimism, a lot more needs to be done to curtail the overshadowing presence of the army on society. Pakistan is unable to shake off the military’s grip over the government and the society despite the public’s desire to clip their wings and let the civilian government call the shots. Sri Lanka must learn from Pakistan’s unsavoury tango with the military.
Sri Lanka’s new government is under increasing pressure from inside and outside the country to hasten the process of normalization and reconciliation. Everyone wants the wars and the Rajpaksha’s legacy to be forgotten quickly. The task that tops the agenda is to send the military to its barracks, quickly. The country must have armed forces that it needs and can afford. War-time mobilization is no longer needed. If these happen, Sri Lanka will soon become a vibrant, inclusive democracy.
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