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Friday, February 23, 2024

Securitisation and militarisation in Sri Lanka: A continuum – Ambika Sathkunanthan

Caroon by Avantha Artigala.

Militarisation of civilian space began during the first Rajapaksa regime. Yet, it didn’t cause public concern, except amongst certain civil society organisations and communities in the north and east that were directly affected by it. Contrary to criticism levelled by the Rajapaksa regime against the Yahapalanaya regime, Yahapalanaya did not initiate de-militarisation. At most, post-2015, there was a temporary partial freezing of militarisation, which resumed with vigour during the second Rajapaksa regime.

The heightened visibility of militarisation due to COVID-19

The rapid pace and the heightened visibility of militarisation due to COVID-19, as well as the fact it is taking place overtly in the south, could be reasons militarisation has caused some concern amongst mainly the urban population in certain parts of the south. For instance, military involvement became highly visible when the Commander of the Army was appointed the Head of the National Operations Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO).

Thereafter, when the second wave of COVID-19 infections was not effectively contained, the disgruntled public began to wonder whether the outcome would have been different if health authorities, instead of the military, had led the COVID-19 response. In these circumstances, the appointment of 25 Senior Army Officers as Chief Coordinating Officers for all districts to ‘facilitate smooth conduct of district-wise quarantine centres, transportation of individuals for quarantining and treatment, supply of medicine, equipment, dry-rations and other essentials’, was viewed as disempowering the public service.

Creating a permanent state of emergency 

Militarisation has been enabled and sustained through the securitisation of certain groups and identities. Securitisation is ‘discourse that takes the form of presenting something as an existential threat to the referent object’, which is then used to legitimise and justify extraordinary measures taken by the state that restrict rights. For instance, the Tamil diaspora or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) could be portrayed as an ever-present threat to the country, thereby legitimising securitisation of these groups.

Militarisation is the primary strategy used to deal with securitised communities and identities that are portrayed as threats to national security. For instance, the 2013 report of the Army on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) points out that for security reasons it is imperative to monitor the activities of NGOs. While stating that there are no restrictions whatsoever on the activities of ‘bona fide organisations’, it recommends that screening and control of all international organisations, international Non-Governmental Organisations, and Non-Governmental Organisations be ‘done under the supervision of the Ministry of Defence to ensure undesirable elements will not jeopardise national security’.

The twin strategies of securitisation, and militarisation have led to the creation of unofficial structures and processes to control these ever-present threats, which while existing alongside official and legal institutions, laws and processes, usurp the latter’s authority. This in effect creates a ‘shadow state’ that functions alongside the formal state.

As I have discussed elsewhere, these informal, shadow structures did not come into being overnight. They are part of a continuum that began decades ago when the executive began using emergency powers extensively, which created an environment conducive for securitisation and militarisation.

Section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance

During the first Rajapaksa regime when the state of emergency lapsed in August 2011, the President used section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) to call out the army to maintain law and order for an extended period. Section 12 gives the President the power to call out the armed forces if ‘circumstances endangering public security in any area have arisen or are imminent and the President is of the opinion that the police are inadequate’ to deal with the situation. The Order is valid for one month from the date of publication in the gazette, and has to be re-issued at the end of that period. Unlike the declaration of a state of emergency, which requires parliamentary approval, the Presidential Order, which confers powers of search and arrest upon the armed forces, has to be only communicated to Parliament.

Like President Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Sirisena too used Section 12 after the state of emergency that was imposed following the Easter attacks was lifted in August 2019. Similarly, as soon as he was elected president in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa began using Section 12 even in the absence of a state of emergency, with the most recent order issued on 22 December 2020. The executive’s extended use of emergency powers to legislate during difficult times and bypassing elected representatives for an extended period, led to the state of exception remaining even after the state of emergency ceased to exist. The fact that the executive’s use of a law that is meant to be used only during times of crisis goes unnoticed, even by civic activists, points to the normalisation and entrenchment of the state of exception.

