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THE MILITARISATION OF SRI LANKA
CAUSES & CONSEQUENCES

By Ana Pararajasingham
Secretary Asutralasian Federation of Tamil Associations
Editor: Tamil Monitor

(A Paper presented at the conference of the Asia-Pacific Anti-Militarisation Forum on 28th March - 1st April 1997, At the Brunswick Town Hall in Australia)

The growth in the Sri Lankan Government’s military expenditure between 1983 and 1996 could only be described as astronomical. In 1983, the Sri Lankan Government’s military expenditure was US $74 millioni. In 1996 it was well over US $842 million a eleven fold increase! Not surprisingly, this exponential growth in the military expenditure of the Sri Lankan Government was accompanied by a growth in the size of its armed forces. The combined armed forces (army, navy and airforce) of the Sri Lankan Government which stood at 15,000 in 1983 now stands at well over 106,000ii - a seven fold increase.

A major consequence of this militarisation program is the increasing number of Tamil civilian deaths at the hands of the Sri Lankan Government forces. In the last fourteen years, Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war has claimed thousands of lives. In view of the Sri Lankan Government’s customary inclination to underplay the numbers killed, its reluctant admission to a figure of fifty thousand deaths underscores this point. The majority of those killed in the conflict have been civilians. This tragic fact stands out when a tally is made of the combatants killed to-date.

In January this year, the Tamil rebels (Tamil Tigers) reported that their losses as at end of November 1996 stood at 9,300. The London Observer Service, has placed a similar number (9,800) on the Government side for roughly the same period. Even if one accepts the Sri Lankan Government’s version of 50,000 as accurate, it leaves the civilian toll at a staggering thirty thousand.! According to the Sri Lankan State-Controlled "Daily News" of 4 March 1996, the Tamil Tigers were responsible for the deaths of 3571 civilians. This leaves the balance 27,000 or more of the civilian deaths to be those of Tamils.

Graph

This is not surprising because Sri Lanka’s militarisation program is the direct consequence of its forty-year old policy of dealing with the Tamil demand for political equality by attempting to "beat the Tamils into submission". Since 1956, successive Sri Lankan Governments have pursued this policy in the mistaken belief that the Tamil people could be beaten into submission.

Until the mid 1970’s this strategy appeared to contain the Tamil demand for equality. Until then, whenever the Tamil protest, expressed through "sit downs" and other peaceful means appeared to gather momentum, Tamils living in the South were subject to state-orchestrated violence, and Tamils in the North and East (the Tamil Homeland) subject to terror by the pre-dominantly Sinhala armed forces and Police stationed in these parts. By the mid 1970’s, Tamil youth, frustrated by their parliamentarians inability to secure their rights, and faced with state-sponsored violence, began to respond in kind. Not surprisingly, the Tamil population at large was found to support this new found militancy of its youth who were ardent advocates of political independence for the Tamil nation.

Sensing the mood of the people, the Tamil political parties, now under the banner of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) also began to call for -

"the restoration and reconstitution of a Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of Tamil Eelam based on the right of self-determination"

The TULF contested the General Elections of July 1977 on this platform and emerged as the country’s national opposition winning 18 of the 22 seats contested.

The Government’s predictable response to this was to unleash terror in pursuit of its now familiar attempt to beat the Tamils into submission. In August 1977, (a month after the General Elections) 400 Tamil people living in the South were killed in a state-orchestrated pogrom.

There was little that the Tamil parliamentarians could do!

As a result, Tamil militancy began to grow in strength and by 1980 had resulted in the pre-dominantly Sinhala Police serving in the Tamil Homeland being subject to frequent attacks by the militants. In 1981, in a retaliatory act., the Jaffna Public Library with a collection of over 95,000 rare manuscripts and books was burnt down by the Police running amok.. Many Tamils believed this was done with the approval of the Government as there were two cabinet ministersiii (with particularly anti-Tamil altitudes) present in Jaffna on that day.

In July 1983, following an ambush by Tamil militants belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), 13 Sinhala soldiers were killed in the (northern) Jaffna Peninsula. It was an act which brought forth unprecedented reaction by the Colombo establishment as Tamils living in the South were subject to the worst pogrom in years. Over 3,000 Tamils were killed and property belonging to the Tamils destroyed by squads armed with electoral lists which enabled the "goons" to identify Tamil homes.

According to Nancy Murray , a member of the Campaign Against Racism & Fascism and the of the Institute of Race Relations: "All indications are that the police and armed forces planned a massive assault on Tamils during the months of June and July"iv. Paul Seigart of the International Commission of Jurists echoed the same opinion in a report entitled "Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors" by stating: "Clearly this (attack in July 1983) was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people-nor was it, as has been suggested in some quarters, a popular response to the killing of 13 soldiers in an ambush by Tamils Tigers the previous day, which was not even reported in the newspapers until after the riots began. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance"

The London Daily Telegraph reported on the 26th of July how "several army vehicles drove through the city, packed with troops shouting encouragement to the rioters". The "Irish Times" of 29th July reported the attack on (Tamil) shops and homes by 130 sailors who had broken out of their barracks on Monday, 25th July. The London Times of 5th August reported how "..Army personnel actively encouraged arson and the looting of business establishments and homes in Colombo and absolutely no action was taken to apprehend or prevent the criminal elements involved in these activities. In many instances army personnel participated in the looting of shops." According to John Elliott of the London Financial Times, "Troops and police either joined the rioters or stood idly by".

