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Military involvement in infrastructure projects negates economic benefits like employment and income generation

Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Buying the army off tends to be a good insurance policy for would-be dictators” – Christian Caryl (Foreign Policy – 24.1.2012)
 Some walls should never be built; some should never be breached.
 Many of Sri Lanka’s most devastating ills emanated from our habit of building unnecessary walls, and demolishing necessary ones.

Our school-system, marred by de facto segregation, is structurally incapable of creating Sri Lankans.

Most schools are ethnically/religiously uniform; as jealous preserves of a single community they reinforce our primordial identities. Consequently, many children spend their formative years without any association with their ethnically/religiously different compatriots. Most of them would carry their ignorance and its offspring, prejudice, into adulthood.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, in his quest for power, turned the state into the property of the majority community. His widow removed the wall between the state and the majority religion (that the architect of the 1972 anti-secular constitution was the same man who in 1956 warned of the danger posed by ‘Sinhala Only’ to national unity is a sad demonstration of the degeneration of the once principled Lankan left).

It took a war and the threat of an Indian invasion to remove the linguistic-bias; the state-religion nexus might lead to an even greater catastrophe, ere saner counsel prevails.

The Rajapaksas, in the pursuit of their dynastic agenda, are bringing down another wall vitally necessary for the very survival of democracy. By letting the armed forces into civil spaces, they are causing the steady militarization of almost every aspect of Lankan life.

The result is a society in which the jackboot-print is becoming ever more pervasive.

Human rights and the Rule of Law are among the first casualties in any war; their restoration is a sine-qua-non for a lasting peace.

A military accustomed to the power of the gun and being a law unto itself, needs assistance to adapt to peacetime conditions. Helping the military to deal with psychological problems (such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is another necessary task. The Rand Corporation conducted a path-breaking study on the psychological damage caused to US military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to its report, “unlike physical wounds of the war, these conditions are often invisible to the eye …. (They) affect mood, thoughts and behaviour; yet these wounds often go unrecognised and unacknowledged” (Invisible Wounds of War). The Report argued that providing scientific (‘evidence based’) care is a “cost-effective way to retain a ready and healthy military force for the future”.

Post-war, a mammoth military is a financial burden and a politico-social danger. A system of voluntary retirement, based on the ‘golden handshake’ model’ (combing a monetary grant and the pension with skills training) could have been a fair solution to this problem.

A generous retirement scheme may have had many takers since poverty and unemployment are the two main reasons most youth join the military. A programme to treat the ‘invisible wounds’ caused by the war is another neglected necessity.

The recent spate of violent incidents involving serving military men (including rape and lethal attacks on superiors, comrades and family members) signals the danger of allowing these ‘invisible wounds’ to fester through denial and neglect.

It is this numerically intact and psychologically unreconstructed military which is being enmeshed with society.

A largely mono-ethnic/religious military (with a Sinhala-Buddhist ethos) becoming enmeshed in an ethno-religiously pluralist society is an especially combustive development.

According to a WikiLeaks cable, “Basil and Gotabhaya appear not to get along very well (But) Basil often relies on Gotabhaya to provide the necessary ‘muscle’ to get things done” (Colombo Telegraph – 7.1.2012).

The Rajapaksas have their separate and competing power-projects; expanding the role of the military into civilian spaces might be the only way Gotabhaya Rajapaksa can prevent his eventual eclipse by his other ambitious relatives.

But militarization is of seminal importance to the larger Rajapaksa project as well. The Rajapaksas would know that voters are fickle beings and the SLFP is unreliable; thus they need an entity which can guarantee their power even after they lose their current popularity. The military is expected to be the Ruling Family’s supporter and protector of last resort, its impregnable rampart against SLFP discontent and voter anger, in lean times.

In return, like in other actual and nascent tyrannies, the military is being encouraged to create its own economic/business empire. The plan to set up a separate company by the army to carry out ‘development and construction at cost’ is a case in point. The argument that such practices are saving public-funds is a specious one since far greater amounts of public-funds are being spent on maintaining a gargantuan military totally apposite with peacetime needs.

Furthermore the military involvement in infrastructure projects negates a key economic benefit of public works – that of employment and income generation. This could have a particularly pernicious impact in the North where the military involvement in construction projects is depriving local people of much needed jobs. The resultant exacerbation of local resentment and discontent cannot but be non-conducive to peace and stability.

A militarised society discourages critical thinking and dissenting outlooks. As Victor Jara, who as a young man was a conscript in the Chilean military, explained, “I remember having to polish an officer’s boots or do the cleaning in his house and I thought it very natural…indeed, I thought it almost a privilege to be called upon to do it, because it meant that I was a very disciplined bloke who could be trusted to do the job properly. But looking at it now, without innocence, I think it was a conditioning – it conditions the servility of the private, just as it conditions the superiority of the officer” (Counterpunch – 28.8.2008).

Such conditioning in unquestioning obedience is inimical to democracy but vitally necessary for tyranny. Since Sri Lanka has a volunteer military, the Rajapaksas are using programmes such as ‘Leadership Training’ (for university entrants in military camps) to condition Lankan society in these pro-authoritarian attitudes.

The myth of humanitarian operation justified, ipso facto, everything which was done to win the war. The notion of a perfect military – a military which is incapable of doing wrong because it is incapable of doing wrong, is a part of this myth. That fallacious notion is now being expanded to include developmental-attributes such as total efficacy, absolute incorruptibility and unlimited capability, to justify the steady militarization of the administration and the economy.

The underlying assumption is that civilian officials are inept and corrupt, and thus unworthy, unlike the pure and efficient military. This romanticisation of the man in uniform is a key psychological premise of military rule.

There is a folk tale of a Buddhist monk who summoned a demon to build a temple wall. The demon, having fulfilled his task, began hounding the monk demanding more chores. The pithy Sinhala saying ‘Yaka bendagaththa wage’ (like having a demon as indentured-servant) stems from this tale.

Bringing the military into civilian spaces and feeding its ambitions is a dangerous game. When a military’s perception of its own role changes, once it becomes an autonomous agent and a propertied-caste, what prevents it from intervening in politics, to defend its own interest, even against its one-time masters?


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