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Letting the Military In

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Ignorance marches in triumph, carrying with her, in one place, barbarian ferocity; in another, a more refined and accomplished cruelty; every where, corruption and perfidy.”
Condorcet (Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind)

( February 2, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Last week, ten uniformed soldiers under the command of a uniformed lieutenant, were caught felling teak trees in a forest reserve in Ampara. The soldiers claimed that the purpose of their illegal enterprise was to collect timber to build a barrack!
Serving military-personnel engaging in criminal pursuits (ranging from fraud and robbery to murder and rape) is becoming a common Lankan phenomenon. Little wonder that the Sinhala-South is beginning to have second thoughts about the induction of this military into their economic spaces.

The CPA Surveys of Post-war Sri Lanka reveal that Sinhala opinion about creeping militarization of the economy was never monolithic nor adamantine, but as fractious and as evolving as Sinhala opinion on every other subject. Currently more than one third of Sinhalese disapprove of the military’s growing involvement in the economy. And the trend seems to be on the way up.

Between 2011 and 2013, the number of Sinhalese who disapproved of the military performing civilian economic tasks increased by 46.2%. In the same two years, the number of Sinhalese who approved of the creeping militarization of the economy decreased by 8.7%.

In 2011, 25.3% of Sinhalese strongly approved and 32.2% of Sinhalese somewhat approved of the military performing civilian economic tasks. 8.2% of Sinhalese strongly disapproved and 17.1% of Sinhalese somewhat disapproved of the military’s entry into the economy.

By 2013, the picture had changed significantly. The number of Sinhalese who strongly approved of the military performing civilian economic tasks went down to 16.2% (by 35.97%) while the number of Sinhalese who somewhat approved of this process increased to 36.3% (by 12.7%). The number of Sinhalese who strongly disapproved the creeping militarization increased to 12.2% (by 48.7%) while the ‘somewhat disapprove’ category rose to 24.8% (by 45%).

Thus the Sinhalese are increasingly unhappy about the ongoing militarization of their economic spaces. This is despite the ethno-religious nature of the military, the barrage of pro-militarization propaganda the South is constantly subjected to and the dominant commonsense which equates any criticism of the military with anti-patriotism.

Almost five years after the end of the war, the military footprint continues to grow in Lankan society. According to the 2012 Global Militarization Index (which indicates the importance accorded to the military of a country in relation to the larger society), Sri Lanka, with a high score of 542, ranked 35th in the world.

Currently 13%-15% of the Lankan population serves in the military. And this oversized military is expanding its economic holdings at an alarming rate. For instance, the Army has its own resorts-brand – Laya - and its own travel agency - Air Travel Services Pvt Ltd. – catering to both tourists and pilgrims who visit India and Mecca. The Air Force has Heli Tours and manages two golf-links including the Eagles Golf Links near Trinco-harbour .

The Rajapaksas want to inculcate the belief that militarization of the economy is both necessary and good because the military can conduct economic tasks far more efficiently and honestly than civilian actors. The truth is far otherwise. The military, by virtue of being legally empowered to carry arms, has an unfair advantage vis-à-vis any civilian economic competitor. Since the military does not have to fear bankruptcy (or labour costs), it has no existential reason to pursue either productivity or profit. A country which opens the doors of its economy to its military lets in a major distorting factor which will result in crippling inefficiencies , massive corruption and increased monopolisation. The expansion of the economic-jackboot does not create new employment or income generation opportunities. On the contrary, militarization deprives civilians of jobs and business-opportunities, a major problem in a country with a high youth unemployment rate.

Military Keynsianism is to Keynsianism what Social Darwinism was to Darwinism.

A military is, by and large, a microcosm of the society it springs from. In its serried ranks, it contains men and women of every sort, good and bad, law-abiding and criminally-inclined, efficient and inefficient. This reality is in stark contrast to the Rajapaksa-peddled fantasy of a monolithic military which is uniformly good, efficient and law-abiding.

Initially this fantasy was necessary to sustain the myth of a ‘Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian-casualties’; if one admits that the military is made up of ordinary mortals, then the possibility of civilian-harm (either as a result of human error or human wrath) must be admitted. Subsequently, the Rajapaksas needed to glorify and sanitise the military in order to justify the creeping militarization of society.

So the myth of the War-hero as the Sinless Superman was created. The reality that the brave can be bad, that the indisputably courageous can also commit crimes and heroism may not be a developmental virtue became irrelevant, inadmissible, even unthinkable.

But as the militarization of society runs parallel to the criminalisation of the military, the Sinhalese are beginning to discover the disquieting reality behind the reassuring official-mirage of the virtuous, self-denying and infallible war-hero.

A Deadly Gamble

What is specific about Lankan militarization is that it is happening under the clear guidance and tight control of a civilian regime. The motive force of Lankan militarization is the Rajapaksa need to disembowel democracy and create a protector-of-final-resort for their Familial Rule. 

A familial oligarchy has a narrow stakeholder-base by definition. The military is being inducted as the (much junior and firmly-controlled) partner to fill this gap.

Post-war, instead of offering ordinary soldiers the choice of a financially secure civilian existence (via a system of voluntary retirement, based on the ‘golden handshake’ model’, combing monetary grants and pensions with skills training), the Siblings are using ordinary soldiers as indentured labour. The often menial tasks they are being forced to perform, without even the leavening of extra monetary compensation, cannot but seem demeaning to many soldiers. The end result would be a seething sense of social resentment which can become a breeding ground for anti-democratic and anti-minority fanaticism.

As yet the military is only an instrument of Rajapaksa Rule. The Siblings seem conscious of the potential danger of militarization, as is indicated by their conscious efforts to prevent the rise of any ‘popular’ military strongmen who can become alternate power-centres. This preventive method will work in the short term, especially since a Sinhala-Buddhist majority (albeit a declining one) still trusts the Ruling Siblings.

But once the Sinhala-Buddhist politico-electoral base of the Rajapaksas is substantially eroded and the continued existence of Familial Rule depends on force rather than consent – and if the democratic opposition is too weak to challenge the increasingly dysfunctional status quo – a disaffected military might see itself as the ‘solution’. The official ethos, which upholds the military as the embodiment of efficiency and honesty, may persuade an economically desperate and despairing Sinhala-South to see the military as the only antidote to the venal and feckless Rajapaksas.

The state is as strong as its core. Familial state is thus weak by definition. None would know that as well as its uniformed and armed guardians.

17.3% had no opinion on the subject - http://www.scribd.com/doc/62576282/Democracy-in-Post-War-Sri-Lanka-Top-Line-Report
The number of Sinhalese who expressed no opinion decreased to 10.5 (by 39%) http://www.scribd.com/doc/182597529/Top-line-survey-results-Democracy-in-post-war-Sri-Lanka
http://www.bicc.de/old-site/uploads/pdf/GMI_Daten_2013_e.pdf Sri Lanka’s Military Expenditure Index Core was 4.08, Military Personnel Index Core was 4.83 and Heavy Weapons Index Core was 2.02.
Watch soldiers building a road or a park, and the inherent inefficiency of the model becomes obvious to the naked eye.