First on America: A video showing an unarmed and manacled American black man being killed by a white policeman placing his knee on the victim’s neck for more than eight minutes resulted in the eruption of mass protests and riots in cities across the American continent stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. Protests [...]

Sunday Times 2

Militarisation of democracy or democratisation of the military?


The NYPD watches as demonstrators protest against the racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in New York City, New York, U.S. June 11. Reuters

First on America: A video showing an unarmed and manacled American black man being killed by a white policeman placing his knee on the victim’s neck for more than eight minutes resulted in the eruption of mass protests and riots in cities across the American continent stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans.

Protests particularly in Washington around the White House with thousands gathering around it caused the president’s Secret Service much concern. It was reported President Trump was taken to an underground bunker to ensure his safety. The next day Trump in his inimitable way denied being taken down to a bunker at night and said he had visited the bunker only during the day briefly, to ‘inspect’ it.

The security situation in Washington was no doubt causing much concern. Trump had warned governors of the American states that if they were unable to restore law and order in their states, with their state National Guards, he would call in regular combat troops. This threat of deploying troops of the regular armed services to combat political forces — ordinary civilians exercising their constitutional right to protest — was condemned not only by former retired service commanders and some former defence secretaries but also by high ranking military chiefs in service.

Commentators pointed out that the military keeping out of politics was one of the oldest traditions of the American constitutional order. There had been only few exceptions in history such as during Fugitives Slave Act and the Civil War. The armed services had created the rule that they should never be deployed against American citizens.

That’s why they enjoy the broad confidence of the American public, political observers noted.

Both former army generals and even those in active service openly resisted President Trump’s moves to deploy the armed services in the current crisis. It was reported about a week ago that in Washington 5,000 troops from the National Guard troops to the District of Columbia and a dozen states were rushed to Washington to crack down on protestors and occasional looters.

US media reports also said that senior army leaders made a concerted effort to ‘prevent a calamitous outcome if Trump ordered combat troops from the 83rd Airborne Division waiting just outside the city limits’ on to the streets of Washington. These army leaders had leant heavily on the Home Guard commands to carry out aggressive tactics against protestors to prove that they could do the job without the help of active duty forces.

However, questions are being raised on whether regular troops had been deployed to quell protests stages in Washington. It has been reported that the army is investigating a report of the use of a Black Hawk helicopter that had been used to terrorise protestors in Washington. It is also been reported that national Guard have requested written guidance for permitting troops without military licences to drive vehicles around Washington.

Former military leaders some who held high political office were scathing in their criticism not only of Trump’s political leadership and treatment of the black minority but came down hard on the use of the military including the Home Guards to quell the protestors. Some of them included: four-star General Colin Powell who was Secretary of State under Republican President George Bush, Admiral Mike Mullen (Retd), Michael Hayden former Air Force Four Star General, former General John Kelly a former Trump White House Chief of Staff, former Secretary of Defence, James Mattis.

The most telling blow came from Trump’s current Secretary of Defence Mark Esper on June 03. He said: ’Active Duty military troops should not be sent to control the wave of protests in American cities, at least for now.’ Commentators said the words of the Defence Secretary in Trump’s cabinet directly contradicting his leader’s statement reflected the turmoil among Pentagon officials over the conduct of Trump. American troops on the streets could be seen as participating in a move towards Martial Law.

The betting among Washington’s political observers is on how long Mark Esper would last in White House.

Militarisation in Sri Lanka?

Attempts to use combat troops trained to fight foreign adversaries against American citizens was not a part of the political strategy of Donald Trump but it fell upon him by misfortune with the Covid 19 Pandemic threatening his chances for re-election as president.

In Sri Lanka, the move for militarisation came with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president in November last year. The reputation of a strong authoritative leader was associated with Rajapaksa by supporters of the Rajapaksa family when it became apparent that he would be the next presidential candidate because Mahinda Rajapaksa would not be able to run for a third presidential term due to constitutional amendments.

On being elected President, Gotabaya appointed some former military officers to key government positions normally filled in by professional civilians or members of the administrative service.

The appointment of a Presidential Task Force by a gazette extraordinary on June 3 appears to be a move to gain control of government administration by those associated with the military. The 13-member Presidential Task forces comprises 10 high ranking military men, past and still in service — as well as three police officials in service. The grandiose title of the task force: ‘Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society’. This is in accordance with the powers vested in President Rajapaksa by Article 33 of the Constitution states the gazette extraordinary. Military personnel building ‘virtuous’ societies is perhaps a first time in world history but this is also time for an impending Parliamentary Election.

The powers vested in this military dominated outfit involves; curbing illegal activities of social groups which are violating the law; prevention of the drug menace; taking measures for legal action against those responsible for illegal and anti-social activities conducted in Sri Lanka while located in other countries and investigation and prevention of illegal and anti-social activities around prisons.

The most extraordinary powers vested in this Task Force by this gazette extraordinary are that; ‘All government officers and others to provide all possible assistance and provide all information to the Task Force. It is called upon to report’ to the Secretary to the President all cases of delay or default on the part of any public officer of any ministry, government department, state corporation or other similar institution in the discharge of duties and responsibilities assigned to such pubic officers or such institution.’

Prima facie, could not this order usurp powers and functions normally reserved for civilian authorities under the rule of law and established constitutional principles? The question could be posed whether we are shifting from what is normally accepted as the rule of law to military law.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the movement of military personnel to key civilian positions may not necessarily mean a departure from the normal practices of public administration. It could be for a more efficient civilian administration by military personnel. On the whole it could be considered democratisation of military administration instead of militarisation of democratic civilian administration.

It may be all doublespeak in the post-Covid Era. But all this would be subject to the next Parliamentary Election to be held presumably on an auspicious day of August 5.

(Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)


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