A media expose about a celebrated war hero who now makes ends meet by selling fish at the Matale Junction has struck a chord in the public conscience. Amurtha Hastha Navaratna Abeykone Mudiyanselage Sagara Nuwan Bandara, formerly of the Commando regiment once became the public face of military valour when he was photographed in full military gear during a military offensive in the East. Those images and many other impromptu shoots of random and often nameless military men, who risk their lives and limbs to rid the country of an egregious terrorism made their way to pandals, posters and a staple of file photos. Once the war was over, those men were conveniently forgotten, some were jailed, cashiered and sent on compulsory retirement. A few others rendered themselves unto the politicians of the former regime, deliberately or not, becoming tools of a political propaganda to prop up the dynastic ambitions of ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The story of Mr Nuwan Bandara is nonetheless one of ambiguity. An army commando who took part in a series of daredevil small group operations in Thoppigala, Mannar and deep inside the LTTE heartland of the Wanni also had a chequered record of insubordination and desertion, which resulted in his demotion and later de-listing from the army.
While his plight may not be synonymous with those of his comrades in arms, who stayed in the uniform or retired with a honourable discharge, Sri Lanka as a whole has not treated its military men and women fairly. Nor has the country adequately utilized the skilled human resources of one of the few battle-tested military forces in the world for the benefit of the country, or to the economic and social well-being of those very men and women.
There are of course retraining programmes for retired military personnel, and opportunities of overseas employment and much hype about reintegration. However, what the policymakers, both of military and civilian types, often overlook is decades of military service itself provide their own unique set of skills which are high in demand in a world from Sub Saharan Africa to Afghanistan, mired in conflict and chaos.
Where the state militaries are poorly trained, ill equipped and not up to the task, governments and private firms operating in the most inhospitable lands have turned to the private military companies (PMC) to guard their back. With its reputation as the only state force that annihilated a well-armed terrorist group, Sri Lanka can easily tap these opportunities. And our soldiers have more combat experience than what it takes to prevail there. Instead, our policy makers are busy turning seasoned soldiers into juki machine operators. A rational strategy would have been to explore the vast market of private military contractors. That is also a more honourable way of filling the country’s coffers, than sending our women to toil in Arab houses.
Liberal naivety places private military companies in a negative light. Such prejudice is magnified some times by the infractions of Black Water and other trigger happy mercenaries. However, private military companies have played a pivotal role in fighting Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, known for its cold blooded amputation of children, and have recently fought back Boko Haram in Sub Saharan Africa. PMCs provide useful services for governments that are cash-strapped to maintain large scale armies, by restoring a semblance of order and defending economic and strategic installations. The idea that the government has outsourced its monopoly of legitimate violence to armed mercenaries may not impress some. However, if that is the last desperate effort, reason should prevail over idealism.
This government has destroyed even the nascent effort of private military contracting. Avant Garde was demonized as eating into the Navy’s revenue. Sri Lanka that desperately needs better paying job opportunities for its men, should move beyond its comfort zone in search of opportunities for skills we have in abundance and are underutilized. Private military contracting is one such.And those jobs pay well, and come with dignity. The government should create a regulatory framework for Private Military Companies, remove existing bottlenecks, and help them find overseas opportunities.Then, retired army commandos who are now being sneaked into Iraq to serve in PMC can use legitimate channels.
It is mind boggling why the government which covets a few hundred UN Peace Keeping opportunities, obviously because the money that comes with it, overlooks these better paying opportunities.
This is only one instance where skills are squandered. Consider another; Sri Lankan armed forces tend to have a very pedestrian view of the military’s role of the country’s economic development. The current practice of soldiers being assigned to manage parks and clean drains are debasing the the security forces. And the military-run hotels, cafeterias and farms in the North are counter- productive in the economic sense and explosive in terms of ethnic relations.
Military runs businesses in Jaffna enjoy an undue advantage over civilian enterprises. Their salaries are paid by the army payroll and they have no mortgage to pay. They effectively stifle the growth of private business. And army operated farms in land acquired from the displaced Tamils breed resentment.
At the end, both economic and social returns of these ventures are minimum and if counted against their adverse economic and social impact of the people in the region, the balance sheet is negative.
This is also a model that has drastic long term implications. In countries such as Myanmar and Pakistan which operate vast empires of military run business, the militaries’ economic interests have clashed with the national interest. Corruption is also a problem. Others, such as Indonesia, gradually dismantled its military-run enterprises due to the same reason.
There is another way that the military can effectively contribute to the economic and scientific development.
Take the Israeli Defence Forces’ Unit 8200, considered as its Signal Intelligence Unit, but also believed to be the fountainhead of Israeli’s majority of tech startups. According to some estimates, alumni of this unit have founded more than 1000 world class tech companies. Effectively, Israeli’s reputation as a start-up nation is centered on this unit and Israeli defence force’s ability to hire and harness the best of the tech talent.
Where the state militaries are poorly trained, ill equipped and not up to the task, governments and private firms operating in the most inhospitable lands have turned to the private military companies (PMC) to guard their back
Countries learn from successful experience of their peers, and then emulate and improvise them. Sri Lankan policymakers should ask what lessons they can learn. Sri Lanka, of course, lags decades behind the technological sophistication of Israel. Nor does it has a ready supply of top talent through measures such as compulsory military service as in Israel nor do the armed forces inspire enthusiasm of the best minds to join ranks (which hardly happens anywhere else, anyway).
However, army has a fat defence budget, and there is plenty of promise in places like University of Moratuwa, where, unmistakably the brightest of every generation end up. Unfortunately, even the best of Sri Lankan universities operate in isolation from technological clusters, and run on paltry research budgets. By linking up with places like Universities of Moratuwa and probably Colombo, the defence ministry can create a synergy of financial resource and tech prodigy that can be harnessed to create a technological incubator, perhaps with the help of the private sector However, those projects are of the long haul, and need the continuous nurturing by a visionary government. Their presence may not be readily evident, as military run barber shops in Kilinochchi would do.
But, great things and great nations are built gradually, painstakingly and one block at a time.
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