22 March 2015

National Security is not a football

There were two key decisions made by the new Government with respect to long standing complaints raised by elected representatives from areas populated by a majority of Tamils.  The first was to appoint a civilian as the Governor of the Northern Provincial Council. 

The previous Governor was officially a civilian but he was also an ex-soldier; highly decorated and by most accounts highly competent in handling civilian situations (he did a fantastic job at the Relief Camps immediately after the war ended) but nevertheless an ex-soldier.  More than five years after the war ended it made sense to appoint someone who was not directly involved.  It was a good move. 

The second was to free up more ‘military-held’ land and return the same to original owners.  Now it was not the case that the previous regime had a policy of continuous occupation of civilian properties.  Much land had already been released.  In fact it could be argued that it was during the tenure of the previous president that two provinces were ‘cleared’ in their entirety and released to civilians.  Nevertheless, it made sense to continue the process of de-militarization in this manner. 

The Government did not close down the camps.  It cannot.  The Army cannot be made to live on ships or in airplanes after all; if there can be a camp in Mattegoda, there’s nothing wrong in another camp being located in Palaly. 

De-militarization makes sense.  Dropping one’s guard is nonsense.  No country does it or can do it without exposing itself to serious risks.  We can’t afford to be complacent and certainly not when many groups, here and abroad, indulge in Eelamist posturing, rabble-rousing and unadulterated communalism. 

This however does not mean that the Government should treat all Tamil groups as terrorists, terrorist-sympathizers or separatists.  It does not mean that the Government should not engage with them, even if they happened to be all of that.  There’s nothing wrong in engagement.  Engagement is one thing, giving a free hand another.  Therefore, while the decision to review the list of organizations proscribed for connections with the LTTE is not a bad idea, it has to be done with caution and with a complete commitment to comprehensive assessment. 

The problem with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s announcement about the above review is that it is not his business.  It is a security issue and not a diplomatic matter.  Not his subject.  It is a subject that comes under the Minister of Defence, President Maithripala Sirisena.

Now, in practice, the President has delegated much of his responsibilities to the Prime Minister.  He has been very reserved, but when it comes to national security Maithripala Sirisena cannot operate as though he is the water boy of this Government and certainly not of the Foreign Minister.  National Security is not just another inconsequential policy football he can pass to Samaraweera, especially since (and not only because of the fact that) he, Samaraweera, is a notorious own-goal scorer. 

It is time that the President asserted himself.  In times of war, the guns are kept at the ready. When wars are done, swords are sheathed.  The guard is not dropped.  What we are seeing is exactly this. It may not cost, but more seriously it may cost.  This is why countries have defence ministries and standing armies.  Intelligence is as important as anything else ‘military’ during times of war.  In peace times, soldiers can be kept in barracks, but intelligence does not and cannot similarly relax.

It is time for President Sirisena to put his foot down. He has to take the Defence Portfolio seriously.  He has to appoint competent people to handle all defence-related operations, especially intelligence work.  He has to ensure that people with impeccable records with regard to ability and integrity and are moreover highly respected in military circles are placed at the high levels of decision-making.     Most importantly he has to get to the middle.  In this business he has to open the batting and carry his bat out.  He cannot make way for a proxy.