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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
A Challenge to President Rajapakse:
27 October 2006
As per the front page news report which appeared in the Colombo Daily Mirror of Oct.26th, President Mahinda Rajapakse had addressed the members of the Sri Lankan army’s Sinha Regiment “which celebrated fifty years on Tuesday”.
In it, for formality sake, he also had commented on his commitment to peace, whatever he means by that. As the newsreport stated, “Reiterating his commitment to peace, the President urged the soldiers to treat everyone as Sri Lankans and look beyond people’s ethnic and religious differences.” I’d say, this is nothing but highfalutin gibberish.
I issue a fair challenge to President Mahinda Rajapakse to demonstrate his mettle as a true Buddhist. The current Sri Lankan President promotes himself as a sincere Buddhist. We were tickled when in late 1970s, one of his predecessors – Junius Richard Jayewardene (1906-1996) - also projected himself as a ‘Dharmishta’ [Just] Buddhist, but that came to pass ignominiously. We also know that shrewd politicians say the dandyish things to attract voters and media limelight. But what is recorded and remembered for posterity is whether the top dog politician left the nation in a better shape when he or she passed the baton at the end of the tenure, than when he or she assumed the office. By this yardstick alone, Jayewardene and his successors (Premadasa, Wijetunge and Chandrika Kumaratunga) have failed miserably. Why?
The answer is simple. All the predecessors of President Rajapakse, though pouting self-serving Buddhist wisdom, did un-Buddhist deeds. To state specifically, here are the words on the Noble Eight-fold Path, as preached by Lord Buddha, culled from a pamphlet entitled ‘The Ethics of Buddha’ by Ven.Anagarika Dharmapala, written in 1897-1898. [source: ‘Return to Righteousness’ Collection of Anagarika Dharmapala works, edited by Ananda Guruge, 1965, pp.199-210]
The prime misdeed of President Rajapakse’s predecessors was of violating items 1 to 5 of the Noble Eight-fold Path by escalating the military expenditure of the bankrupt island nation. When Jayewardene assumed office as President in February 1978, the military budget (in American dollar terms) stood at 45.3 million dollars per annum. The military personnel in service amounted to around 13,300, consisting of 8,900 army personnel, 2,000 air-force personnel and 2,400 navy cadres [source: Brian Blodgett, ‘Sri Lanka’s Military – The Search for a Mission’, 2004, pp.63-82].
When Jayewardene disembarked from his power pedestal at the end of 1988, the military budget had bloated to nearly 350 million dollars. The ‘Just Buddhist’ Jayewardene regime inflated the military budget almost eight fold, under various pretexts of fighting terrorism and saving the country from Marxists, Naxalites, Tamil terrorists and what not. From 1989 to the end of 2005, Jayewardene’s successors escalated the military budget to hover around 700 – 800 million dollars. The number of full time service personnel had ballooned to nearly 215,000.
Few weeks ago, the AFP newsreport filed by Amal Jayasinghe had the pragmatic caption ‘Lack of cash pushes Sri Lanka to peace talks: analysts’ (Sept.13, 2006). In it, one of the defence analysts retired Air Force chief Harry Gunatillake has been quoted as follows: “Gunatillake said the government risked raising the defence budget from the current 700 million dollars to nearly one billion dollars if the daily killings were to continue.”
The sincere Buddhist path to real peace is simple, and consists of only a few pragmatic steps. First, make a drastic and unbelievable (at least to the Sinhalese constituency) cut on the annual military budget to 45 million dollars, as it stood in 1977. President Rajapakse should remember that year, since he was defeated in the ‘pseudo-Dharmishta’ avalanche. Secondly, prune the Sri Lankan military service personnel number from the currently bloated 215,000 to 14,000 (again, as it stood in 1978). This step would in turn make the North and East regions of the blessed island, a de-militarized zone. Thirdly, then invite the LTTE leadership for discussions on peace enhancement, in an atmosphere of eu-Buddhist cordiality.
I’m merely emphasizing what the incumbent President has pledged an year ago in his election manifesto for getting elected. Here is his pledge, culled from ‘Mahinda Chintana’ (pp.26-27), which appears under the section, ‘Let’s Build Our Country’. Words within the parenthesis are as in the original.
“A new society that protects individuals and social freedoms”? – Baa Humbug. During the past one year of Rajapakse presidency, I just mention for record that two of his nominal parliamentary colleagues who had represented Tamils were killed by anti-social elements who, as circumstantial evidence indicates, have had the tactical connivance from the Commander in Chief’s armed forces. I refer to the killings of Joseph Pararajasingham on December 26, 2005 and Sinnathamby Sivamaharajah on August 20, 2006.
I know that in his current avatar, President Rajapakse would never become a true Buddhist. Why? For sensing the dilemma of a dim witted Sinhalese politician, read the following article contributed by Celia Dugger (the then New York Times correspondent for the South Asia) in 2001 – datelined, merely a couple of weeks before September 11, 2001. Sri Lanka’s bloated military has become the largest employment agency for the Sinhalese South. As per a stastic provided by Celia Dugger, “A soldier posted to Jaffna earns about $140 a month, two to three times as much as a typical garment worker.”
