The ‘Ideal Military Leadership Model desired by Sri Lankan Society’

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during the meeting with the Buddhist Advisory Council on 22 January

The President met his Buddhist Advisory Council on 22 January. It includes Ven. Vendaruwe Upali thero of “be a Hitler” fame. The assembled clergy commended him on a job well done, with a senior monk likening his responses to criticism, to that of a war-elephant who casually brushes off the arrows that strike him. 

For his part the President assured the venerable clergy that the main reason he was elected was for “the protection and preservation of the Sinhala-Buddhist heritage and giving that heritage a pre-eminent position, which cannot be rolled-back”. He went on to list the Sinhala-Buddhist heritage sites he had restored and protected, making special mention of the participation of large numbers of the armed forces and the Civil Defence Force in that task.  

Domestic sanctions 

In reality, how is the Sinhala-Buddhist majority faring? The level of material hardship in everyday life that the majority of the people experience, is eerily reminiscent of the situation in countries which have been hit by sanctions. Sri Lanka hasn’t, but if you didn’t know it, you’d think it was. In Sri Lanka, the sanctions have been imposed on the people by its own Government or more specifically, its elected leader. 

Renegade ex-SJB MP, Diana Gamage argued ferociously that the Parliament should use its two-thirds majority to extend the term of the President and itself by two years, to make up for the loss of an equivalent period due to COVID-19. One shouldn’t take this seriously except for the fact that the President mentioned something similar, which was reported by the Presidential Media Division. 

Evidently, he was accosted by a youth during his visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, who made the same suggestion—indeed the youth pioneered the idea. The President had later remarked—humorously, one hopes—that the youth should be made a Presidential Advisor. He followed this up by reassuring the public that he would make up for the ‘lost years’ in the three years that remain of his legitimate term.

The referendum idea was contemptuously dismissed by ex-President Maithripala Sirisena, which puts paid to the possibility of a two-thirds majority in Parliament. 

Society’s desire: Military leadership? 

Could there possibly be a far more serious Plan B flickering on the horizon? In my previous column, I drew attention to the “first ever” leadership training program for midlevel military officers which spoke of the “management” of “contemporary national requirements”. The full report on the Army website contains even more telling phraseology. 

The Chief of Defence Staff and Army Commander Gen. Shavendra Silva, said in his welcoming remarks: “Our Armed Forces have always been at the forefront of fostering peace, security and prosperity of our country amidst many turbulent environments…” (OCDS-Conceptualized Symposium for Middle-Grade Officers of the Armed Forces Inaugurated | Sri Lanka Army)

The Sri Lankan armed forces have certainly been at the forefront of securing peace and security, but “prosperity”? Ronnie de Mel and Mahinda Rajapaksa would surely guffaw. The Sri Lankan armed forces have never been engaged in, leave alone in the forefront of, securing “prosperity”. That has been the proper province of the elected leaders, governments, the economic bureaucracy, the business community and the working people of this country. 

Having made the specious claim concerning “prosperity”, when the Army chief goes in the very next sentence to assert that: “This proven [sic] capacity and capability have made a point that our Armed Forces are called upon to assist the nation whenever the country is at stake, irrespective of the nature of the challenge…” (ibid)

Regarding “prosperity” the capacity and capability of the Armed Forces are hardly “proven”. Note the phrase “irrespective of the nature of the challenge”. This is a dangerous conceptual “mission creep” and seems to include the task of securing “prosperity”.

This must be read together with the rest of the Army chief’s remarks. He says: “The theme has been arranged to explore, discover and construct the characteristics that a modern-day military leader must possess in executing his tasks going beyond the primary role.” (ibid)

The key phrase here is “going beyond the primary role.” 

Why should he go “beyond the primary role”? In case you are wondering, there’s no mention of ‘Public Health’ or ‘Natural Disasters’. What are the roles beyond the primary role, and what are their limits? Who decides on these and by what Constitutional and legal authority? 

The note on the Army website goes on to say: “…Today’s ‘Armed Forces’ Middle-Grade Officers’ Leadership Symposium’ during its three main sessions under thematic “Military Leadership in the Contemporary World: Evolving from a Warrior to a Friend in Need” is scheduled to discuss and focus largely on sub-themes…” (ibid)

Among the sub-themes listed is—wait for it— “…Ideal Military Leadership Model desired by Sri Lankan Society…”. (Ibid)

Now, military leadership is legitimately ‘desired’ by the military. Military leadership means the leadership ‘of’ and ‘for’ the military. But in this subtopic, “Ideal Military Leadership Model desired by Sri Lankan Society”, military leadership is assumed to be ‘desired’ by ‘Sri Lankan society’. This is not leadership ‘of’ the military; it is leadership ‘by’ the military. 

