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Peace, Military and People: Are non-military engagements of the military valid?

Sri Lankan Army selling vegetables. Photo: Ministry of Defence – Sri Lanka

War or internal armed conflict in the North and East was over; Emergency is no more; but still the military is everywhere. The military is now engaged in peacetime police-work, whale watching, selling vegetables, agriculture,  cleaning, constructions and many other non-military activities. Yet why isn’t there sufficient public debate on this? In this article I endeavor to briefly analyze some of the issues that need attention in the public interest.

Engaging the military for non-military duties is regulated under the law. For example s.23 of the Army Act authorizes the President to order all or any of the member of the Regular Forces to perform certain non-military duties, provided the President is satisfied that there is an immediate threat of action to deprive the people of Sri Lanka of essentials of life by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light or with means of transport and communication.  The non-military actions are also strictly limited to ensure continuous supply of essentials. Subject to that exception, as stated in s. 19(1) of the Army Act, the functions of the Army are limited to:

(a)  Defence of Sri Lanka in times of War
(b)  Prevention or suppression of any rebellion, insurrection or other civil disturbance in Sri Lanka.

In addition, the Public Security Ordinance authorizes the President to call out the military for the maintenance of public order. Not for any other non military work.  Sri Lankan military has defeated the LTTE that was waging war against the State. At present, there is no question of a breakdown of supply of essentials in the country nor is there war or rebellion. In that context, in my view, engaging the military on non-military duties are ultra vires or, in simple terms, without any legal basis.

But the issue is much wider in scope. To take this debate forward, let us look at the countries that had powerful military establishments and faced huge wars, on the scale of a world war. What did they do after the conclusion of the war?  Post-World War II period was marred by a series of strikes within the armed forces in Allied Forces, particularly those stationed in the Middle East, South East Asia and India. There is literature on American military personnel based in occupied Germany holding mass parades for speedier demobilization. In India, thousands of Royal Air Force servicemen wanted demobilization and in fact, went on strike. Prime Minister Clement Attlee was presented with a petition by India-stationed servicemen that stated:

“We have done the job we joined up to do. Now we want to get back home, both for personal reasons and because we think it is by work that we can best help Britain. No indication has been given of when we will see our families again. Is it because the government wishes to talk tough with other powers?” (Wikipedia)

Similar examples can be drawn from other parts of the world. The established practice in the military is to recruit a large number of personnel for a war and to send them home after the job is done. This exercise is called “demobilization”. This is a well-known practice and there is a law/practice governing the demobilization. That does not mean that the soldiers who fight a war are discarded but they are sent back for civil employment and civil life so that from that point onwards they cease to be military personnel. There are transition benefits for those who worked in the forces. Once demobilized, they are not governed by regimented rules of a military then.

According to statistics, five million soldiers across the world have lost their jobs since 1990 until about 2000: the end of the Cold War resulted in defence budget cuts and the downsizing of defence forces. Internationally, personnel in armed forces have been reduced from 29 million in 1987, to 24.1 million in 1994 (Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), 1996:144).  Though the data is not available, there is no doubt that the decade beginning 2000 marked  similar number or  move  demobilizations all over.

There is no difference in the situation where there were internal armed conflicts when all sides strengthened their own military by recruiting thousands of unemployed youths. When the conflicts were over, there were efforts to demobilize the government forces as well as armed groups. Details of these demobilizations are in public domain and, in fact, these details are used by those countries proudly to tell the international community that they are no longer a militarized society or a military government. Undoubtedly, the form of demobilization in each country involves a distinct political, economic and social environment. Data maintained at the Bonn International Center for Conversion is revealing:

  1. El Salvador — 30,000 soldiers  were demobilized between 1992 and mid-1993;
  2. Guatemala — 24,000 ‘military commissioners’ were demobilized in September 1996 and demobilized  fully ‘Voluntary Civil Defense Committees’
  3. Haiti — 6,250 soldiers were demobilized between 1994 and  1996
  4. Nicaragua — the national (Sandinista) armed forces demobilized  65,000 soldiers between the end of the 1980s and 1992.
  5. Mozambique — 70,000 soldiers of the government forces and 20,000 of the Renamo opposition forces were demobilized in 1992-1994
  6. Uganda — 36,350 soldiers were demobilized between1992 and  1995
  7. South Africa — an integration of seven armed forces into the new South African National Defense Force (SANDF) took place initially and then the demobilization of about 30,000 armed forces took place thereafter

We did not see similar demobilization of our army after the successful conclusion of the war in the North and East. Why?

