Colombo Telegraph

Guns Or Butter

By M. A. Sumanthiran

M A Sumanthiran

When it comes to public goods like the common defence and market efficiency, every State has a choice. According to the infamous analogy, in the zero-sum game of budget allocation, every State can decide whether to prioritize Guns or Butter. Guns represent the State’s ability to protect her stored capital and Butter represents her ability to generate capital. According to this simple analogy, a certain balance is clearly required as one without the other is bankrupt. Post-War societies present a unique opportunity. In a post-war society where peace has been won, Guns are (at least temporarily) obsolete. This fact provides post-war societies with an opportunity for unbridled production of ‘Butter’. Simple manifestations of this over simplified economic principle are abundant –Germany and Japan post WWII being the most obvious examples. Intervening variables certainly exist and the nomenclature ‘Post-War’ carries no written expiration date; it could dissolve at any moment for any number of reasons. But the central principle is not a prescription for a proper ratio between Guns and Butter, it is a description of the ratio’s simple uncompromising truth: a loss in one is a necessary gain in the other and vice versa. The abiding question for Sri Lanka is: how can we expect an increase in Butter if we have had no decrease in Guns?

Strange Bedfellows

The Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Urban development are strange bedfellows. The former is charged with protecting the country from enemies of the state and providing for the common defence. The latter, the Ministry of Urban Development, is supposed to facilitate the re-settlement and re-building of communities of citizens. Through this reconstruction, affected communities can recover their losses and start contributing to the common goods of market efficiency and production.

The Army co-opted the Ministry of Urban Development several years ago and acts as the actualizing force for development initiatives.  But the army cannot wear these two hats at the same time. They cannot assume both roles under the boundless mandate of protection without answering a central question – are occupied territories home to enemies of the State or citizens of the State? If Tamils and Muslims are enemies of the State then the peace rhetoric is empty. The army’s goal could not be development but instead occupation, subjugation and colonization. But if Tamils and Muslims are citizens, then it is not the development side of their mandate that is misappropriated; it’s the defence side. Why do citizens need an occupying army? Why should this occupying army be tasked with regional administration and rebuilding? If the people of the North and East are full citizens then they do not require any extraordinary defence beyond that allotted to the rest of the country. The SL Army cannot exercise both defence and development roles simultaneously. If the Army is in fact operating under their Defence mandate, are we as a nation willing to fund and tolerate the whole-scale occupation of  the North and East. Are we willing, Sinhala Tamil and Muslims together, to risk a precarious peace and an un-paralleled opportunity for growth so that the Government can manufacture an enemy worthy of occupation? After almost 30 years of calamity will we now again trade Butter for Guns?

Army’s Role

As is typical of militia, the SL Army is organized. It is funded to a fault. It has the backing of the central regime. But do these facts make it uniquely equipped to tackle development in a war-torn region?

Advocates of the Army’s continued role in the North and East seem to react explosively when examples of post-war culture in the Global West are cited. While the examples of post-World War II and post Soviet block countries are pertinent, perhaps it is appropriate we compare ourselves to polities closer home who are experiencing many of the same challenges we are facing. We need not look farther than Sub-Saharan Africa to see what happens when a society starts to rely on an easily mobilized military instead of investing the time and resources necessary to develop a robust federal administration. Countries like Zimbabwe fall prey to a vicious cycle of [lack of resources – poverty – dire need – mobilization of the military – displaced labor – dependence -lack of resources – poverty and so on, and so forth]. Mobilizing the military cripples both public and private sector growth. Jobs are instead monopolized by the only available organization of manpower i.e. the military. This cycle is perpetuated when the community comes to rely on the goods and services provided by the military which leads to a lack of resources and a repetition of the cycle.

Many would point to Senegal and the Armee-Nation as a positive example of military involvement in civilian affairs. The Partners for Democratic Change characterize Armee-Nation as “Senegal’s model of civil-liberty collaboration that promotes development and security.” Interestingly the organization lists three central goals of Armee-Nation to which they strive to hold the Senegalese military accountable. The goals are to ensure that (1) “security sector agencies can contribute to the development of their country by improving civilian relations with government and civil society; (2) security forces have respectful, collaborative, and inclusive relations with the civilian population; (3) and security sector agencies are clearly subordinate to and respectful of civilian authorities and remain politically neutral.”

Armee-Nation and the unusual success Senegal enjoys relative to its neighbors illustrates that there is a bright line between effective and ineffective military involvement in post-war society. Firstly, the organization and resources of the military can only become part of a greater development and reconciliation plan if the military actively seeks to improve civilian relations with the government and civil society. The only way to accomplish this goal is by investing and developing at a Provincial level. The Central Government must empower locally elected individuals to make policies benefitting the constituency they are immediately accountable to. This model only works when a degree of autonomy is awarded, otherwise each Province remains wholly unequipped to meet its own development challenges. The SL Army can improve civilian relations with the government and civil society by allowing such a process to happen organically and without impediment. Instead of the SL Army assuming the role of local government,  it should look to transition as much responsibility as possible to justly-elected local provincial administrations.

Secondly, the SL Army must foster “respectful, collaborative and inclusive” relationships with the civilian populations they are involved with. Unfortunately, civilian relations is not a primary consideration for the SL Army. Civilians are routinely displaced from their homes demonstrating the Army’s lack of respect for private property. Many displaced civilians are caught like fish out of water separated by forcible relocation from their livelihoods with little to no means of supporting themselves or their family. The most recent land grab in Jaffna totaled approximately 6400 acres and affected several thousand Tamil people. The SL Army could not demonstrate less concern for civilian relations and this is a crucial aspect of post-war posturing.

Thirdly, the SL Army must be subordinate to civilian authorities and remain politically neutral. It was recently reported that the Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe and the Northern Province Major General G.A. Chandrasiri have interviewed and chosen 20 candidates for the Northern Provincial Council Election. The Army’s clear demonstration of partisanship and political posturing destroys any credibility they might have otherwise possessed as a body answerable to the whole of Sri Lanka. Their involvement in elections is not only spurious, but perhaps most tragically it completely undermines the quest for reconciliation. Is that what the Army of Sri Lanka is – an agent of a particular political party? How can lasting peace be forged on such terms with such agents purporting to provide for our common defence? The whole nation should feel marginalized and uncomfortable with the Army’s political activity.

In the end, the choice between Guns and Butter should be one left to the people of Sri Lanka. Is the South comfortable with the deployment of the vast majority of the nation’s armed forces in a time of purported peace? Is the South comfortable with the military usurping private enterprise and displacing market opportunities for Sri Lankan citizens? It is time we as Sri Lankans realize that there are only two categories of people in the eyes of the Government. There are those with her, and there is everybody else. All the resources of this nation are directed towards advancing the interests of those few in the Center while the rest of us are pushed to the fringe. The Center calls us citizens but through the machinations of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, they treat us like enemies of the state.

Post-war countries can have one of two landscapes. Either they purchase peace at immeasurable cost only to continue acting out their best impression of war, or they can use the post-war time period for growth, progress and prosperity. To date, Sri Lanka’s choice has been clear. The Military remains the minion of the State, doing the Centre’s domestic bidding without the oversight and accountability attached to an elected post. The Military hopes to win the North by forcibly subjecting them to the Center’s politics but this battle for hearts and minds cannot be won with organization and funding. This time the Military can’t create peace through force of will. This is not the partisan military’s battle. This is a battleground of ideas where victory is finding equitable and creative solutions. In this battle, peace cannot be won by dominance or imposition; it must be forged in the cauldron of the common good.

The author, M. A. Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate

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