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Forming a Development Corporation within the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka

Mar 19, 2011 4:32:45 PM- transcurrents.com

by Somapala Gunadheera

Of late there have been some adverse comments on the failure to downsize the armed forces after the defeat of the LTTE and engagements of soldiers in seemingly infra dig civilian activities. It appears to be in the national interest to take an objective look at these allegations. First let me deal with the wisdom of disbanding the forces soon after a war that seriously imperilled the nation for thirty long years. It is true we have not faced any dangerous situation after the fall of the LTTE. But there is no convincing evidence that threats have abated irrevocably. There is no need to concoct evidence to justify the retention of the armed forces. Common sense demands that we err on the safe side until there is incontrovertible proof that the risks have completely blown over. This demand is factually backed by such international developments as the Transitional Government of Tamil Elam.

International experience demonstrates the wisdom of retaining forces after a war. Any notions that the Army no longer had a reason to exist in the aftermath of the First World War were soon dispelled by succeeding events. American troops occupied the German Rhineland alongside other Allied contingents, doing much to restore normal economic life in their zone. One of the most lasting contributions of the Allied Forces was the reconstruction of defeated Germany and Japan after World War II, restoring order and economic prosperity.

The US Army helped with flood relief in the Mississippi Valley in 1927 and the Ohio Valley in 1937, not to mention their involvement in other domestic and foreign natural disasters. The involvement of the Army was not confined to emergencies. It made significant contributions to the nation's repertoire of knowledge. The Signal Corps conducted important experiments with aviation and radar, and Army medics fought disease in the Balkans, Germany, and Poland while developing preventives for malaria and rabies.

In Germany occupation authorities revived comprehensive health insurance for the population and in Japan the Army instituted a massive program to prevent and treat communicable diseases and to raise the standards for medical personnel. These services converted the beneficiaries into strong allies in the postwar confrontation with communism. That was the achievement of a foreign Force. Much more can be accomplished by a truly disciplined and nationalized Army.

The main reason urged for the reduction of the forces is the high cost of maintaining them. This is not a decision that can be taken on economic grounds alone. The cultural ethos of the country comes into play in a big way here. Admittedly, the credit for ridding the land from the throes of terrorism goes to the armed forces. They were held up as heroes when the fighting was on and unending hosannas were sung in their praise. Can a culture that has gratitude as a cornerstone make up its mind to convert its war heroes to idle loafers overnight?

Quite apart from the economic aspect of disbanding the army, there is a grave security problem involved with the decision to disengage the soldiers. Disbanding the armed forces would add thousands to the already expanding ranks of the unemployed. Obviously this increment would consist of persons hardened against death and destruction. Furthermore they have had extensive training in the use of firearms and explosives. A foretaste of what could happen when a massive release of such war veterans join the job market can be had from the many bitter experiences the country has had with runaway soldiers.

The immediate priority is to 'nationalize' the armed forces. The impression among the minorities that they are a 'Sinhala Army' is largely prompted by the heavy preponderance of Sinhalese among the troops. Perhaps that was considered a necessary evil during the days of fighting but my experience even then was that the few that remained with the Services were unbiased in their performance.

Occupied with rehabilitating the displaced in Jaffna, soon after Rivi Resa, I observed through the corner of my eye a Tamil officer placed in charge. I inwardly admired him for the professional manner in which he discharged his duties without fear or favour. Deftly, he walked the tight rope between his community and the Army, without losing the common touch but not compromising the interests of the establishment. It is imperative that many such men are recruited to the Army to give an ethnic balance to eradicate racial prejudices against the forces and make it a truly Sri Lankan Army.

It is good to see the forces already winning hearts and minds of the Tamils in the North. The negative picture created against them during the fighting appears to be receding due to the tangible contribution they are making towards rehabilitation. The remarkable success in de-mining is said to owe much to the commitment of the Services. Reports from Jaffna also throw light on the positive measures taken by them to integrate themselves into local life and culture.

