By Ranga Kalansooriya –
I was in Trincomalee last weekend along with a media colleague and my wife where we had several engagements with some provincial journalists in this beautiful eastern port city. Trinco, once which was the hot-bed of the ethnic conflict has become one of the most striking cities with its natural outlook and the emerging tourist attractions. The city was clean and well managed, seems to be prepared for an economic boom provided all its prospective development plans including tourism go through as planned.
Added to this beauty was the picturesque island resort ‘Sober’ run by Sri Lanka Navy where we spend the night. Excellent location – mainly being a historic Dutch fortress followed by its successive colonial rulers – perfect service, comfortable rooms and good food – all necessary requirements to be a viable commercial venture. But one concern always confused us, should we follow the same conduct as we are in any other commercial entity – giving tips and extras to those service providers who were in either full or semi uniforms. In fact they fully deserve such an admiration as they were extremely humble and courteous in their services and conduct, sometimes going beyond any other entity of the commercial hospitality industry. They were well trained and groomed, no doubt it.
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 sort of an indication. That particular incident fueled a long discussion among three of us on providing “Santhosam” or tips to the 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 embark any 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 with – security forces engaging in commercial businesses. He is just a victim of circumstances. If it is 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 to us how the security forces were conducting commercial ventures, mainly the hospitality industry in several prime locations in the coastal belt and elsewhere. The army in particular is now running a hotel chain apart from its other business ventures, so does other services, too.
This is nothing new as it was a policy decision by the then government in order to keep the men and women of heavily enlarged security forces occupied following end of war in May 2009. The army and other security forces were enlarged by four fold to meet the fierce combat within a period of four years but lacked a clear post-war strategy on how to deal with an artificially expanded military force. Thus, commercial ventures by military establishments were created while many others were utilized for all kind of services that included road cleaning and beautification, an issue that even came on political platforms of January 8 electioneering process. Now, one cannot see soldiers cleaning roads, but the commercial ventures are up and running.
Military getting into the field of commercial enterprise is a globally discussed subject. Of course many major militaries, like those of in China and even Russia have similar practices but we hardly hear 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 into the 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 that spans from bakeries, petrol stations and heavy industries.
The Bangladesh military is no different – its commercial ventures are multifaceted and multi million in dollars that includes 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 thus the businesses of the state, too. In a bid to do it better, the then military junta created a separate entity called Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) in 1990 bringing in involvement of senior generals in their personal capacity as well. Any major business in Myanmar, including cigarettes, brewery and even part of media would come under the wings of UMEHL. It has become extremely challenging for the newly opened market to deal or compete with this massive military conglomerate in Myanmar who would face country’s first ever democratic elections in two weeks from now.
The Sri Lankan story is nowhere near to 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. This was the solution, probably adopted to maintain and sustain a gigantic pool of human resources in the absence of war.
But according to the widely accepted phenomenon, the norm of corporate enterprise is always inter-twined with corruption and other ‘sorts of arrangements.’ Always it engages with ‘deals’ and ‘maneuvering’ where an entity such as military should not get involved due to its highly respected reputation, to my mind. In a proper system of market economy where healthy competition is the law of the game, how could an entity like army could compete and sustain where 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 a tip a soldier in uniform who is carrying my luggage to a hotel room. My conscious does not allow me to do so. He commands a better respect from me, rather a small tip.