By N. Sathiya Moorthy
Two episodes in twice as many days, yet no one is talking much about it. Suicides by two soldiers in separate incidents, both involving an earlier killing by them, one of the victims being a lady naval personnel, have been reported, but not reacted upon. Together, they formed the forth and the fifth in the past year or so, and questions about stress factors and the like may have already been asked within the echelons of the armed forces and possible remedial action, initiated, too. Sri Lanka can take heart, considering reports that in the US armed forces suicide- rates are much higher (as high as 18 per cent) and that in a recent incident in Afghanistan, an American soldier went on a killing-spree like some of his civilian counterparts, on college campuses and shopping-malls back home.
In a way, it could be comparatively creditable, as nearly half of the Sri Lankan soldiers had also been recruited during the three years of the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’, and their short-term training in professionalism and psychological stress-busters needed to be augmented substantially in the post-war period, when relative roles and assignments too had changed, almost overnight. Earlier reports had indicated that a soldier who shot three colleagues had been identified for discharge by his superiors, and was awaiting orders to the effect when he went on the shooting-spree, if that were so. This is both comforting and discomforting at the same time. As coincidence would have it, army personnel were victims in all reported incidents. If the victims were civilians, whatever the cause, whatever the provocation, the political cost for the armed forces would have been worse. It would be even more if the victim(s) happened to be Tamil, and the perpetrator did not choose to take his life. The Sri Lankan Government would have much more to say, and pay for, too.
‘Demilitarisation’ has been among the demands of the Tamils, particularly in the North, a voice sympathetically and systematically echoed by the international community, too. What is often forgotten is the fact that as elsewhere in the Third World in particular, where conflicts of the kind had created a near-permanent vacuum in the civilian administrative structure, the fighting men had been called upon to don a new role in the post-conflict period. Rehabilitation and reconstruction do not stop with those for the suffering humans. For the latter to be served the administrative structures, institutions and office-buildings need to be rehabilitated, and reconstructed, more often than not, physically, too. The army, already in place for combat reasons, was called upon to fill the void, created in this case, particularly by the exit of the LTTE ‘administrative structures’ that had taken over the civilian administration in the war-areas for years and decades, along with its war-machinery. This was possibly a text-book case of post-war interim arrangement for the restoration of civilian administration, yet the Government in its wisdom has failed to communicate to the local population, polity and the international community the ‘interim’ nature of the army operations in this regard. There is a precedent, if not a pattern, both to the accusations and the official responses. There were criticisms galore when the Government attempted the rehabilitation of a high 300,000 hostage- IDPs from the LTTE’s clutches. They were based on a perception that nothing could go right in the Third World nation without international participation. Subsequent events proved the critics near-wrong, and there has seldom been any acknowledgement, either by the Government of its achievement, or by the international community, also of the same.
The continuing and consistent demands for ‘demilitarisation’ of the war zones come from a community that has been ravaged as much psychologically as physically by war and violence, midnight knocks and middle-of-the road disappearances, with the LTTE and the armed forces sharing the blame. It finds voice in the Tamil polity, and gets internationalised by the Diaspora and others, without extra effort on their part. A parallel to this is the stress-factor impacting on stray soldiers to take to the gun without second thought? Physical and psychological rehabilitation of conflict victims would have become complete when they do not have to recall recurring anxieties about the man with the gun, men in uniform. A less obvious presence, a lesser intrusive inquiry about men in the list of LTTE suspects would all help. Restoration of the societal structure could involve engaging community leaders like doctors and lawyers, teachers and traders (‘civil society’ has acquired a bad connotation in this context) to act as societal intermediaries. Such practices may have become alien in a conflict era, but restoration of civilian authority and societal structures could well begin thus at the grassroots. Text-book models often show that in post-conflict situations, sections of the armed forces often reverse their numbers in terms of the contexualised roles. Thus, the fighting arm might have fewer numbers than during the conflict period compared to their support and logistic arms, involved as the latter would be in shipping reconstruction material, rehabilitative goods like food and medicines, constructing homes and distributing them. The credit thus going to the armed forces belatedly in the war zones are based possibly on models, which should have been acknowledged by the more experienced international community and better publicised by the authorities nearer home, who seemed to have instead shied away compulsively and repeatedly in taking the people and the nation into confidence. Post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction roles for the armed forces often come with time-lines, based on tasks on hand. No harm would befall national security if the Government were to suggest tentative deadlines for the tasks assigned to the armed forces, and also involve the community leaders and elected representatives of the people for two-way communication. Politics in democracy is unavoidable, and is at times a sign of restoration of ‘normalcy’. No one can complain about the armed forces not questioning tasks and deadlines – but could still complain that they are not as responsive as they are responsible. Reports have often mentioned deployment of armed forces for non-combative roles in the non-war regions, too, in the post-war years.
The involvement of the army personnel in the organisation of the Vesak celebrations across the country recently can be argued to be interference in social life on a regular basis, and equipping them to greater engagement and involvement in times of political crises. Earlier, too, they were summoned to transport vegetables until the markets relented, on whatever be the new norm imposed on them, causing eyebrows to rise, there again. The question is this: What should a nation do with a substantial army population that suddenly finds itself at looseends. Should de-mobilisation involve sending them back home with a pension with nothing else to do in a jobless-market, or redeploying them to help with the civilian authorities? After all, no civilian Government anywhere wants to involve the armed forces in the civilian sector, as it is a threat to the existing democratic schemes and systems, and to the polity and leadership. It could not be different in Sri Lanka, too, where about one per cent of the population is donning the uniform, and can only be sent overseas on UN peace-keeping in much, much larger numbers than already.