Recruiting Tamil speakers to the military and transitional justice in Sri Lanka Racist jokes and making friends

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By 2017-11-14

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Another thing that bothers me about this multiculturalism is when people ask me: How can you be sure that you are not a racist? My answer is that there is only one way: If I can exchange insults, brutal jokes, dirty jokes, with a member of a different race and we both know it's not meant in a racist way. If, on the other hand, we play this politically correct game - 'Oh, I respect you, how interesting your customs are' - this is inverted racism, and it is disgusting.'-Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher and cultural critic.

Recently I attended a discussion regarding transitional justice and one of the points discussed was the conscription of Tamil speaking youth to the Army and the Police. The overwhelming majority of the Armed Forces and the Police cannot speak Tamil and millions of Tamil speaking residents of the North and the East need to interact with the Security Forces on a daily basis. There have been frequent complaints that Tamil speaking residents of the North and the East are greatly inconvenienced when they go to Police Stations or try to speak to Military Officials regarding matters important to daily life.

Thus increasing the number of Tamil speaking Police and the Army Officials in the North and the East, as well as in other parts of the country has been accepted universally as a positive development, or I had believed until that point. However, a number of activists from the North and the East opposed conscription of Tamil speaking youth stating that it is an attempt by the Defence Establishment to enforce better surveillance in the area (as locals can better mingle with the community). The activists said, that the Defence Establishment is deliberately targeting the poorest segments in the North and the East, luring youth with the promises of stable employment, access to State facilities and other benefits enjoyed by Government Servants. There were even fringier suggestions that a number of Sinhala and Tamil soldiers have married as part of a broader conspiracy of Sinhalization of the area (these marriages were of a heterosexual nature, of course). Essentially what they were saying is that the poorer segments of the society are not too bright and thus can be easily manipulated, and that interactions between young people (with all the hormones running through their bodies) will lessen the purity of the tribe.


What we should notice is the polarization of opinion in the civil societies of the North and the East. In the South, it would be difficult to find any mainstream civil society activist opposed to the conscription of Tamil speaking youth to the Army and the Police. Civil society activists in the South are convinced that if the number of Tamils in the Security Forces increase, they can be deployed in Tamil speaking areas making the lives of everyone much better and reduce the confusion and animosity created by language barriers. For example, it would make a lot of sense to have female Tamil Police Officers when a former female LTTE cadre is arrested; it would be easier to explain why the arrest is taking place, while also reducing fears of sexual assault. But clearly it's not how some activists in the North, who are shaped by their own experiences and baggage, see this.

Those dumb poor suckers

While the pain of those who lost their loved ones in the conflict is great, I believe that the overwhelming majority of the people are also driven by other considerations.

Earlier I wrote of the allegations that the Defence Establishment is deliberately targeting the poorest segments in the North and the East, luring youth with the promises of stable employment and other perks and the anger at 'poor people' who respond to those incentives. Now this is a view that is shared by a number of liberals in the South too. Commenting on the reasons why a number of Sinhalese youth joined the Military, the liberal narrative would tell you that most of the recruits were poor and that they were 'misled' by the Rajapaksa's propaganda machine. The hidden implication is that the poor people are not too bright and thus can be easily manipulated. However, this narrative often ignores that 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.

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.

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. The job growth in the North and the East have been abysmal and have become worse under the TNA-led Provincial Council administration and the available jobs, mostly in the service and INGO/NGO sectors go to the English speaking elites. Thus, one should not be surprised that youth from poor segments in society, just like in the South, would join the Military. By ignoring economic and social incentives for the poor to join the Military, the liberals have reduced a complex issue and are insulting the intelligence of members of the under privileged communities in their nice non offensive politically correct way.

Racist jokes and making friends

On the other hand, by encouraging women and those from minority communities to join the Army, we can increase the quality of military recruits. If there's a large pool of potential applicants, who have hitherto ignored the option of joining the military, then by taking steps to encourage more of them to apply, quality goes up, not down. To use a simplified example, if you need to pick 10 people for a job, are you more likely to get higher quality recruits from a group of 50 applicants or 100?

The biggest example of this is the under-representation of women in the Military. If women applied to the Military at the same rate as men, especially to competitive programmes such as officer selection, the Military's selectivity, and thereby its quality, could go up.The same principle applies to under-represented ethnic minorities as well, albeit in a more marginal fashion, because we aren't dealing with a near-doubling of the potential pool.

Even if we ignore all the theory, increase of under-represented ethnic minorities in the military will at least increase people to people interactions and a young Tamil person will see that a Sinhalese of similar age isn't that different.

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



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