For a population of a little over 20 million in Sri Lanka, we have a total military strength of approximately 200,000 and a police force (including STF) of around 75,000. That means the law enforcement/military density (or ratio to population) is about 80 to 1. To understand this in proper context, the total population has able people as well as  the minor children and elders. Tuus, there is a heavy burden on the government to justify retaining a military of this magnitude. The burden is heavier when our country is debt-ridden  and when basic needs are not met at satisfactory level.  Understandably during a war, one can always justify spending large and disproportionate amounts for the military but can you apply the same standards for justification when there is no war?  Paul Collier[1] in a celebrated article on war and military expenditure reveals that the global average for military spending is around 3.5% of the GDP, but ranges from virtually zero, to an astonishing 45%. He says that following five factors are driving these large differences and probably items number 2 and 5 below  are worth emphasizing;

  1. Active international warfare
  2. Peacetime military budget inertia
  3. Neighborhood effect (arms races)
  4. Internal rebellion or civil war
  5. Beneficiaries and vested interest

What is the purpose of keeping a huge military in a country in the absence of a war or an armed conflict? What we see from the national budget and expenditure is that despite the war being over, the huge defense budget continues. To make things worse, militarization of the society has firmly gained ground.  This needs to be examined closely, in the public interest.

Let us not get lost with the meaning of the term “militarization”? The often quoted definitions are as follows:

  1. “an extension of military influence to civilian spheres, including economic and socio-political life” (Marek Thee).
  2. “direct military intervention in the people’s lives and behaviour or indirect structural involvement in political and economic affairs (increasing military expenditures at the expense of civilian needs, military-oriented industries, a reliance on military force in internal and external political affairs, etc). Militarization will then denote the spread of military values (discipline and conformity, centralization of authority, the predominance of hierarchical structures, etc.) into the mainstream of national economic and socio-political life” (Jim Zwick).

If we look around our society, business, administration, dominant religion and any other matter of public importance, military influence is excessive and amply visible. Let me ask a few questions: Can you hold a peaceful meeting in Jaffna, without clearance from the army? Can there be any major infrastructural development in the North and East without the clearance from the Ministry of Defense? How many military personal (serving or retired) have been appointed to key positions including diplomatic and administrative posts? How many constructions of non-military buildings are done by the army in Colombo? Let us not forget that Military has all types of resources including personnel, equipment, supplies and other facilities such as intelligence. The lead news item in one of the main Sinhala papers (RAVAYA dated 30thOct 2011) reported that the military intelligence was behind the journalists who pass information about the Defense Secretary and the Military, onto foreign websites. Is that a legitimate objective of the military?

Daily News (11th Oct 2011) quoted Army Commander Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya said that the Sri Lanka Army is rendering a similar service in the resettlement drive as it did during the humanitarian operation. It further said that the Army is also involved in many other development projects in the North and East and in other parts of the country in support of the government’s development efforts. He asserted that the time has come to speed up the country’s development process and rebuilding of our nation. How valid this statement in terms of professionalism? Let me leave few thoughts for you from Dan Murphy of the Canadian Forces Colleges, whose research publication on military ethics, ethos and professionalism on Canadian forces commences with the following words:

“Like every other national institution, the Canadian Forces (CF) reflects the society it serves. Ways of acting, organizing, and thinking in both military and civilian life are causes, as well as consequences, of the ethical standards each assumes. Such standards eventually become translated into behaviour, and when such behaviour suggests the collapse of moral restraint and discipline in the military itself, some questioning of society’s influence on the military is in order.”

There is no secret that in Sri Lanka the military plays a major role in shaping the national policy and decision making in many areas including the field of education, foreign relations and development. When reading Hanzard, one wonders whether the defence authorities are above the parliament. Can the military be the policy/decision maker, directly or indirectly in shaping a democratic nation? Whenever the military cross the boundary into non military issues such as policy, there is a question of separation of powers, military ethics and constitutional governance. We must remind ourselves of a cardinal principle called “civilian control of military, which is a doctrine known to the military and the social scientists. The brief meaning of this doctrine is that the ultimate responsibility for a country’s strategic decision making is in the hands of the civilian political leadership, rather than military officials or defence establishment. One time a controversial writer, later turned to be a respected philosopher who wrote the highly cherished respected writing “The Soldier and the State”, has stated the civilian control ideal as “the proper subordination of a competent, professional military to the ends of policy as determined by civilian authority”. . Those who advocate the civilian control often say “War is serious a matter to entrust to military men” (Georges Clemenceau). Obviously, the rest cannot be left to the military too. The military serves as a special government agency which is supposed to implement, rather than formulate, policies that require the use of certain types of physical force. “The point of civilian control is to make security subordinate to the larger purposes of a nation, rather than the other way around. The purpose of the military is to defend society, not to define it”-Kohn (Wikipedia).

