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Monday, April 22, 2024

Sri Lanka:The Shadow of Gotabhaya

English Translation of the above in a Sinhala weekly called Ravaya by Victor Ivan:
One named Gotabhaya Rajapaksa happens to enter Sri Lanka politics only after Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes president.  Since leaving the military, for nearly one and a half decades, then he lived in the USA. He becomes a publicly known or powerful figure after his advent subsequent his sibling coming to power as president. With that he is appointed as the defence secretary – a post regarded as powerful- and he becomes the coordinator of the security forces in Eelam war IV that followed.

He is the one who persuaded  the president to agree in appointing  General Fonseka, who can be regarded a key leader in the military victory, as the commander of the army, without retiring him. For whatever reason, the president has not been happy about Fonseka’ s appointment as army commander whereas  he  is the one who placated that disliking and got the president’s consent to give the job to Fonseka.

In addition, he performed an important role in conducting the war to a logical end despite the danger to himself. As the defence secretary was also the president’s brother, he was capable of providing logistics to the military generously and without delay. He was also the key person behind the massive propaganda launched in order to bestow a dignity upon the three armed forces.  The military victory gave him a massive recognition and made him a hero. He became one of the major three heroes created by the war.  Furthermore, while being a mere government official, he became the person with immense power second only to the president. With General Fonseka being removed from the scene, he became the most powerful person in the defence establishment. The gulf between the three forces commanders, IGP and him was not typical; the distance was as if between the sky and the earth. Just like the president, his other siblings Chamal and Basil can also be regarded as considerably seasoned in politics, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was not a political animal. He was merely a military animal. He wanted to see everything from a military viewpoint.

After defeating rebellions
Taking care of Tamils who were turned into a conquered populace was also handed over to Gotabhaya who was rendered the status of a major war hero. It can be said that Gotabhaya’s military shadow has gradually affected not only the Tamil people of the north, but also the whole country.

Once an internal rebellion has been beaten, victorious security forces are not given the duty of controlling defeated rebels and their followers. This is an accepted convention.

In 71, Sirima Bandaranaike did not did not hand over the responsibility of taking care of 18,000 prisoners who either surrendered or captured, to the security forces that defeated those rebels. Instead, the task of taking care was delegated to the prisons department. As the department was short of staff to perform the duty, the prisons department had to recruit a large number of officers. Although temporary camps were established due to lack of space, those camps did not come under security forces but the prisons department.

Generally, security forces are brought out of their camps  in a war situation or disaster situation. As soon as the war situation subsides, security forces should be sent back to their barracks in order to allow civilian rule. That is also an accepted convention.

The defeat of LTTE can be regarded not as the first time an internal rebellion was crushed; it was the third. During the second JVP rebellion, temporary military camps were established in many areas of the country. While the general public wanted to see the JVP rebellion crushed when it became severe, the manner it was suppressed was not to the liking the Sinhalese of the South. Instead, they opposed it. After the defeat of the LTTE war movement which can be regarded as a Tamil youth rebellion, the southern Sinhalese viewed the security forces as war heroes, even though the same military was not considered as war heroes by the Sinhalese of the south after crushing the second JVP uprising. Even the likes of Champika Ranawaka and Wimal Weeravansha who at present, happily describe security forces as war heroes, had only harsh criticism against the military during that period.

President Premadasa was aware that even the southern Sinhalese who were not sympathetic to the JVP rebellion were averse to security forces. That was the reason behind his decision to send security forces to barracks by removing temporary military camps in various places of the country as soon as the rebellion was defeated.

That principle is valid for the Northern Tamil people as well. It was not carried out in a similar manner after the defeat of the Northern Tamil rebellion because of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It could have been because he had a military vision instead of a political vision. Had Gotabhaya not been the defence secretary, even Mahinda Rajapaksa would have followed the concept of sending security forces to barracks rather than handing over the task of taking care of Tamil people after the defeat of the northern rebellion over to them, in a similar manner to PM Sirima Bandaranaike or President Premadasa. Even though President Rajapaksa interfered with the business of each and every one, he didn’t meddle in what Gotabhaya did. It could have been so not only because Gota was his favourite sibling, but also because the special role he undertook in the military victory at great risk. The president’s policy on Gotabhaya appears to be allowing him to carry on his action without any interference. This seems to have bestowed immense power on the defence secretary that does not come under anyone’s control. Even though Gotabhaya may not be having aspirations to overcome his brother, his attitude of analysing political developments through a military point of view, he has become the grave digger of not only his sibling’s but also the government’s political wellbeing.

 Commemorating the dead
There was only one rebellion in the Tamil North. In the Sinhalese south there were two rebellions by the same movement. Parents and loved ones of those dead in the 71 rebellion commemorated the deceased. After the defeat of the second rebellion too, Parents and loved ones commemorated the deceased. A Mothers Front was formed in order to do this and at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa was a strong supporter of that Front. Despite the pros and cons of what the deceased did, their loved ones have a right to commemorate them. In an unprecedented manner Gotabhaya Rajapaksa might have denied the Northern Tamil people the right to commemorate their dead because he owns a military heart instead of a political heart.