Military leadership is a legitimate topic and an empirical fact, e.g., the Army commander leads the army. But what on earth is meant by “Ideal Military Leadership ‘Model’?” Is it the ideal model of leadership of, for and in the military? Not when it reads “Ideal military leadership model desired by Sri Lankan society”. 

The implication is that society desires a “Military Leadership Model” and the discussion is of what an Ideal Military Leadership Model would be for that larger public purpose; to fit that alleged social need.  

When does Sri Lankan society get to vote on an ‘ideal military leadership model’? When is it even consulted? According to the constitution of Sri Lanka, a democratic republic, whatever the ‘ideal military leadership model’ is, is decided ultimately by the Commander-in-Chief, i.e., the President elected by the people, the repository of sovereignty. 

Is a ‘military leadership model desired by Sri Lankan society’? Says who, where, when? Isn’t the very discussion of such a topic or ‘sub-theme’; the very consideration of the idea itself, not violative of the letter and spirit of the Sri Lankan Constitution and profoundly subversive of the foundation and ethos of our democratic republic? 

Secretary/Defence General Kamal Gunaratna was present throughout, addressed the gathering, received a memento from the Army chief and posed for a group photograph. The military and ex-military brass among “the distinguished scholars contributing to the sessions” were the Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Navy, the Director General State Intelligence Service, and the Secretary to Ministry of Industries who is a former Commander of the Army.

Unviable options: GR and JVP-NPP

To exit the crisis, Sri Lanka needs leadership which is knowledgeable and competent in two main areas: (a) macroeconomics (b) external relations/foreign policy. 

The formations and leaderships that offer themselves as alternatives have to be measured by their policies, practices, education and abilities in these domains. 

The two extremes, the Gotabaya administration and JVP-NPP rule themselves out. 

The incumbent regime rules itself out by its very performance; the fact that production and supply of basic goods and services (e.g., electricity), indeed the basic economic system, is malfunctioning and breaking down all around us, jeopardising society. 

If the JVP-NPP rules out all others on the basis of their past, i.e., as having governed the country in alternation (and once in combination) for 73 years, then the JVP too should be measured and ruled out on the basis of its own past which includes sheer carnage and nihilistic destruction. 

Were the last 73 years so uniformly atrocious that the JVP’s atrocities of the late 1980s make a better record of achievement and constitute a better qualification for governance? 

If on the other hand, the JVP’s past should not be taken into account, then why should that of any other party? 

Despite the trending ‘AKD-chic’, the JVP-NPP rules itself out as a viable alternative by its declared policies in both domains, the macroeconomic and the external.

Exhibit A: “Introduced in 1977, the Open Economic Policy has been destructive through its prioritization of personal gain over social responsibility….” (NPP Policy statement) 

Exhibit B: ‘JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said today they would come forward to revert the agreements which had been signed to hand over the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm to India…He said they would…form a government which could manage the state resources under state patronage… “The agreement was signed to sell Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm to India on January 6. We will fight to revert these agreements,” he said.’ (Daily Mirror)

The Open Economy has to be made socially responsible, “people-ized” (President Premadasa’s term). Some agreements with foreign governments and companies have to be re-negotiated. But to denounce and abandon the Open Economic policy, commit to undiluted statism as well as to unilaterally “revert” agreements signed by a predecessor, is to display an immature lack of realism that can bring down a world of pain on this small, vulnerable, cash-strapped island. 

What we need is the equivalent of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) which offered concessions to attract foreign investment. The JVP-NPP’s is the kind of leftism that Lenin decried as “an infantile disorder”.

SLFP, SJB and 2015-2019

The longer the SLFP stays in the government after the Maha harvest fails, the greater its chances of obsolescence; the sooner it quits, the greater its chances of revival. The SLFP has two tendencies, one with Sirisena and the other, smaller tendency with Kumar Welgama. Welgama did well when he was against Sirisena while supporting Mahinda. Today Mahinda has been rendered politically (but not sentimentally) irrelevant, though it makes lots of sense not to criticise him if one’s vote base is SLFP or more generally ‘patriotic’. 

The dissidents hovering around ex-president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga must surely realise that between her and Sirisena it is the latter who has political real-estate and a serviceably credible narrative, while it is she who hooked the SLFP up with Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015 and wrecked it. CBK should invest her diminished political capital in the Sirisena-led SLFP, encouraging her supporters to join him. 

