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Sri Lanka: An island fortress

The Tamil Tigers are defeated. But Sri Lankan society remains South Asia’s most militarised society. Sutirtho Patranobis reports.

world Updated: Nov 29, 2009 00:40 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Sri Lanka has a history of violence. In its recent history, this 20 million-strong Buddhist country has had one long civil war, two bloody Marxist insurrections, ethnic riots, several assassinations and an abortive coup in 1962.

The 26-year-long war of attrition that the government fought against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a global concern. It ended in May, leaving an estimated 100,000 dead and two war-torn communities. Sri Lanka has also had to fight off two Marxist rebellions – in 1971 and 1987-89 -- by extremist Sinhala Marxists. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgencies were fuelled by anti-Western and anti-Indian sentiment and claimed thousands of lives. The Lankan security forces waged a “dirty war” to crush the rebellions, with thousands of youth disappearing without a trace.

All this violence has left its mark. Once a balmy paradise that inspired the English word “serendipity”, Sri Lanka is today the region’s most militarised society. The bitter wars and rebellions have given birth to what one local political analyst calls a “national security regime”.

“A national security regime 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,’’ said the analyst.

Emergency State

One sign is that Sri Lanka remains under a “state of emergency’’ six months after the war officially ended. The practice of civil liberties, artistic freedom

and dissenting opinion continues to be severely curtailed in Sri Lanka. The murder and assault of journalists and human rights activists, restrictions on critical academics and a close watch, bordering on intimidation, of artists who want to make political comment are accepted by the state. A well-known painter said: “I would say (the situation), it’s scary. But don’t quote me. Do you get the picture?’’

The decision of ex-army chief Sarath Fonseka to run for presidency in January is the most obvious sign of the all-powerful role the military plays in Sri Lanka today. The military is cagey about sharing numbers but few doubt Sri Lanka has one of the highest soldiers to civilian ratios in Asia.

A 2006 study by Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group argued Sri Lanka had by then 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, the numbers have gone up. The total number of personnel in the army,

navy, air force, police and civil defence groups comes close to 400,000 – enormous for such a small country. The army is 240,000-strong, yet military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara recently said it “would recruit another 10,000 by the year-end”.

The military budget, swollen by the civil war, continues to grow even in peacetime.

Recently, Parliament approved a 20 per cent hike above the allocated $ 1.74 billion.

Guns for hire

The arrival of Fonseka in the political arena is another sign of how “militarised” Lankan society has become, says J Uyangoda, political scientist at Colombo University. “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.’’

A hard-fought political contest in which the army is involved makes it all the more difficult to keep bullets separated from the ballots. Historian Silan Kadirgamar said he “was afraid the run-up to the presidential polls could be violent as the stakes were high.”

The run-up to the election could see a political role for the many armed groups which brazenly operate in eastern Sri Lanka. Usually affiliated to politicians, they are known to extort money and often include former ex-fighters from both sides.

“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 also worried politicians would turn to thugs to protect their turf. Over 20,000 soldiers have deserted the Lankan army alone.

A spokesperson for a civil rights group, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), was suitably dismal: “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.”

There is no shortage of ideas on how Sri Lankan society can slough off its armour. “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.

But for any of this to happen the political establishment must first believe it can afford to begin the process of demobilising its country. When it comes to the government this is not about numbers but about reducing a deep-seated security paranoia.

Sri Lanka has won its war. It has not yet thought out how it can win its peace.