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Bitter pill of demobilisation

Bitter pill of demobilisation

27 Nov 2023

Sri Lanka seems to be making some inroads into cutting state expenditure for defence and security, with the Ministry of Defence last week stating that the Government was considering streamlining the 33,000 strong Civil Security Department (CSD), formally known as Civil Defence Force (CDF), and the “Home Guard”.

Most in the then Home Guard/CDF and today's CSD came from farming backgrounds and were recruited for local defence and guard duties as a paramilitary force, much like the “Home Guard” stood up by the British War Office during World War I and II.  In Sri Lanka, the role played by the “Home Guard” or CDF during war has been a controversial one, with some allegations of indiscipline, lack of training, politicisation, abuse of power and racism being directed at them over the decades. However, during the last five years of the conflict, the CDF which saw a process of being made “fit-for-task” rendered valuable service to many vulnerable villages, and performed rear echelon duties that enabled military personnel to be released from static guard duties, for front line work. Their contribution to the war effort, is one that ought not to be put aside for financial expediency.

The CSD personnel, today are dispersed to carry out many tasks, many of which seem unfit for a para-military force, created to perform protection duties. Many have been seconded to man and maintain the controversial elephant fence projects which have spanned decades, and proven ineffective. Some are stationed at temples and other places of religious worship. Some at guard facilities of state entities. Some have been seconded to police stations to assist the Police. Speaking in Parliament last week, State Minister for Defence Premitha Bandara Tennakoon explained the challenges faced in monitoring, administrating and checking efficiency of the 33,000 strong Department, many of whom wish to work near to their homes.

It is learnt that the Ministry of Defence is also considering the option of allowing CSD cadres to leave the service via a voluntary termination system. It is also learnt that the Ministry of Defence wants to streamline the Department. How the streamlining of the CSD, which today has no primary function, as their envisaged role (protection of vulnerable villages from LTTE terror attacks) is no longer necessary, will help the Government reduce expenditure remains to be seen. A senior official close to the matter said that the Ministry wishes to make the Department, or what is left of it, if the voluntary exit process takes place, more effective.  If the group, or part of it is to be repurposed, what can such personnel, many who are not technically proficient, nor readily employable elsewhere, would be a pressing question the Government will have to address sooner than later.  Let us hope that, like many foreign countries have done historically when they demobilised large numbers of their armed forces and paramilitaries, some form of timely skills development is offered to those who would voluntarily leave the Department’s payroll. Any rapid demobilisation without a thought for what the 33,000 would do once “unemployed”, may lead to unintended socio-political consequences. Consequence Sri Lanka can ill afford during a recovery period.

Nevertheless, the State Minister’s statement that the CSD should be made more efficient and its role re-envisaged is an important move. How the MOD deals with the CSD issue may be indicative of what might come with the proposed defence restructuring. Given the large segment of unemployed persons in Sri Lanka, if a proper exit plan is not initiated, those who leave the Department’s ranks may find themselves out of work for some time. Perhaps, the Government can offer some skill development programmes to those in the CSD who are keen to find a new line of employment, and provide them with an accredited NVQ training programme (National Vocational Training Qualification) to better prepare them for the job market. Sri Lanka requires skilled labour, and in shortage in many sectors. As such, rather than create another group of pensioners, or unemployed persons, those who exit the CSD can be made ready for such sectors.           

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