Military Paychecks may be a Factor
in Sri Lanka’s Endless War
Madugahawatte, Sri Lanka: In this lush and placid village, no mortar fire disturbs the breezy nights and only stars and a plump moon light up the sky. Trees are heavy with bananas, coconuts and jackfruit. Bounteous nature, however, is matched by hard times. Good jobs are so scarce that many young men like K.W.Perera have gone to war for a paycheck.
His mother – a petite, careworn woman – said he enlisted against her wishes. ‘He tried the garment factories, construction sites, road work’, she said. ‘He joined up when he found nothing else.’
Eighteen years of ethnic conflict, setting Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan, have become enmeshed in the economic fabric of village life. The war has brought a better standard of living to the families of the more than 200,000 men and women, mostly from the Sinhalese majority, who are fighting the Tamil separatists.
As military spending has grown from 1 percent of the economy before the insurrection began in the early 1980s to 6.8 percent last year, more and more people are making a living from the conflict. There are now more than five times as many people employed in the security forces as there are in tourism.
‘The war has become an institution’, said a Western diplomat based in Colombo, the capital. ‘Rich people are making money on commissions, kickbacks, selling supplies to the army. The soldiers are fairly well paid, too,’ he said. ‘Everybody seems to be making money. It’s a highly democratic system.’
Although the war has killed 62,000 people in a country with a population of 19 million, there is no mass movement to the streets demanding that the government and the rebels make peace.
Many reasons for this are offered. There is the ruthlessness of the rebels, the despair of a war-weary people and the isolation of the Sinhalese south from the carnage of the northern battlefields. There is also the intractability of the conflict between a government that insists on holding the country together and a rebel force determined to divide it.
But some say that the military’s role as a major employer has sapped organized opposition to the war in the countryside, where most people live. At times the army has had trouble attracting recruits for the minimum 12-year enlistment period and desertion is a chronic problem, but the security forces – which include the army, air force, navy and police – still number 215,000, according to the U.S.State Department. The Sri Lankan military declined to supply a figure, citing security issues.
The villagers offer their own twist on what is prolonging the war. With no universal draft, they say, it is the offspring of the poor, not of the elite, who volunteer. ‘The children from the villages are fodder,’ said Lance Corporal Gamini Premarathna, who joined the army 11 years ago when he was 19. ‘None of the bigwigs’, children go. All the politicians shouting that we must have a military solution don’t have sons in the war. It’s only the village boys. The war would end sooner if the rich were dying, too.’
Mr.Perera’s peaceful village in the south, home to 50 or so families who have sent 25 men to the security forces, seems distant from the war-ravaged northern Jaffna peninsula. That’s where the young soldier stood under the baking sun one recent morning, a grim sentry in the war zone who was yearning for home.
The soldiers are paid quite well by local standards and, while garment factories often close, the war goes on. A soldier posted to Jaffna earns about $140 a month, two or three times as much as a typical garment worker. If he is killed in action, his salary would be paid to his wife or, if he is not married, to his family until he would have reached the age of 55. Then they would receive his pension.
K.W.S.Lakshman Perera, K.W.Perera’s second cousin, joined the police force days out of school and had the lower part of his left leg blown off four years ago when he stepped on a land mine. He said that he has no regrets about his service and seems to be surviving nicely on the salary that he continues to draw. He and his wife recently had a second child and have built a spacious home in the shade of towering palms. There is glass in the windows and a studio photograph of his 2 year-old son in the main room.
One recent afternoon he hobbled playfully after his son. Later, he bathed outside, pouring buckets of water over himself, and then hopped back to the house to get dressed and put on his artificial leg. He was happy to lead the way to homes of neighbors who had sent their sons and husbands to war.
Corporal Premarathna was on leave to visit his wife and 3 year-old son in a new house that they are building. His childhood home was a mud hut with coconut fronds for a roof, built by his father, who was a day laborer. The son’s home is made of brick, its tin roof topped with tiles; his wife has planted a papaya tree and pink roses in the front yard. He is determined to return to duty in Jaffna. The pay is worth the risk. ‘It is very difficult to survive on the salary you earn in the south’, he explained.
The last stop in the village was the saddest. Night had fallen and the moon shone gently on K.W.Gunesekera, an elderly man in a plaid loincloth who had come out on his step to talk. Both his sons joined the army. A year ago, his youngest, Lance Corporal Mahinda Dayawansa, 22, died in an ambush. Mr.Gunesekera’s wife seemed lost after her son’s death. ‘She had no more desire to live’, he said. ‘She was forever lamenting our son. She went to sleep one night and didn’t awake. I lost my son. I lost my wife.’ The young man was not married, so his family will collect his salary for the next 32 years. The money is no comfort to Mr.Gunesekera.