Sri Lanka President sends powerful message to military by deflating air chief
ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s President’s surprise decision not to extend air chief Gagan Bulathsinghala’s term has triggered speculation that the commander-in-chief may be trying to move delicately to re-assert his authority.
When military top brass, including outgoing Bulathsinghala, issued a fatwa against Eastern Province Chief Minister Ahmed Naseer in May, it rattled politicians, but a demure Sirisena did not publicly display his displeasure immediately.
Analysts say the President may have been waiting for an opportunity to deal with belligerence. The decision not to extend the term of Bulathsinghala took even his successor, Kapila Jayampathy by surprise.
It was so rushed, the customary "ceremonial sunset" banquet that is held in honour of departing chiefs was dispensed with and Bulathsinghala was left to entertain well-wishers at his official residence. He also won’t be able to be at a pre-school function at Ekala where he was due as chief guest in his capacity as air force chief on Sept 15.
Dealing with the military had been a delicate tight-rope walk for President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who have been treading carefully not to ruffle any feathers as they push their efforts at ethnic reconciliation.
However, some of the high profile murders such as the Lasantha Wickrematunga and the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda point to the involvement of military intelligence personnel.
Police have reported to courts that the military was uncooperative despite assurances from army chief Chrishantha De Silva that they will support the investigations.
It is not clear if the military has initiated internal disciplinary action against any of the military intelligence men who have been implicated in murder and abduction.
There has been no known purge in the military since the former administration removed a large number of officers and men who were said to have been either directly or indirectly supportive of Sarath Fonseka who challenged ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 elections.
Recently, a major general was transferred out of his post in the north following a spat involving Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. That incident underscored nagging questions about some of the officers and the role of under cover operatives.
A former military officer said the service commanders announcing a boycott of Eastern Province Chief Minister was probably the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe despatched his trusted lieutenant, Minister Malik Samarawickrema to the eastern naval command in the company of a visiting Singaporean minister and chief minister Naseem in a symbolic gesture of politicians re-asserting their authority.
Photos of the military not only welcoming the chief minister, but also hosting him at lunch and saluting were published, and President Sirisena got his defence secretary to retract the fatwa issued by service commanders. The whole episode was allowed to pass, but it clearly rattled the political establishment and eye brows were raised.
The outgoing air chief Bulathsinghala was seen as a key driver of that diktat against the chief minister and going by the logic applied to him, it is doubtful if navy chief Ravi Wijegunaratne, also implicated in the same incident, will get his tenure extended.
However, army chief Chrishantha De Silva was granted a one-year extension last month, as the authorities believe he was managing a transition well despite the niggling concerns about some units under him.
The recent book by Major General Kamal Gunaratne just after his retirement underscored the tensions within the military leadership and the need for a cool head to balance competing interests within the institution.
But the abrupt packing off of the air chief could be part of an effort by the political establishment to take total control and send a strong signal that Sri Lanka is not going to be another Pakistan. (Colombo/Sept14/2016)