Home » Sri Lanka's Military Still Runs the Show – Foreign Policy

Sri Lanka's Military Still Runs the Show – Foreign Policy

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In the early hours of Friday, July 22, hundreds of Sri Lankan soldiers marched through the country’s capital. They were preparing for a brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators who slept in tents at Galle Face Green, an ocean-side park in Colombo. Without warning, soldiers attacked the camps and beat protesters, leaving at least 50 injured. Amnesty International described the crackdown as a “shameful, brutal assault.”

Sri Lanka’s president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was appointed on July 13 after the former president was ousted following civil unrest, has not shied away from using military force and has extended a state of emergency he declared as acting president. When faced with criticism, Wickremesinghe reportedly lashed out at diplomats, telling U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung to “read your country’s history starting from Abraham Lincoln.” “Would your governments allow such protesters to illegally occupy the office of the president in your country and refuse to leave?” he is reported to have said.

Wickremesinghe’s democratic mandate is questionable. During the 2020 parliamentary election, his United National Party secured only a single seat. Wickremesinghe lost his. Nonetheless, he wrangled his way back into the political arena when he was appointed prime minister by then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It was Wickremesinghe’s sixth time holding the office, though he never completed a term. When Rajapaksa fled the island, Wickremesinghe maneuvered his way to the country’s top post via a secret ballot election among the country’s parliamentarians. Protesters who had hoped for transformative change, however, were left dismayed. In the days that followed his appointment, as dissent continued to rumble, Wickremesinghe instead turned to the institution that has withstood all of Sri Lanka’s tumult: the military.

In the early hours of Friday, July 22, hundreds of Sri Lankan soldiers marched through the country’s capital. They were preparing for a brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators who slept in tents at Galle Face Green, an ocean-side park in Colombo. Without warning, soldiers attacked the camps and beat protesters, leaving at least 50 injured. Amnesty International described the crackdown as a “shameful, brutal assault.”

Sri Lanka’s president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was appointed on July 13 after the former president was ousted following civil unrest, has not shied away from using military force and has extended a state of emergency he declared as acting president. When faced with criticism, Wickremesinghe reportedly lashed out at diplomats, telling U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung to “read your country’s history starting from Abraham Lincoln.” “Would your governments allow such protesters to illegally occupy the office of the president in your country and refuse to leave?” he is reported to have said.

Wickremesinghe’s democratic mandate is questionable. During the 2020 parliamentary election, his United National Party secured only a single seat. Wickremesinghe lost his. Nonetheless, he wrangled his way back into the political arena when he was appointed prime minister by then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It was Wickremesinghe’s sixth time holding the office, though he never completed a term. When Rajapaksa fled the island, Wickremesinghe maneuvered his way to the country’s top post via a secret ballot election among the country’s parliamentarians. Protesters who had hoped for transformative change, however, were left dismayed. In the days that followed his appointment, as dissent continued to rumble, Wickremesinghe instead turned to the institution that has withstood all of Sri Lanka’s tumult: the military.

Sri Lanka’s armed forces did not always have the vast influence they now possess. As ethnic Tamils launched an armed independence movement in the early 1980s—a response to growing discrimination and deadly pogroms on the island—the military began to grow. Recruitment campaigns were concentrated among young ethnic Sinhalese men in the rural south. To this day, the military remains almost exclusively Sinhalese Buddhist, with units such as the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment named after ancient Sinhalese kings famed for vanquishing Tamil “invaders.” Troops frequently seek blessings from the island’s powerful Buddhist clergy. Throughout the decades of armed conflict, successive administrations continued expanding the military’s scope and reach.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005, the Sri Lanka Army ramped up its recruitment drive and widened its arsenal with deadly military hardware from across the globe as it prepared for a deadly offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Sri Lanka looked to both the East and the West, with China providing almost a billion U.S. dollars in military aid, as well as fighter jets, rocket launchers, and mortar ammunition, while Britain and other EU countries provided millions more in military equipment, including “armoured vehicles, machinegun components and semiautomatic pistols,” the Times reported. The country’s former finance minister even bragged of purchasing illegal weapons from North Korea at the height of the war through black markets. States across the world seemed eager to support Sri Lanka’s offensive.