People the world over often try to compare the military with the business sector. This is a complex issue but the fundamentals will clarify the position. Dr. David L. Perry, Professor of Ethics of US Army War College, delivering a keynote address at a conference on Corporate Social Responsibility and Value Based Management, made a valuable contribution on this topic. I reproduce below four of the several main points he urged here:

  1. The “social contract” of the military is violated if it usurps constitutional limits. Thus whatever loyalty military organizations foster among their members must be subordinated to loyalty to the nation and commitment to preserve its constitution. The use of force by the military is also limited by just-war principles of discrimination and proportionality, which are intended to minimize harms to the noncombatants.
  2. The military places a premium on hierarchy, and inculcates strong habits of obedience to superior officers on the part of those who enter that profession. Obedience is often fully willing: soldiers and officers can feel tremendous trust in and respect for their commanders. But soldiers must also be encouraged and trained to refuse to obey clearly unethical or illegal orders, and enabled to do so without retribution.
  3. Both military officers and business executives seek to be admired as leaders and to be effective and responsible stewards of the people and resources entrusted to them. Military and business cultures both have their respective moral heroes whose stories are told to inspire integrity (in addition to promoting social acceptance of their vocations).
  4. Leaders in both the military and business must be aware of the dangers of “management by objective”: if subordinates are told only what outcomes they must achieve in order to be rewarded, and not how to do so ethically, serious problems are likely to occur. The stress on body count during the Vietnam War by Pentagon officials led to indiscriminate killing of noncombatants.  (A common saying among American soldiers at the time was, “If it’s Vietnamese and it’s dead, it must be Viet Cong.”)  Pressures by corporate executives on their subordinates to meet sales objectives or cut costs can lead to unethical tactics that can harm customers, stockholders, and other employees.

These remarks point to the importance of ethical approach in the military in their affairs. This is certainly valid for us, when the military is invited or dragged into non-military affairs. Due to the command structure of a military, all subordinate officers and soldiers tend to take the command on the face value and just deliver “the objective”, even if it is not permissible. Under our Constitution, military is part of the Executive. All organs of the state, including the Judiciary and Parliament have different roles to play. Thus, the constitutional limitations are equally applicable to the military and the defense establishment. In short, it is not the function of the military to attend to non-military functions or to use military  resources  for non-military activities.  Naturally, when the military is engaged in non-military actions, they are dictated to by discriminatory and politically motivated elements. By engaging the military for totally non-military work, the social acceptance of the military will diminish, not to mention integrity of the military.

In recent times, the justification for using the military for non-military activities was sought on the ground that the military (or war heroes who liberated the country) should not be redundant and that they should be active partners of development. Thus, they say, using the military for reconstruction and other developmental activities are justified. In my view, this is totally misconceived and self-destructive argument.  Economic development is not part of the military profession except in military states or authoritarian regimes.  Armed forces are not revenue earning agencies of the government nor are they self funded or autonomous institutions outside the state authority. The civil administration, public and private sectors are poised to engage in development work. Parliament is vested with authority to oversee the financial allocations because the government is using public finances. One of the main objectives of a political leadership is to ensure proper engagement of civil administration and private sectors for the development of the country.

Another argument put forward by those who justify the retention of a huge military outfit is that though the war is over, it is too early to reduce the army because the LTTE is still active. This is a military issue beyond my comprehension. However, as a citizen, I do not think the government can remove Emergency and then take a contradictory position that there is a threat to the nation.  On the other hand, if and when there is a real threat, government can always legitimately mobilize the army.

The final point I wish to make is an obvious and simple constitutional issue. Even the military is not the private property of the government or a political leader. It belongs to the public and is run on public finances. The government holds all public resources, agencies and institutions, including the military in trust for the public. Therefore, expenditure on the military should also be lawfully justified and thus there must be a nexus between such expenditure and the primary purpose of having the military. Therefore, there is no justification whatsoever for the financial allocation to the defence establishment for non-military activities.  If the military is used for such an objective, naturally there is no accountability and is beyond its constitutional limitations.

Though sensitive, these issues are staring at us and compelling us to find solutions through open but courageous debates.


[1] The Economics of Peace and Security Journal Vol.1 No. (2006),