The normalisation of the exception took place in stages with each precedent setting the bar higher for the next, which led to the inflation of the scope and nature of the powers used by the Government after each successive emergency. This in turn resulted in the Government using the powers granted during previous emergencies as the point of reference during the next emergency rather than ‘normalcy’. This enabled the creation of unofficial rules and processes that remained even following the lapse of the state of emergency.

Changing role of the military

During the first Rajapaksa regime, as part of changing social values in the quest to popularise an authoritarian and militarised form of governance, the military’s view of its own role began to change and extend beyond its envisaged role in a healthy democracy. Since the country was still in the grips of nationalist euphoria after the military’s victory over the LTTE, militarisation went unnoticed amongst the Sinhalese community or was viewed as benign. Perhaps this was also because as Cynthia Enloe states, ‘militarisation is such a pervasive process, and thus so hard to uproot, precisely because in its everyday form it scarcely looks life threatening’.

The military’s opinion of its expanded role is illustrated by the Northern Security Forces Commander’s statement in 2009 that with the elimination of terror in the north, “security forces in the north will be engaged in a new role of developing the region”. More recently, on 19 December 2020 General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne at a ceremony at the Military Academy in Diyatalawa stated that ‘the military is also expected to engage in the nation building campaign in keeping with the President’s Vision ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ in the drive towards a brighter and prosperous future’.

Militarisation thru the section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance

The expanded role of the military is normalised through formal, informal and symbolic ways. An example of normalisation through formal and symbolic ways is the coordination by the Army’s Directorate of Agriculture and Livestock of the visit of the team of Rwandan experts to help Sri Lanka deal with the Army Worm. The Department of Agriculture was however not consulted, nor were the findings of team shared with the Department, according to media reports. Reportedly, the visiting delegation did brief the Commander of the Army when it paid him a courtesy call.

The military has garnered public approval by self-proclaimed professionalism and their supposed ability to excel at any task. In 2013, the Army Commander at the time Jagath Jayasuriya declared that ‘the Army has the resources available with technical expertise. We can perform on a competitive basis because we are effective and efficient, so we can provide a good service. The Army is involved in almost all the services and professions that one can offer’.

Similarly, post-November 2019 several activities that were within the purview of other institutions have been assigned to the military. For instance, in September 2020, the Government launched an Army-run orientation programme for newly recruited staff to the public sector. The training is expected to ‘impart commitment, interest and dedication, self-confidence, innovation, flexibility, visualisation, respect and recognition in society’.

According to the Army: the long-term objectives to be achieved in less than five years include the development of a value-based public sector workforce, efficient mechanisms, transformation of attitudes and approaches, development of a ‘working culture’ in society, and recognition of public sector service.

It was reported that according to the Government the ‘public perception of Government employees is that they underperform and are inefficient, a view the Government wants to dispel’. However, instead of strengthening civil administration the Government has used existing shortcomings in the public sector to justify tasking the military to create an efficient public service.

After the end of the war in 2009, one of the structures that was used to extend the military’s involvement in civilian activities is the Civil Security Department (CSD), which as described by Secretary Defence, Kamal Gunaratne, was utilised for ‘the development and nation building process’. General Gunaratne’s statement that “the Civil Security Department (CSD) is regaining its former glory following the election of the present Government into power’, indicates that it intends to resume its pre-2015 functions.

The CSD enabled the Army’s encroachment into civilian space to exercise further control over the population, particularly children and youth, through its involvement in the education sector in the north by engaging in philanthropic initiatives, ranging from providing scholarships and distributing books to student or organising educational tours and drug awareness campaigns for children.

This continues as illustrated by the (SFHQ)-Kilinochchi’s donation in January 2021 of a stock of reading materials and stationary to 300 students in Kilinochchi, ‘through a sponsorship of a philanthropist following a request made by the SFHQ Kilinochchi’. It should be noted that instead of the donation being made directly to the students it was routed via the Army. In 2013, in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu the Civil Security Department (CSD) even began recruiting teachers, who were then deployed to pre-schools as employees of the CSD. In this context, the announcement in January 2021 that the Sri Lanka Air Force would teach English in schools that face a shortage of teachers is not surprising.

An example of the entrenchment of militarisation through informal structures is the Presidential Task Force for the North (PTF) established post 2009, which functioned like the civilian vetting organisation of the Ministry of Defence. Proposals that were submitted to the PTF for approval by organisations that wished to work in the north were approved only subject to approval by the Ministry of Defence.

There have also been recorded instances of the Ministry of Defence requesting local organisations that sought PTF approval to re-submit applications excluding the names of certain individuals within the organisation since those persons were alleged to have been involved in activities which the Ministry deemed to be detrimental to national security. The Presidential Task Forces established by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, such as the Task Force to Build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society and the Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, which is chaired by the Secretary Defence, are a continuation of the strategy used during the first Rajapaksa regime.

Other unofficial rules that were in place during the period when the A9 highway from the south to the north of the country was closed, included registering motorbikes and even mobile phones of the population with the military as part of the military’s surveillance of the population. Post 2009 informal rules included demanding civil society organisations provide prior notification to the army of any meeting or workshop. The monitoring of civil society organisations in the north in particular didn’t cease completely even during Yahapalanaya though it was much reduced and organisations challenged extra-legal measures without fear of reprisals.

The central role of the executive 

Historically, the role of the President in enabling and sustaining securitisation and militarisation has been crucial. While depicting these processes as integral to safeguard the population, a paternalistic view was adopted whereby the country was portrayed as ‘a big family living a fraternal co-existence under the care of “the father” rather than the politician’.

During the first Rajapaksa regime, the centralisation of power meant that along with the President who was Minister of Defence, his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appointment as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence effectively created a political-military partnership: a partnership that remained firmly within the control of the Rajapaksa family away from parliamentary oversight.

The description in President Gotabaya’s authorised biography of the manner in which he was appointed reveals the importance not only of kinship/familial ties that bind the executive and the defence sector, but also the lack of oversight of and checks on the President’s decisions. Following his victory in the presidential election of 2005, according to this account, Mahinda Rajapaksa walked out of the operations room after hearing the news and ‘saw Gota standing in the corridor…And the next thing he told Gota was, ‘You must take over as secretary defence’.

Impact of securitisation and militarisation on civic activism 

The dual processes of securitisation and militarisation have had an adverse impact on particularly the conflict-affected communities, as they deliberately undermined and controlled civic activism in these areas. A shadow state, that functioned in parallel to the official, normative state came into being, thereby further eroding democratic principles and practices, and centralising power within the executive. In addition to the military, a number of other entities, both state and non-state, supported the military’s surveillance architecture, including hotels and Government officials, such as the Grama Sevaka. In the north and east, a number of hotels were known to inform the military of events held by civil society organisations and provided them with details of guests who were thought to be staff of Non-Governmental Organisations.

The overt and insidious means through which securitisation and militarisation took place, particularly in the north and east, during the first Rajapaksa regime, focused on preventing civic activism and political activity. What is taking place during the second Rajapaksa regime in the guise of enforcing health regulations, amongst other measures, is a continuation of the same.

During the first Rajapaksa regime militarisation created the belief that an extensive and deep-seated surveillance mechanism existed in the north which would take punitive measures against those who are perceived to contravene the diktats of the military or were critical of the Government. At present the surveillance mechanism remains intact as per the Sunday Times report of 17 January 2021, which states there is a ‘saturation of intelligence personnel in the north’.  Fear was created very successfully amongst civil society, especially those engaged in human rights work, and was ever-present. Activists engaged in human rights work feared for their organisations, for the lives of their staff members and for the safety of the communities and individuals they supported, and those with whom they collaborated. This fear has now returned.

To read a detailed discussion of these issues please see ‘The Executive and the Shadow State at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313900012_The_Executive_and_the_Shadow_State_in_Sri_Lanka.

Daily FT


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