But still national rapprochement has far to go. There is much lip service paid to the subject by Sinhala politicians but at ground level the Tamils do not appear to be satisfied with their security and their future. The majority among boatloads of illegal emigrants detected frequently are from the North and the East. No doubt they are seeking greener pastures but the extreme risks to which they are exposing themselves is reliable evidence to the fact that the Tamils are not yet fully convinced that nothing is "rotten in the state of" Sri Lanka. It is up to those in power to match their words with deeds and take prompt action to guarantee the basic rights of the minorities, without prolonging negotiations until the cows come home.

The spate of mysterious crimes and dirty tricks reported from Jaffna of late has become a thorn in the flesh. The most poignant incident among them is the desecration of the grave of Prabhakaran's mother. The sanctity granted to the concept of Mother by all local cultures makes this dastardly act a heinous blasphemy. In any case the poor old lady played no part in her son's activities; nor could she have prevented him from doing what he did.

Even the unrest among Jaffna students during the funeral has to be understood dispassionately. One should not forget that ethnic affinity makes heroes of even bandits for their declared sectarian interests. The Sinhalese admire their Saradiel even up to this day for his attempts to rob the rich to pay the poor, despite their much guarded precept against robbery.

For historical reasons there is impulsive suspicion on the Army for these misdeeds. The English Law maxim that a suspect was presumed to be innocent until he was proved guilty does not apply to rumour. What applies there is the opposite of the maxim. A suspect is held to be guilty until he proved his innocence. It is up to the 'suspects' to clear themselves by convincing the local population that their hands were clean. If they were innocent, they should go out of the way to catch the culprits and exposé them in public. The Services have all the power and facilities to disabuse this prejudice against themselves, if it happens to be misplaced.

The aversion to engaging the Services on casual assignments appears to arise from the ad hoc nature of the engagements. Having been consistently brainwashed on the concept of heroism, the resentment may be due to the seeming effort to downgrade the heroes with menial work. It may be a disturbing sight to the people to see their idols in battle, selling vegetables and cleaning drains. There should be no such hard feelings, if servicemen are engaged on a structured commercial setup.

It would be a colossal waste of a national asset to squander the wealth of the professional expertise and experience of the Armed Forces in idleness. They have among them a sizable part of the nation's technology and disciplined labour. It is in the national interest to use this resource gainfully when it was not otherwise engaged in safeguarding the security of the land. This could be done by forming a Development Corporation within the services. The move may involve suitable amendments to legislation but such adjustments would not be unprecedented.

In the US Army, engineers have played a significant role in flood control, experimenting with ways to divert excess water into cutoffs and holding reservoirs. Dams constructed by Army engineers in the Missouri Valley not only helped prevent floods but also supplied hydroelectric power and recreation on reservoir lakes. These activities were undertaken with congressional mandate. There appears to be no reason for our legislature to disapprove of such nationally beneficial engagements by the Armed Forces in peacetime. Only the law has to be fine-tuned to make their military and commercial activities mutually exclusive, depending on the exigencies of the occasion involved.

The proposed Development Corporation can make a significant contribution to national undertakings such as construction, engineering, industry and agriculture. Their bids on government contracts would make the offers more competitive to the advantage of the taxpayer. The income from these undertakings would go to defray the wages bill of the Services. A portion of the earnings can be paid as incentives, thereby optimizing commitment and morale.

The Corporation would be a safety valve for the Government in times of emergency. The Services have been used over the years by successive Governments to provide essential services to the people, a fact countenanced by law. The Corporation would provide these services in appropriate situations with greater efficiency and discipline, on account of its training and experience.

Some words of caution are apposite here. It is essential that the proposed Development Corporation is run strictly on professional lines with transparency and independence. For instance, agricultural projects should not be used to forcibly acquire private lands anywhere. In fact those already acquired during the troubles ought to be restored to their lawful owners without hesitation. As far as possible, the Forces should return to their original peacetime bases sooner than later.

The Corporation should not be called upon to serve the parochial interests of the Government in power. The command structure of the Corporation should run independently parallel to the line of authority of the Services, the latter taking precedence during active mobilization.

Institutionalizing the venture should narrow the gap for political intervention. Coercion to illegal activity for partisan purposes by self-seeking individuals would find it difficult to raise its ugly head in a commercialized organization. In order to avoid even a shadow of doubt, the management of the Corporation would be wise to begin with a firm resolution not to buy white vans.