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Lanka on an uneasy path to peace

world Updated: Nov 28, 2009 20:54 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times
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Sri Lanka has a history of violence. For a Buddhist country with a population of 20 million that history is gory – one long civil war, two bloody Marxist insurrections, ethnic riots, several assassinations and an abortive coup in 1962. If that wasn’t enough, the 2004 December tsunami battered the country’s scenic coastline and took the lives of thousands.

Everyone knows about long war of attrition that government forces fought against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The 26-year-long war ended in May at the cost of an estimated 100000 lives and two hemorrhaging communities.

Before Tamil militancy was the rebellion of the radical: not many outside Sri Lanka are aware that the country has seen two armed rebellions – 1971 and 1987-89 -- by extremist Marxists. The rebels of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were fuelled by anti-western and waves of anti-Indian sentiments. Both claimed the lives of thousands of youth from the majority Sinhala community and were crushed under heavy military boots. Thousands more disappeared without a trace.

But it was the protracted ethnic war with the LTTE that led to, what a political analyst said, a `national security regime’ (NSR) in the country. ``An NSR is created when militarisation is viewed as a necessary component of the conduct of a state. That doesn’t mean that country is under dictatorship; the regime could be in a broad democratic framework,’’ the analyst, who requested anonymity, said.

It doesn’t really help that the country continues to be under a ``state of emergency’’ six months after the war. ``Holding of elections alone is not democracy. Many rogue systems have many forms of manipulated elections for no other reason than to have some legitimacy, particularly before the eyes of the international community,’’ the Asian Human Rights Commission said in a statement soon after LTTE leader V Prabhakaran was declared dead.

The framework maybe democratic but essential components like the practice of civil liberties, artistic freedom and dissenting opinion is severely curtailed in such a regime. In Sri Lanka, it has meant the murder and assault of journalists and human rights activists, severe restrictions on critical opinion in the academia and a close watch, bordering on intimidation, on artists who want to make political comment.

A well-known painter HT spoke to said: ``I would say (the situation), it’s scary. But don’t quote me. Do you get the picture?’’

A more direct impact of the internal strife and the security regime has been the rapid strengthening of armed forces. Latest statistics is hard to come by as the military continues to be cagey about sharing numbers but Sri Lanka does have one of the highest ratios of soldiers to civilians in Asia.

In 2006, according to a study by Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group, Sri Lanka had already emerged as the most militarised country in South Asia. ``For every thousand population, it has eight military personnel against 1.3 in India or four in Pakistan. In terms of military expenditure, Sri Lanka spends 4.1 per cent of its GDP against 2.5 per cent by India or 3.5 per cent by Pakistan,’’ the study said.

Three years later, those numbers have gone up. The total number of the forces including the army, navy, air force, police and civil defence adds up to 350000-400000. The army accounts for about 2.4 lakh personnel. Military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara recently said the ``army would recruit another 10000 by the year-end.’’

Basic requirements are simple – applicant has to be between 18 and 24 years of age, unmarried and physically fit.

Military budget is going up too. Recently, Parliament approved an additional 20 per cent budget, over above the already allocated $ 1.74 billion, for defence expenditure.

The government argued it’s was necessary because the security forces still need strengthening.

The arrival of Sarath Fonseka, the first four-star general and recently retired as chief of defence staff, in the political arena is another sign of how ``militarised’’ the Lankan society was becoming, Professor J Uyangoda, head of department, political science, Colombo University argued.

``Militarisation has seen a gradual consideration in the society. Now with general Fonseka fighting the Presidential election as the opposition candidate, it indicates demilitarisation is not in the agenda even for the opposition. It doesn’t look like the United National Party (the main opposition party) is committed to demilitarising Sri Lanka,’’ Uyangoda said.

Historian Silan Kadirgamar said he ``was afraid that the run-up to the Presidential polls could be violent as the stakes were high.’’

``There are no professional army or security forces left in Sri Lanka. Having Rajapaksa is terrible and having Fonseka would be a nightmare. Unfortunately Sri Lanka has evolved a tradition where rogues contest the presidency and no one could remotely hold them down to their promises,’’ the respected civil rights group, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) told HT over email.

The run-up to the election could also see the proliferation of armed groups, some of which brazenly operate in parts of eastern Sri Lanka. These groups are usually affiliated to politicians and are known to kidnap and extort.

What could add to the problem is the high rate of desertion from the armed forces. Nearly 30000 personnel from the three wings went home on leave but did not return to their regiments. There were 20,597 deserters from the army alone.

``Desertion has increased after the end of the war. Yes, it is a problem because they are trained,’’ defence analyst and journalist Iqbal Athas said. Athas was also worried about politicians using thugs to protect their turf.

So, what are the ways to demilitarise provided the political class has the intention. ``Battalions to the United Nations could be increased. Or a transitory civil defence force could be constituted. The extra force could also be used to strengthen existing police stations or to man new police stations in the north,’’ Athas suggested.

The government has to demilitarise not only in numbers but also reduce its security paranoia. Sri Lanka’s history of violence cannot be denied. But the country deserves a future of peace.