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Reflections on Demilitarising the Sri Lankan Society

by Jude Fernando, 26 December 2009

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(Complete version of a two part article from Groundviews.org), December 9, 2009

**The Battle of the ‘Commons’ and (De) militarizing the Sri Lankan Society

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Benjamin Franklin

“Common candidate” Gen. Fonseka and “common man” Mahinda Rajapaksha must both face, in the upcoming Presidential elections, the problems caused by Sri Lanka’s long and ongoing process of militarization and the increasing politicization of “national security.” Mangala Samaraweera alleges that President Rajapaksha bears primarily responsible for militarizing Sri Lankan society. In his endorsement of Fonseka as the common candidate of the Democratic Alliance, Samaraweera compares the General to Charles de Gaulle, who ended the political chaos and violence that preceded his presidency. But Fonseka was a key player in the Rajapaksha regime and cannot be absolved of blame as if he were merely a soldier following orders. Though Fonseka and the government now blame each other for wartime excesses, during the war they both denied and excused those excesses, and also prevented investigations into them. Voters are now asked to trust Fonseka to lead the way out of militarization, but he has no experience in civilian administration and his reputation is damaged by controversies surrounding his conduct in the war. To understand what is at stake at this election, we must wrestle with three important questions: What is militarization, and what are its specific manifestations in the Sri Lankan society? Which Presidential candidate is likely to enact best policies to reverse the process of militarization? And, finally; who will get my vote?

Militarization is a multifaceted and multilayered process that produces and institutionalizes aggression, hostility and violence at all levels of society. It does not begin or stop with the end of war. In fact, in the aftermath of the war, complexity of militarization and its consequences become more visible, at the same time that ideas and technologies developed during the war are put to use in civil society. Unchecked, military ideology expands beyond the borders of military organizations and personnel until it begins to seem natural and reasonable to impose military order on civilian society. Militarization is dangerous because it progressively replaces democracy as the ideology shaping political, legal, economic, social, moral and ethical relations between state and society. It reduces our capacity to be human.

Peace and militarism are not always opposites. Peace without justice is a cause of militarization. The institutionalized militarism Sri Lankans have experienced under Tamil militants, the JVP, and the State is incidental to the extent that it is a culmination of the way we as individuals and collectives think and act under ‘normal’ circumstances. Demilitarization does not end with the military withdrawal, rather entails fundamental changes in society’s governance at all levels. The narrow focus on the ‘terrorists’ ‘military’ ‘politicians’ ‘and ‘ethno nationalists’ as the culprits of militarization overlooks and depoliticize society’s experiences of dispossession and disempowerment, and the aggression and violence evident in the education, religion, memory, media, clothing, sports, entertainment etc, which are the root causes of militarization.

The way out of militarization is to expand the space for democracy. Democracy is based on the constitutional separation of powers, which provides checks and balances to ensure that different branches of the government function according to their specific objectives. Those entrusted with authority in these institutions are expected to abide by the relevant standards. Militarized societies rapidly retreat from these civilian principles: nothing to limits the exercise of powers by the rulers and hold them accountable. Since 1977 safeguards to ensure the separation of powers in Sri Lanka have rapidly eroded. The executive president, as the member of a political party, has unrestricted power to advance his political interests by suspending any safeguards.

The Sri Lankan constitution is neither secular nor inclusive; it does not separate religion from the state, but is biased towards the religious interests of the majority community. Although the 1978 Constitution rejected many of the authoritarian and exclusive features of the 1971 Constitution and accommodated many minority interests, the interpretations of the constitution may become increasingly subservient to the demands of neoliberal economic policies and ethnoreligious nationalism. Both ethnoreligious bias and economic pressure feed upon each other and corrupt the judicial branch, expanding the space for further authoritarian practices by all institutions.

The constitution allows the executive to use power with impunity. Every social institution (e.g. memory, media, education, religion, and security apparatus) is brought under the control of the executive, who directs them to shape our thoughts, feelings and attitudes and the executive disciplines their actions in accordance with his interests. The political programs presented to the public under the rubric of “Darmishta Nivahal Samajaya,” “Democratic Socialist Republic,” “Mahinda Chinthanaya” “national security,” and “war against terrorism” not only lack substance, but are morally bankrupt, incoherent and inconsistent in application. They provide the executive with the flexibility to negotiate in his own interest with friends and foes alike, including and excluding them at will while he mobilizes the popular legitimacy of the regime and justifies authoritarian rule.

