For the past two months the Sri Lankan government, using the state media, has been trying to pull off the impossible. They have been projecting the terrible losses suffered by the army at Kilinochchi, on the road to Jaffna where an estimated 1500 or more soldiers perished in September, as a relatively small price to pay for the capture of Mankulam, also on the road to Jaffna though at a more southward point. One justification provided was that, in percentage terms, the LTTE had lost far more than the army. The Sri Lankan media has been forced to put up with censorship by the military for the past seven months. The country has known censorship before, but it had mostly been for partisan political purposes and never before have the armed forces been the censors. At one level, what censorship has done is help the government lull the Sri Lankans´ sense of outrage and transport them to a fantasy land where defeat is victory, and where the dead are not “dead” but “missing”.
These propagandistic accounts are beginning to have an impact, but not in the way the government would want it. Can the situation be really so bad? Would the government lie so blatantly? The censorship of news coupled with government propaganda has caused doubts to rise. This is true mainly for people living in the cities, as, unlike their rural counterparts, most of them do not have relatives at the northern front, nor do they have access to the informal network of news-gathering of the villages.
Indeed, one morning, an irate ex-soldier called to complain about a story he had just heard on the state radio. According to the news item, the army´s top brass had just been awarded the country´s highest military awards. Sounding very bitter, he said the government must be living in a world of fantasy. The worst-ever military defeat had taken place only two weeks ago at Kilinochchi, and there were thousands of weeping families across the length and breadth of the country. And here, ridiculously enough, the officers were being decorated with medallions..
There are other signs as well of the road to doom that Sri Lanka is taking. The passage of the SLR 12 billion (USD 180 million) supplement to the already huge defence budget was an event of major consequence, especially at this time of economic downturn. This amount exceeds the entire budget for health, but it was approved by the parliament with hardly any debate. If not for some columnists who wrote of this increase, it might not even have been known. But no one complained. Who wants to begrudge the soldiers at the front the money anyway?
The indefinite postponement of the provincial council elections two months ago was another significant event, justified once again on the grounds of military necessity. And true to the trend, the public accepted the postponement without much debate. While the silence on the part of the citizenry can be attributed to the fact that they do not wish the massive sacrifices of the soldiers to be compromised, it is disturbing that, in the process, democratic norms are being steadily eroded.
The absence of effective democracy and civilian rule in the northeast has not been contested (and for good reason, many will say, pointing to the presence of the LTTE). The military has been the de facto ruler in these parts for some time now. If anyone had had any doubts on that count, by November those doubts were cleared when the government appointed a recently retired army general to the governor´s post in the northeast province. What´s particularly disturbing is that not only the northeast, but also the south is coming under the increasing influence of the defence establishment. The country´s priorities and resources, it seems, are going the military way.
The military setbacks may make immediate elections unattractive to the government. But the fact is the government is fast approaching a crossroads where it will have to choose between rule by parliament or rule that is ultimately determined by the defence establishment. Any further postponement of elections will be a clear signal of the direction in which the country is set to travel.