21 October, 2020

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The Military Private Limited

By Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya

Dr. 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.

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Latest comments

  • 4
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    Giving a Tip for minor employees in hospitality Industry is the norm even in Western countries.

    Being a tight ass is different, but one has to be a real low life to whinge and complain because a poor employee gave the impression that he was expecting a Santhosam…

    On personal note, we were shown around a beautiful old Dutch Fort in the East by an ex service person who acts as the official tour guide.

    He said to me that our local tourists presumably from Colombo only come to have a ” Fun ” and they have forgotten how these places were liberated and restored for the benefit of the whole nation.

    The little Santhosam which I forced on him was flatly refused.

    He said he appreciated my human qualities and my interest and affection for the motherland more than santhosams..

    I was adamant and he took me to the guard house and asked me to make a donation for the disabled service personnel fund instead. .

    What these Yahaplana supporters ought to do is expose the current plot by the UNP and SLFP Chandrika & Sira faction to ” fix” the brave Armed forces for eliminating Pirahaparan.

    And please the West and the Diaspora .And give the TNA total control of the North and the East if possible.

    Wonder how much it costs for B & B in this Navy Dig.

    I might try it our soon and squeeze in 18 Holes at the magnificent Eagle Links as well.

    • 1
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      I perfectly understand your frustrations and sadness in your writing where your still crying that Mahinda Mamaai has lost his elections twice in a year !

      If amred forces enter business they have less overheads and have a big advantage over the locals be it Vanni or Matara which will in turn lead to a revolt

      also do take note that many business run by the Army esp when you pun up boy GOTA and MR were in power were on lands taken over forcibly from civillians!

      hmmm perhaps we must tell My3 to ask the Army to occupy your Pad in Vellala garden and turn in into a thosai kadai and Im will certainly patronise it and defitely give them a ‘santhosam’ too (you can stay on the road outside and watch the booming business in the house once owned by you and taken over by the defence chaps!

      PS:Hey Native Vedda should the above happen please join me for a thosai feed at K A Sumansekeras occupied housse run as an army canteen

    • 2
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      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.

      It is all one’s opinion. If you give some money to your brother, Do you give that as a tip or what kentality you have at that time ?

      At least these people made Trincomalee a place that you can visit. Eqarlier you could not go there because it was Tamil eelam and even if you go and give money they use that money to buy weapons to kill you in turn.

      BTW, FYI, ISrael army is totally a VOLUNTEER ARMY. Most countries subsidize army’s operations through business venturues.

    • 1
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      Yep. Gotta agree with Sumane.

      Looks like Ranga Kalansooriya has given away the poor Navy sailor to his superiors on a platter. Not very nice.

      Hope the service oriented Navy sailor chap will not be disciplined by his superiors. Everyone knows what that means.

      By all means, I hope Sober Island Resort chappy will avoid one of those holes in the ground set up by former boss. The infamous Navy Wasantha.

      However Sumane, this matter has nothing to do with gruesome abuse of power committed by people in Sri Lanka’s military uniforms. That we handle seperately. In line with laws of our country. Do not mix apples and oranges.

      PS: I have been to several places operated by the military. Must say they are value for money. Excellent, courteous service. One of a kind escape from the typical, fake hospitality offered by the commercial travel industry.

      • 4
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        As others have pointed out in their comments your “value for money” is a result of tax payers footing the military bill.
        So the military is able to undercut other legitimate businesses ! That is how you got your “value for money”.
        The continued militarization is very dangerous, the failure of Pakistan is a good example for us to see where it can lead us.

        • 2
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          Dev,

          Again, do not mix apples and oranges.

          Military has a terrible manpower surplus after conclusion of Ealam War IV. Need interim solutions for that. This is one result of that.

          I have nothing against them providing a good old, run for their money competition to the bloated, highly corrupt travel industry in SL.

          I see your point about Pakistan being militarized. I see the danger here too. I think we are already in the process to de-militarize.

          After one of world’s longest running bloody conflicts, things are gonna take time. Will not happen by next Friday.

          Cheers!

          • 2
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            Can you show some evidence of this “demilitarization”?

            In fact the MILITARY hotels, shops and restaurants in the north continue to undermine the livelihood of returning INNOCENT refugees. They are unable to compete in this market where the citizens foot the bill for the soldiers and the construction/maintenance of these hotels/shops… etc.