Militarized authoritarianism is sustained by blatant and unapologetic use of nepotism, favoritism, and politicization of the judiciary, civil and foreign services. The sophistication and complexity of the redistribution of powers and responsibilities since 1977 makes improving democratic governance an extremely difficult task. All stake holders (politicians, media, religious leaders, intellectuals, diplomats, businesses) join in the work of coercing and sustaining the public consensus that ensures the stability of the regime. Because responsibility is diffuse, no one person or group can be held directly responsible for human rights violations and the blame is passed from one person to another. In moments of crisis the President becomes the peace maker, appealing to our common values and aspirations. For example, during the current regime Sri Lanka has suffered its worst period of suppression of freedom of expression. Journalists are abducted, intimidated, and murdered when they describe the regime’s corruption and mismanagement. At the same time, the President has held a record number of banquets and conferences for journalists, and has appointed commissions to investigate these crimes. Corruption and violence are simultaneously condemned and rewarded while the regime maintains stability by continuously reproducing the division of powers and responsibilities of governance according political expediency.

The regime uses the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to maintain the illusion of its commitment to democratic institutions, while it subordinates the entire justice system in the name of national security. The PTA act has been invoked to penalize all types of political dissent, and its application has not been consistent even according to its own stipulations. Under PTA the distinction between guilt and innocence has blurred, and punishments are not commensurate with crimes. Those responsible for of hundreds of civilian murders are rewarded with ministerial portfolios, while a dissenting journalist was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The PTA reduces the courts’ ability to decide guilt and innocence, and enhances the arbitrary use powers of the police, military and defense establishment. Intimidation of, and attacks on lawyers, in which they are publicly denounced as traitors in the media, has greatly reduced their ability to defend their clients.

The national security state promotes civilian insecurity and terror in a calculated fashion, and it invents “paradigms of freedom, independence and autonomy,” which lead to more militarization. Mass media images and stories in combination with public opinion polling and surveys contribute to the militarization of the civilian population, inculcating terror through manipulating the fragile boundaries between real and the imagined threats. In the process, the psychological (re)organization of civil society produces and legitimizes violence and becomes an administrative imperative of the state. The objective of “national security” becomes confused with the desire to safeguard the neoliberal economic interests and “primordial subjectivity” of the constitution. The national security paradigm that encourages fear of foreign/NGO/Western conspiracies against Sri Lanka has only made the country more vulnerable to manipulation by outsiders (particularly to the emerging nuclear and economic powers such as India and China) and has provided cover for concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a minority.

During the war, widespread culture of fear and militarized mindset of the population legitimated the shifting of authority from the civilian institutions to the executive. During peace times, the civilians have become cynical and distrustful, which further undermines the stability of the regime. The executive himself has grown to fear his own military, and is busy using any means to consolidate his power. End of the war does not automatically lead to demilitarization because the former is sustained by myriad of civilian institutions and its consequences are born by women, children, displaced population and the environment.

All religious institutions in Sri Lanka have either been complicit with or endorsed militarization. Some have even militantly suppressed non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. In the process, religion itself has been militarized further normalizing militarism in public consciousness, while the existing criticisms of this process are disproportionately applied to minority religions (the soft targets), resulting in organized violence against them. Depoliticization and demilitarization of all religions is an essential prerequisite for demilitarizing state and social relations. Media outfits also fail in their responsibility: they experience direct suppression of freedom of expression by the state, but also voluntarily self-censor when they closely associate with the forces of militarization.

Militarization is a product and integral part of the neoliberal economy. The contribution of well meaning liberal constitutionalists and peace activists to demilitarization is limited because they ignore (even legitimate) how militarism is intertwined with the acquisition of power and wealth by a minority at the expense of the majority, therein the complicity of neoliberal institutions i.e. the UN, World Bank, IMF, and WTO. Global efforts towards demilitarization is always undermined by powerful geopolitical interest of Western and non-western countries. Even after the end of the war, the sanctity of defense spending is taken for granted. Neoliberal institutions tolerate increases in military expenditure as long as the money is used to prevent terrorism and promote political stability, even if those actions undermine democratic rule. The government slashes investments in the public sector, privatizes military procurement and aspects of military operations, while the private military contractors enjoys tax benefits and state patronage. MIC thrives on the manufactured sense of insecurity caused by real and invented terrorist threats and fears of foreign conspiracies against the sovereignty of the country. The country is deeply entrenched in the global military industrial complex (MIC) and vulnerable to manipulation by MIC stake holders.

The root cause of militarization in many countries is conflicts over natural resources. Historical development of capitalism according to David Harvey is a process of “accumulation by dispossession “which continues to be sustained through increasing militarization. The interpretation and management the crises arising in this process in terms of ethnicity, territory, religion, culture, NGOization, westernization, war against terrorism etc., often deflect the dissent against militarization away from capitalism. During the war, foreign companies made lucrative deals with the government to extract natural resources that would not have been possible under normal circumstances. In militarized zones the boundary between illegal mining and demining is blurred and both are patronized by the state and the rebels. Illegal logging, treasure hunts, and destruction of archeological sites are common. We still do not have accurate estimates of destruction of forests and wildlife, release of chemical pollutants into ground and water resources, and their consequences. The environmental impacts of war are still unknown.

