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Sunday, 05 June 2016

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Sampur: Authority vs. Dignity

The Government did well to soothe tempers all round after the minor fracas in the East in which EP Chief Minister Ahmed Nazeer berated a senior naval officer of the area and then faced a veritable 'boycott' by the Navy. The public, however, must take a moment to understand the various strands of the controversy and their implications for our 'body politic'.

The Government's measured response, amid the public hue and cry arising from diverse perceptions and interpretations of the Sampur incident, was desirable in that it enabled the calming of emotions aroused in various quarters that derived from those diverse public perceptions of the incident in that remote corner of the country. As the overall manager of national society, it is incumbent on the Government to, above all, maintain social peace. After all, this is a country which is barely half a decade after the end of a most destructive internal war, possibly the most destructive in our history.

Precisely because the most war-affected regions of the country are the Northern and the Eastern Provinces, it is these regions that are most sensitive to military matters.On the one hand, the Sri Lankan armed forces have a duty to maintain special vigilance in post-insurgency conditions. On the other, the local populace has its own extreme sensitivity towards the behaviour of the armed forces which were deployed to suppress social rebellion by parts of society in the region.

The current 'reconciliation' process embarked on by this government - after the pretensions by the previous regime - correctly includes the improvement of relations between the military and local society. On one side, the local populations must learn to respect and appreciate the societal relevance of the State armed forces as the legitimate protector of society as a whole and not just that of the State or its political class (or, of any one ethnic community).

On the other, the armed forces, after decades of use and abuse by successive governmental leaderships for the suppression of diverse social forces and political unrest, both in the North and the South, must unlearn the licence seemingly granted by besieged political leaderships to use force and coercion to get things done; the licence of impunity.

As the whole world knows, in times of extreme unrest and internal instability, governments all over the world - from Colombo to Washington DC, to Ankara, Beijing and Delhi - have tended towards authoritarian actions and policies, such as the granting of impunity and enhancing of powers wielded by the military and security agencies. The Prevention of Terrorism Act of this country was unashamedly modelled on similar legislation used by the Apartheid regime of South Africa in its attempt to perpetuate that social-political atrocity. The regime of new laws related to 'Homeland Security' in the USA came in the traumatic aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC, although today there is some embarrassment about the overkill.

Such enhanced powers for the military have resulted in the abuse of these powers and, in the mistreatment of both suspects and even ordinary civilians. 'Water-boarding' has been much talked about in the USA and across the world even as we, Sri Lankans, remain coy about far worse physical torture in our own police stations and allegedly by our security agencies.

The Government is slowly, but surely, beginning to fulfil the expectations of the nation to bring genuine healing to the awful physical and social wounds of internal war. The last thing it needs is new controversies between civilians and the military and between ethnic communities.

Hence, the quick apology by Chief Minister Nazeer was an important move to untie what was becoming a Gordion Knot of competing dignities of local civilian authority and regional military top brass. Even if the Chief Minister, the chief executive officer of the province, had been wrongly ignored in terms of protocol, the public scolding of officials, whether military or civilian, is not the behaviour expected of an elected political leader and quite improper in terms of formal behaviour.

On the other hand, the conclusion by the top political authorities that there was actually no formal 'boycott' enacted by the military whether at national or provincial level cleared the air over what, otherwise, might have become a tricky constitutional lacuna in the mandate of the State military. After all, the State military is but an instrument of the national political authority which, in a democratic republic like Sri Lanka, is the elected government and parliament.

The military must remain at all times subservient to the elected political authority. The Sri Lankan armed forces have, in that sense, a pristine record of remaining well within its professional and institutional mandate throughout this country's post-colonial history. This record is most commendable and proves the genuine democratic spirit within the Sri Lankan military community because this record has been maintained despite everything that has been done to push the military in the opposite direction. For decades, the hapless Sri Lanka military has experienced the frequent abuse of military resources by the politicians of successive regimes for purposes that undermine democracy and the rule of law; the frequent and un-restrained deployment of the military by governments against sections of its own citizenry in the form of suppression of social rebellion and civil unrest; the implicating of military personnel in corrupt practices of thug politicians.

In the Sampur incident, the government and the political authorities in charge of defence had the sense to downplay what was probably a spontaneous reaction by local military commanders to the humiliation to which a fellow officer was - unreasonably - subjected. Clearly, the national defence authorities realised the implications of that kind of spontaneous action against a civilian top authority at regional level and chose to treat such actions as informal ones.

This modulated response by Colombo enables both the military and civilian authorities in the East to step back, take deep breaths, and re-orient relationships towards more constructive and creative ones that will take the country forward rather than backwards.

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