by Col R Hariharan
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, is perhaps the most controversial personality in Sri Lanka. He is interviewer’s delight because of his forthright, no-holds barred comments are sure to be a hit. At the same time, he is media man’s nightmare because Gotabhaya does not allow critical comments go unchallenged and makes no bones about it (pun not intended).
None can deny Sri Lanka benefited from the veteran’s return from the U.S. in 2005. He took upon the most thankless job at that time – manning the defence ministry when war looked imminent. His hands on operational experience enabled him to provide seamless connectivity between national leadership and military that had eluded his predecessors in earlier episodes of Eelam war.
Undoubtedly his sibling relationship with the President helped him in his task. Gotabhaya had the ear of the President and probably also persuaded his brother to act upon his suggestions. And this enabled him during the war to cruise through the maze of bureaucracy and ward off political interference in dealing with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that had been the bane of Sri Lanka.
Thus he was able to help President Rajapaksa achieve his goal of ending Prabhakaran’s infamous two and a half decade-long reign of insurgency and terrorism. In this task, he had the indispensible support of General Sarath Fonseka as army commander. Fonseka’s masterly execution of operations turned the war victorious, although some of his methods were questionable. Despite Gotabhaya’s estrangement with the ambitious Fonseka after the war, it was Gotabhaya who recommended his fellow Gajaba Regiment-mate Fonseka to head the army. And it was he who recommended the extension of the General’s tenure by one more year. Apparently blood proved thicker than military camaraderie when Fonseka chose to contest for presidency; Gotabhaya joined in the government’s orchestrated campaign to malign the General contribution to the military victory.
While Gotabhaya’s role was clear and well defined during the war, it has become increasingly hazy after the war. He has his own opinions on almost all issues handled by the government and he does not mind airing them loud and clear. Quite frequently, his opinions seem to prevail though they are at times in variance with government’s views.
His abrasive comments often go against government’s carefully articulated explanations full of political and diplomatic cliché. We can attribute this to his military service; old soldiers tend to speak their mind loudly without bothering about Chatham Hall rules. So Gotabhaya’s acerbic comments leave a lot of red faces as government representatives have to assuage ruffled feelings.
What makes Gotabhaya tick? Is it his sibling relationship with the President? Is it his old army habit of shooting from the hip and getting away with it? Or is he simply relishing the exercise of power in controlling the entire decision making process of national defence machinery? Probably a combination of all these make Gotabhaya’s role in policy and decision making process in Sri Lanka an unchallenged and extraordinary one.
And his strong-willed personality helps him to have his way. This comes out clearly when he said: “I am totally committed, I know what needs to be achieved and I work towards those objectives” in an interview on the eve of the last Victory Day. Its significance lies in the absence of any reference to national goals or objectives in his statement makes, though he does refer to them elsewhere in the interview. And it does not reflect humility as his strong point.
When he assumed office as defence secretary Public Security, which covered all aspects of non-military security, including policing and paramilitary activities, was clubbed with Defence. As the Emergency and the Prevention of Terrorism Act were then in place, probably it suited to have both defence and public security departments function under the defence secretary for real time coordination.
At the same time, it enabled the defence secretary wield enormous power. And naturally Gotabhaya’s name was either directly or indirectly linked to a number of aberrations of law enforcement (and non enforcement) including ‘white van abductions’, random killings and police excess under the garb of PTA. This led to a lot of hue and cry from the media and opposition politicians against the defence secretary. Though Gotabhaya dissociated himself from such extra legal activities, he came out with hammer and tongs against his detractors in the media. He had no illusions about what is responsible press – it is the one that does not question his intent or action.
So it is not surprising the Wikipedia entry on Gotabhaya lists a whole series of controversies linked to him. The impressive but unsavoury list includes the arrest of Karuna, former LTTE commander, in Britain for entering with a false diplomatic passport in September 2007; threatening journalists on several occasions (including telling two journalists of the state-owned Lake House publications to stop criticising armed forces “what will happen to you is beyond my control”!); alleged call to the editor of Daily Mirror and threatening her; and threatening to ‘exterminate’ another Daily Mirror journalist for writing articles about the plight of civilian war casualties. Of course, Gotabhaya has denied these allegations. Yet they seem to keep on piling up in the post war period despite routine denials.
When I read through his speeches and interviews, Gotabhaya comes out as an articulate, street-smart and politically savvy personality. Though he has repeatedly claimed his lack of intent to join politics, probably a change of mind would come into play in aid of his brother when a political contingency arises. That makes him an important personality of Sri Lanka in the future as well.
