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FeaturesNewsHarsha sounds some timely warnings – Militarisation of Sri Lanka

Harsha sounds some timely warnings – Militarisation of Sri Lanka


There is a very critical structural shift in policies towards militarization of this country.Unlike in the past we see that the Navy has started a water bottling company.It is taking tourists on whale watching tours in the East. The Air Force is running helicopter services. The Army is selling vegetables. In the same brush that I paint the taking of 18 year old kids into military camps for military training.
by Rohan Abeywardena
UNP’s economics pokesman and probably the only holder of a doctorate in economics in our parliament Dr Harsha de Silva expresses concern over military type of administering and decision taking process being practiced by the Rajapaksa government in the country, but he was evasive about many other issues like the main opposition making dire predictions for the country about a debt crisis or over the loss of GSP plus none of which came to trouble the country. But he did sound some timely warnings. Following are excerpts:

Q: The UNP unable to put its own house in order and get its act together increasingly look more like an opposition just opposing for the sake of opposing even on issues of national interest, than being a responsible opposition.

We have been a much more responsible opposition than any opposition has been to my memory. There have been opposition leaders who went to Geneva and brought up human right issues and I don’t want to go into all that. In this situation we have acted very responsibly. As a matter of fact when the whole Darusman Report came out I was the UNP MP who went to meetings at the State Department with Senators and including people like Colin Powell. I in fact met with Palitha Kohona at two meetings that spanned many hours. Let me tell you of the observation of the Americans in front of Palitha Kohona. A powerful person said at least three, four times ‘I am so happy to see how the opposition of your country is responding to the situation that is being faced by you’, meaning Palitha Kohona as Ambassador for Sri Lanka at the UN. At all times we have acted with utmost responsibility in not making the position that the government is in with respect to the channel four report any more difficult for them. As a matter of fact there is not a single instance where the government can find fault with the UNP for having raked up unnecessary issues.

Q: Even when an outsider makes an adverse comment that is raked up as a fault of the government.

I challenge you to show me one person, even a single MP who has spoken in ….

Q: Just yesterday Dayasiri Jayasekera found fault………

He found fault with somebody in the government for not having dealt with the issue’s procedural problem. I mean the UNP is saying there was lack of coordination.

Q: While there are far worse wrongs in the world to which the so called international community is conveniently turning a blind eye, it is quite obvious that at the same time they are all out to fix Sri Lanka for having successfully fought the LTTE to a finish in the battle field.

The fact of the matter is you can always take a statement by one person or the other and twist it a bit this way or the other way, but if you read the speech made by the leader of the opposition in the House on the Darusman report it is very clear. He said we must work as one country. Yet none of the newspapers gave what I think, the due publicity for that speech he made outlining the position of the opposition. So while even I find fault with the government for the inconsistent policy. I was in the US and I saw you are not addressing the issue.

Q:But we are faced with a situation where even the UN, the international media and everything else is manipulated against us.

That is why we are paying millions of dollars to retain PR firms. I think the government has failed in addressing this issue in a way that would have helped us and not causing further difficulty. For instance if we were against the Darusman panel why did we answer the 31 questions sent by them. Any right thinking person would have said don’t answer. If we don’t answer we are not in complicity.

Q: Then you all would have turned around and said that is not the way to deal with the problem by burying the head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich.

Who made bogus protests in front of the UN office in Colombo? Then Weerawansa went to New York to protest the day after I left there and only some 20 people had gathered around him for the protest. Mervyn Silva and Weerawansa type diplomacy is not the way to go about; where one of them said ‘I have a suicide squad to eliminate who ever is against Sri Lanka’. That is not the way we should handle this. While I find fault with the government for procedural issues, consistency issues, lack of coordination between the Justice Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the UN Permanent Representative, the ambassadors and the rest of our team, the UNP cannot be found fault with on this issue. During the war yes our party did make some mistakes. We said some things that should not have been said and I think the UNP has learnt a very bitter lesson. The people told us they did not appreciate what we did. They brought us down to 29.5 per cent. I think the UNP has since undergone some thorough learning. We are acting in a way, hopefully from a political point of view, so that we will not be shown the door again.

Q: The main opposition party talks so much about democracy, but its own internal democracy is in tatters.

I agree that we have had some serious issues inside the party, but that is not unique to us. If you look back at the SLFP when it was in the opposition you remember the Anura faction and the Chandrika faction. You remember how difficult it was? How the party broke up into so many different pieces? Chandrika went away. Anura went away. . When a party is in the opposition for such a long time it is very difficult to keep the group together. If you look at the people sticking with the UNP now, even as MPs 42 of us, we are absolutely and totally committed to the party. We have the most democratic constitution of a political party in Sri Lanka. We are the only party that can elect a leader. That is not in the Communist Party, Weerawansa’s party or in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party. Only in the UNP even I can contest to be the leader of the UNP. So if you say there is a lack of democracy in our party I reject that.

