Making ‘Toy Warriors’ or What

By N Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 26 2021
Columns Making ‘Toy  Warriors’ or What

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Even as the political ruckus created by him over his demand for the dissolution of the Provincial Council died a natural death, Public Security Minister, Rear Adm Sarath Weerasekara (retd), has come up with a new one. His plan to propose to Parliament  a programme for military training of adults above 18 years of age is wrought with multiple concerns. 

As Tamil groups, spearheaded by vociferous sections of the Diaspora, shouted from Geneva rooftops whenever the UNHRC was to take up the Sri Lankan ‘war crimes’ issues, his was the lone voice as the ‘defender of the faith’ and of the Nation’s armed forces. On occasions where the predecessor Rajapaksa Government of then President, Mahinda R, boycotted the US-sponsored resolutions, his was the only voice, though outside the Chamber, to defend the forces – and the Nation. 

But it is one thing to be speaking as an individual, and another as the Nation’s Minister. By declaring for instance, that he would go to Parliament with his new proposal, Weerasekara seems to be bypassing the Cabinet of Ministers, with a policy paper, before taking it up to the legislative body. Likewise on his idea for dissolving the PCs, his best choice should have been the Constitution-making committee, appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Even a Cabinet proposal in the matter should fall short.

This apart, President Gotabaya, having come up with a broader proposal of introducing military training in the Nation’s universities, during his stint as Defence Secretary, post-war, Minister Weerasekara’s proposal may get unnecessarily linked to the former. Already, eyebrows are being caused to be raised if the PC dissolution proposal of Weerasekara originated in the President’s Office, or it was the latter’s mistaken reading from the past. Either way, it could only complicate matters, especially when his seems to be the lone voice from within the Government, on both issues that are as much electorally sensitive as they are constitutionally unviable.

Shooting in the air

There can be no denying that the armed forces are believed to be a disciplined lot. Yet, for the Minister to claim that six-month military training for all citizens above the age of 18, will create a disciplined and law-abiding Nation, can cut either way. In the immediate context, it has the potential to make the Government electorally unpopular, whether or not the proposal goes through. 

If the idea is to fire a shot in the air and wait for reactions to pour in, the one on military training has proved to be a dud shot. No one has seemingly reacted. This could mean no one is taking the Minister seriously. This need not mean that they have accepted his proposal whole-heartedly. None has welcomed it, either, with or without enthusiasm. 

“There is absolutely no discipline in the country. From 20 December last year up to now, more than 100 people have died on the road without adhering to road rules and more than 180 have been reported permanently disabled,” the Media quoted Minister Weerasekara as saying. “This shows that there is no discipline in society. Hence, we must provide military training for young men and women above 18 years of age. This is why I will table this proposal in Parliament.

It is anybody’s guess how the Minister thought that military training for the masses would make them more disciplined than at present – or, less undisciplined than they are supposedly at present. The two are not two sides of the same coin, but are poles apart. Ideas like building a disciplined Nation can be taught in schools at all levels, through a weekly moral science course kind of a curriculum, where stories of valour and trust are taught from the lower grades on. 

The idea should be to instil a sense of patriotism, and more so civic sense, in the context in which the Minister meant, if it has to succeed. It would take years before any attempt from now on should come to fruition but then Ministers like Weeresekara should continue to be around. Either way, it would serve his cause better if he were to go to Higher Education Minister, Prof. G. L. Peiris, who has been talking about reforming the education system. But then, a disciplined Nation is an idea that should be sown in young minds, not in matured adolescents, rather the age-group, that Minister Weerasekara wants targeted. 

Jokes apart, creating responsible citizens, which seems to be at the core of Minister Weerasekara’s proposal, is too serious a matter for a quasi-politician, quasi-veteran like him to handle, especially when the talk is about moulding future generations. This should be left to psychologists working with academic experts, to come up with a curriculum, and also decide on when to commence it, and how to go about it. This, of course, presupposes that schools and universities are the venues and avenues for starting the process. 

