The Continued Militarization of Sri Lanka

10.22.11

The Continued Militarization of Sri Lanka

10.22.11
Adam GassonAdam Gasson

Led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, post-war Sri Lanka is a sad place. In May of 2009, the Sri Lankan government achieved a resounding military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Most of the LTTE’s leadership was killed. For the foreseeable future, it is hard to envision another Tamil nationalist movement taking up arms against the state. Yet, if living in Sri Lanka, one might think that the conflict is still going on. In post-war Sri Lanka, the militarization of the entire country has continued unabated. This development is less significant in the predominantly Sinhalese south, where military personnel are often viewed as heroes for defeating the LTTE.

But in the mostly Tamil north and east, they are viewed as oppressors. Indeed the military’s presence in the north and east (both former LTTE strongholds where much of the fighting took place) is disturbing. State security personnel wield enormous influence over all aspects of people’s lives. Precise statistics about military employment in Sri Lanka are not publicly available, but some of the most disturbing effects of this ubiquitous military presence are often left out of statistical analyses anyway. Members of the armed forces are literally everywhere. People are living in fear, especially single Tamil women who lost their husbands during the war.

Several weeks ago, a friend and I travelled along Sri Lanka’s A-9 in northern Sri Lanka, the road that leads from Vavuniya up to Jaffna. The entire area is teeming with army members. We passed through a number of checkpoints. What’s even more disturbing is the military’s obvious intrusion into civilian affairs. On our way up to Jaffna, my friend and I decided to grab a quick cup of coffee at what can be vaguely described as a Sri Lankan roadside café. We were served by an army guy. Army personnel are also working in various shops where household items are sold. I have read that the military has even gotten involved in tourism. This is absurd. The war is over. Tamil people already have been stripped of their dignity and they are now forced to live under de facto military occupation.

The local elections held in July in the country’s north and east show how unhappy people living there are. The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) dominated the rest of the country, but they got little support in the north and the east. The government maintains that reconstruction and development in the north and east is going along swimmingly. This obviously is not the case. People in these areas have rejected the government’s development model, which focuses almost entirely on the pursuit of rapid economic growth as the way to address the legitimate concerns of the Tamil people. These people want a political solution; they want a genuine devolution of power. They want to stop being treated like inferior citizens in a land that they have occupied for thousands of years. But the Rajapaksa regime has given no indication it is open to a political settlement for the Tamil people.

To be clear, making significant reductions in military employment requires planning. The last thing the Rajapaksa regime wants is large numbers of unemployed youth who just finished fighting a long war. That is a recipe for increased crime and civil unrest. But this government has not even thought about how decreasing military employment would work.

And, unfortunately, militarization fits in quite well with the current global political economy. Western countries like the US and the UK probably do not really care about a militarized Sri Lanka. Just like Western countries probably do not care about exploring the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the conflict. The ambivalence from the international community to call for an international inquiry is obvious. Rather, the threat of an international investigation is probably just being used as leverage to try and get some form of a political settlement for the Tamil people. Besides, it is well-known that the Pentagon is pushing strongly for the US to open up a full-fledged military relationship with Sri Lanka.

The unnecessary militarization of Sri Lanka is a message that human rights groups (both domestic and international) have not articulated enough. There are a few important things to keep in mind. First, the government controls most of the media. Second, there is already limited space to conduct human rights work in Sri Lanka. While human rights defenders are brave, many would view talking about militarization as an unnecessary risk. Again, people are scared and fear is a powerful thing. The last point has to do with broader geopolitical trends and people’s desire to sell arms.

In spite of the Europe Union’s criticism of Sri Lanka’s human rights record, many member states have continued to sell weapons to the government since President Mahinda Rajapaksa first came to power in 2005. But this matters less when compared to China, which has been the country’s biggest arms dealer for the past couple decades. Add these arms sales to China’s ability to provide unconditional loans with alacrity, and it is no wonder that Rajapaksa regime has been looking east recently. As mentioned, the US Department of Defense has not given up on Sri Lanka either. The US government did sell arms to the government during the civil war and, as mentioned, there are many in Washington, DC who would like to see more weapons deals in the future.

For all of these reasons, a serious downsizing of the Sri Lankan military or a substantial decrease in military spending will remain unlikely for the foreseeable future.

13 comments
17 comments
Kamin Pereira
Kamin Pereira

My opinion about the situation in Sri Lanka is different to many sentiments expressed here. Sri Lankan situation is not satisfactory beyond any doubt. However, the situation is not as grave as some of the pro LTTE comments here. Should the military be scaled down from the northen and Eastern areas? Yes, most definitely. SL government should take evasive action to un-arm the para-military groups in the first place. Otherwise, it would not be different to US army leaving Afghans in the hands of Taleban. Sri Lankan situation is unique and different to any other situation we find in most countries. If you try to narrow it down to a mere descrimination against the tamil people, we would not be doing justice to a peculiar political situation. Majority of businessmen in colombo, Sri Lanka are either tamil or muslim. Not only these businessmen conduct their businesses without any descrimination, but also, a lot of their clients are in fact sinhalese people. Most tamil people think highly of education; some of them can speak all 3 languages fluently. Even during the times of war a lot of tamil people had their education freely and fairly. This does not mean tamil people are without any issues. On one hand, tamil people have a lot of administrative barricades. Finding a tamil speaking officer in government offices is one of the huge difficulties they face, and I'm sure there are many other issues that the country would need to address in due course. On the other hand, a lot of issues they face are due to the low income level of their families. What we actually need in the country is a pragmatic plan to address all the grievances of low income sectors in the country. As we experience in most developed countries, generation of wealth and upliftment of living standards would make most of the tamil people switch their focus from discrimination to something more pertinent and relevant to their lives. Even though the discussion on descrimination would continue, the main focus would switch to something more advanced like savings or retirement plans.

SalTheCat
SalTheCat

Thanks Gibson for a great article on the current status and future implications in SriLanka. Recent US govt. activities seem to indicate a cover-up of atrocities committed by the SriLankan army. Wikileaks further substantiates deliberate silence and facilitation by US state officials in the massacre of Tamils which could easily have been prevented. The Congress must call an investigation into the handling of the affairs of Sri Lanka by US officials, including some of their business pursuits in SriLanka.

SalTheCat
SalTheCat

Thanks Gibson for a great article on the current status and future implications in SriLanka. Recent US govt. activities seem to indicate a cover-up of atrocities committed by the SriLankan army. Wikileaks further substantiates deliberate silence and facilitation by US state officials in the massacre of Tamils which could easily have been prevented. The Congress must call an investigation into the handling of the affairs of Sri Lanka by US officials, including some of their business pursuits in SriLanka.

Cha Chu
Cha Chu

Its also a real pity the comments section of this article is overwhelmed with unsubstantiated vitriolic by pro-LTTE ultra-nationalist Tamils based overseas.

Cha Chu
Cha Chu

Its also a real pity the comments section of this article is overwhelmed with unsubstantiated vitriolic by pro-LTTE ultra-nationalist Tamils based overseas.

Venthan
Venthan

Thank you Bibson for your brave and  neural article. It seem like Sri lanka president people did war crime, State terrorism, crime aganist humanity in .   if Sri lanka president  hands were clean then why are these thugs so scared for un open unpartial UN monitored international investigation to find truth?

Venthan
Venthan

Thank you Bibson for your brave and  neural article. It seem like Sri lanka president people did war crime, State terrorism, crime aganist humanity in .   if Sri lanka president  hands were clean then why are these thugs so scared for un open unpartial UN monitored international investigation to find truth?

Cha Chu
Cha Chu

It is a pity this article is rife with conspiracy theory, sweeping statements, is poorly researched and lacks analytical rigour. It is typical of the well meaning fly-in-fly-out journalists who have written extensively on the conflict in the Western media and who fall easy prey to misinformation by either the pro-LTTE Tamil migrant lobby, or human rights lobby groups like the ICG. This author claims that figures are not publicly available. Wrong! If you do thorough enough research, which you have not clearly done, you will note that the Sri Lanka Navy recently opened 25 new satelitte camps along the northern coastline to interdict and monitor illegal fishing from southern India and also the prospect of LTTE reinfiltration from southern India. The troop number stationed in the north are large, that is without question, but the army is also heavily involved in national development, not just the provision of security. In addition, there have been reports that several thousand Tamil police constables have been recruited to serve in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, where many Tamils live. In a recent interview, the leader of the Jaffna-based Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, or the (EPRLF), T. Sri Dharan, a progressive and moderate Tamil party, which is anti-LTTE for good reason, said that the percentage of support for the LTTE among Tamils is around 15% of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. This is a very significant point you should take note of. While tensions remain between certain sections of the Tamil polity in the north, to suggest that the army is seen as oppressors is a sweeping exaggeration. There will be elements within Tamil society who do not like the presence of the military, but when the military was taken off the streets prior to the Presidential election in 2010, the  incidence of criminality dangerously spiked, and this led to public calls for the military to be redeployed in strength to restore law and order, which happened. The reasons for troop deployments in the north are varied, it would therefore by useful to avoid simplistic explanations for a complex equation. You should read the commentary written by the Point Pedro Institute, based on the Jaffna Peninsula, and also not rely so heavily on human rights groups with questionable agendas for information to compile your story. I hope you will keep this in mind next time you write on Sri Lanka's affairs.

