After the Tamil insurgency ended in Sri Lanka in 2009, the military got a chance to increase its presence in the affected areas and even become involved in commercial activities. This trend needs to be curtailed to promote more democratic practices.
The country is making efforts to build its democracy despite
The military continues to encroach on the civilian space in Sri Lanka with the main concentration of the armed forces and projects in the civil war-affected areas in the country’s north and east. Militarization of Sri Lankan society and state goes on unabatedly despite the end of the deadly Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) between the Sinhalese majority-dominated state and the military and the Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Ealam (LTTE). The LTTE was a separatist group struggling for a new state for the minority Tamil population of Sri Lanka. The Tamil population of Sri Lanka is largely concentrated in the country’s north and east. The increasing militarization of the Sri Lankan state and society has had pervasive consequences for the population at different levels, including physical and psychological, particularly the Tamil minority.
In my view militarization could be explained as a macro-sociological process in which the country’s military increasingly takes control of various aspects of social life and particularly the state and its institutions, which are otherwise considered as the domain of the elected or civilian authorities. Against this backdrop the militarization of Sri Lanka is going on in nearly all areas of social life.
In Sri Lanka, a very important aspect of the post-conflict scenario is militarization in the name of development. After the end of the civil war in the country, the military was given or appropriated for itself a huge and definite role in the reconstruction and development. The development process in the Tamil-dominated north and east of Sri Lanka, which has been the theatre of the insurgency by the LTTE has not only been dictated by the military but also implemented by it. So pronounced has been the involvement of the military in the development of the northern parts of Sri Lanka that even as late as 2013, four years after the end of the Tamil insurgency, a committee in the North that came together to prepare development plans for 2013 was reportedly convened at the Headquarters of 55 Division in Vettilaikerny and chaired by the area’s military commanding officer.
In 2009, announcing the involvement of the military in the postinsurgency development process, the Northern Security Forces Commander had stated that with the elimination of terror in the north, "security forces will be engaged in a new role of developing the region." The military began to play a proactive role in development activities, to the point where permission to implement projects or development work was subject to authorization by the military personnel. This was a grave mistake. The commander could not fathom that the terror in the Tamil inhabited regions was the outcome of lack of development of the people and their participation in the governance and uplift process and that an imposed development could never have the desired results. There are examples of development carried out by colonial rulers in different parts of the world, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, including Sri Lanka. Despite laying the foundation of modern concept of development, the people of the subcontinent did not stop demanding freedom for themselves and their lands as the process was imposed upon the people.
The development process imposed upon a people or area from the outside is always problem-ridden because it is not carried out by the development practitioners after having done ‘development need assessment’ of the local people and communities. In other words, real development requires participation of local residents. Against this backdrop, the military-led postconflict development in Sri Lanka has been carried out from the standpoint of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state and its institutions including the military, which may not be in the interest of the Tamil-inhabited north and east of the country. The genesis of the civil war in Sri Lanka was in discrimination, which the Sri Lankan state since its birth in 1948 had been doing with the Tamil inhabited areas in economic development and provision of their political and social rights. It was large-scale underdevelopment of the Tamil inhabited areas vis-àvis other parts (mostly Sinhalese populated) of Sri Lanka that resulted in a deep-rooted feeling of deprivation and disempowerment within the population. Therefore, if in the postconflict scenario, reconstruction and infrastructure development is carried out in the north and east of the country by the military it is unacceptable to the Tamil population. Obviously after the trouncing of the LTTE insurgency, common Tamils cannot speak against any measure of the state including the reconstruction and developmental process but this does not mean that they are happy with the military-led development. This is tantamount to sowing the seeds of future conflict in these areas and the country in general. The Sri Lankan state needs to be very cautious in this regard.
Militarization in the north and east of Sri Lanka is also said to be quite obvious in the form of the military’s involvement in the civilian administration and more sordidly in commercial activities. Insofar as the military’s involvement in civilian administration in the north of the country is concerned this could be understandable in the immediate post-conflict situation. Noticeably, the insurgency by the LTTE ended in 2009. However, the military’s involvement in civilian affairs today cannot be warranted because this creates enormous ill-will among the people, who happen to be minority Tamils. The state should have developed the capacity of local civilian administration and should have ensured increasing participation of local communities and individuals in governance and administration. In this way a sustainable governance and administrative structure could be put in place in the north and east of the country. Unfortunately, this has not happened and seeing the situation as getting somewhat unmanageable the state is increasingly relying on the military to run the civilian administration. But this is a critical mistake which would have negative repercussions in the future.
The involvement of the military in commercial activities in Sri Lanka, especially in the northeast of the country will also have serious repercussions for the civilians, particularly inhabitants of the insurgency and counter insurgency-affected areas. Military involvement in commercial activities squeezes the economic space for the civilians. Again insurgency in Tamil-inhabited parts of Sri Lanka was the result of large-scale unemployment and poverty in the regions. If the military is encroaching on the commercial activities then the locals would have fewer and fewer business and working opportunities and its consequences could be disastrous in the long run.
The future of a peaceful and developing Sri Lanka depends on equitable opportunities in all spheres for all the citizens of the state. Special focus must be concentrated on the insurgency affected areas so that the sense of belonging of the minority ethnic groups in the state and its institutions could be restored. Increasing military presence and involvement in the development and economic activities does not augur well for the country and its future. The writer is a political-economy and security analyst holding a doctoral degree in International Relations.
The military’s involvement in civilian affairs today cannot be warranted because this creates enormous ill-will among the people.