A pristine white building with a classy brown wooden finish overlooks the blue Indian Ocean at Kankensanthurai, about 19 km from Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. It’s a luxury resort, and on Sunday mornings, families come here for a meal, a swim in the pool, and to play on the beach. Foot-tapping music plays at the restaurant, and DJs are hired for corporate-sponsored parties.
The owner and operator of this beachfront property, called the Thalasevana holiday resort, is the Sri Lankan Army. It is one of the many commercial establishments that the Sri Lankan armed forces — numbering a massive 300,000 uniformed personnel in this small country of about 2 crore — own.
In post-2009 Sri Lanka, this large army has no war left to fight. So it runs resorts, hotels, tea boutiques, snack bars, food stalls, barber salons, travel agencies, farms, and even sells vegetables. Land, including private land, has been acquired for developing for commercial needs. So much so that in 2010, a year after the final defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Ministry of Defence was renamed Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, under the then powerful defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The new government of President Maithripala Sirisena has said it wants to roll back the role of the Sri Lankan army in “non-military” activities, and has announced the return of 1,000 acres of land to the people. It has also separated the Urban Development Ministry, from the Defence Ministry.
But in the enterprises owned by the armed forces, ranked military personnel continue to play roles from waiter to housekeeper, chef to counter salesman.
At the Thalsevana resort, 23-year-old Lance Corporal Tusharsampati Veerasinghe is employed in the housekeeping section. He calls himself “room boy”, and shows guests around the super-luxury rooms, which are priced between Rs 16,500 (USD 124) per night on weekdays to Rs 22,500 (USD 169) per night on long weekends. He is proud to announce that among the guests are several foreign tourists as well.
The bar manager is Samarkumar Desanayake, a commando in the Sri Lankan army who had fought against the LTTE from 2003 onward.
On the Jaffna-Colombo highway, the Sri Lankan army owns and operates a large cafeteria-cum-grocery store called Irnamandu Welfare Shopping Complex. Corporal Shobhana manages the counter along with Dhoominda Gunatilake, while Corporal Sarath Dissanayake bustles about between the counter and the kitchen. Almost all of them, they say, fought the war against the LTTE.
“It was a mistake on the part of the Rajapaksa government to let the army establish and operate these businesses, some of them along the A9 highway from Omanthai to Mirusuvil,” says Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, an economist at the Point Pedro Institute of Development. “It is not the job of the Sri Lankan army to sell soft drinks, biscuits and chocolates along the highway.”
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Suresh Premachandran, who has raised these issues repeatedly in the Sri Lankan parliament, says, “At least 67,000 acres of land have been acquired by the Sri Lankan army for commercial purposes. Land is needed to re-settle people, but the army has occupied land illegally.”
Premachandran claims 18 hotels are run on 6,300 acres in the army’s possession in the northern and eastern provinces of the island nation. There is also a 600-acre golf course.
Sarvananthan says the acute under-employment of armed forces personnel in post-war Sri Lanka is seen in their “bizarre activities”. Army personnel, he says cultivate agricultural crops in state lands and sometimes even on abandoned private land. There have been instances of them selling vegetables, constructing a Buddhist temple, and running a travel agency selling air tickets, says the economist who has researched the subject extensively.
The Sri Lankan navy has been renting out its carrier for corporate entertainment and private functions such as weddings. The air force is involved in domestic air transport under the name “Heli-tours”, and has built a tourist resort in Trincomalee.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist and independent researcher based in Jaffna, says, “This new government wants to reduce the presence of the army in public and civilian space. Some steps are being taken in that direction, but whether they are able to able to do that remains to be seen.”
Sarvananthan says, “The military’s role in civilian activities will be cut over a period of time, but the government is going slow right now because of the parliamentary elections. They don’t want a backlash from the military at this time.”