By Kusal Perera
The Navy high Command has taken one step too far, too quick. The Daily Mirror (DM) on 27 May (2016), carried in one of its columns a statement made by the Navy media spokesman, Captain Alavi as saying the Navy Commander had given instructions to all navy officers and camps that Chief Minister of the Eastern Province, Nazeer Ahamed should not be allowed into any naval camp. Captain Alavi is on record saying, “We have also informed all Navy officers to refrain from attending his functions”.
This begs the question, can the navy Commander, or for that matter any commander in the tri-forces take such decisions against an elected official in the capacity of an executive, a Chief Minister of a province, whatever the issue or allegation is? The most appropriate procedure for the Navy to take action seems, the Commander submits a full report on the incident to the Minister of Defence through Secretary, MoD “for necessary action”. The ministry could then request a report from the Governor as well as from the CM before arriving at a decision the Minister feels as necessary. Instead the navy had gone on its own asserting an authority that I tend to think is far beyond theirs. This is a political decision the navy had taken and I personally feel, the navy is now treading on forbidden land. Sadly, the MS-RW government does not have the political authority and the will to tell the navy and the tri-forces that in a post war situation, there is a complaint mechanism and a procedure to be adopted in civil administration that would take care of all such issues and decisions. That the government would ensure justice prevails for all.
The passiveness of the government in managing the battle hardened security forces in post war Sri Lanka, is very much so due to lack of a programme in allowing the tri forces to step back into a normal civil society and also the bias of this political leadership towards the Sinhala constituency. This ineptness in governance was seen in Jaffna when Foreign Minister attended a function on developing a mechanism for the reconciliation process. There in mid-February this year, Minister Samaraweera ran into friction with Major General Chagi Gallage. There was mischief in media interpretations of the incident. Yet it was most silently sorted out, compromised on a transfer arranged for Major General Gallage, one time head of Rajapaksa’s security. This now is the second friction on the high, between the political authority and the tri forces within just 03 months. This verbal altercation unlike that in Jaffna, is now out in public and discussed in the media. Sinhala racism that has lost their glitter on the Colombo roads have crowded in social media, busy giving it a racist burst. Few protests gathered in the East with Buddhist monks crying loud against “a Muslim insulting our Sinhala war heroes”. Certainly an unwanted and an unnecessary prop from hard line Sinhala “patriotism”. A dangerous trend if allowed, especially with President Sirisena led government that is grappling to have the Rajapaksa image copied with maximum accuracy for its ill calculated advantage.
It is therefore necessary to see the Sampur event in context, before pointing fingers at CM Nazeer Ahamed. On record, Governor Austin Fernando does not deny the explanation given by CM Ahamed. CM Ahamed was in Kinniya at another event attended by the US Ambassador Keshap and the Governor. Was not accommodated in the chopper to go to Sampur. Was instead asked to go on road to Sampur till the ambassador and “others” flew to Sampur by chopper. Governor himself “managed” a seat in the chopper that was crowded. CM’s details on the next issue in the school at Sampur also goes without denial. It thus goes to say, the CM of the province had not been given due recognition as the elected head of the provincial administration, at both events. What in fact Governor Fernando has put on record (DM on 27 May) is a long excuse to stress he is not at fault.
His long explanation thus raises more issues than answers. The school, Sampur M.V had been under the Navy. The LLRC recommended and stressed civil administration should be established in the provinces and civil life should be allowed freedom in all aspects of society. That was 04 years and 05 months ago. Yet nothing had changed. In fact the tri forces can even secure funds to improve anything they think they should including school facilities, and they do. The navy had thus secured funds from a private company (Arpico?) to provide the Sampur school with a science and a computer laboratory constructed by the navy.
Education is a wholly devolved subject, Governor Fernando is well aware of. All schools, except those few the Colombo government grabs now and then to call them “National” schools, come under the authority of the PC. No funds therefore should go to any school without the approval of the provincial education administration. But they do go, as the Sampur school event proves and Governor Fernando also knew the navy was in charge of the school and funds were available with the navy, when he settled in Trincomalee as Governor. The Governor certainly has had no issues with security forces getting involved in civil administrative work, as he explains himself. The navy perhaps did not even want any approval or consent from the provincial authorities to undertake the construction work they completed.
In such context, the event owner in this instance was without doubt the navy and obviously the local education officers and school staff has to fall in line. The navy had not thought it important to invite the CM. To indicate he was more thoughtful, Governor Fernando says he invited the CM for the event as he thought it good to also have him. What does all this mean?