Having seen his ideas and operational style succeed during the war, Gotabhaya has apparently decided to play a role he thinks fit in the post war period as well. His strong influence (it is more than clout) was brought to bear upon making structural changes in the government. Usually, this is a privilege zealously guarded by political leaders. But Gotabhaya has shown even bureaucrats can poach into political pastures. And that is not going to set a precedent, because Gotabhaya is more than a bureaucrat and above a politician. And he enjoys this unique privilege with his brother’s blessings from the top.
Given this environment, Gotabhya’s unchecked freedom to operate has two disturbing dimensions. One is his attitude to Tamil minorities’ woes that does not give credence to President Rajapaksa’s repeated assurance that he would do justice to Tamils. The other is his penchant to involve troops increasingly in civilian tasks.
On Gotabhaya’s attitude to Tamils, suffice to quote “The Hindu” – a newspaper which is generally supportive of the Sri Lanka government – editorial comment on August 16, 2011:“Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s comments, made in the course of an interview to Headlines Today television, reveal a troubling contempt for the Tamil minority. He has trashed ‘the political solution talk,’ asserting, among other things, that it was ‘simply irrelevant’ because ‘we have ended this terrorism in Sri Lanka,’ making the egregious assertion that when the 13th Amendment was being drafted, ‘the government of Sri Lanka was not involved,’ and proposing that with the LTTE ‘gone,’ there was no further need to amend the Constitution. President Rajapaksa would be well advised to distance himself swiftly from his brother’s stream-of-consciousness on sensitive issues that are not his business. This includes an outrageous comment that because a Tamil woman, an ‘LTTE cadre’ who was a British national, interviewed in the Channel 4 documentary was ‘so attractive’ but had been neither raped nor killed by Sri Lankan soldiers, the allegation of sexual assault by soldiers could not be true. For this statement alone, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa must be taken to task for ill conceived comments.” Of course nobody seems to have taken him to task; so it is not surprising that Sri Lanka government is dragging its feet over the ethnic reconciliation process.
Gotabhaya’s concept on employment of troops in peace time appears questionable. During the last three years after the Eelam War, armed forces excelled themselves in military tasks like mine clearance, handling of prisoners of war and handling, assistance in reconstruction activities to help war affected civilians, establishment of military cantonments etc. However, things changed after urban development became the passion of Gotabhaya. So Urban Development, an activity not connected with Defence – except perhaps in military governments – was added to the Defence Ministry.
There is no doubt this was done because Gotabhaya wanted to clean up the mess Colombo had become after the Colombo Municipal Corporation spent more time on backroom politics than civic affairs. And he did clean up – not hesitating to use troops to clear the garbage. But he did not stop there.
With a determination largely absent in the bureaucracy in the post war period, Gotabhaya now appears to be working to involve the military in as many civilian tasks as possible. Under his stewardship they are now into activities like selling vegetables, running a dairy farm which plans to import a few thousand cows to supply milk to the people, clearing of drains and operating air service to Jaffna.
They are also involved in some other questionable activities like the use of troops in breaking up protest demonstrations, military intelligence personnel snooping into civilian lives, and unsavoury association of senior officers with some of the political bigwigs. Military officers’ names have been dragged into a few other activities bordering on the illegal like kidnapping.
History is full of examples of political repercussions of prolonged use of troops outside the military domain in democracies. In South Asia itself two such examples are Pakistan and Bangladesh; in Bangladesh political consciousness asserted to push the military from the seat of power while in Pakistan democracy is still compelled to dance to the military tune.
The real danger of employing troops in civilian tasks in peace time is the miliarisation of mind both among the troops and the public. Militarisation of mind is a slow and insidious process when armed forces are increasingly involved, wittingly or otherwise, in civilian tasks. This is what happened in Pakistan when its large professional army believed it could perform better than what civilians did including running the government. Burma is yet another example where the army invited to bring in stability stayed on because it thought civilians were no good to govern themselves. In both the countries people are paying the price with the army controlling the vehicles of governance and democracy.
Perhaps Gotabhaya’s grooming as an infantry officer, and two decades of meritorious performance in frontline operations against the Tamil Tigers, has made him shoot from the hip as well as the lip. Whatever be the reason, he is playing a role larger than his modest one as Secretary for Defence in peacetime. President Rajapaksa who is the commander in chief of all forces, also has the defence portfolio under him. This makes Gotabhaya the most powerful man in Sri Lanka next only to the President. So it is not surprising that many in the opposition see him as a loose cannon firing at will, beyond the reach of parliament.
While there is no indication of armed forces usurping civilian power, there is an urgent need for a system of checks and balances in their employment in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a mature democracy, despite its ‘democratic’ aberration in resolving the longstanding ethnic dissonance. So we can expect the country not allow unchecked application of military power for prolonged periods. If timely action is not taken, then it will be a sad day for the people.