Under militarism, equality and reason are no longer the basis for relations between institutions. Truth and justice cease to be ideal social norms, and facts are no longer established through reason and evidence. The distance between the imaginary and the real in the adjudication of justice is decreased. Power and force replace reason and equality, and force and violence become ends as well as means. Life is devalued and safeguards for its preservation are progressively removed. Violence enters into all spheres of life, and interpersonal and domestic violence reflects the violence at the public level. Corruption and nepotism become part of daily life, and are legitimated as means to achieve wealth and power at all levels of society. As freedom of expression is violently suppressed, distrust replaces solidarity. Vulnerability and powerlessness becomes the excuse for compromise, no matter how morally unacceptable.

Feminist scholars such as Cynthia Enloe points out that in patriarchal societies, women and children are the main victims of militarization, but the extent of their victimization and their struggles against militarism remain invisible. Militarism creates a new kind of masculinity, in which hardness, violence, and contempt for women reach previously unscaled heights. This process, called masculinization, causes an increase of sexualized violence, and women are its chief victims — a problem we saw too much during the war and in its aftermath. Mothers raise children to be soldiers and suffer when they are injured or killed. The burden of sustaining the family falls on the wife, while her husband is at war, and a wife continues to bear these responsibilities if her husband is disabled or killed. During and after the war, women’s freedom of expression, mobility and sexuality are subject close scrutiny and judgment by their families and society. Women, throughout the world, are in the forefront of struggles against militarization, because they bear the larger share of the burdens imposed by it: “Just as there is a military industrial complex that depends on war for profit and growth, war making depends on a military-sexual complex to recruit, motivate and retain military personnel.” (Lindsey Fitz and Joane Nagel).

Militarism also displaces populations. I have not visited any IDP camps. But I know from many countries in Africa that IDPs are vulnerable to being recruited for violent activities, torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions. Demographic structuring of displacement and resettlement are part of larger political and economic agenda, often those led to displacement in the first place. IDPs have lost the protective presence of their homes, families and communities and lack access to life-saving assistance and services, including food, shelter and basic health-care. They are subject to greater risk of violence and their individual and collective ability to recover from violence is limited. The closed environment of camps, coupled with anxiety and desperation stemming from trauma, marginalization and lack of hope, undermine the coping mechanisms of individuals and communities as well as their ability to protect themselves. But there is no economic incentive to disperse IDPs, because as long as people are confined to camps, foreign aid can be kept under the complete control of the government and its contractors.

Demilitarization of IDPs should go beyond granting them freedom of movement; it should honor the government’s promise that the defeat of the LTTE was a precondition for a lasting political solution to the crisis. We must not make the mistake of assuming that Tamil and Sinhalese perspectives and experiences are similar. Even for Tamils, whose lives were militarized under the LTTE’s Eelam project and now feels sense of freedom, “peace” means not only an absence of war, but political equality. The war against terrorism and post-war competing narratives of celebrating the heroics of the by the two communities, the government’s development, rehabilitation and reconstruction projects and other symbolic gestures to create building national unity and progress seem to have the effect of ghettoizing the urgency of political solution specific to the conflict. Comrade Prof. Tissa Vitharana and the proposals of his All Party (should I say Party All) Conference will not get any attention of the government until the election is over.

At the moment voters are understandably skeptical and uncertain about both Wicramasinghe and Fonseka because neither provides a coherent and unambiguous agenda. Neither has rejected the forces opposed to a political solution to the conflict. Fonseka, endorsed by Mano Ganasen, denies that an ethnic conflict exists and has claimed that Sinhalese should rule the country. Rajapaksha has publicly praised ultranationalists opposed to devolution, but is able to mobilize the support of many minority political parties. JVP has endorsed Fonseka, while opposing UNP’s economic policies and broad base sharing power with Tamils. With the exception of Comrade Wicakramabahu, all others are in bed with neoliberal institutions. Citizens who wish to choose the right leader for Sri Lanka are faced with a daunting task.

We might argue that the candidate with no direct affiliations to any political parties could prove to be an efficient leader. Such autonomy, if it really exists, could enable Fonseka to exert a higher degree of control over the parties and interest groups of the Democratic Alliance than President Rajapaksha can muster to control the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition. Those frustrated with the current administration will even find new hope in Fonseka. We know from history that Although De Gaulle initially supported French rule over Algeria, he later decided to grant Algeria independence, ending an expensive and unpopular war but leaving France divided. Under his leadership France achieved rapid economic progress and also became the fourth atomic and nuclear power of the world, while he denounced the French government’s decision to seek peace with the Nazis. De Gaulle resigned after losing the referendum.