These weapons were used in the Sri Lankan military’s relentless shelling of hospitals, food lines, and “no-fire zones”—areas where civilians had been encouraged to gather to avoid the shelling. Despite Tamil civilians pleading with the United Nations and humanitarian organizations not to abandon them, tens of thousands were left to die—a decision among many that the U.N. later admitted contributed to a “systemic failure.” Early U.N. reports estimated that at least 40,000 civilians were killed during the conflict’s final phase; however, later research and analysis put the number at over 160,000. Increasingly, this is being recognized as a genocide.

Having eliminated the Tigers, rather than reconcile with Tamils, who are mostly concentrated in the northeast, the Sinhalese state continued its occupation of the Tamil homeland. This occupation not only was for its own enrichment but also was a means of maintaining a Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony and perpetually suppressing the demand for a separate homeland—a call that Sri Lanka outlawed in 1978.

Militarization accelerated to an unprecedented extent under the rule of Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa secured massive majorities in the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections through the support of the Sinhalese majority. Already the armed forces were more than double the size of the British military and had become one of the largest per capita in the region. Despite more than 13 years having passed since Tamil militants had fired bullets, the number of soldiers on duty did not decrease. Instead, once in office, Rajapaksa continued to increase the defense budget and appointed a slew of military officials, many accused of war crimes, to key positions in civil administration.

More than 30 agencies were placed under the remit of the Ministry of Defence. Military officials aligned with the Rajapaksa clan now oversaw a litany of operations, including airports, seaports, customs, utilities, agriculture, fisheries, land development, wildlife protection, the country’s bribery commission, and even its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Tamils, this takeover felt familiar. Since the end of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka’s military had strengthened its stranglehold over the Tamil provinces. Fourteen out of 21 of Sri Lanka’s Army divisions are stationed in the north. In Mullaitivu District, the final theater of the war, an estimated 60,000 personnel remain. Given the district’s sparse population, this amounts to almost one soldier for every two civilians in the region, making it one of the world’s most heavily militarized areas. And across the Tamil provinces, tens of thousands of acres of land are occupied by the military while thousands of Tamils remain displaced.

Though the military continues to be accused of abuses, its occupation of the region has ramifications beyond human rights violations. Soldiers run a vast array of businesses in those provinces. A high-security zone in Jaffna, which remains fenced off to locals, has now become a holiday resort for well-off foreign tourists, staffed by Sri Lankan soldiers. In the east, you can board a Navy vessel for a whale-watching tour. In Kilinochchi, the former LTTE stronghold, barbershops run by troops sit alongside heavily fortified Army camps and towering “victory” monuments.

The economic impact of this occupation has been brutal. A report by the Jaffna-based Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research shows that local businesses are unable to compete with the military, which “obstructs free trade by selling its products at below-market rates, stifling livelihood opportunities for an already impoverished population.” Villagers are barred from accessing fields that they had once used to raise cattle, cultivate peanuts, and grow rice. The Tamil homeland has essentially become a fiefdom for Sri Lanka’s military.

Beyond the economic devastation, experts warn of the psychological harm of Sri Lanka’s suffocating military presence. The military regularly posts updates on its official websites boasting of how soldiers are in Tamil schools, either handing out supplies or teaching children English. While the military trumpets its achievements as a job creator, locals are forced into a state of dependency, subject to constant surveillance. As the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice notes: “pre-school teachers are required to regularly report to military staff and provide updates on their activities; and the loyalty of children is cultivated through the distribution of uniform[s] and gifts, as well as the frequent hosting of awards and sports ceremonies by senior army officials.”

Meanwhile, a culture of impunity permeates the Sri Lankan military. In Sri Lanka, an estimated 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared, affecting all communities on the island, but the vast majority of these victims were Tamil. This was particularly the case during the war’s final phase, when hundreds of Tamils surrendered to Army custody and were never seen again. For almost 2,000 days, Tamil family members have protested on the roadside demanding to know what happened to their loved ones.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who as defense secretary at the time stands accused of overseeing those crimes, established a Commission on Political Victimisation, which Human Rights Watch notes sought to “exonerate officials implicated in human rights abuses and to prosecute police and prosecutors investigating them.” War criminals such as Sunil Ratnayake, a soldier convicted for his role in the slaughter of eight Tamil civilians, were pardoned, and other Rajapaksa associates, such as former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda, a suspect in the disappearance of 11 Tamil youth, had their cases dropped and were promoted to government positions.

