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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Why military matters in the North?

 by Col. R. Hariharan
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Victory Day speech this year on May 19 was largely a defensive discourse justifying the continued presence large army formations in the North. The sense of triumphalism that had become hallmark of Victory Day speeches was missing this year.

This is understandable as the President’s speeches from last year onwards have become increasingly reactive as international focus on Sri Lanka in recent times had been presenting it in bad light. Many of Sri Lanka’s problems are based on age-old prejudices and three decades of bad blood between the ethnic communities. The President, working on a short term agenda of his own, had given a short shrift to international concerns. And after three years these concerns are becoming matters of national concern. So it is not surprising the President’s speech addressed these concerns. The hiatus between the President’s line of reasoning and the U.S. comes out in bold relief, if his speech is luxtaposed against the scathing observations on security forces contained in the U.S. Country Report on Human Rights in Sri Lanka 2011 released on May 24.

The U.S. report said: “There were instances in which elements of the security forces acted independently of civilian control. The major human rights problems were unlawful killings by security forces and government-allied paramilitary groups, often in predominantly Tamil areas, which led many to regard them as politically motivated, and attacks on and harassment of civil society activists, persons viewed as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sympathizers, and journalists by persons allegedly tied to the government, which created an environment of fear and self-censorship.

“Other serious human rights problems included disappearances, as well as a lack of accountability for thousands who disappeared in previous years. Security forces tortured and abused detainees, poor prison conditions remained a problem, and authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens. A number of suspects detained by police or other security forces died under questionable circumstances.”

This is not the first time such concerns have been expressed by the U.S. and the West. But what makes it damaging is it has come after the passing of the much-maligned UNHRC resolution seeking accountability from Sri Lanka.

Specifically referring to the presence of army in the North the President in his speech said: “We are aware that the armed forces do not participate in the administration of the North or East. These regions are administered by the public service and the police. Despite this there are many who shout that the security forces camps in these areas should be removed. They ask us why they are not removed. But no one asks whether those who make such demands are not seeking to achieve what Prabhakaran failed to obtain through the use of ship loads of arms, aerial attacks, sea tiger and human suicide bomb attacks through 30 years of war of terror. Are they now not

asking this through different means?” The President’s statement regarding troops not participating in administration in North is not borne out by ground realities where troops have been interfering even in birthday parties, let alone indoor meetings of parliament members in Jaffna. This would mean troops are being ‘used’ unofficially.

A second aspect in the President has hinted at a potential resurgence of Tamil militancy and armed struggle in Northern Province as a justification for keeping troops in the North. Even if this requirement –which is notional at present – is accepted, it does not require the huge number of troops stationed at present in the North.

British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka HC Rankin has also contested President Rajapaksa’s claims on the role and presence of the army in the North. While conceding Sri Lanka’s right to maintain normal military bases throughout the country, like in the UK, he said the military deployment in the Northern and Eastern Province was very much different than that in other parts of the country. Rankin alleged that the government was maintaining a very heavy military presence in the Northern Region.

The statistics on army deployment in the North bear out the British High Commissioner’s concern was the same as Tamil minority concern. Out of 13 Divisions plus a number of independent brigades of army, barring four-division strength (about 40,000) and about 10,000 troops in training establishments and on other duties, balance of nine divisions and independent brigades with a strength of 150,000 troops are deployed in Northern Province.

According to latest census figures (released by Census Department in June 2012) Northern Province has a population of 997,754 (Tamils 934,392) out of Sri Lanka’s total of 20.2 million population. If we take these population figures, the troop deployment works out to about one soldier deployed for every six persons (including men, women and children) in Northern Province! Imagine what would have been the popular reaction if one soldier is deployed for every six members in a Southern Province!

[Of course, these figures will be disputed by the security establishment. Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe had told The Island that at present there were 15,600 troops in Jaffna Peninsula – three Divisions were deployed across the peninsula and Jaffna islands. Do three divisions make only 15,600 troops in Sri Lanka army? I have my reservations. ]

In his first Victory Day speech in 2009, President Rajapaksa said (made in Tamil, so that Tamil population understood him): “Heroic troops! The war against the terrorists is now over. It is now the time to win over the hearts of the Tamil people. The Tamil speaking people should be protected. They should be able to live without fear and mistrust. That is today the responsibility of us all!”

