Sri Lanka’s Past Haunts its Future: A ‘War’ to Make Sirisena Win
Image of President Sirisena used for representational purposes.
Image of President Sirisena used for representational purposes.(Photo: The Quint)

Sri Lanka’s Past Haunts its Future: A ‘War’ to Make Sirisena Win

A friend and guide in the Sri Lanka military, of my days with the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF), who I asked, what to make of the current political upheaval in Colombo replied, “Politics and military are like a game of cricket. Once an umpire says ‘out’, you do not challenge that decision. You go back to the pavilion gracefully. Sri Lanka’s military is apolitical. If any party tries to use violence, the military will react. His Excellency, the President, is our Defence Minister and C in C.’’

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Sri Lanka’s Politicised Military

I have intimately known Sri Lanka’s military and researched in-depth the mettle of the security forces which transformed itself from a ceremonial force to one that routed the LTTE. The services are politicised and there is a reason for it. The Army has been deeply involved along with the police and CID in suppressing insurgency and insurrection in the north and south of the country for over three decades. There was no concept of cantonments per se to isolate it, and the military was involved in the maintenance of law and order, as well as public order.

There was also a brief period of attempted coup d’etats coinciding with a change of governments that tried to alter social order and imperil the perceived interests of the military.

For example, in 1956, the ‘Sinhala Only’ bill led to widespread riots and the cumulative effects of that resulted in the first abortive coup in 1962, Operation Holdfast. It was called the Colonels’ Coup which was led by 24 Christian officers led by Col Frederick Saram. It represented a battle between the old and new elites, the angst of Sandhurst-trained Anglophiles against the Sinhalisation of the military initiated by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In Sri Lanka, this foul coup is sometimes recalled by the media.

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Death Wishes & Assassination Plots

The second failed coup was in 1966, the proximate cause being the defeat of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her successor, Dudley Senanayake’s efforts in rolling back pro-Sinhalese reforms. The plot was nipped in the bud, although two arrested personnel committed suicide and others were tried in court and acquitted. Maj Denzil Kobbekaduwa (later Lieutenant General and killed by an LTTE landmine) was sent on compulsory leave.

Senior Army officers have generally been associated with either SLFP or UNP. In the year 2000, a general officer was being made out of turn Army Commander but it was thwarted by the Opposition. He was sent to Australia as an ambassador instead.

General Officers are also fiercely protected: Jagath Jayasuriya and Shavendra Silva had been charged with human rights violations.

President Maithripala Sirisena, while addressing the nation on 28 and 29 October 2018, speaking to a 100-odd MPs after reunification of SLFP, said the main reason for appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM was due to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka’s (a minister in ousted Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government) name surfacing in a CID inquiry about an alleged assassination plot targeting him and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the new PM’s brother. The CID enquiry as it has unfolded in Sri Lankan media, appears rather convoluted. But investigations are continuing. Sirisena, when a common candidate while fighting Rajapaksa in 2015 presidential election, had then accused him of trying to kill him.

Sri Lanka’s Political Theatre

Rewind to February 2010 – ten months after the triumphant victory over the LTTE whose key architects are President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army Commander, Gen Sarath Fonseka. In 2010, Fonseka dared to contest the 2010 presidential election against President Rajapaksa, and duly lost.

A case was made out against him of a plot to assassinate President Rajapaksa. It was also rumoured that he was hatching a coup of sorts, so popular was he in the Army after his legendary leadership.

Fonseka was arrested, court-martialled and jailed. 15 officers including five Generals and two Brigadiers loyal to Fonseka were sacked and murmurs of unrest in the army had started. There were even reports of India/RAW supporting Fonseka. A sub plot of this political theatre was the historic hatred and rivalry between Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Fonseka, originating from their time in the Army. Gotabhaya was seen to have written the script for the disgrace and internment of Fonseka.

A Replay of the Past

It is said that fortune favours the brave. When Sirisena became president, Fonseka was resurrected, restored his rank, medals, honour and promoted to Field Marshal. The current Army Commander, a courageously brave officer, Gen Mahesh Senanayake, one of the five Generals sacked, was brought back after five years and is on his first extension. There are others who were reinstated, including a navy commander. If Rajapaksa is confirmed as prime minister, some of the officers may feel insecure which will include the incumbent Army Chief.

As for Fonseka, he will have to prove himself to be the proverbial cat with a dozen lives. Will Sirisena, who salvaged his military legacy and made him Field Marshal, now have to act against him, especially now that Gotabhaya’s name has been dragged along with his own?

These are turbulent times in Sri Lanka whose political history is being re-written to ensure Sirisena becomes president for a second time and the Rajapaksas are rehabilitated. In many ways, this is replay of the past: internecine domestic political warfare, dragging in the military.

(The author is founder member of Defence Planning Staff, currently the
Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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