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The LTTE was a formidable war machine. For almost 30 years it challenged the Sri Lankan army and in many occasions, it won. Prabhakaran left the peace talks also because he thought he could win on the field his own dependency. But now they are gone, both Prabhakaran and his invincible army. The Sri Lankan government is understandably concerned of a future threat, so it keeps the Northern under a tight military control. But this is just half of the story.

True, Colombo needs to keep an eye on the Tamil nationalism, but the belligerence of the movement is alive especially in the hearts of the diaspora. The Tamils in Sri Lanka are tired: most of all of violence. But also of empty proclaim. Even the last LTTE faced not small difficulties in recruiting new cadres. They had to enforce conscription. This led to a simple fact: maybe Colombo is far from winning the hearts and minds of the Tamils, but a new, military organization, ready to destabilize the country, is not in sight.

courtesy JDSrilanka

President Rajapaksa has two other, different reasons to maintain the militarization in the North. One is logistics: he needs to find a place for his army. The huge Sri Lankan army, with all its ramification, is a fantastic employer. But it’s better to keep the soldiers far from the capital. During the Roman Republic, a law imposed that no army could come closer than the Rubicon. Mr Rajapaksa don’t really fear any military man: his brother, Gotabaya, is firmly in control of the military side. General Fonseka could have represented a menace. In the past. Nothwistanding, it’s better to keep some of the boys far away. And the Northern and Eastern provinces are the ideal place.

 But there is a second, more important reason. The IV Eelam war hasn’t been an anti-terrorism operation: an entire people was under the oppression of the majoritarian extremists and it rebelled against them. But it’s fundamental to underline a fact: before the fall of the LTTE, the Sri Lankan state was never entitled to keep that land. Surely, after the independence, it nominally received sovereignty over the whole island. But the North and the East are Tamil. Or at least they are as Tamil as the South is Sinhalese (the concept of minority is outside the Ceylonese horizon and it will stay there for a while). As soon as the Tamil nationalism gained conscience of its means, it overthrown the state presence with ease. The LTTE was a remarkable war machine and Prabhakaran an exceptional war leader. But their success resides in the first place in the real balance of forces: that the North was Tamil. And it has been since a good millennium at least (century more, century less).

Therefore when the Sri Lankan army crushed the LTTE, it was actually enforcing a military conquest., rather than re-establishing the rule of law and the lost sovereignty of the state. This entails that the military presence in the North doesn’t look like an occupation: it is one. The issue is not military: no young Tamil has really the will to start a war. They prefer to risk their life on a boat to Australia. The army doesn’t have to rein a rival force. It just need to re-affirm itself. also the reason of the land grabbing in the area: the army is confiscating land. Pure and simple loot.

The mere presence is required to affirm the Sinhalisation of the North. Sinhala boots have to walk in the North to fix the conquest.

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In the immediate aftermath of the war’s end, a massive military presence was more than obvious. At the end of the day, 27 years of civil war shaped the mindset of the government and army leaders and it was quite understandable the logistic worry that the LTTE could regroup again. Now, after 3 years, with people still in need of basic aid, like sanitation and housing, how is the situation? Pretty tough.

There are no direct statements of the government about military presence, but in recent studies( Economic and Political Weekley) it is possible to argue some figures. Apparently, almost 60% of the entire Sri Lankan forces is deployed in the Northern Provinces. That’s make up for roughly 200 000 men (198 000 the precise count) , in control of one of the less densely populated area in the island, with around 1 million of people (997 754). The militarization then is 198 soldiers per 1000 civilian population. Is that high?

The Institute of Defense Analyses (IDA), compiled a study for the the US Department of Defence and recommended a density of 40/50, to secure high confidence during active theatre of operations, ie. where the hostilities are still ongoing. In Iraq during the 2007 ‘Surge’, the most critical offensive during the US presence, density was 20 per 1000.

Indian police chasing protestors outside Jamia Masjid,Kashmir
courtesy Altaf Zargar

In Northern Ireland in the ’70s, 23; in Algeria, when the French security forces peaked, it reached 60. In Russia, during the Second Chechnya War, it was 150 and it was considered an extremely hard and intrusive presence. Finally in Kashmir and Jammu, considered as the most militarized region in the world, density of security forces doesn’t reach 40 per 1000 (38).

 More than 15 divisions of the Sri Lankan army station in the Vanni. Those forces simply stayed after the end of the world, establishing 4 Headquarter in Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Kilinochi and Vavunya.

Several reports, including  British High Commisioner 2, pointed out the high level of militarization and the disruption in day to day life. People lament that even to organize children’s birthday party in private house, you need the authorization of the military command. More recently, it was highlighted the phenomenon of land grabbing by the army. This massive presence doesn’t even guarantee security: in fact police is almost absent in the North. In a statement of the UK Border Agency, considering asylum claim, noted that the personnel was below the request, with few police station manily concetrated in towns, where the actual presence is spread in rural villages. Most of all, of the 83,423 active police men, only 1093 where Tamil. Few of Non-Tamil personnel speaks Tamil or English.

Now the situation is that the army is massively deployed to patrol and guard the population in the North; you may consider it a gigantic prison. What is the need to such a presence, after the end of hostilities?

Before the IV Eelam War the Northern and Eastern provinces were traditionally inhabited by Tamils. This legacy is not just folklore; in fact historically the Tamil kingdom was independent and separated from the other Sinhalese kingdom. Only the European colonialism brought together the Tamils of the North under a unified administration in Colombo. As recently as 2006, during the peace talks, a proposal for highly devolution of powers in the context of a federation, was still on the table. Actually it was more a resistance of the LTTE, that didn’t want to give up a complete independence, the main reason to the failure of Tamil State, joint in a federation. So you can read the IV Eelam War not only as the legitimate reaction of a State to regain possession of his sovereignty and integrity, but also a proper military invasion and occupation of foreign land. The Sri Lankan army is establishing its presence in terms of a conquest. The government of Sri Lanka is thus still in the business marking its ownership ‘de facto’ practically, before even assessing the status ‘de iure’, juridically. It is still producing its legitimacy in the North, by military means.

courtesy Reuters

Along this process, Colombo wants to teach the Tamil population what is the real balance of power. The Sri Lankan government is actively involved in the subjugation of the Tamils and wants to assert its dominion. When Colombo will recognize that its expansion is finally rooted and accepted by the people, then it will be time for de-militarization, not earlier. Now, you can question if it is legitimate for a State to impose over its own citizens such a constant regime of violence. The answer probably is that without this harshness, the population will reject its presence. This makes strategically sense, but it doesn’t add an inch of legitimacy in the actions of the Sri Lankan government.