Don’t withdraw Army from North – Prof. Rohan Gunaratna

By Zahrah Imtiaz

Sampath* squints at the large screen before him, trying to watch the English movie on it. He is sitting, inside a large tent, waitingfor the State Minister for Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene to make his official state tour to the Army Camp in Palali. “Hats on and stand up when the minister arrives,” shouts the platoon leader. The minister has arrived and Sampath along with several of his officers and colleagues, from the Jaffna peninsula stand to attention to listen to him. Wijewardene quietens Sampath’s fears that the new government would not demobilize the current numbers in the forces. Later at tea, the minister who is in a mood to socialize with the soldiers met Sampath and asked him what resources he currently lacked. “It would be nice to have more sports equipment and a better gym. We need more leisure activities,” said Sampath.

The Palali Army base, a place which was once flooded with dead bodies and ammunition is deserted except for the soldiers who survived it all and the new recruits who know not what war is like. They now have a luxurious entertainment complex where movies are shown for free every Friday and Saturday.

Sampath is one of many soldiers who after the war are having to find something to do. As the minister continues to visit the camps in the North he meets bored faces and restless soldiers. Unnoticed by him, the question emerges, what does the military do once the mission is complete?

Army in business

In Colombo, Kumara* works for the Civil Defence Force (CDF). He joined the force a year ago from a village in Ampara. He, however, now guards the grounds of the newly re-constructed Viharamahadevi Park. When asked what his duties were, he said, “I have to make sure that the couples who come here or even anyone else does not behave in an indecent manner”. “Did you expect to do this when you joined the CDF? What are your educational qualifications?” he was asked to which he said, “I have completed my A/Ls but this is not what I wanted to do. I joined force because I wanted to provide security to the villages in Ampara. But I have been assigned to this place for two years,”.

Herath* belongs to the army and now works at the Kotalawala Defence University (KDU) as an advisor to students on weapons. He is a 27-year-old from Polonnaruwa.

“After the war, I was based in Mullaitivu and had nothing to do. I was bored. So I took up this course on weapons training and I am now happy to be working here at the University. It keeps me going. Some soldiers of course do not like to pursue their studies further and they get stuck in the same position for years,” he said.

army_soldiers_guard_refugees-300x225The previous regime, in an effort to keep the soldiers busy, while getting large scale construction and development work done cheaper and more efficiently, employed them for various activities, mainly around Colombo. Their activities varied from keeping the city clean to reconstructing old and dilapidated buildings and areas in the city. The previous government wanted to keep the military occupied and disengaged from other activities which they can do when not fighting. The government thought engaging the military in various activities not only saved the government revenue but expanding them into various economic activities like farming, tourism and other businesses which would allow the military to earn some revenue to fund itself.

The defence budget of the government since the end of the war in 2009, however has not changed.  Despite the various incomes flowing into the military and peace, the budget has increased over the years. In 2011, the government allocated Rs 215 billion, in 2014 Rs 253 billion and in 2015 the previous regime in its final budget allocated Rs 285 billion to the Ministry of Defence.

Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a Development Economist and Principal Researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development in his paper, “Sri Lanka: Putting entrepreneurship at the heart of economic revival in the North, East and beyond” said the “oversized military had become a burden to the Sri Lankan economy” (Sarvananthan 2011). The paper further explained that Sri Lanka had one of the largest armed forces per capita and defence expenditures per capita in the world and the largest in South Asia.

“According to the Secretary to the Defence Ministry, there are about 450,000 persons in uniform (including Air Force, Army, Navy, Police and Civil Defence Force and Special Task Force–personnel) 4 for a population of 20.653 million, which works out to be one armed person for every 50 people in the country. Further, the earmarked Defence Ministry budget for 2011 is $1957 million (LKR 215.2 billion), which works out to be $94.7 (LKR 10,417) of defence expenditure per person per year. Moreover, every member of the armed forces (including the Police) on average costs the exchequer $4,348 (LKR 478,266) per year, which is significantly higher than the average cost of any other public sector personnel. Furthermore, 94% of the earmarked defence budget for 2011 is for recurrent expenditures and only 6% is for capital expenditures; which means that defence expenditures cannot be curtailed without cuts in the armed forces personnel (see also Sarvananthan 2004 and Sarvananthan 2011).

Dr. Sarvananthan drawing similarities between the LTTE and the security forces said, “The LTTE too ran farms, shops and restaurants. This mostly expanded during the ceasefire period in 2002 and this corrupted the LTTE. After the war, the army took over some of these LTTE farms and their other businesses.”

He explained that the LTTE’s engagement in business could be contributed to their ultimate downfall as a force to be reckoned with. “There were different sections of the LTTE that collected taxes, the military wing, the political wing, the sea tigers, the Tamil Eelam Economic Development Organization (TEEDO). They were mainly from poor families and there was a lot of corruption though they did not openly say so. The main reason why Karuna Amman from the East broke away from the LTTE was connected to money. They got too greedy and became more interested in making money than fighting. When fighting finally broke out, many ran away with the money and the LTTE was quite demoralised,” he said.

Dr. Sarvananthan said this was a lesson the state military needed to learn when engaging in business and cautioned them against it. “On the one hand they might be thinking that it is better not to keep the army idle but they too are from poor families and are likely to be corrupted. Thus 10 years down the line, if there is a war to fight, they might be not be prepared to fight, thus the security of the people are risk. It is dangerous to get an army involved in economic activity,” he concluded.

When Herath was asked what he thought of the army working in development projects and other businesses he said, “There is no harm sweeping the streets and all, we have to do some work, but I don’t like it when they do it in uniform and people see that. It is disrespectful. This is why I opted to follow the diploma. There are other ways, the government can make use of us, for example, they can send more people to the UN peace keeping forces, there is money in that. They can do that instead of getting the army to cut grass or sell vegetables. The only positive thing with using army for civilian work is that the government saves on salaries”.

