Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has asked Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to resign from the government and return to the position of army commander. In a bid to “discipline the country,” Fonseka would be head of the country’s three armed forces for two years.
Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne announced the president’s request at a media conference on Wednesday (Apr 26, 2017). His statements revealed extensive discussions in the previous day’s cabinet meeting over how to suppress mounting strikes, and protests and prevent any disruption to state-run entities. This is a sequel to the strike on Monday at the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, which halted fuel supplies in the entire country.
Fonseka’s reinstatement would be tied to an expansion of the army commander’s powers, raising the spectre of a military dictatorship. Among the measures floated by the cabinet is the creation of a new special force under Fonseka. It also discussed training military groups for deployment in the event of “emergencies” affecting key sectors of the economy, such as the Petroleum Corporation, the Electricity Board, the Water Board and the ports.
There are no constitutional provisions for these moves. They would require the introduction of special regulations.
According to Senaratne, Fonseka said he would consider the request and work accordingly if he were provided with proper powers and responsibilities.
Senaratne said military deployment in key economic sectors was proposed because protests and social unrest were increasingly “hindering the development plans of the country.” He referred to the governments’ backroom discussions with trade union leaders, but complained that strikes were often called with little notice.
Since last October, tens of thousands of workers have engaged in strikes and other struggles demanding higher wages. The industrial action has involved workers at the Hambantota and Colombo ports, the Electricity Board and the Water Board.
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, has experienced a wave of protests, with virtually continuous actions involving doctors, students and others.
There is also widespread anger regarding the deaths of dozens of people due to the collapse of a huge garbage dump at Meethotamulla on April 14. Hundreds participated in protests against dumping garbage in their areas, fearing similar tragedies. Sirisena has since declared garbage disposal an essential service.
Answering questions from reporters, Senaratne justified Sirisena’s proposal by saying that the former Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and former President J. R. Jayawardene used the military to break strikes.
Bandaranaike, using emergency laws, forced strikers back to work at bayonet point in order to break the 1976 general strike. Jayawardene used the communal war, and emergency laws, to unleash military terror against workers and rural youth from 1987 to 1990.
The Sirisena government has attacked strikes and protests on the pretext that they were called to support Rajapakse’s new political outfit. “We cannot allow trade unions to bring back Rajapakse who was thrown out by the people,” Senaratne declared. He was referring to some unions, which are backing Rajapakse.
Rajapakse has organised a group of MPs, including from Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, as a “united opposition” and warned he will topple the government and form a new one. Well, the former President is seeking to exploit growing opposition toward the Sirisena government.