Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi – Part 1

Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi – Part 2

In welcoming the initiative of the armed forces to get involved in communication, and in what might be termed Public Diplomacy, I noted how the failure to have planned coherently is apparent in the manner in which Development has been targeted in the North. Infrastructure has been created apace, and certainly we have done much to put in place the tools through which livelihoods can take off. But we have not worked systematically on the training that should also be provided to ensure maximum usage of the opportunities that are available. Thus, though we knew from the start that there would be much construction, no schemes were put in place in much of the Wanni to start vocational training for the purpose.

I still recall some months back having a discussion with a bright young man from the Ministry of Economic Development in Mannar, and pointing out that such training should have been thought of. He agreed, but it was obvious he did not think it was his responsibility to have thought of such things. He may have been correct, but it should have been someone’s responsibility. It is precisely because that sort of holistic thinking is lacking in our much fragmented public service that I believe the forces have a role to play in promoting it.

Similarly, we have no systematic records of what has been achieved, and in particular the input of government and of local agencies into the process of rebuilding. We produce lots of glossy booklets, but we fail to produce clear pictures of actual outcomes. I am reminded then of what happened with regard to preparations for the displaced, when we had elaborate plans, which were clearly impractical. In fact they were used by our critics to say that we wanted wonderful facilities so that we could keep the displaced incarcerated for long periods. Much time then was spent arguing over the plans, and little was done, and it was only because of the enormous energies of General Chandrasiri, who was put in charge of the process a short time before the conflict ended, that Manik Farm was got ready in time to provide at least basic shelter to so many. I still recall him getting down to yet more work at dusk, when everyone else was packing up for the day, and the international community claimed it was not allowed to stay out so late. That to my mind was yet another example of the forces having to step in to salvage an operation that civilians – including experienced international aid workers, though the responsibility I should add was more ours – could, and should, have planned better.

Another simple example, and perhaps even more appropriate in the current context, were the measures we took to avoid flooding when the monsoon threatened. UNHCR had a Shelter Consultant, who cost over $10,000 a month, but he had absolutely no idea of conditions here. When there were sudden rains and some damage, he kept bleating, at a meeting we had in Vavuniya, that Manik Farm was a terrible fire hazard. Initially I thought he was just stupid, but later I realized that he had an political agenda, and what he wanted was for Manik Farm to be closed down and the displaced all sent back immediately to their original places of residence.

Instead of succumbing to such maneuvering, we took the matter in hand and got the Disaster Management Centre to take charge of the operation. Headed by General Hettiarachchi, who was of course retired by then, they did a fantastic job, and we even got a letter of commendation for their work by the leadership of the UN, which was much more sensible and helpful than the political activists that had been embedded in positions lower down.

That was an example of military initiative, as appropriate as General Chandrasiri’s fantastic contribution, given the emergency situation. But this was also an example of what we must give priority to in the current context, namely ensuring that such assistance involving the military is emphatically under civilian command. Unfortunately this is often interpreted as meaning under political command, and that leads to a confusion of priorities. Whereas during the conflict period the military had to concentrate on its own priorities, now it often has to wait on, not civilian, but political priorities, and this invariably reduces the impact of its work. A story that I think sums up the situation occurred in Kilinochchi, when, at a meeting of the Karachi Division Reconciliation Committee, local officials asked for the return of some boutiques on the main road that the forces had occupied.

I noted that, while government had the authority to acquire land for essential purposes, including security needs, it was also obliged to limit this as much as possible. It would be best therefore if the civilians seeking the return of their property spoke to the Civil Military Liaison Officers and worked out what was needed by the forces and what could be returned.

After the meeting the Brigade Commander told me that they had in fact decided to give the boutiques back, but were waiting for a politician to arrive to hand them over. I was most upset, and pointed out that it was the forces who were being given a bad name, and it made more sense for them to take credit for the return of the buildings, than allowing this to go to a politician from the South who would gain little from the ceremony. But, sadly, the forces are prey to such vanities, and those who want to build up their own image do not understand that it is the country that suffers. So too I know that there have been delays in Rehabilitated Former Combatants being released, because politicians wanted to preside at the ceremonies. The human cost is not considered when such petty advantages are sought.

My argument then is that, instead of working to the tune of politicians, the forces when working in the North should look on politicians, at least those capable of fulfilling that role, only as policy makers whose basic guidelines should be followed. But actual action must be together with administrators, not with politicians. For that purpose the forces need to build up close relationships with the local District and Divisional Secretaries. I know that many of the SF Commanders in the North, and their Brigade Commanders, have done this, but it must also be accompanied by regular planning and review meetings, and support to set up Consultative Committees that can identify problems, suggest solutions, and monitor decision making as well as action, so that the community is not only served well, but has information about the processes that are involved.