Tuesday, January 14, 2014, 07:39
Barrack break-in attempt was foolish in the extreme
By Nigel Collett

On Dec 26, four demonstrators, seemingly advocating independence for Hong Kong and protesting the allocation of land for a naval berth along the reclaimed waterfront, tried to enter the PLA Headquarters at Tamar and were pushed out of the gate by soldiers on duty. They were later arrested by police and charged. On Jan 3, a fifth agitator made a similar attempt and was again pushed out of the barracks and arrested by the police.  

The law is clear that entering a closed area such as the Tamar barracks without permission is an offence against the Public Order Ordinance, and the affair, which ruffled some feathers in government and among some worried politicians, is being dealt with accordingly. However, this attempt to enter military premises raises issues of importance and subsequent repetitions would entail dangers best avoided.

The first thing that should be said here is that the soldiers of the PLA who dealt with the demonstrators seem to have behaved impeccably. The illegal entrants were handled with the minimum force, simply pushed out of the gate, then left to the civilian police to handle. The garrison should be congratulated on the training of its soldiers and the restraint with which they behaved. There is no record of anyone attempting to force an entry into a barracks during colonial days, and had this occurred it is likely that British soldiers themselves would have made an initial arrest before handing the perpetrators over to the police, with their handling perhaps somewhat rougher than that administered by the PLA guard at Tamar. One shudders to think of what would have happened to demonstrators attempting to enter an American camp in similar circumstances, particularly with the US military in its post 9/11 stance.

This attempt to involve the military in local political issues is foolish in the extreme. The principles that military forces serve the people at the direction of the political power of the state, and that the military must not be involved in politics, are vital to the security and political health of the nation. It follows that any attempt to involve the military in politics should be avoided.

There are three reasons why tampering with the military in Hong Kong is dangerous. The first is that the PLA is a symbol of national sovereignty. Anything that can be seen as an attack upon the PLA will be seen as an attack upon the country. The central government cannot afford to turn a blind eye to affronts to the PLA, so the involvement of the garrison in any incident in Hong Kong will bring Beijing’s attention to bear. This is clearly not good for Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The second reason is that there are practical, commonsense grounds for keeping unauthorized persons out of barracks, which contain arms, ammunition and military stores that must not fall into the wrong hands. Barracks are not public places for the reason that they are not safe places for the public to be.

The third reason is a politico-military one. The PLA garrison provides the last means for the maintenance of public order. There is certainly no threat to public order now that the police are incapable of handling, but all states need to provide the means to ensure the ultimate safety of the public, and that is a role that, whether people like it or not, falls on the PLA. No government can allow its force of ultimate sanction to be brought into ridicule or disrepute, and the danger here is that repeated infractions of garrison security will tend to result in greater security measures along barrack perimeters, more robust postures and severer responses. Only political agitators or fools would want this to happen.

The land held by the PLA garrison was handed over in 1997 by the British authorities to their Chinese counterparts directly and not to, or through, the Government of the Hong Kong SAR. Crown land became State land.  Military land is not at the disposal of the Hong Kong government and its status, which results from historical British military holdings and the international agreements made before the handover, cannot be amended by the local administration. The best that can be done regarding use of the harbor is for all sides to negotiate a settlement that includes the requirements of the garrison for the defence and security of Hong Kong. The PLA needs to be able to reach its headquarters at Tamar by sea. There has to be provision for this.

The affair, of course, raises a point about democratic activism and the political process in Hong Kong.  Attempting to provoke a military response for a political purpose in Hong Kong is at best going to be counter-productive. People were concerned in 1997 that the PLA would meddle in local affairs and have been pleasantly surprised that they have not done so.  Attempts to provoke what many once feared have to lead to the loss of public sympathy for any cause.  

At worst, attempts to break into barracks will be seen as, or in fact may be, attempts to provoke some form of reprisal or violent response that would discredit the central government, a truly subversive aim that would need to be countered with the full authority of the law. This is not democratic politics.

Looked at from every angle, tampering with the military will only bring unforeseen and dangerous results. Hong Kong’s politicians should denounce the activities of those foolish enough to do so.

The author is a Hong Kong-based writer and businessman who served for 20 years in the British Army, seven of which were in Hong Kong, including one based in HMS Tamar. As a lieutenant colonel, he commanded a Gurkha battalion in Hong Kong.