President Maithripala Sirisena’s self-imposed 100-day deadline to prove that his government is indeed the promised clean break from the Rajapaksa regime ended on April 23. A day earlier, the Sri Lankan police made the high-profile arrest of Basil Rajapaksa, former economic development minister and brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on corruption charges.
Nearly a month ago, there was another round of arrests but chances are you did not hear about it. Policemen burst into a dubbing studio in Colombo with a search warrant and arrested eight people present — five Tamils and three Sinhalese, including studio employees and voice artistes. The alleged crime: the studio was dubbing a film being made by a Sri Lankan Tamil. Set in the final days of the Sri Lankan war, the film tells the story of four real-life people as the LTTE comes apart on the battlefield. It is not a documentary. Actors play the four characters. The film was shot and produced in Tamil Nadu.
The filmmaker had sent to the Colombo studio seven minutes of footage, with army scenes, to be dubbed in Sinhalese. The police said the film was “defamatory” of the Sri Lankan army, containing scenes that projected it as “immoral, inhumane and atrocious”. The eight people have since been released on “police bail”, meaning the police have let them go until investigations are completed. A travel ban has been imposed on them.
Much has changed in Sri Lanka since January, yet little has changed because the new government has not yet applied itself to the most difficult issue facing the country. None of the promises in the 100-day package relate to Sri Lanka’s Tamil question. In fact, some, such as the electoral reforms presently under discussion, may even complicate it.
Granted, a 60-year-old question cannot be settled in 100 days. But it cannot be put off forever either. The longer it is postponed, the sharper post-conflict divisions are likely to get, not least because of a militarisation that has become so entrenched that certain arms of the Sri Lankan state, as last month’s arrests show, still see shadows of the long-gone LTTE everywhere and believe the war unfinished. Reversing this is easier said than done. In their eagerness to milk the victory over the LTTE for political ends, the Rajapaksas built up the military as an instrument of day-to-day governance, deeming this necessary to combat the threat that the Tigers were still said to be posing.
This has given Sri Lanka a huge Sinahlese-only military with no war to fight and no enemies in sight, but much self-importance and the constant need to justify its size and existence. It means that Tamils remain suspect, with incidents like the one at the Colombo studio sharpening the divisions.
Sirisena did not dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections on the 100th day of his government as he had promised, but he is expected to do this soon. If Sri Lanka is serious about post-war nation-building, a challenge for this government and the one that comes in after the parliamentary elections, is to tackle this militarisation as it works towards a political resolution of the Tamil question.
It would have to start with the size of the military. After the first shots fired by Tamil militants in Jaffna in the 1970s, the Sri Lankan military grew from a ceremonial force of 30,000 to an estimated 3,00,000 men in all three services plus the police force by the end of the war. Present force strengths of the army, navy and air force are guesstimates based on the contradictory numbers provided by figures in the defence establishment. Though no notable hardware acquisitions have been made since the end of the war, the defence budget has increased since 2009, mostly to pay out the salaries and pensions of soldiers.
Shepherded by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, defence secretary during brother Mahinda’s presidency, it was not long after the war that this large and idle force entered public life and the economy at various levels: in urban development projects, especially Colombo’s much admired “beautification”; in education, giving military training that was made compulsory for university entrants; the retail trade; agriculture; civil aviation; tourism, with several military-run hotels and resorts, including one at the site of the LTTE’s last stand in Mullaitivu, called Lagoon’s Edge. In the Tamil north, where its influence extends across all sectors of civilian life, the first non-military governor was appointed only after the new government took charge. But calls to reduce the military’s presence in the region have not been met.
Of the army’s 19 divisions, 16 are garrisoned in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, an estimated 80,000 troops. The military took thousands of acres of land (separate from the land acquired in the early 1990s, some of which was recently returned) to build these camps. In addition, a plainclothes Civilian Defence Force acts as an intelligence arm for the military. It has been suggested that there is no option: southern Sri Lanka just does not have the space for these garrisons. But Tamils fear that this entirely Sinhalese force will become a permanent part of the north’s demography, altering its ethnic composition to their disadvantage.
Colombo can scale down the army’s presence in the north, the militarisation across the country, and the persisting Sinhala triumphalism of the 2009 battlefield victory, only by first reducing troop strength. Demobilisation, if ever considered, did not top Rajapaksa post-war priorities. But unless the word enters the debate, Sri Lanka will find itself with an army that needs to grow in size and influence just to keep its economic and other interests going — and as in Pakistan, the interests expanding as its influence grows, all in the name of an “enemy”.
The Rajapaksas had sent out a strong signal with the arrest of Sarath Fonseka, the chief who led the army against the LTTE, that the military would function purely under their leadership and there was no place for rivals from the defence forces. The present government alleged the former first family tried to use the army to mount a coup when it became clear they had been voted out, and that the country was saved because the army chief refused. True or not, a large, well-trained standing army with little in its own sphere to keep it busy will remain a temptation for Sri Lanka’s political and military adventurers.
Locating alternate livelihoods for demobbed soldiers is a challenge even for countries with big economies. India and other countries that want Sri Lanka to win the peace must help. The Modi government, which is trying to revive a comprehensive economic partnership, can make this deal more attractive by offering ex-soldiers training and education scholarships in India, and by persuading Indian companies with a presence in Sri Lanka to offer job opportunities to them. Ultimately, demilitarisation is key to addressing the issue of alleged war crimes in a less charged atmosphere. It will hasten post-war reconciliation and ensure the country’s political stability.
Postscript: The eight people who were arrested and provisionally let off are still awaiting their fate.
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