Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Economic and political costs of over-extending military role



By Jehan Perera

Three of Sri Lanka’s international cricket stadia including the newly built ones in Pallekele and Hambantota, have been handed over to the military indefinitely because Sri Lanka Cricket is unable to afford the maintenance costs. The Navy will look after Pallekelle stadium, the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo by the Air Force and the army the stadium in Hambantota, named after President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The reason for this unconventional allocation of responsibilities appears to be economic. The military spokesperson is quoted by the media as saying, "It is a service. We are supporting the country by doing this." He has also said that the military will not charge Sri Lanka Cricket since armed service members are paid by the government. Sri Lanka Cricket is well over Rs 200 million in debt.

This is not the first time that the government has handed over economic responsibilities to the armed forces. Instead of giving the national cricket board a subsidy, the government has decided to effectively bear the loss through the defence budget. Some months ago the government deployed army troops to sell vegetables and bring down the cost of living for the country’s urban population at a time when drought conditions had made vegetable prices soar. Today the Air Force operates commercial flights to various places within the country and the Navy conducts whale-watching tours for tourists. With the salaries of armed forces personnel being met out of the defence budget, it is likely that the military units engaging in these commercial ventures are able to show operating profits. In addition the efficiency of the armed forces is an established fact after the defeat of the LTTE.

At the present time the prestige of the Sri Lankan armed forces is very high within the country. There is much appreciation of the sacrifice and valour of the three services that vanquished the LTTE, which international commentators had elevated to the status of the world’s deadliest terrorist organization. There were many international military experts who believed that the winning the war against the LTTE was going to be an impossible task, just as it is proving to be impossible for the US in Afghanistan against the Taliban. But after three decades of experience in battling the LTTE, the Sri Lankan armed forces were sufficiently professionalized and equipped to prevail. As a result many other countries that are involved in anti-terrorist operations are studying the Sri Lankan strategy. There is today an image of the Sri Lankan military as a highly effective fighting force.


During the war the size of the military had to be increased to tackle the LTTE. There was a need for troops who would be on the battlefront and fighting offensively against the LTTE which even resorted to recruitment of under-aged children in order to boost their numbers. There was also the need for troops to stay behind outside of the battlefield and defend the civilian population and installations against terrorist attack that the the LTTE was notorious for carrying out. The elimination of the LTTE as a fighting force therefore paved the way for a substantial reduction in the size of the armed forces. After the end of the war the size of the Sri Lankan military was expected to decrease, if not significantly at least gradually to represent the return to normalcy and de-militarisation of society.

Demobilisation of excess troop capacity after war helps to release economic resources for massive post-war reconstruction and to get the development process restarted. This was the reasonable expectation in the light of the experience in most other post-war societies. However, Sri Lanka appears to following a post-war path of its own that is quite unlike that found in most other democratic countries. It has expanded the size of the armed forces after the war and also continuously been increasing the size of the defence budget. The government has also taken the unusual step of combining the defence ministry with the urban development authority and renamed the ministry to be the ministry of defence and urban development.

The urban development authority was placed under the control of the defence ministry last year. Now the army is considering building and operating a luxury five star hotel in Colombo.

In countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia where there have been military and authoritarian governments backed by military power, the military runs banks, schools and even industrial ventures. The results have generally been negative in terms of economic efficiency. Economic activities run by the military have an inbuilt subsidy which creates an impression that they are running at a profit, when in actual fact there are huge losses. This is because the salaries and logistical costs of military personnel who work on economic projects are actually being met from the defence budget and are not charged to the economic projects they are undertaking.


In most democratic countries the role of the military is restricted to protecting the country from internal and external security threats. This is the area of their special competence, for which they receive special training. They are strictly prohibited from getting involved in commercial activities or in matters of governance. Recently a top US General serving in Afghanistan was removed immediately from his post after he gave an interview criticizing the Afghan government and saying that they did not appreciate the sacrifice that American troops were making in the war against terrorism. It is only in exceptional situations, such as the natural disaster that struck Japan in the form of a combined earthquake, tsunami and nuclear leak in Fukushima, that the military was temporarily deployed for rescue operations, and also to clear debris, recover bodies and to build relief shelters.

Human rights lawyer J C Weliamuna has written that "In recent times, the justification for using the military for non-military activities was sought on the ground that the military (or war heroes who liberated the country) should not be redundant and that they should be active partners of development. Thus, they say, using the military for reconstruction and other developmental activities are justified. In my view, this is totally misconceived and self-destructive argument. Economic development is not part of the military profession except in military states or authoritarian regimes. Armed forces are not revenue earning agencies of the government nor are they self funded or autonomous institutions outside the state authority."

The take over and running of the international cricket stadia in Colombo, Pallekele and Hambantota by the three services needs to be assessed also in the light of what is happening today in the North and East of the country. The recent report of the Tamil National Alliance in Parliament states, "The military is increasingly involved in economic activity in the North and East. Through its system of checkpoints, the military ensures that its proxies control the transportation of fish from the Northern coastal areas.

Large sections of beach front land in the Eastern province have been parceled out to companies which are headed by military officers. The military has established a string of restaurants along the main Jaffna highway. An entire military tourism industry catering to Southern visitors is run by the military establishment. The Navy uses state resources to run ferry services for the Southern tourist industry. Military personnel also run various quasi-commercial enterprises such as shops and salons that are highly irregular and impact negatively on the local economies. " However, it is not only a question of hidden costs, subsidies and issues of economic efficiency. The greater danger is the increased possibility of encroachment on civilian control of government.


No comments: