The Military Still Runs the Show

In Sri Lanka

The international community has a part to play in ending its culture of impunity.

by Viruben Nandakuman, Foreign Policy, Washington, DC, August 4, 2022

Viruben Nandakumar is an editor at the Tamil Guardian.

In the early hours of Friday, July 22, hundreds of Sri Lankan soldiers marched through the country’s capital. They were preparing for a brutal crackdown on antigovernmental demonstrators who slept in tents at Galle Face Green, an ocean-side park in Colombo.

Without warning, soldiers attacked the camps and beat protesters, leaving at least 50 injured. Amnesty International described the crackdown as a “shameful, brutal assault.”

Sri Lanka’s president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was appointed on July 13 after the former president was ousted following civil unrest, has not shied away from using military force and has extended a state of emergency.

He declared as acting president. When faced with criticism, Wickremesinghe reportedly , lashed at the diplomats, telling U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung to “read your country’s history starting from Abraham Lincoln.” “Would your governments allow such protesters to illegally occupy the office of the president in your country and refuse to leave?” he is reported to have said.

Wickremesinghe’s democratic mandate is questionable. During the  2020 parliamentary elections his United National Party secured only a single seat. Wickremesinghe lost his. Nonetheless, he wrangled his way back into the political arena when he was appointed prime minister by then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

It was Wickremesinghe’s sixth time holding the office, though he never completed a term. When Rajapaksa fled the island, Wickremesinghe maneuvered his way to the  country’s top post via a secret ballot election among the country’s parliamentarians. Protesters who had hoped for transformative change, however, were left dismayed.

In the days that followed his appointment, as dissent continued to rumble, Wickremesinghe instead turned to the institution that has withstood all of Sri Lanka’s tumult: the military.

Sri Lanka’s armed forces did not always have the vast influence they now possess. As ethnic Tamils launched an armed independence movement in the early 1980s—a response to growing discrimination and deadly pogroms on the island—the military began to grow. Recruitment campaigns were concentrated among young ethnic Sinhalese men in the rural south.

To this day, the military remains  almost exclusively Sinhalese Buddhist, with units such as the   Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment named after ancient Sinhalese kings famed for vanquishing Tamil “invaders.” Troops frequently seek blessings from the island’s powerful Buddhist clergy. Throughout the decades of armed conflict, successive administrations continued expanding the military’s scope and reach.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005, the Sri Lanka Army ramped up its recruitment drive and widened its arsenal with deadly military hardware from across the globe as it prepared for a deadly offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Sri Lanka looked to both the East and the West, with China providing almost a billion U.S. dollars in military aid, as well as fighter jets, rocket launchers, and mortar ammunition, while Britain and other EU countries provided millions more in military equipment, including “armoured vehicles, machinegun components and semiautomatic pistols,” the Times reported.

The country’s former finance minister even bragged of purchasing illegal weapons from  North Korea at the height of the war through black markets. States across the world seemed eager to support Sri Lanka’s offensive.

These weapons were used in the Sri Lankan military’s  relentless shelling of hospitals, food lines, and “no-fire zones”—areas where civilians had been encouraged to gather to avoid the shelling.

Despite Tamil civilians pleading with the United Nations and humanitarian organizations not to abandon them, tens of thousands were left to die—a decision among many that the U.N. later admitted contributed to a “systemic failure” Early U.N. reports estimated that at least 40,000 civilians were killed during the conflict’s final phase; however, later research and analysis put the number at over 160,000. Increasingly, this is being recognized as a genocide.

Having eliminated the Tigers, rather than reconcile with Tamils, who are mostly concentrated in the northeast, the Sinhalese state continued its occupation of the Tamil homeland. This occupation not only was for its own enrichment but also was a means of maintaining a Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony and perpetually suppressing the demand for a separate homeland—a call that Sri Lanka outlawed in 1978.

Militarization accelerated to an unprecedented extent under the rule of Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa secured massive majorities in the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections through the support of the Sinhalese majority. Already the armed forces were more than double the size of the British military and had become one of the largest per capita in the region.

Despite more than 13 years having passed since Tamil militants had fired bullets, the number of soldiers on duty did not decrease. Instead, once in office, Rajapaksa continued to increase the defencse budget and appointed a slew of military officials, many accused of war crimes, to  positions in civil administration.

More than  30 agencies were placed under the remit of the Ministry of Defence. Military officials aligned with the Rajapaksa clan now oversaw a  litany of operations, including airports, seaports, customs, utilities, agriculture, fisheries, land development, wildlife protection, the country’s bribery commission, and even its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Tamils, this takeover felt familiar. Since the end of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka’s military had strengthened its stranglehold over the Tamil provinces.  Fourteen out of 21,of Sri Lanka’s Army divisions are stationed in the north. In Mulative district, the final theater of the war, an estimated 60,000 personnel remain.

Given the district’s sparse population, this amounts to almost one soldier for every two civilians in the region, making it one of the world’s most heavily militarized areas. And across the Tamil provinces, tens of thousands of acres of land are occupied by the military  while thousands of Tamils remain displaced.

Though the military continues to be accused of  abuses its occupation of the region has ramifications beyond human rights violations. Soldiers run a vast array of businesses in those provinces. A high security zone in Jaffna, which remains fenced off to locals, has now become a holiday resort for well-off foreign tourists, staffed by Sri Lankan soldie

rs. In the east, you can board a Navy vessel for a whale – watching tour In kilinothchi, the former LTTE stronghold, barbershops run by troops sit alongside heavily fortified Army camps and towering .’ victory monuments’

The economic impact of this occupation has been brutal. A report by the Jaffna-based Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research shows that local businesses are  unable to complete with the military, which “obstructs free trade by selling its products at below-market rates, stifling livelihood opportunities for an already impoverished population.

” Villagers are barred from accessing fields that they had once used to raise cattle, cultivate peanuts, and grow rice. The Tamil homeland has essentially become a fiefdom for Sri Lanka’s military.

Beyond the economic devastation, experts warn of the psychological harm of Sri Lanka’s suffocating military presence. The military regularly posts updates on its official websites boasting of how soldiers are in Tamil schools, either handing out supplies or teaching children English. While the military trumpets its achievements as a job creator, locals are forced into a state of dependency, subject to constant surveillance.

As the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice  notes: “pre-school teachers are required to regularly report to military staff and provide updates on their activities; and the loyalty of children is cultivated through the distribution of uniform[s] and gifts, as well as the frequent hosting of awards and sports ceremonies by senior army officials.”

Meanwhile, a culture of impunity permeates the Sri Lankan military. In Sri Lanka, an estimated 1,00,000 people have been forcibly disappeared , affecting all communities on the island, but the vast majority of these victims were Tamil.

This was particularly the case during the war’s final phase, when  hundreds of Tamils surrendered to Army custody and were never seen again. For almost 2,000 days. Tamil family members have protested on the roadside demanding to know what happened to their loved ones.

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