Monday, November 30, 2009

Sri Lanka: The Danger of the General

Professor Laksiri Fernando - University of Colombo

Sri Lanka seems to be going through some unusual times. What appeared as a bright future for the country just six months ago, after defeating the LTTE, is now clouded with doubt, intrigue and uncertainty.

No doubt that the country will come out of this crisis, as it did in previous times, perhaps much stronger. But it will be at an unnecessary cost and strain. But it will be at an unnecessary cost and strain.

A premature presidential election has to be declared to clear the doubts as to who would hold the people’s mandate, the government or the opposition. It will be held on the 26th January. Otherwise, what is due is parliamentary election before April. It is more than intriguing that the apparent contender is the former Army Commander challenging the incumbent President. The tricks of the main opposition, that vehemently opposed the war against the LTTE, and the remaining LTTE rump abroad, are uncertain as they seem to be in unison in destabilizing the country.

Near Escape

Sri Lanka perhaps did not realize fully that it escaped an impending military coup by a stroke of luck a few months ago. The political ambitions that the former army commander has very clearly expressed and the doubts that the government entertained about a possible military takeover are not accidental. It was to circumvent that eventuality that the former army commander was removed from his commanding position in mid-July by elevating him as the Chief of Defense of Staff, with more ceremonial and no actual power. As the facts have become revealed, the army commander has had different views from the government during the last stages of the operations against the LTTE on timing and logistics. Thereafter, his ambition has been to expand the army further, under his tutelage, without recognizing the end of the war or the costs involved. What may appear as a professional aspiration was very clearly linked to political ambitions.

It is not unusual for army commanders to step into politics when a country is in a crisis or when the army is at the helm. Though not unusual, it would be the end of democracy. During the thirty years of war, there were instances when a military takeover was suspected. The lack of proper political leadership or support to fight against the LTTE was the main grievance of the army or the potential spur to takeover. What prevented that eventuality was uncertainty or professionalism. It was uncertain that the army alone could face up to the LTTE, while governing the country, with an obvious opposition in the South. Sri Lanka also has been well known for a professional army. Only few generals have had temptation for politics before, and none of them seemed to entertain the full desire while in the service. The present General apparently is an exception.

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