23 December 2013

On the pace and substance of demilitarization

The love that the British have for Sri Lanka is of such magnitude that one wonders if Sri Lankans should bother to love their country.  They so loved this island, let us not forget, that they pillaged, burnt, robbed and perpetrated genocide and ethnic cleansing of a kind that even the LTTE in its most terrible days couldn’t come close to matching. 

And so when the likes of David Miliband, David Cameron and Hugo Swire wax lyrical about island-love, it’s quite normal to shrug and smile. 

Just the other day, Hugo Swire, the Britsh Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth, made a speech in Parliament about Sri Lanka: ‘Though military drawback is evident in some areas, we are concerned at military involvement in commercial and other civil activities, such as education, tourism, and agriculture, and the occupation of land in high security zones. We will continue to raise this issue with members of the Sri Lankan Government, and press the need for the military not to partake in civil activities.’

If Swire really wants to know the truth about militarization and de-militarization, then he should do two things. First, he should compare the ‘what was’ with ‘what is’.  Here, in Sri Lanka, people know both.  There in Britain, Swire doesn’t have a clue and if the picture he has is what’s offered by Tamil chauvinism, then we can’t really help him.  If he is ignorant and wishes to remain so, that’s his problem.  If he’s pretending to sleep, nothing will wake him up.  If he listens to the TNA, which claims that the Governor of the Northern Province knows about ‘war crimes’ and not about ‘constitution’, and doesn’t bother to ask what the TNA knew, knows and will not reveal about complicity in terrorism, that’s again his problem. 

Secondly, he should read a bit of history about post-conflict situations.  He could scan the globe and start counting the number of military bases operated by Britain’s mother country, that’s the USA, in countries they have been at war with.  He could check how many British troops are stationed outside his country and ask himself why. He will come up with a single word (an excuse, really): threat.  Then he could ask himself a question about the goose, the gander and sauce. 

Not everyone in Britain thinks like Swire of course.  Lord Tim Bell put it well: ‘It's a fashionable thing to criticize the way the Sri Lankan government has behaved. David Cameron had one meeting in the north of the country with 200 people who have lost relatives. You have to remember there was a 30-year civil war. The Tamil Tigers weren't exactly gentle, nice people. And for Britain to ponce around the world talking about human rights after what we did in Afghanistan … It's what Winston Churchill called 'our usual export': hypocrisy.’

So let’s leave Swire to his fancies and instead address the issue of the military and its involvement in commercial and other civil activities.

Sri Lankan security forces fought a ruthless terrorist outfit.  Sri Lanka is plagued by the operations of LTTE remnants as well as outfits loath to say anything wrong about the LTTE or other representatives or tacit supporters of Tamil chauvinism and extremism.  Sri Lanka has learned the hard way that it is better to be safe rather than sorry.  Sri Lankans and not the likes of Swire have to decide where to station her troops. Indeed, Sri Lankans and not Swire have to decide how best military personnel should be deployed in a post-conflict scenario.

It’s nice for countries like the UK and USA that are perpetually engaged in military operations in some corner of the world.  Sri Lanka doesn’t do ‘invasion’ and perforce must either go for a considerable downsizing of numbers (not safe, yet) or find alternative activity for military personnel. 

Throughout history, victorious armies have been dispatched to fight new ‘enemies’ (that’s what the US/UK has done and does even today).  Sri Lanka lost close to 200,000 people over the last 40 years to two insurrections, the struggle to overcome the terrorist threat and the debilitating tsunami.  An equal or larger number are employed overseas.  There’s a huge human resource problem.  There’s also a relatively idle set of able-bodied young men and women who have acquired specific non-military skills during the conflict and in post conflict relief and rehabilitation work.  Nothing makes more sense that for these people to be deployed in non-military activity.  We could have that, or we could start another war (like the USA/UK did and does as though it’s part of their national cultural ethos).  Considering the very real problem of ex service personnel taking to crime, we could opt for that lovely eventuality too. 

We are in transition from military to civil.  Does not and should not happen overnight and certainly not because some lackey of terrorism (certain elements within the TNA for example) want it and certainly not because some ignorant man in Britain is suffering from post-colonial angst.
So, thank you Hugo Swire, but no.