Apparently, the army seems to have taken the President’s advice literally to protect each and every Tamil. Otherwise, deploying such a large number of troops mostly composed of Sinhalas, even three years after the end of what is referred as a ‘humanitarian war’ (an oxymoron phrase) is not understandable. If it is not so, why deploy such large number of troops unless outburst of insurgency is imminent in the North? As there are no such indications, such a deployment would indicate the military establishment does not consider the prevailing situation in the North as normal. Is it so?

President Rajapaksa’s May 19th speech stressed that it would not be possible to remove armed forces camps in the North: “It is necessary to ask those who call for the removal of the armed forces from the North whether the ‘Diaspora’ and Eelamists have stopped their work although the country has returned to normal. It is no secret that those who conscripted children to war, and other war criminals who are leaders of the LTTE, are acting with freedom in foreign countries. Just as much as their work their demands also remain the same; they seek the same ends through different means. Therefore, we must ask if we in a position to remove the armed forces camps in the North and reduce our attention national security. That is not possible. Armed services camps are not found in the North alone. They are seen throughout the country. They are in Colombo and Giruvapattu in the South. These are found in our country. Not in any foreign country.”

The President’s argument has three elements of doubtful validity: (1) presence of army in North is related the work of the Diaspora and ‘Eelamists’ who are acting with freedom in foreign countries; (2) removing armed forces in the North will reduce attention to national security; (3) Army camps are found not only in the North but throughout the country so why remove them.

It is a shame that sabre rattling speeches by a small number of Tamils living a few thousand miles away is affecting the deployment of a national army of 200,000 that had recently vanquished a 100,000 armed Tamils.

If the history of Tamil insurgency is anything to go by, it did not originate in Canada or UK. It came about after the utter failure of Sri Lanka politicians including the Tamil kind to hammer out workable solution to the grievances of Tamil minorities. So if at all the President is serious about neutralising the Diaspora elements and Eelamist efforts to revive the LTTE, the solution to lies in Jayawardana-pura and Temple Trees and not in the North, where a hapless population (with 42,565 war widows) is trying to survive the day so that they can live tomorrow.

Large scale visible presence of troops in any civilian area (I am saying from own experience as a military officer who has worked in a number of insurgency areas) always makes the population uncomfortable not only in Sri Lanka but also everywhere. This feeling of discomfort is more likely in Northern Province because during the last three decades men (and women too) in uniforms of different hues had seriously dislocated normal life (what an understatement for the war weary) of civilian population. So deployment in the North is qualitatively different from those in Colombo or Giruvapattu in the South. Unfortunately, the President does not seem to have noticed this sensitive aspect.

The recent comments of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka on the same subject are interesting. Answering the question on the need for continued presence of military in Wanni three years after war, he said there was definitely a need. “But, we must decide to what extent they are needed, what they should do and where they should be. These things have to be taken into consideration. There are 12,000 former rehabilitated combatants. They can be good people. But, they can be misled. You need only 200 people to create problems in these areas.”

While the presence of former militants in the North justified deployment of troops there, it is important to note the operative part of the General’s statement is “we must decide to what extent they are needed, what they should do and where they should be.”

Army had always been present in the North in the past, even before the insurgency. And now after three decades of insurgency, no one can dispute its presence there. But it is the numbers and the way they operate that matters. Too large a number and too visible a presence of troops roject a lack of trust in the population and a feeling of insecurity among the rulers in their own administrative and internal security set up.

A ball park figure for pruning would suggest one fifth of the present strength of army in the North – after all Jaffna and Mullaitivu are not Timbuktu in Africa. And troops should stop intervening in normal life of the people and leave it to the police to deal with the population. Taking the troops away from policing duties will also give confidence to civil administration and police to take decisions without looking back at the Big Brother – the army.

There used to be talk of recruiting Tamil soldiers in the army; but nothing much appears to have happened. With the army already bloated beyond national requirements it may never come through in any sizeable numbers to make Sri Lanka army truly a national one. And that is all the more reason for the government and defence establishment to scale down the numbers and reduce presence of army in the North. And this can be a truly home grown solution that works unlike many others only in the realm of thought process.

It would also validate President Rajapaksa’s statement, “We have now given a new meaning to all the blood, sweat and tears shed by them on behalf of the nation.” Otherwise it is likely to be dismissed as yet another political overstatement.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E- mail:[email protected])



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