South Asia

Sri Lanka's Army Calls the Shots

The generals are keeping President Wickremesinghe in office. He serves at their pleasure.

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It’s a remarkable feat of history that two bloody insurrections and a separatist insurgency did not bring about the revolution its masterminds sought in Sri Lanka. Instead, a massive and largely peaceful revolt has shaken up the island nation’s politics.

The leftwing Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), founded in 1965 by Moscow-educated and later pro-Beijing Rohana Wijeweera, unleashed the first insurrection in 1971 when it launched unprecedented urban guerrilla attacks in a bid to seize power and establish a socialist society.

Although the insurrection was put down within four months, it jolted Sri Lanka, forcing it to seek foreign (including Indian military) help as armed JVP members took control of several towns and rural areas for weeks. By the time the challenge was crushed, an estimated 5,000 or more people lay dead, almost all Sinhalese, the country’s majority community.

Sixteen long years later, the JVP mounted an even stronger confrontation, capitalising on anti-government fury after Sri Lanka signed a pact with India intended to end Tamil separatism. Particularly incendiary was the deployment of Indian troops in the country’s northern and eastern provinces.

This was a much bloodier, more brutal showdown, with the army – by now battled-hardened after years of fighting Tamil militants – giving it back to the JVP after being initially on the defensive. The fact that Indian troops were now in the northeast helped Colombo to shift its military almost en masse to the troubled Sinhalese areas, where initially support for the JVP rang strong. That was until the officially sanctioned death squads made their appearance.

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By the time the 1987-89 JVP insurrection was finally crushed, tens of thousands were dead, almost all of them Sinhalese, and almost all JVP activists and sympathisers. Security personnel and innocents were also killed in large numbers. The group’s leadership was liquidated, much like the LTTE later. As killings and counter-killings became routine, it was not an uncommon sight to see bodies floating down the Kelaniya, a winding river which had provided the locale for Hollywood’s 1957 epic war film “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”, back when Sri Lanka was known for peace and tranquility,. At least one key JVP leader is known to have escaped to the West via India.

Even when the JVP’s second insurrection was on, Tamil militancy was galloping, leading to military intervention by India, which decided to change track after earlier providing arms and training to the guerrillas. A costly war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led to the deaths of 1,200 Indian soldiers. The LTTE took further revenge by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi, who as Prime Minister had ordered the military deployment. This triggered a cold war between India and the LTTE, which was eventually bludgeoned to defeat by the Sri Lankan military in May 2009.

Unlike the JVP and the LTTE, both of which failed in their armed missions, ordinary Sri Lankans succeeded in July this year to force President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee from his country, first to The Maldives and then to Singapore. It was a remarkable fall for a man who, as the Defence Secretary, presided over the destruction of the LTTE when his brother Mahinda was the President. The mass uprising followed the dramatic collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy because of policies pursued over the years, particularly by the Rajapaksas. India led the world in providing massive economic succour to Sri Lanka.

Barring stray violence, the Sri Lankan revolt was mostly peaceful. But if the people’s uprising was a “revolution” of sorts, the script did not play out the way many of its leading protagonists wanted. The JVP and another leftwing group, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), were very active in the unrest. The mainstream parties sailed with them because of mass impoverishment and pressure from below. The JVP wanted to capitalise on the situation by pushing for early elections in the hope that people fed up with mainstream politicians would give it power. But that did not happen. Ranil Wickremesinghe, picked as Prime Minister in early May, ended up becoming Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s successor as President.

Sri Lanka’s politics is now more divided than ever. While sections of the mainstream parties and the leftwing groups remain opposed to Wickremesinghe, they disagree on numerous issues. The new President – whose personal house in Colombo was burnt down by mobs – seems to have decided that the “revolution” has gone too far and that the situation in Sri Lanka cannot be remedied amid unending protests. A crackdown on the agitators is, inevitably, fuelling fresh anti-government sentiments, although many citizens also feel that Wickremesinghe needs to be given time to prove himself.

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Former Sri Lankan Army chief and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has called for another round of anti-government protests to start on August 9. He is not only vehemently opposed to Wickremesinghe, but feels that the current political make-up in Parliament can never resolve the economic mess. Will Fonseka be able to spearhead a new mass revolt? Is his own political party with him? Will others agree to his leadership? Will Wickremesinghe’s ouster really end Sri Lanka’s woes?

One key factor that helped ordinary Sri Lankans to succeed where the JVP and LTTE failed was the attitude of the armed forces. The military did not side with Gotabaya Rajapaksa against the masses, although it did provide him transport to fly to The Maldives. Since then, however, the military has come out quite openly against the protesters and made it clear that it will not restrain itself indefinitely if violence is perpetrated on the streets.

The military is the glue that keeps Wickremesinghe in office. As long it remains on the side of his government, it is difficult to imagine another mass revolt, no matter how much more unpopular he gets.

M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.