A dilemma: Security personnel placed in business enterprises

22 October 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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I cannot tip a soldier in uniform who carries my luggage to a  hotel room. My conscience does not allow it and he commands a  better respect from me


I was in Trincomalee last weekend along with a media colleague and my wife. We had several engagements with some provincial journalists in this beautiful eastern port city which was once the hot-bed of the ethnic conflict. It has now become one of the most strikingly attractive cities with its natural outlook drawing tourists. The city was clean and well managed; it seems to have been prepared for an economic boom. 

Adding to this beauty was the picturesque island resort of ‘Sober’ run by the Sri Lanka Navy where we spent the night. It was an excellent location – mainly being a historic Dutch fortress followed by its successive colonial rulers. The service was perfect, the rooms were comfortable and the food was good– all necessary requirements to be a viable commercial venture. But we were confronted with one concern. Should we follow the same custom of giving tips to  service providers who were either in full uniform or in semi- uniforms? They were humble and courteous in their services and conduct. They were well trained and groomed too. 

In fact one of the sailors in the shuttle speed boat approached my wife on our way back and attempted to convince her that they were trying to appease us through a ‘diverted boat ride’ which would have cost us some extra money. He never directly requested a “santhosam” but made a sort of indication. That particular incident fuelled a long discussion among the three of us on the subject of “santhosams” or tips to men and women in uniform, irrespective of their nature of work. 

My humble request to those high rankers in the Sri Lanka Navy is not to embark on an inquiry into the incident that I mentioned above. It is not the mistake of that particular sailor, but it is the system that he has been engaged in–security forces in commercial businesses. He was just a victim of circumstances. If it was a commercial venture, then those involved in it at all levels should enjoy the perks and privileges entitled to that particular 
field – including tips. 

When we discussed this issue with our journalist colleagues in Trinco, they explained how the security forces were conducting commercial ventures, mainly in hospitality at several prime locations in the coastal belt and elsewhere. The Army in particular was running a hotel chain apart from its other business ventures, so did other services. This was nothing new as it was a policy decision by the then government in order to keep the men and women of the security forces occupied following the end of the war in May 2009. The Army and other security forces were made four-fold larger within a period of four years but lacked a clear post-war strategy on how to deal with a large military force. Thus, commercial ventures by military establishments were created and security personnel utilised for all kinds of services that included the maintenance of roads and city beautification, an issue that came on political platforms of the January 8 electioneering process. Now, one cannot see soldiers cleaning roads, but the commercial ventures are up and running. 



The military getting into the field of commercial enterprise is a globally discussed subject. Many other major armies like those of  China and even Russia have similar practices but we hardly hear of any such activity by the Indians.

There are many examples in our region such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar- different stories in different contexts. The Pakistan’s private business empire runs up to a value of USD 20 billion, being operated predominantly through three foundations belonging to the three major forces –Army, Navy and Air force. Some media reports alleged that the number of ventures would be at least 55 from bakeries, petrol stations and heavy industries. The Bangladesh military is no different – its commercial ventures are multi-faceted and deal in multi- million dollars that includes the country’s top five- star hotels in Dhaka and elsewhere. “If you are buying any ice-cream in rural areas of the country, you may be getting a product of an Army-owned business, that of the Sena Kallyan Sangstha (SKS),” said a recent BBC news report.

In Myanmar the story is somewhat different. The Army ran the country for over a half-a-century and hence the businesses of the state too. In a bid to do it better, the then military junta created a separate entity called the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) in 1990 bringing in senior generals in their personal capacity as well. Any major businesses in Myanmar, including cigarette manufacturers, breweries and even part of the media fall under the wings of the UMEHL. It has become extremely challenging for the newly opened market to deal or compete with this massive military conglomerate in Myanmar that is to hold the country’s first ever democratic elections two weeks from now.

The Sri Lankan story is nowhere near these conditions. We did not see the military getting into major commercial ventures, except for small tuck-shops run by their welfare societies at their respective camps before the end of war. But according to a widely accepted phenomenon, the norm of corporate enterprise is always inter-twined with corruption and other ‘arrangements.’ It’s always concerned  with  ‘deals’ and ‘manuevering’ and in mind it is a situation an Army should not get involved in, due to its high reputation. In a proper system of a market economy where healthy competition is the law of the game, how could an entity like an Army compete and sustain a business when its mandate is entirely different? Wouldn’t it divert its focus and obligations? Are we going back to the old Soviet systems? 

In a nutshell, at the lowest level, I cannot tip a soldier in uniform who carried my luggage to a hotel room. My conscienes does not allow me to do so and he commands a better respect from me.
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