The Continued Militarization of Sri Lanka
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.