Gibson Bateman, New York
For the Tamil people of Sri Lanka’s north and east, the end to conflict has not engendered the positive changes one might have hoped for. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government achieved victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, most of the LTTE leadership was killed. It is now hard to envision another Tamil nationalist movement taking up arms against the state; but the military’s strong presence within the country continues unabated.
And for those living in Sri Lanka, it would be easy to think that the decades-long conflict is still dragging on.
In the predominantly Sinhalese south, military personnel are often viewed as heroes for defeating the LTTE. But in the mostly Tamil north and east, they are viewed as oppressors. The military’s presence in these latter two regions (both former LTTE strongholds where much of the fighting took place) is disturbing. State security personnel wield enormous influence over all aspects of people’s lives. Precise statistics about military employment in Sri Lanka are not publicly available, but the armed forces have a widespread presence throughout the country, including in civilian affairs — the effects of which are not easily captured through statistical analysis in any case.
Local elections held in July demonstrate how discontent the Tamil people have become. The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance dominated most of the country, but received little support in the north and east. The government maintains that reconstruction and development are going well in these areas, but it is obviously not the case. Locals have rejected the government’s development model, which focuses almost entirely on the pursuit of rapid economic growth as the way to address the Tamil people’s concerns. And the Rajapaksa regime has given no indication it is open to a political settlement with the Tamil people, who want a genuine devolution of political power.
Why does the government continue this militarisation?
Making significant reductions in military employment requires planning. The last thing the Rajapaksa regime wants is large numbers of unemployed youth who have just finished fighting a long war. That is a recipe for increased crime and civil unrest. But neither has there been any thought on how decreasing military employment might eventually work in the future. For Western countries like the US and the UK, considering the effects of a militarised Sri Lanka is hardly a top priority. And the international community has shown little interest in exploring allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s conflict.
The unnecessary militarisation of Sri Lanka is a message that human rights groups (both domestic and international) have not articulated well. This may be for several reasons. First, the government controls most of the media. Second, there is already limited space to conduct human rights work in Sri Lanka. While human rights defenders are brave, many would view talking about militarisation as an unnecessary risk. Third, broader geopolitical trends and the desire to sell arms mean that human rights groups face considerable external challenges as well. Despite the EU’s criticism of Sri Lanka’s human rights record, for example, many member states continue to sell weapons to the government. But even this is insubstantial when compared to China, which has been Sri Lanka’s biggest arms dealer for the past few decades. The US Department of Defense has not given up on Sri Lanka either. The Pentagon is pushing strongly for the US to open up a military relationship and the US government sold arms to the Sri Lankan government during the civil war. There are many in Washington who would like to see more weapons deals between the two countries in the future.
A serious downsizing of the Sri Lankan military or a substantial decrease in military spending remains unlikely for the foreseeable future. This may help Sri Lanka’s ties with powerful countries, but for the Tamil people of the north and east, it also means a continued military presence for some time yet.
Gibson Bateman is an International Consultant based in New York City. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Bateman has worked for leading NGOs in Latin America, Africa and South Asia.
A version of this article was first published here in the Journal of Foreign Relations.