Q :The system is manipulated.

There is the electoral college. We have a Working Committee based on various…

Q: Your own people charge that it is not representative of the party as a whole.

The leader gets to appoint so many people. Then others by being ex-officio members……..

Q: The fact remains your own people complain of the system being manipulated.

I am not in the working committee so I will not answer that question. But I must say the election process is there and anybody can run for office. I must also say it is time that both Mr. Wickremesinghje and Mr. Premadasa see eye to eye on the national issues facing us. What Mr. Dayasiri Jayasekera had said last week it is becoming very clear that we are moving towards a united national party than a divided national party as of late.

Q: What about the opposition cooperating in good things like attempts to end inhuman ragging in the universities, attracting foreign students and even putting students through leadership training. In some other countries it is compulsory for students to put in one to two years of military service.

This is the only country as far as I know where it is compulsory for university students to go through military training in a military camp.

Q:It is for a good cause.

I don’t think so. There is militarization of this country. I think it was in your own cartoon today. Here today’s cartoon is on militarization.

Q:This cartoon is more about the entire region being militarized.

It’s the whole thing whether it is the Chinese defence contractor buying prime land at Galle Face or appointing former military personnel as ambassadors or UDA falling under the Defence Ministry. You cannot deny that there is a very critical structural shift in policies towards militarization of this country. You may disagree with me but this is what I feel not as a politician, but as an independent professional. Unlike in the past we see that the Navy has started a water bottling company.It is taking tourists on whale watching tours in the East. The Air Force is running helicopter services. The Army is selling vegetables. In the same brush that I paint the taking of 18 year old kids into military camps for military training. If you want leadership training it can be done not inside military camps, but in neutral locations. You can even have generals to come and conduct a courses on military leadership, but it should not be done in military camps.

Q: May be you all are panicking unnecessarily. We do have a large military establishment because of the war and we continue to face sinister forces ranged against us out there so it is only right for us to keep our guns ready. Then what is wrong in the Navy taking tourists whale watching in their spare craft or Air Force ferrying tourists and the army selling vegetable at a reasonable price at a time of emergency when much of the crop was destroyed by floods?

That is a very good question. But what is the role of the military and what is the role of civil society? In a market economy, where 85 per cent of our GDP is accounted for by the private sector, I don’t mean John Keells and Aitken Spence, I mean the small boutique guy, the guy who has a vegetable stall, who has a little boat to take the tourists out and the guy who is producing bottled water – the entire private sector. The military is paid for by the public taxes. When a private person earns he contributes to the PAYE tax. If he buys a loaf of bread or if he buys a gallon of kerosene he pays taxes and on those taxes the military survives. They are sustained by taxes, but then private enterprises are not like that. If they do not make a reasonable profit they can’t invest and go onto the next level. When the military under sells the private enterprise what happens is that the latter goes out of business. If the private enterprise goes out of business what happens is that the taxes that are collected will fall. That means there will be less money for the sustenance of the military enterprise. There is a very good book written by Ayesha Sidique called Military Incorporated about Pakistan. At one point she points out that close to 20 per cent of Pakistani GDP was by its military. The military has a role and I am not saying that all those people should be decommissioned and sent home, but what I am saying is military should not be interfering in the civilian business.

Q: Surely there is no outright threat by the military to throttle the private sector. These are only some isolated enterprises in water bottling or conveying tourists, where as it is the private sector that dominates the tourism field.

I also don’t think the UDA should be placed under the Ministry of Defence. What is the logic in that? Clearly urban development is different from defence. Even at their micro enterprise watching a whale go by his or her daily routine or putting some water into a bottle, the make up of that command and control structure is anathema to civilian role. Let’s take the one that I have been very critical of in recent days, the sale of the land in front of the Galle Face Green. Apparently it is to put up the new army headquarters that this land is being sold. This is state land which belongs to the people is sold to do that. Then people should have been told what was done. Only after we started asking questions, last week a document was tabled in parliament about taking Rs 20 billion to build army headquarters. Those are the outcome of a command and control structure that is now being generally spread out. This is making civilian and military administration almost a single entity.

Q: May be the opposition is looking at this rather narrowly because a Chinese entity purchased it. We are certain if America’s big corporate entities like IBM or AT&T came the government would warmly open up its lands to them as well, but the problem is they are not coming. Then during the war the Co-Chairs pledged more than four billion dollars in assistance for establishing peace, but now they are not even talking about such assistance, but China has been a true friend in need.

Are you saying because of guns and ammunition China provided we have to show gratitude?
Continued tomorrow in the Financial Review
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