Security Sector reforms in Sri Lanka Reduction of troops and rural economy
Posted on December 12th, 2017

By Rathindra Kuruwita Courtesy Ceylon Today

Ever since the end of the civil war in 2009, there has been a debate on the need for security sector reforms in Sri Lanka. With the defeat of the Rajapaksa administration and with the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) promising such reforms, the debate has rekindled.

The need for security sector reforms is recognized by different actors across the spectrum, from people who want a complete demilitarization of the North and the East to people like me who have insisted that the nation can’t reduce defence expenditure.

With such diverging stakeholders and with politicians affiliated with Former President and Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa attempting to equate reforms with weakening of the military, the situation is obviously complex.

On the other hand, no one has attempted to explain to the general public about what security sector reforms are and to obtain their ideas. Surely, if the general public is qualified to give their opinions on the proposed Constitution of the nation, they are able to comment on security sector reforms.

Security sector reform under MR

After the end of the war, Sri Lanka was left with a powerful defence establishment. It had over 200, 000 military personnel and in 2009 the defence budget was Rs 175 billion. However, it was also the focus of controversy, allegations of human rights violations and there was a feeling that there were too many soldiers for a peacetime Army.

The popular view among analysts regarding the military from 2009 to 2015 is that no reforms have taken place. I have come across many academics who insisted that Rajapaksa held into an oversized Army which drained Sri Lanka’s public funds and that steps should have been taken to minimize the defence budget from 2009 itself.

My opinion regarding this differs, I believe that Rajapaksa in fact did carryout security sector reforms. He reoriented the Security Forces towards development and the Army Engineering Corps played a significant role in the massive construction projects under Rajapaksa. The military was also encouraged to do business, from farming to managing hotels.

The military did exceptionally well, when it came to construction and maintenance. The Engineering Corps of the Sri Lanka Army carried out a number of major construction works, efficiently and adhering to deadlines, which is not what we usually see from Sri Lankan construction companies. In addition one cannot doubt that the Ministry of Defence controlled Urban Development Authority (UDA) did an exceptional job in making Sri Lanka’s major cities much more attractive spaces.

So, it is absurd for Wimal Weerawansa or for Udaya Gammanpila to equate any military sector reform to weakening of the Army because guess what, his boss also carried out military reforms.

Reforming without firing

The 2018 budgetary allocation for the Defence Ministry is around Rs 290 billion; out of capital expenditure is only Rs 30 billion. Rs 260 B has been spent of recurrent expenses, which can’t be reduced. This is why reducing the defence budget is not an easy task, the military employs a large number of people and the income generated by these young men and women is an important source of income for Sri Lankan families. Especially in some rural areas, the village economy would collapse if soldiers are let go.

What is interesting to note is that during the three decades from 1980, successive governments allowed agriculture and manufacturing sectors, which used to be the backbone of rural economy, to stagnate. The contribution of these two sectors has continuously declined and most of the jobs left in these sectors, especially in agriculture are low-productive jobs. (Forgive me if you think I am diverting, but it is important for you to realize how these are interlinked).

Given the degradation of the rural economy most of the youth took a rational decision that the best way to escape rural poverty was by joining the military. Thus the steady stream of recruits from rural agricultural and semi-urban areas where there used to be manufacturing jobs. Despite what the liberal narrative would tell you most of the recruits were not ‘misled’ by the Rajapaksa’s propaganda machine into joining the Army, the young men and women who joined the Army were only taking a very well-thought-out and rational decision.

Stagnant job growth

As I mentioned the only way to reduce the defence budget in a significant way is to let soldiers go and letting these young men and women (with weapons skills and angry about getting rid of them after putting their lives on the line) go into an economy where job growth has been stagnant for many years would be disastrous socially and economically. Mahinda Rajapaksa realized this dilemma and thus had no option but to reorient the Army towards development activities. The current Government will also have to look at options to redirect troops for different sectors so that we ensure jobs and development.

Rathindra holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore, and can be reached via [email protected]

2 Responses to “Security Sector reforms in Sri Lanka Reduction of troops and rural economy”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    I agree.

    The army was the single largest employer and employed otherwise unemployable people. This helped the rural economy. All successive governments neglected the rural economy. Employment at the military helped revive it without handouts.

    Military personnel must be reinducted to economic activity (not just development activities). They must be trained in a wide range of trades to cushion the impact of strikes. For instance, the military must have a replacement unit for railway workers, medical facilities, CEB and CPC. It is not rocket science.

    Retiring and leaving personnel must be helped to establish self-employment which will keep them away from trouble.

    Converting a large part of the army to navy is another good move.

  2. Senerath Says:

    There is no secret that under the so called “reforms” some soldiers were asked to do servant jobs, cleaning jobs etc. , while “Ranaviruwa” title was spread. However I agree that excellent development work were also done to get most of them keep employed although instead of army command political commands confused them.

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