This failure to hold military officials to account, coupled with the military’s increasing reach into civilian affairs, has cemented the military’s influence on the island. Even with Rajapaksa gone, it is still the military that is calling the shots.

As U.N. experts note, Sri Lanka’s militarization has been accompanied by the weakening of institutional checks and balances and has played a key role in the formation of the current economic crisis. In January 2021, a U.N. report raised alarm over “deepening impunity, increasing militarization of governmental functions, ethno-nationalist rhetoric, and intimidation of civil society.” With civil society stifled, Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted this April that militarization had inhibited the state’s ability “to effectively tackle the economic crisis and ensure the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights of all people in Sri Lanka.”

These maneuvers caused little uproar in the Sinhalese-majority south. Instead, a series of poor economic decisions led the economy into a nosedive where the issue of corruption was highlighted. Populist tax cuts have eviscerated the government’s revenue, while a disastrous ban on chemical fertilizers further impoverished Sinhalese farmers, many of whom were former Rajapaksa supporters.

In the face of economic hardship that left millions of Sri Lankans struggling to feed their families, Sri Lanka’s leader insisted on maintaining an inordinate military expenditure that amounted to 15 percent of the state’s budget. Even last year, as the crisis began to come into focus, the government signed a $50 million agreement over revamping a set of Israeli-made fighter jets. The government would rather spend money on bombs than bread.

At the time of writing, the protesters in Colombo have faced a new wave of military oppression, with leading activists who had led the aragalaya (Sinhalese for “struggle”) arrested en masse. Despite their months of sustained protest—and headlines around the world—remarkably little has changed. The exiled former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, even looks like he may return to the island. Sri Lanka’s protesters have achieved little other than the newly appointed president’s lip service to the notion of constitutional reform. His ongoing crackdown on protesters, while pledging to address their demands, illustrates exactly why his words ring hollow.

What remains lacking is a coherent vision for the island’s future. Participants in the protest movement formed an overly broad coalition, including, on the one hand, civil society actors, and, on the other, war criminals and former Rajapaksa supporters. While unified on the message that the president should resign, they had little else in common.

Moreover, the absence of demands from Tamils in the northeast was stark. A list of demands, signed by over 60 organizations representing the movement, made no mention of the need to demilitarize the country or attain justice for the crimes committed by the military. Indeed, there was no mention of the armed forces at all. The Army remained untouchable.

Tamil organizations have been clear about a potential way forward for the island. Trapped in cycles of instability and violence—from the decades-long civil war, to the deadly Easter Sunday attacks of 2019, to the current crippling economic crisis—they have called for a fundamental rethinking of Sri Lanka’s political structure.

In July, a number of Tamil civil society organizations issued a statement noting the historic opportunity to tackle the root cause of Sri Lanka’s ills—“Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.”

In their demands, they call for a restructuring of Sri Lankan society that respects “the secular and pluri-national nature of the island and the right to self-determination.” Key to that is restructuring the economy away from the military establishment and breaking the climate of impunity on the island by pursuing accountability. Immediate steps, including releasing land held by the armed forces and curtailing their extensive powers granted by the Prevention of Terrorism Act, have been demanded for decades.

Not only must Sri Lanka’s protesters heed that call and refocus their efforts toward dismantling the militarization of the state, but so too must the international community. Just last week, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka announced over $1 million in funding for the Ministry of Defence to carry out an anti-human-trafficking project. The United States continues to carry out exercises with Sri Lankan troops and has even gifted the Sri Lanka Navy a third U.S. vessel. Continuing to engage with Sri Lanka’s military lends the military a veneer of legitimacy that whitewashes its role in the island’s violent history. The country’s south—and Sri Lanka’s global partners—must know that tackling this crisis also means tackling the institutions that are fueling it.

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