We have little evidence to convince us Fonseka is another De Gaulle, hence is the likely hood of him reversing the excesses of the Rajapaksha administration. At the moment, what binds Fonseka and Wicramasinghe together is only their desire to defeat Rajapaksha. The lack of clarity in their political and economic agenda raises questions about political stability and vulnerability to manipulation by the members of their own coalition and the undemocratic forces, in many ways similar to that of Rajapaksha regime. We have no guarantees that Rajapaksha will provide same leadership to end militarization as did to defeat the LTTE. I believe that the success of UNF or UPFA coalitions could bring about demilitarization only if they are accountable to democratic civilian institutions.

Finally, I do not wish to undervalue the significance of Comrade Wickramabahu in the upcoming election. He is perhaps the only Left-wing politician who has been consistently true to Marxist principles and who demands political and economic equality for all ethnic groups. In his campaign for the Presidency, comrade provides the best description of militarization as a product of economic and political inequalities under capitalism, as they figure in post colonial nationalist states like Sri Lanka, and also offers concrete policies for demilitarization. However, the comrade’s agenda is unlikely to gain popularity and become “common sense” for the majority of voters for the same reason that U.S. progressive Ralf Nadar failed in his bid for the Presidency. Although the majority may demand to overthrow the oppressors, this does not necessarily mean that they are actually willing to change the social and economic conditions that led to oppression. Both rulers and majority of the citizens share similar ideas about progress/prosperity and the distribution of political power among different ethnic groups. Neither embraces broad based and inclusive ideals of economic and political inequality in a Marxist sense. The JVP has also systematically and militantly appropriated the title of “the Marxist party” in Sri Lanka, and has racialized left-leaning political consciousness. The politics of redistribution pursued by traditional left parties has effectively aligned them with the pro-capitalist political parties that control state power. These “leftists” (e.g. Dr. Colvin R. De Silva of the LSSP) contributed to the ethno-nationalist constitutional reforms, and have failed (due to their political opportunism) to develop interethnic class consciousness in the labor movement.

Since the beginning of 1990s, many left leaning intellectuals and diplomats have spouted neocolonial, anti-capitalist and anti-Western rhetoric, made alliances with the capitalist government of Premadasa and Rajapaksha, and confined theoretical disposition to a narrow form of political realism. They have spoken in defense of non-Western capitalist countries such as China and India, further broadening the popular legitimacy of neoliberal ethno-nationalist political consciousness. In a Gramscian sense, the JVP, traditional left, and left intellectual-turned-diplomats all enforce state hegemony, since they help build popular consensus for the highly militarized and racialized capitalist projects of the state. Additionally, the ethno-nationalism of the LTTE and elite Tamil political parties brutally suppressed the possibility of raising class consciousness among Tamils, and prevented those in the North from making alliance with those in the South. Today even in the radical political discourse xenophobic nationalism and militarism have taken the place of class based political consciousness. These kinds of problems are not unique to Sri Lanka. Communist China, and ‘non-aligned’ India and ‘theocratic’ oil rich countries (I mean Sri Lanka’s non-Western allies) provide much needed ideological and material resources for the militarization of global capitalist state and for continuing colonization the non-western countries, and the suppression of class based dissent in them.

In recent times, NGOs and so-called new social movements have done a great deal to move class consciousness from the center of politics. Programs to expand the freedoms of civil society wind up displacing class consciousness and diffusing direct resistance against the capitalist state. Parochial NGO projects concerned with ‘empowerment’ ‘good governance’ ‘conflict resolution’ have fragmented and confused political consciousness, which is now most heavily influenced by ideologies of ethnoreligious nationalism, patriotism, and national security. In the end, they have helped the state to create the political stability demanded by neoliberal institutions. Under these circumstances voters feel they have no option but to choose between Rajapaksha and Fonseka. Though some progressive Sri Lankans may wish to vote for Comrade, Wickramabahu, this will siphon off their votes from the two candidates most likely to win, and they may not be pleased with the result. (Some argue that similar votes for Ralph Nader cast in the 2000 U.S. Presidential election contributed to Al Gore’s loss in the election.) At this election we have to settle for the minimum.

I will vote for the one who, over the next two months, convinces me he is the most promising person to begin an incremental demilitarization by abolishing the executive presidency, revoking the PTA, offering a tangible political settlement to the ethnic conflict, depoliticizing the civil service foreign services, immediately releasing the IDPs, and taking measures to remove negative elements of ethnic exclusivity from national symbols, institutions and education. If Fonseka and Rajapaksha can pride themselves on standing against the many forces opposed to the war, they could also do the same regarding these policies.