Fonseka in politics will be damaging military professionalism
Posted on November 15th, 2009

Ajit Randeniya

The likely entry of (Retd.) General Sarath Fonseka in to politics attracts attention at many levels. Superficially, his acceptance to enter politics, merely to “ƒ”¹…”save’ the triad of desperadoes, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Somawansa Amarasinghe and Mangala Samaraweera displays an appalling lack of judgment and naivety. Secondly, his aspiration to become President shows that he may not have carefully weighed up the “ƒ”¹…”skill set’ he has on offer to the nation against the particular “ƒ”¹…”job description’.

The people of Sri Lanka are likely to reject him overwhelmingly on these grounds. But there is also an important fundamental issue at stake. General Fonseka may have demeaned “ƒ”¹…”military professionalism’ in the eyes of commissioned officers as well as the rank and file of the armed forces he led, at different capacities, for nearly 40 years.

The event of a former armed forces commander turning in to politics certainly sets an ugly precedent in Sri Lanka, but it is unusual even by broader Asian standards. Those who are academically oriented, or simply curious on the issue, are well served by two books on the subject written by Professor Muthiah Alagappa, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

In the book “Coercion and Governance: The Declining Political Role of the Military in Asia” (Stanford University Press, 2001), Professor Alagappa presents a broad overview of the role of the military in Asia at the beginning of the 21st century. Based on an analysis of the state of civil-military relations in sixteen Asian countries, Alagappa argued that the key to understanding civil-military relations in Asia (and elsewhere) is the role and degree of coercion the military exercises in usurping the political authority of elected governments.

The conclusion was that nation building requires “ƒ”¹…”civilian supremacy’ exercised through strong institutions that can effectively regulate the military and limit its role in governance. In an optimistic note, Alagappa concluded that, except for the cases of Pakistan, Burma and North Korea, the military in Asian countries was disengaging from politics. Conceptually, the study explained the trend on the basis of the particular needs of the processes associated with the construction of nation, state, economic and political systems in the countries concerned.

Another study of ten Asian cases including Pakistan and Burma (“Military Professionalism In Asia”, East-West Center, 2001) edited by Alagappa advances the proposition that “ƒ”¹…”old-style’ military professionalism is on the rise in Asia, with reduced role of military coercion in governance and the increased distribution of power against the military. Fonseka’s move into politics sends a signal that Sri Lanka is moving in a direction contrary to this general model.

Fonseka’s motives are unclear. It appears that he is aggrieved that he deserved more than the reward of a “ƒ”¹…”merwe’ career promotion (which he obviously saw as a “ƒ”¹…”kick upstairs’). It appears that he is going to seek what he thinks is the “ƒ”¹…”due reward’. But judging by his ‘gransiose’ plans, announced virtually the day after the victory to build up the army to a 300000 force, suggests that he harboured the thoughts himself. THat is the sort of coercian Alagappa is talking about.

Such a position clearly distracts from the notion of “ƒ”¹…”professionalism’ in any field of public service let alone military service.

Fonseka and his “ƒ”¹…”minders’ need to turn to America to learn what military professionalism means. If there is “ƒ”¹…”one thing’ the developing world could learn from the Americans, it is about the commitment and professionalism of their armed services.

The US forces carry out the operations thrust upon them by their political masters, even the doubtful ones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, without question or expectations of personal gratification. This is despite the extremely shabby treatment (for a rich country that glorifies war), of the families of dead soldiers and rehabilitation of the injured.

American soldiers value the loyalty, sacrifice, and team-mentality embodied in the military. They enlist to serve their country as per the motto, of the Army – “this we’ll Defend”, the Air Force – “integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do,” and the Navy – “honor, courage, commitment”. In joining the armed forces they forgo many career opportunities with much higher financial rewards. The number of cases of political aspirations pursued following military careers is small.

Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera who slavishly worship every aspect of the American system seem to think it is quite appropriate to “ƒ”¹…”recruit’ a former military man to run for President simply because he is popular and they are not! The other instigator of this desperate move, the JVP is not worth focusing on because they are a political irrelevance with a dishonourable history.

What Sri Lanka’s enemies think of this move which they seem to be finding “ƒ”¹…”interesting’ can be gauged by the frenzy the wires Reuters, AFP, Bloomberg and others, and of course the BBC and The Times have got themselves in to.

Jeremy “ƒ”¹…”Airport’ Page, of The Times “ƒ”¹…”reports’ (more like “ƒ”¹…”gossip mongers’): “President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka was so afraid of a military coup after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers that he warned India to place its troops on high alert as recently as last month, according to the former head of the Sri Lankan Army. General Sarath Fonseka, who led the victorious campaign against the Tigers only to be sidelined two months later, made the allegation in a bitter resignation letter, seen by The Times yesterday”. (emphasis added).

 Charles Haviland of BBC News reports: “Gen Fonseka is said to be at odds with President Rajapaksa. It is said to pit the armed forces chief, Gen Sarath Fonseka, against two ultra-powerful brothers, the president and the defence secretary, Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. One apparently contentious issue is who should take the credit for the government’s all-out victory last May against the Tamil Tigers”.

 Daily checks show that these and other partners of the western media coterie have gone to overdrive on this rather insignificant event in a “ƒ”¹…”normal’ news world. They are rubbing their hands with glee!

 There is no better way to end the rather gloomy outlook that awaits Sarath Fonseka than by quoting Dwight “ƒ”¹…”Ike’ Eisenhower (a five-star general in the US Army who went on to become the 34th President of the US): “Neither a wise nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him”.

 Fonseka still has time to take this sensible advice from one former military man to another!

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