December 2010

Having read through the Progress Report of the Ministry of Defence, and listened to remarks of the Opposition, in Committee Stage and earlier, it occurred to me that it was with regard to this Ministry that there is the greatest inconsistency as to the several arguments the Opposition, in its collective wisdom, advances to criticize this budget. Given the wide range of new initiatives undertaken by the Ministry, with very little additional expenditure, it is easiest to defend the financial policies of this government with regard to the Ministry of Defence, even though trying to attack it has been the favourite pursuit of the collective opposition over the last couple of weeks.

Most entertaining amongst the other recurrent themes in the speeches we have heard was the tremendous concern expressed for the toiling masses, as the UNP in its latest neo-Marxist incarnation calls the people of Sri Lanka. Such concern is understandable in the JVP, but to hear this from the UNP and the TNA suggests what might be termed crocodile tears.

These tears are accompanied by much confusion. Mr Sumanthiran, normally very erudite, complained that a percentage increase in wages for public servants would not help with poverty alleviation. It seems he does not understand what actual poverty means, given the statistical tools used to define poverty so as to focus government intervention on the worst off. In comparison with them, all public servants earn a decent wage, the lowest paid for instance earning about 4 dollars a day now.

Absurdly, while complaining that the 5% increase, which means well over 10% for the worst paid given also the increase in the Cost of Living Allowance, is not enough, the Opposition also goes into paroxysms about the increase in the Defence budget. Surely they realize that that increase is almost entirely made up of increases in the wages bill. And surely, if anyone deserves an increase, it is the personnel of the armed forces, who fought valiantly over the last several years, and who have continued to work ungrudgingly for the welfare of the people they rescued. I have seen soldiers cleaning up kovils for Thai Pongal, supporting the Ministry of which I was Secretary in a project to spruce them up before the festival. I have seen soldiers working solidly to build houses for those who had been displaced, on one memorable occasion being told by an elderly lady how badly her family treated her while it was our soldiers who were providing shelter for her. But no, all this is ignored by those who want to pretend that nothing is being done for the toiling masses, and that even less is being done for the displaced. Fortunately, it gets recognition where it matters, in countries that share our concerns and stood consistently with us in our struggle against terrorism – as we saw in the recent award of the Gusi Peace Prize n Manila to General Hathurusinghe, one of several devoted and hyper-efficient Special Forces Commanders in the North who did so much to destroy terrorism whilst supporting the Tamil people.

Sadly, opposition speakers do not study the facts or the figures, but instead engage in dogmatic assertions that are wildly contradictory, and show no understanding of the balances that are essential in budgeting for development. They also show no appreciation of the fact that less funding is required now for procurement than before. Seven years ago, in the last budget prepared by a United National Party government, there was less procurement than the country needed, on the grounds that the coffers were empty, precisely at the time when the LTTE was stockpiling weapons. Meanwhile the government of that time seemed to want to let the weapons come through, and would have succeeded, had it not been for the tenacity of the navy and indeed the decency of one of the Norwegian monitors who found the guns that the then Minister of Defence seemed not to care about.

With regard to procurement, until the present government took office, this country had a shoddy history of corruption and waste. In the past it seemed that the principal qualification for becoming either Secretary to the Ministry of Defence or Secretary to the President was to have offspring who were arms dealers. It was only after the current incumbents of those positions took over that the forces could be sure that procurement was based on national needs rather than other considerations. Unfortunately that record was sullied by a relation of the Army Commander of the time, though understandably the United National Party does not understand the gravity of such offences, given the records of its own officials in the past.

Meanwhile that party, while criticizing whatever the government does for development, does its best to destroy the economy of the country. At the meeting in the House of Commons, which Dr Jayalath Jayawardena set up to emulate a similar meeting at which I had spoken,  the UNP Organizer in the UK, Dr Roger Srinivasan, suggested sanctions against Sri Lanka. Dr Jayawardena claims he argued against this, and though I have heard from someone at the meeting that this was not the case, possibly Dr Jayawardena was sincere in thinking he was not as denigratory as Dr Srinivasan – who had also, aided and abetted by the BBC Sinhala Service, ensured that Dr Wickramabahu Karunaratne, who is relatively open in his attacks on the government, also spoke at the meeting. Given the distinction Dr Jayawardena made between himself and his host in England, Dr Srinivasan, one can only hope that he insists to his current Leader, or the next one, that such destructive elements should not be given Organizer posts in the UNP. Attacking Sri Lanka while abroad is not a recipe for winning hearts and minds here, and all the candidates for leadership of the UNP, if it ever gets a democratic constitution, should bear that in mind.

Given all the propaganda they engage in, the Opposition has failed to register, not only that  the Ministry of Defence has done a great job in the last few years, but that it has also now begun to do more, as its Progress Report shows. That is why it is particularly absurd to grudge the tiny increase in its budget, given the expansion of its activities. Indeed it would be good if it does more in some of the additional tasks it has taken on, for instance in education and research.

I have long advocated diversity in the supply of education, and the establishment of the Defence Services College, and plans to develop a network of branches, could well be the first step in instituting competition as to delivery that our education system needs. Basic content and evaluation will continue under the purview of the Ministry of Education, but the emphasis on language skills, reading habits, aesthetic studies and sports activities, which the Ministry enunciates, which are now neglected in many schools, will help us to restore a holistic concept of education.

Also noteworthy is the development of an Office of Strategic Affairs, since the lack of research and analysis to promote long term policy development has been a deficiency in our system. The work of this agency should be a model also for other government agencies concerned with long term development. The stress in the immediate future on police activity, and in particular a National Police Academy, is also welcome because, as the Police take over more security duties, police personnel, who were under tremendous pressure in the recent past, should receive the high level sustained training that the other security forces never stinted on during the last decade.

That explains the extraordinarily good record of the forces, in comparison with others fighting insurgencies all over the world. In order to keep that up as different problems come up, we need sustained language training and training in Human Rights that involves role plays for the Police, whose responsibilities will increase in the years to come. We also need to ensure the recruitment of more personnel from the minorities to all security services. Ensuring integration will also require additional training, and it is noteworthy that a start was made on this with the recruitment scheme for teachers of English which the National Cadet Corps began in 2008, including even then representatives of all minorities, a brainchild, as the Report notes, of the President. The comparatively large number of probationary officers from Jaffna in Intake 30 is a welcome additional move in this regard.

Historical research is another area that needs development, and the Ministry has recognized this, as was noted recently by the Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence University when he pointed out that this was now being promoted. We have achieved much in the recent past, and this should be recorded, instead on continuing concentration, which the Opposition promotes, one what they see as negative aspects. Governed by such a mindset, they continue to grudge financial provision for this most important branch of government, even as it develops to serve the country in other areas too.