10 March 2015

Politicizing the military and militarizing the political

There's a term that's making the rounds these days.  'De-militarization'.  It is talked of as a non-negotiable in 'moving forward'. Politically.  Of course direction of movement is very subjective and ideology-loaded.  But there's this view that just as the judiciary, executive and legislative arms need to function independent of each other, so too the 'political' and 'military'.  This was written five years ago.  Things have changed since then.  Some names are less relevant now.  The issue, however, has not lost currency.  Therefore, this re-post.

There was a time when the Federalist/Eelamist lobby masquerading as neutral do-gooders who were disinterested in conflict outcome in terms of who wins and who loses out, spent a lot of time, energy and (other people’s) money to promote a ‘political solution’ over a ‘military option’.  They ignored the fact that there is nothing apolitical about things military and that all choices are ‘political’; whether one uses bullet or ballot, word or silence, frown or smile, being merely devises drawn from a shelf called ‘strategy’. 

Whether or not a particular course of action was a good or bad strategy can be assessed in terms of time frame.  Maybe 100 years from now, some analyst might prove conclusively that it was an erroneous path. Politicians and countries seldom have the privilege of a gaze informed by extrapolating capacities of any reasonable degree of accuracy and even if endowed thus few would have the ability to convince in a manner that is politically significant.

We didn’t have terrorists at our gates; we had them inside our houses.  Some tried to pacify them and got burnt. Some realized that talking was useless with someone who spoke a different language.  They realized that the terrorist was not interested in learning the language of negotiation and that even a bullet in his behind would not persuade Prabhakaran to change his ways. The bullet had to be directed elsewhere and so it was. 

Today, March 14, 2010, we are a land free of terrorist threat.  And we have to acknowledge as we ought to have understood a long time ago that there are few cuts that do not leave scars and when tumours have to be removed it is silly to expect unblemished skin after surgery. 

Here’s the rub, then.  The decision to take the LTTE out militarily was a political one.  Whether or not a militarization of the political was inevitable is only a matter of academic interest. What is true is that it is a phenomenon that has occurred, is occurring and is of a kind that is too significant to ignore as ‘marginal’ or ‘anomaly’.  Some of it could have been avoided of course but some of it was bound to happen. 

There’s been talk of the politicization of the military for decades.  Indeed the notion that the war would have been done with and over decades ago if the military was given its head was quite popular.  A war is not fought only on the battlefield of course and therefore other elements do have roles to play.  Mahinda Rajapaksa played his role and got the right people to play those other non-military roles that complement ground, sea and air operations. Helped.  Other leader, on the contrary, let political agenda have absolute sway over military/security prerogatives. We know the tragedies unleashed by that kind of politicization. 

Yes, there was, is and always will be political direction influencing military action.  Politicization of the military is something else and implies a crass deference to ‘prerogatives’ of party affiliation.  It is impossible to stop, but it can and must be contained in situation so war.  We should consider ourselves lucky that the military establishment had been spared such ills for the most part.  Until the end of the war, that is.  Since then, especially with the (legitimate) decision of Rtd General Sarath Fonseka to enter politics, there’s been a perceptible and disturbing shift, with senior officers (at the behest of VVIPs in the Government) to go public with certain disclosures motivated by explicit political intention.

It is too early to comment on overall impact and indeed at this point it has taken the form of ‘phase’ rather than definite and irreversible ‘tendency’ where the distinction between the overtly political and the officially ‘military’ is getting smudged.  Right now what matters is how we deal with the remnant, especially the militarization of the political. 

It did not begin with Sarath Fonseka though.  He was clearly looking to be ‘political’ during his last few months, and this is evident in the kinds of appointments he was making which give credence to the theory that he was planning a by-hook-or-by-crook attempt at capturing power.  The day he announced he was contesting, he openly brought the military into the political arena, and the fact that he was officially ‘civilian’ and dressed in civvies didn’t make a difference. It must be noted that he deliberately used images of himself in military attire during his campaign, feeding freely from that garden called ‘politicization of the military’ and the general perceptions of the public regarding soldier, the heroism, sacrifice, sense of gratitude etc.  Fonseka consumed a lot of that, happily. 

But no, it did not begin with him. It began when the Defence Secretary started talking politics in the interviews he gave. Fonseka himself, as Army Commander, was not averse to talking politics on occasion. The fact that the Defence Secretary happens to be the brother of the Executive President also serves to bring the military dimension into the larger political equation.  Mahinda Rajapaksa did not help matters when he decided to play with the general partiality that the voting public had towards the troops, the ranaviruwo, fielding several at the Provincial Council Elections. 

Nevertheless, these are not important.  An ex-soldier in Parliament does not up its overall ‘militariness’ if you will.  That kind of militarization of the political is only of marginal interest and impact.  And there was enough logic-weight in the Defence Secretary blurring distinctions by accident or design at a time of war.  He’s since taken a back seat as it were and indicated that he will retire shortly.  The worrisome articulations of militarization lie elsewhere, therefore.

We have the matter of Sarath Fonseka’s arrest and detention and legal action that is to follow.  Ex Chief Justice Sarath N Silva has expressed opinion on this.  Silva’s opinions can easily be dismissed on several counts.  First of all he tied his cart to Fonseka’s star (just like the JVP). The JVP knew how far Fonseka would fly and how far therefore they could go with Fonseka. Silva may have thought ‘higher’ and therefore would have got a bruised bum.  His ire is understandable. 