The blood-stained hand of the authorities was further exposed when fifty-two Tamil political prisoners held in the maximum security prison at Welikada in Colombo were slaughtered. Thirty five of them were killed in broad daylight on 25th July around 2.30pm when Colombo was supposedly under a curfew. The second round of killings occurred on July 27 when Sinhalese prisoners convicted of murder, rape and burglary charges were hand-picked by the warders, who, after plying them with liquor let them loose on the remaining Tamil political prisoners. Seventeen were killed on this occasion.

The state-orchestrated pogrom of July 1983 was to have a huge impact on Tamil insurgency. Most Tamils were convinced that the Sinhala government was intent on beating the Tamils into submission rather than share political power. As a consequence the militancy movement gathered momentum as Tamil youth joined the various Tamil militant groups in droves.

The Sri Lankan Government, determined to crush the Tamil militancy, began its militarisation program by increasing its military expenditure and securing sophisticated arms. This attempt to impose a military solution only served to stiffen Tamil resistance and further escalate the entire militarisation process as the Tamils also began to arm themselves.

Throughout its war against the Tamil rebels, the Sri Lankan Government has targeted Tamil civilians in the belief that they could be terrorised into submission. As part of its strategy the Sri Lankan Government has, as a matter of routine, indiscriminately bombed and shelled densely populated Tamil areas. On 9 June 1986, Time reported how the arbitrary bombing of Jaffna by the right-wing Jayawardne Government had only served to increase Tamil support for the guerrillas, and escalate the war.

Since then, the attempts by the Sri Lankan Governments under two other Presidents (Permadasa 1988 - 1993; Wijetunge 1993-1995) to impose the "military solution" has only further alienated the Tamils and increased their support for the Tamil rebel forces. The present President’s incongruously named broad strategy of "war for peace" has only further escalated the war.

In July 1996, Sri Lanka suffered the loss of its Mullaitivu Army camp when the Tamil Forces (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the LTTE) took it in a frontal assault . The attack resulted in the Tamil forces capturing large amounts of arms and ammunition - a most significant development as the haul included not only "big guns" (122mm artillery guns) but also the artillery shells that go with them, in addition to 120mm & 81mm mortars and several thousand rounds of shells.

These weapons have not only added conventional fire-power to the growing LTTE arsenal but have also greatly extended the LTTE’s strike range. The armed conflict has certainly shifted to another phase - a phase in which each party would seek to employ fire power to dislocate the other. What is certain is that the military balance in terms of fire-power and strike range, once heavily in favour of the Government, has changed.

To counter this new development, the Sri Lankan Government may invest in more sophisticated fire power. This of course is fraught with the danger of the LTTE, emboldened by its Mullaitivu victory and its newly acquired artillery, taking on the army camps to capture these sophisticated weapons as well!

Thus it is clear that Sri Lanka’s attempt to seek a military solution is likely to only result in an endless cycle of violence. At the same time it is unlikely that the Government on its own accord would give up the military option. This is because the military over the last few years has become a powerful player often dictating terms to the Government - The military is now a Frankenstein monster spawned by the mindless pursuit of militarisation by successive Sri Lankan Governments. One of the consequences of this militarisation is the arbitrary killings and "disappearances" carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces as who are not answerable to anyone and are a law unto themselves. According to a recent UN report Sri Lanka’s ranks second to Iraq in the number of "disappearances" in the last ten years. Iraq had 16,323 disappearances while Sri Lanka had 11,513.

The truth is that the international community as a whole has chosen to simply ignore the situation, often preferring to accept the Sri Lankan Government’s own version of events. Consequently, atrocities on Tamils even when confirmed by independent sources (NGOs working in the Tamil homeland) and backed by video clippings, have been simply ignored!

For instance, in August 1995, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) reported how a Catholic Church in the village of Navaly was bombed, killing over one hundred and twenty people. Later the same year, in September, Medicine Sans Frontier reported how a school in the village of Nagar Kovil was bombed by a low - flying Pucara bomber during the school’s lunch hour killing at least 34 school children. In both instances the bombings were deliberate, but there was no condemnation of these by the international community. Nor was there any condemnation or outcry when several civilians were massacred at Kiliveddy in the East by the Sri Lankan army in February 1996. It was an outrage confirmed by Amnesty International.

In fact, if there is to be an end to the bloodshed and "disappearances" in Sri Lanka, the international community must pursue its diplomacy as vigorously as it did with South Africa, Palestine and Northern Ireland. Sri Lanka’s militarisation program can only be brought to an end by ensuring that aid is suspended until the Sri Lankan Government seeks a negotiated political solution to its conflict with the Tamil nation.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Based on "Militarisation of Sri Lanka " by Mayan Vije, Tamil Information Centre, June 1986.
  2. Army 80,000 (Source: U S Department of State, Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996, released 30 January 1997); Navy 11,700 (Source: Janes Fighting Ships 1996/97 Edition), Home Guards 5,000 (Source: US State Department of State), Airforce (Estimate) 5,000 and Special Task Force (Estimate) 5,000.
    Total 106,700.
  3. The ministers were Gamini Disanayake, Minister for Land Development and Cyril Matthew Minister of Industries.
  4. Murray Nancy, The State Against the Tamils, Race & Class, Volume XXVI, September 1984.