Democrats must re-examine the prospect of re-examining the 2015 project so as to stand it right side up. In 2015-2019 the project was standing on its head.

There should be more discontinuity than continuity with 2015-2019 on the part of the Opposition because: 

1) Of the two parties involved in the hybrid government, one ended up electorally wiped out and the other electorally reduced to a splinter. 

2) 2015-2019 did the impossible; caused a tectonic shift among the Sinhala voters and gave a coalition a two-thirds majority in a system of proportional representation. Almost 75% of the Sinhalese who amount to 75% of the populace, rejected 2015-2019. 

3) The military/ex-military and their families are between 500,000-700,000 votes; the largest vote-bloc in the country. The co-sponsorship of the ‘foreign judges and prosecutors’ UNHRC 2015 Resolution, and the non-unitary Constitution which strengthened the provincial devolution while abolishing the presidency, are likely to keep them away from any Opposition that stands by 2015-2019. 

4) With corruption increasingly salient, the Bond scam, which the then Auditor-General said caused inestimable economic damage – and, together with the 2015 shutdown of Chinese projects, probably catalysed the economic crisis—remains retrievable in the public memory.

The extreme economic hardships have broken open the hegemonic Sinhala-Buddhist bloc but whether that is a structural fissuring or a conjunctural one – a window—is unknowable. 

This is why the question of leadership – who will lead the country—is crucial. It is only the invocation of the Premadasa brand and narrative that can convince enough Sinhalese that they can have their kiribath and eat it too: enjoy economic upliftment with social equity, without conceding on national sovereignty and territorial unity concerns.

If, on the other hand, the alternative offered is a return to 2015 or evocative of it, an “Ideal Military Leadership Model” may be “desired” by a sufficiently large swathe of Sinhala society as a response to the crisis.   

Standing the 2015 project the right side up, on its feet, would mean dumping an unsustainable minoritarian electoral strategy with a dissenting sliver of the Sinhala majority tacked-on and the ensemble externally hooked-up with the West, i.e., the Mangala Samaraweera model. 

It would mean instead, a moderate, centrist or centre-left bloc of the Sajith-led SJB and the Sirisena-led SLFP, omnidirectionally wired to the world. 

Without it, the JVP-NPP in its shortsightedness and subjectivity may accomplish what Ralph Nader (unwittingly) did in 2000, derailing the victory of Al Gore and ensuring that of George W. Bush.  

Two new fronts

The regime’s refusal to table the full, unexpurgated report of the Easter Commission in Parliament, and instead, taking on the Catholic Church, is taking the Catholic Church to the UNHRC Geneva.  

Meanwhile, the ethno-external front is likely to reopen with the felicitously-timed handover to the Indian High Commissioner of a petition for onward transmission to Prime Minister Modi, by seven Tamil political parties. Their invocation of ‘federalism’ and ‘self-determination’ should not distract, but merely noted as a sedimented local belief and cherished custom, a matter for political anthropology. 

There is however, an important practical content to the joint letter of the 7-parties. That is the full implementation of the 13th amendment. This is all that the international community is committed to as reflected in the UNHRC resolutions. The 27 May 2009 UNHRC resolution says “implementation” as does the Joint Statement of GoSL and GoI of 23 May 2009 which preceded it and which the UNHRC 27 May 2009 resolution only incorporated. Neither says “full”. 

The Lankan regime could have taken it off the table simply by implementation. Not only did President Mahinda Rajapaksa pledge it in Colombo, Secretary/Defence GR reiterated the commitment in Delhi as member of the so-called troika. 

President GR reversed course and reopened the entire question by telling the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla that the strengths and weaknesses of the 13th amendment will have to be weighed up and endorsed by the Sri Lankan people—thereby signalling that he intended to unilaterally alter or bypass the outcome of a bilateral agreement, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, and triggering Tamil apprehensions that his upcoming draft Constitution would not contain the existing 13th amendment in toto, but only a dismembered version.

President GR’s recent address to a reconvened Parliament was expected to contain a new initiative to address Tamil political grievances. Either that was fake news or was vetoed by the hawks. 

The political vacuum on the North-South axis created by President GR’s sheer avoidance of dialogue, has invited the joint invocation by the Tamil parties of India’s “good offices”. In this 35th anniversary year of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, can India be seen by its 80 million Tamil citizens to subsidise the Gotabaya administration while the child of the Accord, the 13th Amendment, disappears? 

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