Silva can be summarily dismissed on grounds of morality. He is a man who more than anyone else tarnished the independence and impartiality of the judicial system.  He dragged ‘Judicial Ethics’ into the trash can and emptied it.  He was selective, vindictive and self-seeking during his tenure and having set all kinds of dangerous precedents doesn’t have the moral authority to file plaint on procedural wrongdoing or even legality.  That’s sad, but that’s how it is. 

Gomin Dayasri has correctly pointed out that Silva’s contentions are out of order in that he is today pandering to the manifest ill-will of certain despicable sections of the international community, following the I-will-spite-my-face prerogative that Fonseka has shown preference for. All Silva’s objections hang on the legal thread about a junior officer not having the authority to arrest a senior officer. This is correct and it only shows that there is a loophole (H.L.D. Mahindapala has argued the issue comprehensively in a piece titled ‘When the law is an ass why is the ex-CJ following it?’). It means that the highest officer is above the law since only he could arrest himself and that will not happen, especially not in the case of ego-maniacs like Fonseka.  This is where judicial activism can play a positive role (Silva’s activism as CJ was patently partisan, vindictive and self-serving).  Whether it can happen today is a different issue of course.  If it happens and if there is ill-intent involved, then Silva can’t complain because Silva, more than any other judge cut the road for judicial activism and judicial hanky-panky.    

Silva’s antics are not what this is about, however. We are talking about the militarization of the political.  Sarath N Silva’s bullishness notwithstanding, it has to be acknowledged that if there’s anything clear about the entire process it is the manifest absence of clarity.  Fonseka didn’t do himself any favours by his loose-cannot statements and brigand-like ways. He employed his title of Ex-Army Commander in utterly despicable and treacherous ways.  He embarrassed the Government and having proved he was a man of such venom and vindictive intent that he was willing to lie, he left the Government with very few options. 

Regardless of this, he remains a citizen and if equality before the law is a notion that is cited in disregarding the fact that he was a presidential candidate and secured 40% of the total vote, the same principle should drive the entire process of prosecution.  Instead we hear ‘Army Act’ now and ‘civilian law’ next.  We hear of military tribunals and court marshal procedures and we hear about him being tried outside the ambit of the Army Act.   

All of this, we have to keep in mind, happen under the considerably heavy shadows of two things, Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, both ‘irrelevanced’ by the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE.  That’s where the ‘military’ that invaded the ‘political’ remains an occupying force.  

Today we have Sarath Fonseka under arrest. We have also seen a series of arrests of senior military officers, on suspicion of having aided and abetted Fonseka in one or many of the crimes he is supposed to have committed.  On the one hand, if there has been wrong doing, then ‘equality before the law’ demands action, regardless of the ‘medalling’ that hero-status may have warranted at one time.  At the same time, it is hard to believe that the entire process is not prompted by the prerogatives of political expediency, of removal or neutralizing of political threat for example. 

Here the ‘military’ invades and occupies the political in a different kind of way.  We can call it ‘by way of precedent’. We could also say, ‘implications for tomorrow’.  Today we don’t have the LTTE threat, at least not in the way we had it a year ago. Maybe we will not have to face any kind of terrorist threat ever again. Then again, who can tell?  Who can tell what kind of crazy individual is among us today or will be born tomorrow and what kind of destruction he/she would be willing to unleash on society?  There could come a time when we require security forces to play a similarly committed and effective role in vanquishing such threats.  When that requirement surfaces, if Mr Military has taken firm hold of the Political City by dint of armoury, strategy, thinking etc., the principle of keeping different arms of the state at specific distances from one another would have been so compromised to render both Mr. Politician and Mr. Solider ineffective. 

In short, we are showing signs of going overboard.  The threats are different today from what they were four years ago.  There is an overwhelming logic to return things to where they were, ‘things’ meaning institutions and personnel.  Gotabhaya Rajapaksa promised he would retire.  I am waiting for him to keep his word. 

There was logic in appointing military officials to handle the IDP facilities due to the sheer magnitude of the challenge. I can’t think of any outfit apart from the Army being able to manage the situation.  The UN agencies would have floundered as would have the civil administration, while I/NGO boys and girls would have cried their eyes out in despair. All of them had complementary roles to play and this is what they did.  We got a success story (compared to a lot of other places in the world).  There was ‘logic’ in appointing military officers to handle key post-war institutions.  They still have a role. For example, Major General Daya Ratnayake is doing an excellent job at Commissioner of Rehabilitation and I can think of no civilian who would do better than he.  Major General Chandrasiri knows Jaffna better than any other public servant and there is logic in appointing him as Governor, which is a civilian post. 

At the same time, there has to be thinking on phasing out the military from spheres that should be civilian preserves.  The militarization of the political, then, is taking many forms and is a phenomenon that has to be examined with sympathy to context but also a view to the future, the implications of things continuing this way.  In this, the needs of the day should be strictly ignored.  This is a challenge that is before Mahinda Rajapaksa. He doesn’t require a two-thirds majority to think about it.   


Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com


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