            Not to mention that many in the Jaffna peninsula have been built on private land, lands that have no connection with maintaining security in the country (the usual excuse for retaining private land).

            Are these people also included in your “fat bloated corrupt” lot?

            I am yet to see any demilitarization. T
            There have been other countries that have faced conflicts, how did they deal with the excess soldiers?

            Pakistan started as a secular country and went of its rails do due religion and the military taking over. I am amazed that people in SL cannot still see the eerie similarities in our own country.

  • 3
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    It is a common sight that the Armed forces are running small boutiques selling mutton rolls knothu roddy etc., wherever busses halt in Vanni. They also sell vegetables grown in occupied lands; run barber saloons etc. Now they have gone into large scale businesses, running resorts and restaurants. Don’t you think the Armed Forces are thus depriving the meagre income of local civilians who survive by running small boutique, saloon, or selling vegetables on the roadside? What would happen to these poor civilians in a few years time when they cannot run a business and have nothing to eat? Another revolt war and destruction or hunger disease and death? Think on these line too.

    Let the armed forces keep away from the civilians’ life and businesses whether small or large. Let them earn by making tanks and planes. Disturbing ordinary civilians’ life and their day to day earning will bring disaster to the entire country.

    Today businesses, small and large. Tomorrow they will be running media establishments. Therafter M.Ps in Parliament. Burma is very closer to us.!

    • 1
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      The armed forces did a yeoman service to the nation. They gave there today for our tomorrow. They deserve honour and respect.

      The Rajapakse regime rode to power on the backs of the martyrs and claimed the honour for themselves. They imprisoned FM Sarath Fonseka who was the chief architect of the war victory. Thereafter they used the armed forces to build their private empire by using them as vassals and slaves. Some were used to commit murders and abductions.

      It is time that the war heroes are rehabilitated and allowed to live normal lives at home with their families and children. There is no need to have such a large standing army. The numbers can be reduced in line with international standards and others can be enlisted as a volunteer force that can be mobilized at short notice.

      It is not good economic practice that the armed forces should compete with civilian enterprise while enjoying subsidies and pay from the Govt which is in turn dependent on the civilian tax payer. It creates an unequal playing field and deprives poor civilians of their livelihood. This should be gradually scaled down and converted into private enterprises run by the same personnel not as servants but as shareholders.

  • 1
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    The military resorts – and other leisure services are really good value for money. I don’t think there was any implied request for a ‘tip’. It is very common for people to draw attention to the fact when they do something extra.

    Given the way we are treated – like dirt – by state establishments that have a ‘monopoly’ the military has generally behaved much better. This is after having experienced checkpoints in practically every part of the country.

  • 5
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    This is just the tip of the iceberg. Sri Lanka has become a militarized state. It is unlikely that the armed forces will give up the perks that they obtain from the commercial ventures. The higher ups can live it up and those lower down enjoy smaller perks and the left over whisky. The dismantling of the system will be difficult. It will be an armed force that will thrive on racism and division simply because without these twin forces, it will have no work in the country. The slumber lie hidden to awakened by the Rajapakses and those of their ilk if any foot is put wrong. This is an inherent difficulty in the country. There is a brutalized army which had practiced killing during the JVP uprisings- some 70,000 young Sinhalese were massacred with no questions asked. It is only with the killings of the Tamils by the same armed forces that questions are being asked. Why the difference? Is it because there is a powerful diaspora for the Tamils which will not give up until accountability is established. This process will ensure that the armed thuggery is kept in check because these thugs in uniform may get away from the Government of Sri Lanka but not escape liability at the hands of the international community. This is the only check, whether Sinhalese or Tamil or Muslim, from armed violence from the thugs in uniform.

  • 4
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    This is simply continued militarization of our country. The army must remain outside of civilian life !
    It is very unfortunate that he and his family have supported this (by staying in a hotel such as this).

    Some of the other properties converted into resorts are actually NOT owned by them, they are occupied lands/buildings of innocent civilians who fled due to the war and are now engaged in a long battle to regain their properties (and livelihood).

    Sri Lanka Campaign has made up a list of such military run resorts if anyone wants to know more.