Considering the high levels of literacy and education, it may be a more organised set-up to adopt, or for that set up to adopt such schemes – but then, it is again for experts to discuss, debate and decide. Their first task should be to decide if a curriculum of the kind would be required, or can help, the Nation turn out disciplined citizens, who can avoid road accidents, or at least bring down the numbers, from the very dangerous figures, which Minister Weerasekara was very right in highlighting. 

Law-abiding citizens

“There is no need to fear military training,” Minister Weerasekara told the Media. “It is through military training that a person will be able to stand strong, build personality and leadership skills. Military training will ensure that we have law-abiding, disciplined and responsible citizens,” he was quoted as saying further.

While it may be true that the Nation need not fear military training for reasons Minister Weerasekara mentioned, there is this inexplicable feeling of a midnight-knock-at-the door feeling that such talks kindle in the individual. The Minister cannot be faulted for that, honestly. So can not the citizen be, if he felt that way. The last time round, compulsory military training was mentioned with greater seriousness, there was a strong socio-political reaction. The societal discomfort too could be touched to be felt. 

But then, Weerasekara has been honest to admit that further thought needs to be given to his proposal, especially on the implementation part. That may be a good beginning, to see if it was at all worthwhile, to go about it at all. For, of the countries that now have compulsory military training for its citizens, at least South Korea and Israel, both in Asia, are at war with its neighbours – or, at least that mindset remains. Syria is at war with itself, a phase that Sri Lanka left behind a decade ago. 

Fairy tales?

In Parliament, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, belonging to the SJB Opposition, dismissed Minister Weerasekara’s plans as ‘fairy tales’. He dealt with specifics, to claim that the Government does not have the funds now to commence such a project. Claiming that those above 26 years may not be amenable to physical training, he said there were about four million citizens in the 18-26 age-group. “The cost of giving military training to a single person for six months is Rs 750,000. Suppose we train 100,000 persons then the cost would be Rs 75 billion. Do you have funds for such an exercise? Are you talking of things that can be done?”

In the same vein, Field Marshal Fonseka took Minister Weerasekara to task on another count, too. He referred to the latter wanting personnel of the Civil Security Department (CSD) being deployed for proximity  protection of the Ministers and MPs, and men of the  Ministerial Security Division (MSD) withdrawn from those duties.  Fonseka claimed that around 98 per cent of CSD personnel were serving as Home Guards in villages, who were farmers given shot-guns during the war period. Implying that the CSD personnel were not equipped to handle Ministerial security, Fonseka asked fellow-MPs, whether they would “face the risk of handing over the protection of your lives to people of such calibre.” In this context, the ex-Army chief pointed out, “It is not easy to train a person as a soldier. It is a very complex and difficult task. You cannot train every person to become a soldier. You have to select persons with special qualifications and physical abilities to become a soldier.”

Human-elephant conflict

In this context, former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s recent suggestion for roping in the armed forces to “play an active role in solving the human-elephant conflict” needs to be evaluated with greater seriousness, without leaving it hanging in the air. True as Jayasuriya, now as Chairman of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ), pointed out, 70 per cent of the elephant habitat were located in human-inhabited areas, and thus the Nation needed a well-planned methodology to deal with the human-elephant conflict, the question remains if involving the armed forces is the best way out – and for more reasons than one. 

When the subject is about inducting the armed forces on non-military tasks, it is one thing for roping them in handling National disasters of the tsunami kind or man-made situations of the COVID-19 pandemic kind – but it is entirely another matter, to involve them in non-serious affairs like elephant-poaching, which is what the conflict entails, after a point. 

In the post-war situation, the armed forces were called in to prepare for the annual Vesak, and even constructing drains across Colombo city, apart from emergency housing in the war-ravaged areas of the North and the East. The political and humanitarian message is one thing, but then, the Elections-2015 also showed that incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa lost in southern Sinhala areas, from where about 100,000 new recruits had joined in the armed forces during his first term. 

Something went woefully wrong in the State of Denmark, but no Government has spared time to find of the whys and wherefores of it. Maybe, it is here that Parliament can help, with a Special Committee studying the strength and purpose of a large armed forces whose personnel need to be employed, without being deployed, for every other civilian task, and pulling them down from the pedestal where the war victory has put them!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplined Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])

By N Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 26 2021

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