Militarisation vs the People: Will there be confrontation? by Kumar David

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From mid-September to late November the autocratic ambitions of the Gotabaya regime were in retreat, but the President’s hard-core has rallied and in the last fortnight we see a toughening tone. But is there substance to this posturing or is it a confused government running in circles around itself like a headless chicken? Can a stricken regime make an illegal grab for power? You may say stranger things have happened but the “best laid schemes o’ Headless Chickens an’ Men (usually) gang aft agley”. Take the Third Act of a recent comedy; the Daily Financial Times of 7 December says “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has decided to establish a Green Agriculture Operative Centre to systematically and sustainably fulfil the priorities identified to make Sri Lanka a ‘green’ country to be implemented under the direction of Army Commander Shavendra Silva”. It goes on, after an interminable list of whistling in the dark instructions, to stipulate that Army Silva and his minions will “coordinate all officials from the highest level to the ground level involved in agriculture, distribution of food crop products and the promotion of health education and communication programs on organic food consumption.” Or to put it briefly the military will boss of the public service.

Given the mood in the country, in the public service and among trade unions, efforts by the military to throw its weight around extra-constitutionally will be ignored if not defied. Act One of this lost in the woods malaise was on 10 May 2021 when the Presidential Secretariat issued a proclamation establishing a “Presidential Task Force on Creating a Green Sri Lanka with Sustainable Solutions to Climate Change” chaired by Basil and consisting of 46 (yes that’s right!) strong throng including five Cabinet Ministers, a Governor and highlighting the inclusion of a “female member of Parliament” (sic!). Has this august body ever met? What has it discussed and decided? What has it done? Or is it all just humbug!

Most likely it slumbered; so what next? “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a top-level task force of 14 to transform the Government’s green agriculture agenda into fruition, thereby enhancing its contribution to sustainable socio-economic development”. Chaired by Vijith Weikala, said the Daily Financial Times of 18 October 2021. This was the ersatz Second Act in a merry-go-round of a prancing headless chickens.

Pandemonium in other spheres of government is no less a theatre of the absurd. Here are two reports (on the same day) in The Island of 10 December 2021. One says SLPP MP Gevindu Cumaratunga held a press conference to condemn government and Cabinet policies and the President. Worse, another story followed up: “Cabinet ministers Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila yesterday made representations to the Supreme Court in support of the fundamental rights cases filed against the transfer of 40 per cent of government shares of the Yugadanavi Power Station to US-based New Fortress Energy”. (Anura Kumara told parliament that the avowal by these three jokers that the Cabinet did not approve the LNG deal at a Zoom meeting is a fib; Sunday Morning 13 Dec). Rather quaintly the Island added: “There hasn’t been a previous instance of members of Cabinet moving court against a Cabinet decision”. Yes, Cumaratunga, Nanayakkra, Wimal and Udya know the consequences of fork-tongued frolicking. The ship is sinking, the rats are leaping overboard and the regime is approaching its denouement. This is not say that it will expire before its constitutionally prescribed funeral date, but an obituary notice is being released in anticipation.

Can a muddled regime set out on a militarist extra-constitutional adventure? Well, deranged persons will attempt anything, but pause for a moment and look at the cards stacked against such folly. The public is outraged by uncontrolled cost of living inflation; the trade unions (electricity, station masters, teachers, health sector and others) are girding their loins for a show down. Farmers are on the warpath, the Catholic and recently the Tamil minorities have thrown down the gauntlet. “Conspiracy” holler the former, “External Self-Determination” proclaim the latter; the SLMC stammers “13A”. Foreign coffers in the Central Bank are as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard; Biden is taking aim at sundry human and democratic rights offenders; the Chinese are taking Lanka’s public institutions to the law courts and India rubbed the nose of the impecunious visiting Finance Minister on the toilet floor.

Can a regime in a pickle attempt a fix-all military adventure? Can it bring back the white-van, bump off critics and lock down press freedom? Well yes it can; worse things happen when a red rag is fluttered in the face of a goaded bull. But an attempt at a putsch will provoke mass popular resistance; a military adventure will be the forerunner to an uprising and all sides will lose. Public response will be defiance and as Einstein said “after the Third World War everyone will be left only with sticks and stones”. Lanka will enter a dark age of protracted turmoil – vide Burma and Sudan. The regime’s leaders will be hostages, and worst of all is that what the end will be is uncertain. Lasting chaos and anarchy, untethered minorities, an Indian game plan, and a deprivation of Chinese bail-out cash. All this and more is likely.

But whether things come to such a pass does not depend on Gotabaya, his military brass and his screw-loose advisors. It depends on us! Yes, you heard me right, it depends on us! A formidable and unified opposition will stop conspirators and putsch seekers in their tracks. They have to be frightened off before they dare start. The opposition must be manifestly united and well organised for this minimal task of self-preservation. This is not asking for much, it is not asking for a political alliance, a commitment to coalition government or a joint socio-economic programme. Sure, let the JVP, the SJB, the TNA and anyone else (SLFP, Dead-Left or SLPP dissidents willing to part company with conspirators) remain free to retain their platforms and their programmes to set up governments of their liking and making in the future if they can. There is room for sectarians as well. There will be explicit appreciation, as with the Single Issue strategy in 2015 that the purpose is to throw back a common threat. There is no expectation of consummation in a coalition government unless that is explicitly agreed between some partners. At the same time all will be free to grow their own strength; actually those seen to contribute the most to a common defence strategy will win the greatest individual strength.

Of course this presumes that these parties see that a grab for power in some form or shape is emerging. If they don’t see any danger I guess they will reckon that I am baying at the moon, that the sudden prorogation of parliament is routine, that the CEB power outage last week was not the work of a ‘black hand’ hopeful of the a State of Emergency and that pushing the public service under the military is customary. If they do not perceive an existential threat to democracy the studied complacency of the JVP, SJB and TNA avoiding defensive congregation makes sense. I grant that the previous drift of this essay has been to boohoo the gorillas, nevertheless isn’t it quaint to see maiden coyness from much ravished madams? All blush to be the first to declare “Let’s couple consensually”; they don’t know what they are missing! The TNA goes to Washington to wax eloquent that Lanka is on an authoritarian trajectory and holds forth that militarisation and a trend to dictatorship are intensifying. Really Abraham (Sumanthiran), you mean it! Or do you remember that only when you fly over the Statue of Liberty? When has the TNA said at home that unity of all communities, peoples’ organisations and parties for defence against a common enemy of democracy is imperative? Unity in practical actions will build a hundred stronger bridges between communities than denunciations of communalism.

The JVP and the SJB which should be taking the lead in this respect are no better; though the front liners they are sloppy. If you listen to Anura Kumara’s well researched presentations or hear Sajith, Eran, Harin and Harsha in parliament, you will be persuaded that the country is already in the jaws of a lion. But do they only espy a benign lion as did Androcles? Switch off the TV and there is no summons from these worthies to fortify a common defence. I would hate to have to one day say “I told you so” over the wreckage of a moderately democratic nation. My point is very humble, stop the State’s gross infractions of democracy before it gets any further. This can be done by a determined declaration of unified opposition. And there is a vital corollary to this strategy; when people see the consummation of a formidable phalanx, ten becomes one hundred; others are drawn to join because strength advances credibility.

Am I naïve to gape in bewilderment at the frivolity of JVP, SJB, TNA and Muslim leaders in that they are reluctant collaborators in repelling a common existential threat? Mind you I am only paraphrasing their own assessment of how dangerous these times are. Phew, I need a stiff drink!

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