    Not only is the encroachment of the military in civilian life a dangerous development, they military being paid by us citizens is then able to UNDERCUT legitimate businesses too !

  • 3
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    It is indeed a sorry state of affairs when on one day a proud soldier could be carrying your bags and making your bed, and on another day he could be tear-gassing your aunty for demanding clean drinking water for her village. Until sanity prevails, accept that this is Sri Lanka for now.

  • 1
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    Dear Writer
    What you have written in the following paragraph is entirely incorrect and baseless. I have stayed in 3 hotels or resorts maintained by the Sri Lanka Navy. Their work is very professional and up to the international standards. I stayed 3 nights at the Sober Island resort in December 2014 and I am extremely happy about the professional services provided by the Sri Lanka Nave sailors. I work in a developed western country and I have compared the services provided by the Sri Lanka Navy with the Hospitality services of those countries. We need to appreciate the work done by the Sri Lanka Navy in converting this “Sober Island” in to a tourist resort and contributing to the national income. In fact this Sober Island report has been highly rated by the reviewers of the “Trip Adviser”.
    “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.”

  • 1
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    I am curious to know why should military involve in business. I have never heard anywhere in the world that armed forces running business for a profit? They should be protecting the borders of the country not indulge in business activities.

    I know this was introduced by the stupid Rajapaksas. I am sure MS and RW could put a stop to this and let a private enterprise or Hotels corporation run the business and let the Navy look after the shores of our Island.

  • 0
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    This, again confirms the Theory of Evolution! Rana Viruwaas gradually becoming RENA Viruaas!

  • 1
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    Kalana
    What about the ‘posh’ boutiques run by the army AFTER the war along A9 between Omanthau and Elephantpass (resented by returnees from Menik Farm camps and reported by Sinhalese)?
    What about the mammoth Jaffna HSZ and businesses run by the state armed forces there while the owners of the land still languish in camps?

  • 1
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    The military business model – where the military expands and runs the economy of the country – as in Pakistan and formally in Indonesia -was the Gotabaya Rajapaksa model of post-war development in Sri Lanka. This would have turned Lanka into a military dictatorship with Gotabaya running the deep state for the Rajapaksa family which was set to become the Gadaffis of South Asia. That is why the Ministry of Defense was in Urban development and the Foreign Ministry when Gota was King of Lanka with brother Mahinda Jarapassa.

    The military must be downsized and sent back to the barracks now that the LTTE has been thankfully destroyed.

    But the sad fact today is that all the corruption scandals are being buried because the UNHRC resolution is being used by Jarapassa to distract from the criminal investigation into the CORRUPTION of the previous regime. Now even that clown Sajin Vas Gunawardena is free, Wimal Weerawans who gave houses to his relatives and a fake passport to his wife still spreading racism and all the corrupt crooks of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime have immunity and impunity still! So much for hot aid Yahapalayana!

  • 0
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    Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya,

    The Military Private Limited

    These days Defense Forces are engaged in many type of business one of many is the one you experienced – Hospitality Industry, you are correct if they are with the uniform of Defense unit, we shall refrain from bribing them, but if they are expecting the “santhosham” it invites to few very dangerous situations. Their uniform may incite them to respond ugly ways for not getting that “santhosham” they desperately expected, however trained they are.
    They shouldn’t be involved in enterprises directly interacting with public.
    Around Palaly Army camp they are involved in farming on the fertile lands of peasants, confiscated as for security zone!
    This is very peculiar to Sri Lanka and totally disgraceful “Army Occupation”

  • 0
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    I would not have any issues in the armed forces running commercial enterprises such as hotels and guest houses. However, it is not ethical for the staff running these ventures wearing military uniforms or semi uniforms while serving as hotel staff giving an indication that they are from the military. In fact, it will amount to demeaning the very military uniforms of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. I do not know how the military high command and the Defence Ministry had allowed this practice. How come there is no dress code for the Sri Lankan Armed Forces?

    Those military personnel required to work as hotel staff should be given normal civilian type uniforms as one would expect to wear in a private commercially run hotel or guest house.

    As for tipping, though the venture is run by the Sri Lankan Army or Navy, this can be permittecd in a more organised way where the tips are pooled and distributed among the staff. But certainly there cannot be any tipping when the very uniform they wear indicate that they are from the Armed Forces. You were right in not tipping a soldier in soldier uniform.

