What should the security forces do when there’s no war to be fought?

Sri Lanka Army in vegetable retailing-pic: ft.lk

By Kath Noble

What should the Security Forces do when there’s no war to be fought? Now that three years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE and pretty much everybody is convinced that there will be no resurgence, this would seem to be a pertinent question to ask. Of course vigilance is needed.

The Security Forces have to ensure that they are ready to deal with any new militancy. However, that’s a limited task in comparison with the all-out war they were caught up in until 2009. So what now?

Last week, the Daily News reported that the Army had started purchasing paddy from farmers in the Eastern Province, cutting out the exploitative middlemen. Soldiers are working in shifts to clean and process the produce, and they would soon be in a position to supply their full rice requirement of over 1,000 MT per month, since they are busy renovating a ‘giant’ processing unit in Dehiattakandiya. Farmers are getting a fair price for their harvest, after years of struggle.

Now we are told that the Army is also going to make the country self-sufficient in milk. Malnutrition will be a thing of the past, since it is importing 10,000 cows from Australia, which the Army intends to raise in its farm in the Polonnaruwa district.

In some ways, this is good news. These are certainly worthwhile objectives.

Also, leaving soldiers sitting around doing nothing is a waste of resources. The Army alone claims to have around 200,000 members. That’s large by international standards, even in absolute terms.

The Ministry of Defence budget for 2012 takes up a massive 20% of Government expenditure. It amounts to 4% of GDP, compared to spending of 2.7% in India and 2.1% in China. Even the US, which is busy trying to rule the world, spends only 4.8% of GDP, and this isn’t so unproductive considering that it relies largely on domestic manufacturing. Sri Lanka imports its material defence requirements.

More significantly, these figures constitute an increase over previous years. Also, the explanation given when this information was published back in October – that the money was needed to construct new bases in areas reclaimed from the LTTE, as well as to repay loans taken for equipment bought during the war – was misleading, since Rs. 162 billion of the total Rs. 231 billion Ministry of Defence budget is to be spent on salaries and allowances, and this is what has increased. Sri Lanka has to spend so much on the Security Forces because they employ so many people.

Reducing the size of the Security Forces is understandably controversial. For one thing, having risked their lives for their country, it wouldn’t be very nice of the Government to throw them out of their jobs, even with compensation.

However, just because this is a difficult problem doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be tackled. Getting soldiers to do the work of civilians is no solution – these are other people’s jobs, after all.

It is rather like Colombo’s garbage issue, apparently resolved since Gotabhaya Rajapaksa took over the Urban Development Authority. Everybody is happy, since the city had suffered piles of rubbish slowly and so malodorously putrefying on each and every street corner for years. It was a health hazard as well as a nose and eyesore. Within months of his taking over, everything changed. The streets were suddenly spotless. However, there was no magic involved. It needed only political will. Those who had allowed the contractor to get away with not collecting rubbish just had to be told that their actions would no longer be tolerated. Bribes would not be accepted.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa deserves credit for this achievement, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that there is only one person in the entire country of 20 million who could have got this very simple job done. It’s not like wiping out a highly-sophisticated terrorist group.

Sri Lanka must be the only country in the world with a Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Amongst its key objectives are both ‘assuring the territorial integrity and national security of the country’ and ‘the protection and development of wetlands’. How many more unconnected tasks will be added to this list?

Since the war ended, as well as paddy purchasing and processing and milk production, the Security Forces have also been marketing vegetables. They run tea shops and restaurants all over the North and East. And recently the Navy announced that it is building a hotel in Mirissa.

Even if the Ministry of Defence can handle all of these tasks, soldiers are paid more than the people who usually do them. Also, they are trained at great expense for something entirely different.

It is useless to argue that the Government should entrust pressing issues to the Ministry of Defence because it is the only ministry that functions well. Even if that were true – which seems unlikely – this can only be a recent phenomenon. After all, the war dragged on for three decades, with the Ministry of Defence apparently powerless to do anything about it. Other departments can and must be reformed too.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has been half-heartedly intervening in the agriculture sector ever since he came to power, with rather more rhetorical flourish but only slightly more action than his immediate predecessors. If he really wants to make the country self-sufficient in milk and solve the marketing problems of vegetable and paddy farmers, he has a Ministry of Agriculture for that. It gets a fraction of the funds of the Ministry of Defence – Rs. 6 billion in the 2012 budget, of which less than Rs. 2 billion is to be spent on salaries and allowances. It would function better if it had more money. Even doubling its allocation would mean only a pathetic 1% share of Government expenditure. And if a change of leadership is needed, there’s nothing stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa doing that too.

If a bit of political will were employed in the agriculture sector, the country would be transformed, in particular the North and East where there is so much undeveloped potential.

The end of the war was supposed to provide the opportunity for such change, as resources can now be redirected towards more productive purposes. But this is a process that is not going to end well if it takes place only within the Ministry of Defence. There is a need for other expertise and other methods.

Also, the fact that the Security Forces are essentially mono-ethnic means that their takeover of so many functions of the state is bound to be interpreted as discriminatory. It doesn’t matter whether or not it was intended that way.

Do Sri Lankans really want soldiers to run any more aspects of their society than is absolutely necessary?

There would seem to be no escaping the need for some reduction in numbers. While it is tempting to argue that such decisions should be left in the hands of the Security Forces themselves, who undoubtedly best know what is needed, it should be remembered that nobody likes to reduce their own power. Sarath Fonseka was so keen to increase his influence when he was in charge of the Army that he actually proposed accelerating recruitment after the war ended, with the objective of doubling its members. His former colleagues are undoubtedly more measured in their approach, but the final say must be with politicians, whose determinations must be influenced by a wider range of factors.

Although there is clearly no justification for sacrificing jobs in the North and East for the sake of the South, the economic impact has to be considered, since the majority of soldiers are from rural areas. Their salaries propped up the rural economy in the South through the long years of war.

Even more importantly, the process has to be handled in a much better way than the integration of the former LTTE cadres of the Karuna faction, many of whom are now running amok both in the Eastern Province and elsewhere. Those trained in the use of force have to be trained to do something else when they are no longer needed. They need new skills. There must also be political will to stop them employing their old skills outside the confines of the law. This rather obvious observation is accepted in the case of LTTE cadres who fought to the end, but it is not applied to those who gave up earlier. Gratitude for their assistance in crushing Prabhakaran should extend as far as agreeing not to prosecute them for crimes committed during their time in the LTTE, which were in many cases egregious. Crimes they go on to commit three years after the war ended simply cannot be tolerated. The problem is that the Government is tolerating many things these days, for its own convenience.

Gratitude towards soldiers can also only go so far. There must be a proper assessment of needs and a real shift in approach to reflect the fact that the country is now at peace. If not, Sri Lanka will have to face the consequences in the years to come.

Never mind the economic and political problems, if the Security Forces spend all of their time making cups of tea, they will forget how to fight wars.