It seems that he doesn’t have any inkling of the socio political background of these rebellions. It seems that his military eye sees only the terrorist that lived within the rebels. He doesn’t see the socio economic factors that contributed to creating a terrorist. He even failed to understand that those defeated by himself were not an invading foreign army but sons and daughters of the country’s people.

Gotabhaya is also the person who did not allow the investigation of excesses during the war. Sri Lanka would have had the opportunity to rapidly move forward without hindrance from the international community if it conducted a fair internal investigation, punished the guilty and yet again granted an amnesty to all of them.  In that sense, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa should be held responsible for denying that opportunity and pushing the country towards a crisis which cannot be resolved easily. It can be said that Elder Brother President’s policy of looking away while allowing his favourite younger brother to act in a capricious manner has pushed the country to utter chaos.

Excesses are unavoidable in any war. In the routing of the 71 rebellion too there were excesses. Among them the most discussed in international circles was the killing of beauty queen Somawathie Manamperi. PM Sirima Bandaranaike ordered an investigation and charged the accused military officers. Courts that heard the case handed out maximum punishments. It was not a betrayal of the military. It helped clear the army of the disgrace from that heinous crime.

Errors committed by Gotabhaya

Pushing the country to barracksification (term used by author) can be regarded as the worst thing that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa did to the country. Military officers were appointed to posts that should be held by civil administrators. Military officers were extensively appointed to the diplomatic service without even proper training. Education was militarised. In addition to forcing the country into barracksification, civil political institution system was distorted.

He is the one who introduced the hideous method of  executing criminals  extra judicially. It can be considered as a fascist process that goes against every globally accepted legal and democratic principle.

Officially and unofficially deploying security forces personnel for political tasks can be deemed as the gravest mistake committed by him. During the war, several organisations were engaged in demonstrations based on an anti-war policy. Although their behaviour in the time of a fierce war was wrong, the extra judicial violent policy applied in suppressing those movements cannot be regarded as even-handed at all. Some symbolically significant individuals were assassinated in a mysterious manner while others disappeared mysteriously. Several media institutions encountered brutal attacks. In some such ugly incidents it was clearly obvious of the use of people associated with the military.

Even after the war ended, that process was not terminated. Formally and informally a group associated with security forces were used to suppress protests on various issues in several places in the country. Some informed people associated with the government viewed this process not with approval but disgust. However, rather than mutter in secret they were afraid to make their opposition known.

Fostering extremists
Not stopping at breast feeding and nurturing certain extremist forces, the defence secretary provided protection for them. BBS can be regarded as the best example. Ven. Gnanasara’s boldness has more to do with the clout of the defence ministry rather than a natural thing. In the face of the Thero’s numerous performances security forces allowed him to act at will as they were all aware of the secretive relationship between the monk and the defence secretary. Even though a large number of government ministers and parliamentarians did not approve of the violent role the Thero was playing,  all of them adhered to a hushed policy because of Gotabhaya’s shadow that prevailed upon him. Prominent Buddhist monks who did not endorse Ven. Gnanasara’s act kept silence as the connection between him and the defence secretary was no secret to them.

When the Halal issue emerged, prominent and respected Buddhist monks came forth to resolve the matter amicably. An organised movement got into action by phoning those monks and abusing them in filth. These monks were in such a state of shock from this strange experience, they disconnected their telephones for a while. It seems that the idea was to terrify prominent monks and stop them from voicing their thoughts.

This unpleasant relationship came to an explosive point at the Beruwala tragedy. The political authority in the area was aware that the rally called by temple trustees could lead to a massive clash. Despite requests, from  not only Muslim politicians but also some Sinhala ministers to police bosses calling to forbid the rally, their request might have gone unfulfilled due to instructions by the defence secretary. At the Aluthgama rally Ven. Gnanasara carried out the maximum he could. He left the place after pouring petrol in a manner that soaked the area. Later the land was set on fire by others. Not only Muslims but also Sinhaese of the area say that security officers in civilian dress were also among those who rioted. BBS leader Kirama Wimalajothi Thero had to make a special statement where he said that that Ven. Gnanasara’s activity is not in accordance with either Buddhism or monkhood and that he will soon resign from the leadership of the organisation.

Subsequent to that massive destruction, accusations were aimed at the defence secretary and it seems that he instructed Ven. Gnanasara to convene a press briefing to state that the defence secretary has no connection to BBS. This is a secret known by a few journalists which I came to hear. The head of an intelligence service had phoned the head of news in a media institution and asked to cover Ven. Gnanasara’s press conference. As there was no positive response from the journalist, in a matter of few moments, the defence secretary himself has called to demand coverage for Ven. Gnanasara’s press conference. In the press briefing, over and over again, Ven. Gnanasara has been saying that his movement has got nothing to do with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. This can be counted as a moment when the cat was let out of the bag.

It can be said that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who attained the status of war hero among the general public by playing a major role in defeating Prabhakaran’s military movement at one historical moment, today can be seen  as a spoiler who will derail the country’s way forward


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