  • 0
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    Dear Dr. Ranjan,

    I think there are enough things to write on this web rather than writing a silly tip issue.

    You should have reported to the Navy in writing rather than going for cheap publicity over this cite.

  • 2
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    Personally I like the idea of military run private ventures as long as the profits are shared with the public treasury and don’t end up in top rankers and administrators private bank accounts.It is a good way of giving peacetime army interesting projects and outputting a disciplined work force for the country gradually. Those who complain are the ones who wants to own these businesses and not allowed to get in, or who wants a santhosam themselves to keep their mouths shut

  • 3
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    Dr. R.K.

    Did you even think a wee bit about how disruptive is for Competition in the commercial world? Fair competition is central to a open market economy like ours. Did you consider the other competing hotels in the region? Given that they wear army uniforms it is clear that they are employees of the SLR/NAVY. Their salaries are paid by the government and NOT by the business they run. So how can any other competitors even think of competing. (I know some of them. They are paid by the army/navy)

    Obviously they can afford to lavish hospitality as it is “summa” for the army and WE the citizens have to foot the bill via tax and other means. Remember you enjoyed hospitality at the expense of other citizens and poor competitors!

    Unless Army/NAVY embarks on credible business that pays for itself these types of ventures cost the people and the economy heavily. So please consider the underlying factors before praising the army/navy in their commercial ventures.

  • 1
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    It is not the “tips” or the dignity of the security forces is the issue, but the success for the entire resettlement exercise is endangered by these military engagement in civilian activities.

    We had previous experiences of “closed economy” where the government undertakings were a monopoly and the enterprises were inefficiently run and led to economic chaos and the people were happy when the economy was opened.
    It was not only our experience, even the former socialist countries like Russia, China and even Vietnam had similar experiences when their closed socialist economies suffered failure after failure, they had no option other than turning towards formerly highly despised market economics.
    A mixed economy may not be a bad idea where the state enterprises compete with the private sector in a level playing field, but in the Northern and Eastern provinces what is the situation<Was it not an uneven competition where the military engages in business in the formerly occupied territories with all the resources provided free by the state how could the poor resettled families with meagre resources could be expected to survive.

    Are we living in two different countries?otherwise how can we be insensitive to the plight of our own people?

  • 1
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    Author says he became cheap.

  • 2
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    One more thing Dear Doc,,,

    Where have you been when these poor boys fought a battle for near 30 years…I know you are being paid by NGOs to write scrap of this nature..

  • 0
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    When I visited a navy hotel i was cautioned what to write and what not to write despite giving us a free boat ride. I humbled out not to write at all.

  • 0
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    This government said that all business ventures of the military would be taken away and handed over to civilian entrepreneurs.
    So, how come the army still running hotels?
    And, why such military businesses only in the north and east, but not in the south?
    All army men are paid monthly salaries, and are entitled to free food, clothing and shelter.
    Army officers’ messes are stocked with imported duty free liquor.
    Thus, their salaries are pure savings which go directly to their bank accounts, unlike public servants who have to maintain families.
    The military also are entitled to a pension.

    Hence, these ‘military hotel waiters’ need not be ‘tipped’.

  • 0
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    How utterly negative we are.
    These were areas that were beyond our physical reach for thirty years. Today, derelict buildings have been renovated, jungle areas cleared and businesses started WHERE THERE WERE NONE. They are run with military efficiency and profitably. What is ignored is that the returning refugees were NOT ENGAGED IN SUCH ACTIVITY anytime in the past, though they may wish to do so in the future. The returnees should take the opportunity to LEARN how to run such small businesses till they are able to do so themselves.
    Some of these businesses are on private land especially in the peninsula. I agree that where possible the land should be returned to the claimants who can prove ownership, but to expect the military to completely disengage from there would be unthinkable. Elsewhere there is state land available in plenty to the military for it’s encampments. The military will NOT disappear altogether anytime soon.
    In time these businesses will become COMMERCIAL free standing enterprises under pressure from the IMF, and those who can will be able invest in them. The smaller enterprises could be auctioned off to the highest bidder. There is no doubt there are some from among the diaspora with $ signs burning their eyes who would like to get their hands on these enterprises, even as they feign their concern for the poor from afar.

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