Even one year and four months after the “rainbow revolution”, what the LLRC strongly recommended has not been undertaken even by this government in re-establishing civilian administration. Authority of State security forces in civil administration and public life stands firm and both North and East Governors add to it. As with the Northern PC where Governor Cooray trespasses on the provincial council’s mandate to develop its province, in the East Governor Fernando has also allowed the PC to live a marginalised life. He thus sounded a sorry personality when he told DM, “When we reached the venue, we found that the organisers had marked the seats. Accordingly, the Navy commander of the Eastern section sat next to Atul Keshap but the CM claimed that he should have sat there. But I didn’t see anything wrong in the commander sitting next to the ambassador.”
That very clearly spells out Governor Fernando’s perceived position on civil administration and the value he gives provincial rule in relation to the authority of Sate security forces in his province. This perception is well cemented further in his explanation, when he goes on to say the handing over of the school is good for the security forces as there are allegations the army is anti-Tamil and adds, “Therefore, this was a good opportunity for them (the security forces) to show that this allegation was false”. He thus works on the premise there is no problem with the security forces doing public work and is very casual about leaving the civil administration with no clear devolved power.
That being how the Governor of the province consents to security forces being involved in civil duties, the navy was in control of the event from day one and they decided the importance and glamour of all arrangements including seating. For the navy that for a long period during the war was in charge of affairs in East along with other State security forces, provincial councils are not as important as themselves. In fact even the previous Governor for almost 09 years was Rear Admiral (Rtd) Mohan Wijewickrama, one time Chief of Staff of the SL Navy. Therefore from how the navy understands, a civilian Chief Minister is not as important as the Eastern Province Navy Commander to sit next to the US ambassador. The irony is, Governor Fernando, a retired senior civil administrator also think, there is nothing wrong in that.
This conflict in who runs the province and where the CM of the province should stand in the provincial hierarchy, had been dragging on in the Eastern Province, even after Mr. Fernando was appointed Governor. That conflict is yet there even in the North, even after Cooray a politician who boasts he was always for devolution from Vijeya Kumaratunge’s time was appointed Governor. Yet we don’t see such conflicts between Governors and CMs in the other provinces and the question is “Why?”
In the other provinces that are fundamentally Sinhala constituencies, almost always, the Governor is the representative of the President, whose politics don’t contradict that of the CM and his provincial council. The CM and the Governor in fact work in tandem with the Colombo power centre. That is reason why the provincial leaders in the other provinces don’t feel they need better and effective devolved power. And the other important factor is, in these provinces the State security forces have never been involved in running the provinces. They have not been part of or authorities of the provincial administrations. South has not been militarised to the intimidating extent the North and East have been militarised.
With that the Sinhala South wrongly perceives “Devolution” as a political process leading to separation. The South therefore don’t discuss the fact that all outside Colombo have been neglected and denied much needed quality “development” in this Colombo centred “Unitary State”. Rural poverty in Sinhala South have been dragged along this Unitary State for 67 years since independence. They don’t make an effort to understand they too need to assert provincial rule for their own development within better and effectively “devolved” power.
Sinhala Governors appointed to the two Tamil and Muslim dominated provinces don’t think any differently. They don’t have to when the Colombo government that promises “reconciliation” don’t recognise the N & E PCs and it opts to work with TNA parliamentarians on everything provincial. The Governors thus try to maintain a status quo, with a dominant presence of State security forces and Colombo centric power on which they are appointed. This leaves the two provinces denied of political authority to run their own administrations. This status quo is not what the Northern and Eastern people want. They expected civil persons as Governors in their provinces to pave way for a total civil administration. Sadly the two Sinhala Governors don’t act any different to Major General G.A. Chandrasiri in the North and Rear Admiral (Rtd) Mohan Wijewickrama in the East. Nor does the Colombo government that promises “reconciliation” facilitate a change to effective civil administration in North-East.
The recent verbal altercation is thus a reflection of this on-going conflict. It had to surface somewhere some time. It was clearly articulated by the Eastern PC Chief Minister in his explanation. He was honestly clear when he gave vent to his feelings “Nobody gave me due recognition. I have never been insulted like this before.” in the DM.
How the reaction to this continued status quo that leaves the elected provincial council and its CM less important is not the best way it should have been articulated. It should have been taken up the way CM Vigneswaran protested against Governor Cooray. Still a better way would have been to adopt a strongly worded resolution stating the protocols in the PC. I would have therefore appreciated CM Ahamed’s explanation more, had he included in his explanation a decent apology to the Naval officer, who would have also felt insulted before an audience, just the way the CM Ahamed felt humiliated before his own constituency.