Siriman* too is part of the CDF that polices the Viharamahadevi Park; he is older and more content with his life, “It has been nine years since I joined the CDF, I was 29 then and was too old for the army. There was a lot of unemployment in Gampaha then and this was a good opportunity to get some work,” he said.

Siriman said, he did not mind the military working on development projects as they had to work for the salary that was being paid to them. “It is up to the leaders to decide what we should do, we have to follow orders after all,” he said.

When asked if he was happy in his current position, he said, “Well, those days we used to conduct searches on vehicles and check people, I did a lot of work then. I am quite bored standing at Viharamahadevi Park but I am not interested in exams, there is not much of an increase in salaries when you do, do them. I need to work, and this is a job, I am happy where I am”.

A few streets away from the Park, stands one of the latest projects the Navy has undertaken, the luxurious shopping, food and cinema complex, the Arcade. A once run down building in the heart of Colombo has been turned into one of Colombo’s grandest attractions by the Navy.

Sisira* is an engineer in the Navy engineering corps and is currently working on its maintenance. His latest project is a building next to the State Media Institution.

“Things have not changed much for us. We are in the engineering corps of the Navy so we used to do military construction then and we do civilian ones now. We actually have more work to do now. There is of course no war to worry about now,” said Sisira.

When asked whether the environment of the Navy had changed with the advent of peace, he said, “Well it hasn’t changed much really. Anyway many of the people who are part of the navy now were not present during the war, they are new recruits. They don’t really have much experience of war”, he said.

International terrorism expert and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, when asked about the demobilization of the military after conflict said, “Security is first. Without security there is no freedom and development. As in the past, whenever a new Government came, the rulers played with security. If security is compromised, violence will return. After their defeat most insurgent and terrorist campaigns worldwide resumed within a decade. After the US military declared victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, the insurgency and terrorist campaigns recommenced. Even the world’s finest armies, the US and British forces, failed in their missions. Sri Lanka learnt from other conflict zones and kept those forces intact. Otherwise, terrorism would have re-emerged in the North and the East again during the phases of humanitarian assistance, socioeconomic development and political engagement. The TNA, a proxy of the LTTE, emerged because the separatist ideology is still intact. A segment of the TNA is still calling for the withdrawal of the security forces from the North. If the new government dismantles the security platform, the extremists and terrorists at home and abroad will exploit the situation and a return to violence is inevitable.”

The Professor was also optimistic about the manner in which the Army had turned rapidly into a peace maker and had proved themselves by engaging in several development projects in the country. He said: “To the security forces it was not a war of retribution or revenge. That is why they do not suffer from PTSD. The compassion of the men and women of the security forces to former LTTE cadres and civilians assisted in their transformation.”

He added that as the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDU) was the finest university in the country, he expected that in another 20 years, every soldier and officer, “should end 20 years of his or her service with a university degree and enter a second profession as a civilian. The strategy should be to keep the security forces young with a retirement age of 50, ideally 45.”

Professor Gunaratna explained that the military had also done exceptionally well by sending personnel on UN missions. “They are both peace keepers and peace warriors. They are recognized for defeating a ruthless and a deceptive terrorist group,” said the Professor.

Psychology of a soldier

Counsellor, Duminda Wanigasekara an ex-navy-man has worked with military personnel who are dealing with psychological issues.

Wanigasekara when comparing the situation, during and after war said, “In war, those who show bravery on the battle field are honoured and they move up the ranks. But when there is peace, those with more administrative skills find they can move up the ranks easier and at this point the war hero becomes insignificant. When such things occur, it causes dissatisfaction and tension within the military,” he said.

He further explained that getting the military involved in development work could cause issues. “The structure of the military is still geared for combat but the soldiers are engaged in non-combat work”. Expectation thus does not meet reality and when a soldier who is expected to act like ‘Rambo’ is asked to sell vegetables, he finds himself in conflict within himself.

The counsellor thus suggested that, “In peace time, the military management should be given training to become managers rather than officers, when there is war they can go back to being officers,” said Wanigasekara.Nothing to do; can they be sent home? The demobilization of the military is a contentious and politically charged issue in any country, and yet the question of what to do with an oversized military, post conflict, is important. Dr. Sarvananthan said in his opinion the government needed to make the hard decision to demobilize the military in phases or could run into economic trouble in future.

“They could first freeze recruitment. Gradually provide the personnel with voluntary retirement or training so that they are able to find civilian jobs elsewhere. We need security sector reform post conflict and that has not happened so far. You can send people for UN peace keeping but that is still limited in number. The bulk of the army is in the lower ranks, they need to be trained and educated, so that they can do something more meaningful. In the meantime, I am sure that the more qualified would not mind leaving for other jobs,” said the researcher. With the military engaging in economic activity to keep busy, he said that it took away jobs from civilians in the area, be it in the North or the South, and thus stifled economic growth in the country.

When asked about possible security concerns when demobilizing the military, he said, “The government has admitted to having eradicated the LTTE in Sri Lanka so we can have demobilization quicker than in other post conflict situations. However, they say that the diaspora is still actively promoting the LTTE, but I think they just do it to collect money for their own personal propaganda and to lobby against the government. You don’t need a large army to deal with that,” he said.

The state minister’s tour is done, the parade is over and the commander of the army said they were grateful to have had the minister visit. Sampath gets up and marches back to his quarters. Herath in the meantime is waiting for his students to return from their other lessons. “I have to go to pick up my students now,” he said.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the soldiers.

(Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (2011): Sri Lanka: putting entrepreneurship at the heart of economic revival in the north, east, and beyond, Contemporary South Asia, 19:2, 205-213.)