by Kumar David
This may appear to be a bold title just two months after the February 1 coup in Burma but it’s true. For starters the Burmese junta is in a tight spot – the army opened fire in 40 locations on Saturday; Rangoon saw dozens of deaths and killings were recorded from Kachin in the north to the far south; more than 400 protesters have been killed by army since the coup and there is no sign that the surge of public anger will subside. There is no question that the junta has to be overthrown and foreign assistance is needed for that. If China pulls the rug from under the killer generals it will be curtains for the junta, but Beijing is in no hurry; its geopolitical objectives and the B&R Initiative take priority. Across the world military dictatorships are becoming scarce; there are none in the Americas – even Venezuela is a political party regime which makes use of the military. There are three in Africa, the egregious despot Sisi in Egypt, Mali and Sudan. In Asia only Thailand and Burma. In China and Vietnam the Party is constitutionally supreme and the repository of state power. The military is subservient to the Party. How to classify North Korea is a challenge not within my ability.
What I am leading to is a bold assertion. The prospect of outright Presidential-despotism or a naked military takeover in Lanka has suffered setbacks for many reasons. You are hearing this from one who has been obsessed with militarisation since November 2019! Is this reassuring? Well yes and no. Yes, a military takeover with or without connection to the President is remote. No, militarisation of the civilian administration will not be dismantled. I am obliged to explain my adjusted perspective. The backlash against militarisation in the liberal middle class, non-government political parties, the media, the Tamils and Muslims, and eventually even the subaltern social classes (in step with ruinous increases in living costs) has been stark. This recoil is sturdier than I anticipated 15 months ago. Only Gota himself, the Viyath Maga coots and a few Gota-devotees among my friends approve of the pernicious expansion of the military’s role into civil administration.
Four other factors have also the pushed back. Obvious but most recent is the Geneva result. The quixotic Executive and its sycophantic retired Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals now know that the militarism cock won’t fight any longer. No one in that motley cabal, I am sure, thinks that they can fight the whole world with one and a half hands tied behind their backs. So I am hypothesising that a military takeover, with or without a role for the Executive is out of the question. Not only world opinion but specifically India will respond firmly. The three other reasons making a hare-brained adventure unlikely are: (i) Muslim and Tamil minorities, in the context of the anti-minority stance of the Executive-cum-military will not accept it and will petition India, South India, the diaspora and the Islamic world. (ii) If a there is a military regime for a protracted period the birth of LTTE-Mark 2 cannot be aborted; I don’t know about ISIS-Lanka Mark 1. (iii) The economic debacle makes the military unpopular – unfairly, because it has not been involved in economic policy making, but the point is that in the public mind the Gotabaya Executive and its officers cabal, albeit retired, are interwoven. The Global Tamil Forum, a diaspora Tamil entity which prefers a united, free, democratic and plural Sri Lanka sums it up well. In a statement on the HRC Resolution it says the government should “listen to the coherent voice of the international community, and accept the parameters of this Resolution for the betterment of the country and people. By rejecting it, it is isolating itself from the international community”. I need add isolating itself from progressive Sinhalese opinion as well.
This brings me to another assertion that readers may like to reflect upon. I opine that the active military, that is the serving officer corps of lieutenants, captains and above, and a majority of soldiers, sailors and airmen, do not want involvement in a coup or a military government, and thereafter inevitable clashes with civilians. It is not the active military but some retired top rung officers (former commanders and deputy or third or fourth level commanders) who are ambitious. And for every one that satiates himself a dozen retirees are left out in the cold. No one has done a statistical survey but I will wager that a majority of serving officers and men in the forces prefer to wash their hands off any notion of a military regime. It is different in Egypt and Burma where the serving military is the principal beneficiary of the dictatorship and the top officer corps rakes in perks and the dollars. Goodies are spread across the two juntas as was the case with the Gorilla Regimes of South and Central America in the Twentieth Century. The proclivity to militarise the state in Lanka therefore issues from the Executive and a few buddies. There too there is a problem. Unlike Mahinda, Gota lacks a deep, proven and long-matured mass base. Therefore he is reinforcing an alternative footing among retired officers who served during his time as Defence Secretary with many of whom he may be well acquainted, and with the shallow semi-educated petty-bourgeoisie of Viyath Maga.
It is truly said Gota polled an overwhelming 72% of Sinhala-Buddhist votes and extremist and non-extremist monks rallied to his cause as did opportunists Weerawansa, Gammanpila and Vasudeva. But I would treat this, if taken as proof that Gota has a powerful Sinhala-Buddhist foundation of mass support, with much caution. Imagine this scenario: Imagine a rift between the executive branch and political branch (Mahinda and SLPP) of state. I have little doubt that at the base – that is in the mass – the great majority of pro-government Sinhala-Buddhists will support the latter. The point is that Gota does not have a deep SB mass following, not even among the saffron clad – key word “deep”. As time passes he will not be able to lean on SBism against political rivals competing for the same base. This is a weakness and it makes him look for others such as the military (pensioners as it turns out) and intellectual trivia like Viyath Maga. Gota was not a politician till 2019 and it was a fortuitous concourse of events that brought the Sinhala-Buddhist mass and the war time Defence Secretary into alignment, but it is not deep enough to weather the storm gathering on the horizon. In a struggle between Sinhala-Buddhism and militarism for moral hegemony over the nation the former ideology will win hands down. Thus weakened, if the regime thwarts accountability, reconciliation and anti-militarism demanded by international opinion it is setting course for shipwreck.
Some of the theses I have canvassed today are novel and controversial but the way things unfold in the next 12 months may bear them out. To summarise my case in a paragraph. I have argued that military regimes are globally out of flavour in this epoch; the thrust to militarisation in Lanka that I feared a year ago has been delayed or arrested; the Lankan Executive does not enjoy the confidence of the Sinhala-Buddhist masses as it did a year ago (covid, the economy, sugared allegations of corruption have undermined it); the serving military is not power hungry (the same cannot be said of retired brass); and any adventure will be crushed by domestic opposition with international support (the Chinese can’t save a dictatorship in Lanka – Beijing is busy saving its butt from a savaging by the two Bs, Biden and Blinken). The sun seems to be peeping through the clouds. The crushing defeats GoSL has countenanced have turned out to be good for democracy in the country.