Guest
Guest

Seeing is believing! Thanks Gibson for taking the trouble to visit the north and seeing things on the ground. That militray guy who served you tea in  a kiosk is earning  his way while local people are not allowed to even have tea kiosks to earn a very basic living. Unemployment among Tamils is running at 80% while the Rajapakse regime is supposed to be busy on mega contracts with big Chinese loans with Chinese labour, failing Sinhala labour! India is supposed to have given the funds to SL to build 50,000 housing units 2 years ago for the 300,000 rendered homeless after the mass murder in the Wanni but to date only 0.1% of the houses have been completed!

So the US appears to be busy trying to peddle arms again, like it did during the so-called 2002 Peace Process! Recently the Defence Minister of the UK resigned his job over not declaring 18 visits to SL with a "go-between" ostensibly for "development" of the north!SL keeps arming for what no body knows. Its budget for 2012 is the highest on record while human rights and rule of law have been buried 6 feet under the ground. Justice died a long time ago.

To know what keeps on 'worming' the Sinhalas please get a copy of the 'Mahavamsa' an ancient  4th century tale supposedly authored by a monk, much adulated and taught in schools and adulated by monks and Sinhala politicians, and get an english translation. The underlying cause for constant warring, murdering and mayhem on the island can only then be fully understood in perspective. The so-called Aryan legacy! Hitler too tried it and failed. SL has yet to learn !      

mliao
mliao

Thank you Bibson for your brave, honest, and neural. It is Pure war crime, State terrorism, crime aganist humanity, genocide, ethnics cleaning and massacre. if their hands were clean then why are these thugs so scared for un open unpartial UN monitored international investigation to find truth?

Justice
Justice

Thank you Bibson for your brave, honest, and neural. It is Pure war crime, State terrorism, crime aganist humanity, genocide, ethnics cleaning and massacre. if their hands were clean then why are these thugs so scared for un open unpartial UN monitored international investigation to find truth?

Guest
Guest

Mono-ethnic army insists they be present in every meeting and occasions in Tamil areas to listen to what is spoken. They employ Tamil paramilitaries to spy on the local community in the north and east. Any one talks about disappearances or any journalist write about the excesses committed by the military are severely beaten and hospitalised. Recently a journalist from the main Tamil daily in Jaffna and the Jaffna University Student Leader were beaten with iron rods by 'unknown men'. In an area littered with the Sinhalese soldiers and police how can these brutalities take place without any arrest of the perpetrators unless the army is behind them? As Gibson Bateman says the military is used to keep the tormented people in fear psychosis. 

Lte
Lte

Leve the Tamil to live in Srilanka.. if not .. SL gov need to resolve the issue..

Lte
Lte

Leve the Tamil to live in Srilanka.. if not .. SL gov need to resolve the issue..

Guest
Guest

Sri Lanka is getting more and more militarised:

http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/10/23/the-rajapaksa-troika/

''The Appropriation Bill 2012, which was moved recently(18 October) for Parliament approval outlines Rs. 2.22 trillion as next year’s anticipated spending by the UPFA government, although it leads to a budget deficit of Rs.1.105 trillion. Out of this massive fund, over 20 percent has been allocated to the President, several Ministries, and some statutory institutions that come under the direct control of the Rajapaksa family.''

Guest
Guest

The military of Sri Lanka is All-Sinhalese, motivated by genocidal perceptions, and it has acquired proportions pervading diplomacy to economy. This is not going to change in the near future.

This is what Barabara O'Brien, a spritual Buddhist author quoted the majoritarian Sri Lankan regime as attempting to install a Buddhist Military Kingdom for the past 63 years;

"a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution."

Guest
Guest

No war, no peace:

the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka, Report by Minority

Rights Group International, 19 January 2011:

With the end of

the conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers for

Tamil Eelam (LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’) in 2009, normality has returned for much

of the population of Sri Lanka. But for members of the country’s two main minority

groups – Tamils and Muslims – living in the north and east of the country,

harsh material conditions, economic marginalisation, and militarism remain

prevalent. Drawing on interviews with activists, religious and political

leaders, and ordinary people living in these areas of the country, MRG found a

picture very much at odds with the official image of peace and prosperity

following the end of armed conflict. .... In light of the findings of this report MRG calls

on the government of Sri Lanka to respect the economic, cultural and political

rights of minorities living in Sri Lanka and to ensure that they gain from

post-conflict reconstruction and development projects in the areas where they

live. Failure to do so may have long-term repercussions for peace and stability

in the country. .... The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues should be

granted an invitation by the government to visit the country in order to report

to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the situation of minorities in

Sri Lanka.’’

(UN Special Rapporteurs for i. Extrajudicial Killings, ii. Enforced

Disappearances and iii. Freedom of Opinion and Expression have also been

waiting for years to visit Sri Lanka.)

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