Tag Archives: Northern Provinces

leader Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem with the President Mahinda Rajapaksa

In the 2010 elections, in which Rajapaksa harvested his military success, Muslim parties found a way of aggregation with the government. But today the Muslim in Sri Lanka feel again under sever pressure by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. A sentiment of discontent and barely tolerance of the Islam presence in the island is making itself visible, with the case of the Durambulla mosque1 for example, or the fishermen and the judge court in Mannar2.

The dynamic seems quite obvious: on one side the Muslim political parties felt that to protect their interest, it was a better way to side with the government rather than to oppose it.

Today the majority doesn’t really need anymore the support of the Muslims and the government is signalling its distaste with the episodes against the Islam community. It is a very well know tactics in Sri Lanka: there is not such a thing as bottom up unrest that is not authorized by the government. Especially after the firm grip on power of president Rajapaksa. The message couldn’t be clearer: we don’t need you anymore.

courtesy BBC

In other words the Muslim parties sought protection within the mainstream of power and now they are not needed. It is an exchange of favours. But of what sort? Surely Rajapaksa wanted a vast front to legitimate his power. But the Muslim contribution was it really necessary in 2010? Rajapaksa’s party won an easy majority, what he had to thank for the Muslims?

 Well, the Muslims are a numerous presence especially in the Eastern and Northern provinces. During the IV Eelam War the Eastern Provinces have been defeat by the betrayal of Karuna. The offensive of the Sri Lankan army needed to secure the passage in the North-western corner, in the Mannar district. Rajapaksa in person admitted that the turn around of the war occurred when they won the region of Madhu, within the Mannar district3. He said that after that, the operation has been a walk away.

In fact the area is strategically proximal to the Adam’s Bridge, the strip of land that fragmentary connects Sri Lanka with India. If you want to isolate the Vanni area from any possible supply line via mainland, you must take the Mannar district.

It is arguable then that the Muslim community supported the Sri Lankan army in its endeavour to grab the stronghold. In exchange, Rajapaksa consented to include Muslim politicians (the leader of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress has been appointed minister of Justice) and to accept the return of the refugees from Puttalam. But the Darambulla and the Mannar episodes are the signal that the relation has already reached its peak. It can be speculated that Colombo doesn’t want the Muslims to grow too strong, especially in the areas previously under the control of the LTTE.

So Rajapaksa needed their help, but suddenly stopped them to re-establish themselves confidently in their homeland.

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.

In some part of the North, the soil is actually red. You could mistake it for a Martian ground. But the real sense of estrangement comes from politics.

The history of Sri Lanka and the surrounding region, is a complex one. Major interests orbit in the Indian Ocean; China and India are testing each other; India is still a work in progress as a conglomerate of ethnicities, powers, traditions. The elimination of the LTTE was a move that found too many, too powerful supporters. But the problem resides in the way it has been achieved: a military conquest with a barbaric massacre of civilian population and. We have two clear issues in the aftermath of the IV Eelam War.

The first is that war crimes have been committed. Atrocities were common during the civil war, many done by the LTTE as well. This is by no means an excuse to condone what happened in the Vanni in 2009. The Mullivaikal shores are the emblem of such carnage.

President Rajapaksa unveiled a monument in Pudumathalan, not far from the shores of Mullivaikail, where the last massacres took place.
Courtesy to Sudath Silva

The second is that the military operation was conducted against the LTTE, but the Tamil aspirations haven’t been addressed. Actually it looks like that the ‘Sinhalese State conquered the North’ and its  aim was to subjugate any form of alternative to the majoritarian culture.

Anybody who is dealing with the situation in Sri Lanka knows very well that the army is an oppressive presence; that Tamils are struggling to have the same rights of the Sinhalese, not more, as in the case of the provincial councils . The government wanted to punish the Tamils to reassert a dominion, not be questioned anymore.

Then it comes the circus of media mainstream. On July the 26th, the government issued a plan to implement the recommendations of the LLRC, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. It is a government appointed commission that should inquiry about any measure to be taken to prevent the occurrence of another conflict. In other words it’s a judgement about what happened and what should be done to prevent another ethnic conflict. The reason for the conflict are quite simple: the Tamil minority has been oppressed and cornered to such an extent that its reaction went out of control, in the form of the armed struggle of the LTTE. The IV Eelam War saw the total annihilation of the LTTE and also the complete subjugation of the Tamil civilian population. President Rajapaksa is the architecture of this final, extreme solution. So you shouldn’t expect that a commission appointed by him could achieve too much.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa
courtesy Commonwealth Secretariat

But the farce it has only begun. We are discussing the reasons of the conflict on the merit of an inquiry promoted by the very perpetrator of the final massacre. But now the subject is precisely this: we are discussing the LLRC. And supreme irony, the government struggles to implement even the farce it has established.

The commission has no power of investigating correctly what happened and even less the will to go to the roots of the discrimination and the oppression. But just talking about that, just mentioning the facts is too embarrassing for the government. And it should be. Only in Sri Lanka you can really debate about those facts: they did happen, everybody knows (everybody, including the USA, Europe and the UN), and yet we are arguing about the LLRC.

Buddhist monks, supporters of the government, march towards the U.S. Embassy, to urge the United States to withdraw its support for a proposed U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on alleged abuses during the country’s civil war, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, March 14, 2012.

In March 2012, the UN commission for the human rights approved a resolution ‘against’ Sri Lanka. Much of the Tamil community was ecstatic for this victory, especially because India sided against Colombo. The crude reality of facts is that New Delhi fooled the Tamils, because the vote was powerless. You can celebrate the mere happening of such a friction between Sri Lanka and India, yet if you are waiting for concrete intervention, don’t hold your breath. But the votation actually stated that Sri Lanka should at least implement its own recommendations.

On the 26th of July president Rajapaksa decided to issue the new action line for the implementation of the LLRC, dismissing that it did because of international pressure, you don’t know if it’s time to smile or to cry.

It seems really a parody to discuss the Tamil issue and the situation in the Northern Provinces on the bases of the LLRC. Let’s start with demilitarization. Civilian officers are replacing military ones. “95%”, or so they say. And we are discussing these figures? If you ask the people in the Northern Provinces, they’ll tell you a different story. You need to ask the permission of a army commander to do everything.They are militarizing the mind. Between 60% and 75% of the Sri Lankan army is stationed in the North.

Constant abuse, from intimidation to rapes are normal stories in the day to day life of the Tamil. Most recently, the problem of land grabbing from the army. It is a growing phenomenon that attract some attention. The army is confiscating land from the Tamils. These are just few examples, but the message is that the government has no intention to take seriously the Tamil issue. You don’t need to be an extremist to see that this is simply preparing the ground for a growing tension. Far from reconciliation and unity, it’s just another chapter in the oppression of the Tamils. The LTTE took a wrong path, but you can easily see why it all started. Yet, the LLRC is telling you another story. And bear in mind, they can’t even implement that.

courtesy Daily FT

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.