The project of President Gotabaya seems to be the conversion of Sri Lanka from an uninterrupted, long-standing democracy and open society, into a second Pakistan, with a permanent overarching military establishment either producing political leaders as in the past or constraining civilian political leaders within parameters set by the military establishment. This is also the Myanmar model. In both cases religion also plays a role as state ideology. The adoption of a Pakistan-Myanmar garrison state model by Sri Lanka would significantly facilitate a strategic interlock with China as it does in both cases, irrespective of the civilian leadership. This would have grave strategic implications on India’s southern flank. Sri Lanka would be the second prong of a pincer.
New Year’s Day 2021 was the lowest point in the history of the Sri Lankan public service. Not only did public servants have to take an oath to implement an election manifesto, but they were seen to do so with a salute known in modern history as that of the first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. It is a salute used throughout the world, including the USA, by fascist and neo-Nazi militia. It is the salute used by the Pongu Thamil crowds (2003) gathered before the portrait of Prabhakaran. (Public Servants take oaths to implement President’s manifesto | Times Online – Daily Online Edition of The Sunday Times Sri Lanka).
Sri Lanka was given a New Year 2021 gift of a brand-new overlay, a paving, over the long-established system of the administration of the island. Supposedly “at the request of the Army Commander”, the Presidential Secretariat appointed 25 military officers, many of the rank of Major-General, each for a district, to command the anti-COVID-19 campaign throughout the country.
The official statement (as reported by the regime-friendly Ada Derana) warrants quoting, though for reasons of brevity I shall omit the list of the 25 officers and districts. It read as follows:
“Twenty-five Senior Army Officers have been appointed with effect from today (01 January) to coordinate the Covid-19 control operations in each district, says the Army Media.
Appointments were made by the Presidential Secretariat, on the recommendation of Army Commander General Shavendra Silva, taking into account the urgent need for enhanced island-wide coordination for Covid-19 control work.
Adding significance to the new responsibilities on the very day he was felicitated at the Army Headquarters upon his promotion, General Shavendra Silva awarded those letters of appointment for those 25 Chief Coordinating Officers in all districts last morning (31).
Who made the appointments?
Accordingly, the new office of Chief Coordinating Officers would facilitate smooth conduct of district-wise quarantine centers, transportation of individuals for quarantining and treatment, supply of medicine, equipment, dry-rations and other essentials and all other technical requirements as and when deemed necessary, the Army Media said in its statement” – Senior Army officers appointed to coordinate COVID-19 control work in each district (adaderana.lk)
Who made the appointments? The Presidential Secretariat. Under whose signature? According to which regulations? The statement says the appointments were made by the Presidential secretariat “on the recommendation of Army Commander General Shavendra Silva”. Is this true? Since when does the Presidential Secretariat act “on the recommendation” of any of the Service chiefs? Why isn’t there a single mention of the President who is the Commander-in-Chief and the Minister of Defense?
The statement reads “General Shavendra Silva awarded those letters of appointment for those 25 Chief Coordinating Officers in all districts last morning.” Is this in accordance with established rules and procedures? These are not wartime appointments of command, and even those were probably approved by the President and the National Security Council in the Mahinda Rajapaksa wartime years. In a purely public matter of administration in peacetime, should not the letters of appointment of 25 Chief Coordinating officers of the districts of the island have been handed over by the elected President, with the Army commander in attendance or at the least, in the presence of the President and his senior staff, by the Army commander?
Then there are the matters of occasion and venue. Appointments made by the Presidential Secretariat should take place there. Instead, as the report notes:
“…Adding significance to the new responsibilities on the very day he was felicitated at the Army Headquarters upon his promotion, General Shavendra Silva awarded those letters of appointment for those 25 Chief Coordinating Officers in all districts last morning (31).”
The remit of the new appointees is quite wide. The report sets these out:
“Accordingly, the new office of Chief Coordinating Officers would facilitate smooth conduct of district-wise quarantine centres, transportation of individuals for quarantining and treatment, supply of medicine, equipment, dry-rations and other essentials and all other technical requirements as and when deemed necessary, the Army Media said in its statement.”
What does “facilitate smooth conduct” mean? What do “and other essentials and all other technical requirements as and when deemed necessary” mean? Who “deems them necessary” and by what authority, derived from which source and process?
How does this work and what is the chain of command? Do the heads and personnel of all institutional bodies and the personnel, the employees right down to the level of labor, i.e., everyone from doctors to drivers, involved in the listed subjects and areas, come under the newly appointed Military Coordinators? Note that the areas listed are elastic or lend themselves to elasticity.
Where are the public administrators, the ones who have passed examinations in the subjects and risen up the ranks to head the provincial and district administrations, and the professionals who head the institutions carrying out the subjects and functions, in this picture? Do they come under the orders of the military coordinators? How far down the line does the military authority run? Do the public servants at every level—including heads of Departments and other sections—take the orders of their respective institutional heads or those of the military coordinators in the broad swathe of matters deemed necessary for Covid-19 control?
Do doctors take orders from the military coordinators? Do the military coordinators have any professional education and training plus experience that is superior to that of the civilian administrators in the fields listed?
None of this makes when it comes to COVID-19 control. As the country’s senior-most virologist who is also one the most senior leaders of the ruling coalition, Prof. Tissa Vitharana, clearly said on the record:
“Q: …What are your views/concerns about keeping aside experienced individuals like you and allowing the military to take control of the matters?
A: It started as a military exercise for the simple reason that the military was ready at hand, organised, quick to get into action and enforce restrictions initially. But now it is entirely a matter for the health personnel to handle which should be supported by the army and the police.” (Daily Mirror – “There were no virologists in the committees set up” – Prof. Vitharana)
Be that as it may, the new structure does make sense in another dimension. It places a heavy military lid on the country’s State administration. It pretty much hands over the administration of 25 districts, i.e., the island, to a military apex body.
Given the fact that the pandemic is the central and overriding concern, which of the functions of the state and even the private and informal sectors would not come under the sphere of authority of the new military coordinators?
An undefined zone of the State and private sector has been carved out as the military’s sphere of influence.
This is in addition to the obvious point that what we have as of 1 January is a de facto structure of Military Governors for every district.
Did the PM and the Cabinet deliberate upon and endorse this? If so when, and why wasn’t it announced at the time?
The hyper-centralist 20th Amendment, military coordinators covering all districts, the waves of ex-military appointments to the State administration, the absorption of many civilian institutions under the Ministry of Defence, the sprouting of Presidential Task Forces with a heavy military and ex-military presence, and the decision never to resuscitate the existing semi-autonomous Provincial Councils, constitute a concentration, centralisation and militarisation of power unprecedented in the post-Independence history of the island.
While it appears that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wishes to hand over the running of Sri Lanka to the military, serving or retired, the Sri Lankan military must realise that this expansionism into civilian spheres and the occupation of the State as a new ruling stratum or power-elite, is not in its enlightened self-interest, subjects it to overstretch and makes it vulnerable.
Be it corona-control or anything else outside the area of defence, the Sri Lankan military is being overstretched; moved into a quagmire. Any failure in fields in which it has no training and experience, will cause public disaffection to encompass not only the political leadership but also the military. Any friction with civilians be they officials, professionals or a multitude of working people, and social disaffection will rise, tarnishing the military. Finally, the military will be forced to retrench either by domestic unrest or external pressure or both. It is better to pull-back now.
This is the last section of the article “The Xi factor, Delhi’s deterrence, and the Pakistan model”, published in the Daily FT.