07 August 2013

“Discipline will see us through the hard times”

Lt. General Daya Ratnayake speaks about the challenges of a post-conflict Army Commander
 Some years ago, a young Army officer was scheduled to address some professionals among whom were senior academics.  He detected restlessness.  There was chattering in the rows.  He began thus: ‘Dhammena heenang pashabbhi samaanang’, there is no difference between a human being lacking discipline and other creatures.  There was dead silence.  He addressed an alert and attentive audience.
Today, that officer is the Army Commander.  Lt. General Daya Ratnayake is about discipline. He can speak on a vast range of subjects relating to the military, but is well versed in non-military disciplines as well.  He factors in the social, political, cultural and other elements embedded in a given scenario, not as token toss-in but deliberate and reflected-upon relevancy.

Lt. General Daya Ratnayake, the newly inducted Commander of the Sri Lanka Army spoke to The Nation about the challenges of a military outfit in a post-war context which includes a complex reality to contend with in terms of recovery, a need to move on but with sensitivity to emotions frayed by thirty years of conflict. 
‘Naturally, after the end of the conflict, the focus had to be on rehabilitation, resettlement, reconstruction and recovery.  This had to be done in an environment of devastation where physical infrastructure was almost non-existent and civil administrative structures crippled.  Thirty years took away a lot.  The rest of the world had gone ahead. We had a huge backlog to clear. 

‘First of all we had to attend to demining and resettlement.  We had to rehabilitate LTTE cadres, provide them with skills necessary to lead productive lives and reintegrate them into society.  These were all achieved at record speed. No other country saddled with a post-conflict situation comparable to ours has achieved as much or at such a short period. 
‘Livelihood recovery and the full restoration and enhancement of infrastructure takes longer, but even in this, we have shown a lot of progress.’

Lt. General Ratnayake is not unaware of impatience and accusations of neglect, after all there were people who directly or indirectly supported the LTTE demanding that the Army dismantle all military camps and such immediately after the LTTE military leadership was vanquished. 
‘We have to understand that everyone sacrificed a lot; people of all communities suffered, both the peace-loving and those who invested in terrorism, the patriots and the not so patriotic.  Thirty years is a long time to wait for peace. So when the LTTE was defeated it was like opening the sluice gates.  Everyone wanted everything right now!  And whenever something is achieved, they want more, and if more is done they ask for better quality. This is not wrong.  We need to be clear about what can be done, about what we plan to do, what can be expected and when. 

‘The aspirations and impatience have to be taken note of and managed.  A lot of education needs to happen and this includes countering pernicious and politically motivated mis-education, not only of people in the conflict zone but others in the country as well as the international community.
‘We need to understand that as a country and a society we had traveled a long distance on the road to agathiya, the extreme. Coming back is easier said than done.  Reason must prevail over emotion. Discipline is vital.’ 

Discipline is not obtained by decree, Ratnayake believes.  It is obtained through a process.  We are still in the early stages of that process, he says.  Discipline is necessary in all spheres, he insists.
‘A protracted conflict deals severe blows on the administrative system.  It destroys communities, dents resilience and faith, and injects a lot of negatives into the already fractured culture of custom and social relations left remaining at the end of a war.   Turning all these things around is far more difficult than building a road, a hospital, a school or gifting fishing gear.  We were left with a huge capacity problem in the administrative system and that was the biggest challenge in restoring social stability.  At the time there was no entity that could fill this vacuum.  Except the military.  We had the personnel, a structure of authority, knowledge of the physical and social terrain, and most importantly the discipline. 

‘Like in any of our initiatives, we did not and will not rush in in an ad hoc manner.  A lot of research and analysis is done before hand, options are considered and evaluated and the optimal is aimed for, given all limitations.  We operate on the assumption that we are in a transition period and that our role will change and our involvement lessened as the civil structures become stronger and better established.  There has been a phasing out.  Some may complain about the speed of that process, but we have to take all factors into account and not just the impatience of those disgruntled because of political reasons.’
In recent times there have been accusations about militarization in all spheres.  The Army Commander, when the question was put to him, smiled. 

‘There is no short cut from war-fighting to nation-building. We were a nation that was torn apart by the conflict.  There were capacity issues in all spheres.  No other organization could step up to the breach and start putting things right.  Indeed in no other war-torn country has the military achieved anything close to what we did.  Again, equipment, trained personnel and discipline.  Wherever there was a need, a vacuum, and we were asked to step in, we did.  You should not focus on the soldier selling vegetables but see him as a man fulfilling a need and at the same time doing his best to circumvent a possibly serious security breach.
‘You have seen the results.  It is not about structures and landscapes, it is about attitudinal change. When we clean things up, people start acknowledging the need to clean up and recognize that things can be better.  Today you see municipal councils, urban council and pradeshiya sabhas taking the initiative.  In Sri Lanka, people learn quickly.  They see someone doing something that delivers benefits, and they will follow suit.  The military, then, has become trend-setters.  We have shown that things can be done. We have shown that discipline and order produce better results.  Things are changing.  Society is becoming less dependent on us and that’s a good thing.’

