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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2371

Lalins Column: Army is for fighting not policing

By Major General (Retd.) Lalin Fernando

Let’s get one thing clear even if the government is determined to make another a monumental blunder. The SL Army like other armies is for fighting not policing. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in need of serious observation.

The Yahapalana government is struggling with cascading blunders, bond crimes and bounders. It survives with a dwindling and bewildered support base. It has let governance failures slip, slide and magnify. To tackle the endless and growing drug menace it’s cabinet has suddenly wanted to reintroduce the death penalty selectively (exempting murder and rape) in the same facile manner the PM once offered chewing gum to win elections. Its beloved ‘whole world’ (Europeans only) supporters have already started threatening SL with punitive sanctions. Guess what serious crimes and RTAs will surely increase if drug busting alone goes on over drive.

To create an action man image to replace a stinking one with heaps of garbage littering the streets, monumental traffic blocks, daily street protests, broken pot holed roads and bridges, long suffering flood, cyclone, garbage and ammo dump victims, with the former school friend Central Bank governor on the run, murders and rapes not abating, the government in dire extremis has opted to selectively hang 19 already condemned drug offenders. One of them is not even on death row having been sentenced to life imprisonment. This was the ‘button’ the government especially members of the cabinet were ever eager to press since it came into power in 2015.

Executions have not taken place for over 40 years in SL. In the same exhausted frame of mind the government also decided to order the Army to join the police.

The SL Police, formed over 150 years ago, are now about 80,000 strong (IGP at Sirasa morning show 18 Jul) with an 8,000 Para military Special Task Force (STF) that is streets ahead of its counterparts in South Asia. It is similar to the GSG 9 in Germany (400 strong) and the CRS (13,000) in France too. The last however is not under the French police as are their 100,000 Gendarmerie. The STF is much feared by all armed criminal groups and even errant politicians in addition to would be insurgents. It could take an example from GSG 9 that on over 1,500 missions in peacetime has opened fire only 5 times killing just 3 people. Both favoured SAS and Israeli training. The identity of GSG 9 members is top secret.

The police are charged among other things with ‘enforcing criminal law, enhancing public safety, maintaining and keeping the peace’. While there is some distance yet to be covered in busting drug related crimes, why was it thought necessary to bring in the Army that is trained to fight and not to do police work?

It is clear from the IGP, the police do not need the army to do its work. It is quite capable of tackling crime effectively, particularly if there is no corrupting political interference and its institutions like intelligence and functional capabilities are improved. A bigger budget and much higher salaries would go a long way to meet the challenge.

How and why was this decision to involve the army taken then? Was the IGP consulted or at least invited to attend related meetings? Was the Army Commander in the loop? If both were, it is apparent their professional views failed to impress or were ignored. They probably objected to this move but could not say so publicly. If they were not consulted as it does appear, it was a very silly and irresponsible act by the government.

It is also certainly very ominous that an over 200,000 professional army that has no training in and is ill suited for police work is expected to be deployed on the streets to assist the police to combat crime even if it is just drug related. The army strength may have been 400,000 if the 2009 army commander was allowed to have his way after the conflict was over. He wasn’t.

The army is already in the maw of the Geneva new tigers, GTF, TRO etc, thanks to a 2015 government decision to co sponsor a US resolution against SL troops. The sponsors included Macedonia and Montenegro that may not be much aware and far less even know where SL is on the map, a mutual deficiency.

Will the public like to see armed troops on the streets and in every nook and corner instead of being in readiness for its primary role? What if the Army has to open fire on armed cadres of the drug czars in a hide out? Will it by this importunate decision to do police work, have to run the UN HR gauntlet again?

FM Sarath Fonseka has vehemently condemned what in the media is called ‘President Sirisena’s plan’ to use the army to help tackle ‘drug related crime’. What do the PM, state minister for defence and the minister for security, law and order have to say both about the ‘plan’ and the FM’s outburst? It is apparent that of all people, the FM was left in the cold when the idea was mooted.

FM SF has clearly stated that ‘dealing with drug related crime is a job for the police’ alone. He has then launched into an uncalled for agitated and colourful tirade on the failings of the police. It gives the distinct impression that while he thinks the police are capable of doing the job alone, he has a bone to pick with them. There is a problem about criminals being body guards of ministers too. Has there been a back blast already?

What is clear is that the FM was not informed or even consulted before the decision was taken. Thus the government that has probably South Asia’s only FM, has deliberately kept that worthy of all people in the dark. Was he being cold shouldered, ostracized, ignored or purposefully demeaned?

The 30 year old conflict ended in the complete destruction of the LTTE while SF was Army Commander. At the conclusion of the conflict there was a recommendation in the media for him to be promoted FM. SF, apparently in high dudgeon that as Chief of Defence Staff he was not allowed to command the army as well, opted to retire from the service as a 4 star General. Within a month he decided to contest the 2010 Presidential election. He lost.

After much water flowed under the bridge thereafter and the 2015 Presidential election, the new C in C President Sirisena promoted SF to FM. SF ordered first one then another FM baton. Sensing there was a complete vacuum in the knowledge of his patrons on anything to do thereafter with a FM, he made his own many assorted claims on privileges and status. Some were irrelevant; some were culled from Napoleonic times but none from India. Over there, renowned FM Sam Manekshaw, the first Indian FM, set impeccable standards. FM SF however apparently believed a FM ranked with Royalty and cabinet ministers in the protocol list. In the published Indian government order of precedence (protocol list) a FM ranks 12 with the serving Chiefs of Staff (SL- Commanders of Tri Forces). Sachin Tendulkar is in rank 7 as a holder of Bharat Ratna .The Elections Commissioner ranks at 9.

In India as in Britain, FMs never took to politics as SF was wont to repeat before he did that very thing. Having lost at the general election in 2015, he joined the UNP in 2016 and became a minister.

A FM in the British tradition does not retire. However SF had already retired as a General in 2009, complicating matters. Nonetheless, British tradition or not, SF was promoted FM but not in 2009 for his military achievements as Commander of the Army. With the government not bothering even to inform, far less consult him when this momentous decision to involve the army in police duties was taken, it may now appear that his promotion given in 2015 was sadly and only for mutually selfish political considerations. Not surprisingly there is no love lost between the C in C and the FM.

Has FM SF not only been made to look redundant but also politically expendable? Has he become the first casualty in the government’s haphazardly planned drug war? Will there be another 30 years of chronic blundering and plundering? Who will bear the pain and who will dodge the bullets?

‘SL, a place like no other’.

- Asian Tribune -

 Lalins Column:   Army is for fighting not policing
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