The highly decorated officer who is highly respect by his troops was clear on the ‘temporary’ nature of the military’s involvement in post-conflict rebuilding. 
‘As I said, we would not have to do these things if the agencies responsible had the capacity, will and discipline to do it.  We are a last-resort outfit.  The problem is that in a post-conflict scenario society is very fragile.  We have to be alert to possible breach in security.  We cannot afford to take chances after having fallen so far behind and lost so much over the last 30 years.   We take it as part of our job to be alert.  We educate ourselves about social, local, regional and international factors.  Current Affairs is a comprehensive and important subject in our training and is an integral part of our process of developing strategy.

‘Keep in mind that no country ruled by the military has prospered.  The military has a role.  It is often a last-resort and this is as it should be.  In post conflict scenarios the military is called upon to take on non-military tasks but it cannot and should not be expected to do this forever.  Our comparative advantages are temporary things for if they remain superior it only means that the civilian structures are lagging.  If we have to continue “stepping in”, it would indicate a failure on the part of the larger society.’         
He elaborated on the nature of the persisting threat.

‘We annihilated the military network of the LTTE, but its LTTE global network still functions.  They have not given up the quest for separation and to this end explore all options to destabilize the country.  They use all loopholes and employ massive resources obtained through illegal means to turn opinion in favor of their various plots.  There are things we cannot do, places where it is hard to intervene. Our best option is to maintain the country’s stability.  If the people are educated and if the civil administrative structures are strong and effective, we will be stable and no one can engineer a total breakdown.   We are aware of our deficiencies.  We know there are many who can mess things up, including politicians, officials, civil society actors and the clergy.  We are alert and ready to step in where necessary.’
Lt. General Daya Ratnayake is a keen student of military literature and has obtained much from Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’.  He said that Sun Tzu considered war as a human phenomenon and that fighting a war is an art where the ways of engagement are of vital importance to a country. 

‘It is important to study war because engagement is something that is not limited to military conflagration. There are lessons that can be applied in other spheres.  We don’t want to be surprised. So we study.  We prepare. We develop strategy.  In war and in post-war situations it is the women and children that suffer most.  Sri Lanka is a notable exception where the suffering was minimal. 
‘After 30 years, we should have ended up with multiple war lords, especially since weapons were being used like credit cards at one point.  This didn’t happen.  The Army remains the most disciplined and respected organization in the country.  In other countries, it is the most hated.  We know we are not perfect. If we err, if things go askance, we go back and investigate, find out what went wrong and take corrective measures.  

‘All this is because we approached the entire problem in a way that others have not considered.  We hit upon a locally-grown overall strategy and since it was “new” to the rest of the world, many are surprised and express doubts.  That’s not surprising. ‘ 
He insisted that an army must reflect society and its culture, its heritage and sentiments.  He believes that ours was a Sri Lankan Army in name but its thinking was not necessarily Sri Lankan and that this is why it failed to contain and eliminate the LTTE.  In the end, he said, the military adjusted and found a home-grown method. 

‘It needed the correct political leadership.  President Mahinda Rajapaksa made the difference.  Secretary Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the inspiration, architect and the power behind the victory.  They are both exceptional men, the kind that rarely emerge at the helm of national affairs.  The international community couldn’t fathom the change, Prabhakaran couldn’t understand and those who are schooled in non Sri Lankan ways of thinking were at complete loss to comprehend.’
What is the next phase for the military? The Commander spoke softly, ‘It is not a journey for the military alone. All the elements marked by nation and national power be it cultural, the media, actors in the economic domain or anyone else, have to work together to transform things and enhance capacities.  We need to develop integrated and comprehensive strategies in all fields because a weak element is a risk, a liability and a point that can expect attack.  We must all become better at what we do, have to learn patience and discipline and understand the importance of employing the intellect from beginning to end without being swayed by our emotions.’

Lt. General Daya Ratnayake has known war.  He has fought with his soldiers.  He marched by his troops during his induction ceremony.  He is conscious of his humble beginnings: ‘I am a villager from Kurunegala’. He know how his men suffered; his first stop after assuming office as Army Commander was to visit soldiers disabled in the conflict.  He is never in a hurry but always gets a lot of things done. His track record testifies.  Discipline is his middle name. 
Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation'. He can be contacted at msenevira@gmail.com


Anonymous said...

So in spite of that chunk of pirith nool, who deployed troops in Weliweriya?