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Security, minorities and the Lankan polity

by Ahilan Kadirgamar, 17 August 2010

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Seminar, No. 611, July 2010

Sri Lanka’s current political predicament extends back to the late colonial period, decolonization and the formation of the postcolonial state. The Soulbury Commission, which prepared the ground for decolonization and was responsible for Sri Lanka’s Constitution at independence, emphasized British concerns at that time as ‘interests of the British Empire’ and the ‘protection of minorities.’

While the former related to defence and external relations, the latter was used instrumentally as leverage against the Sinhalese elite on British interests relating to decolonization. Indeed, for seven years starting from independence at 1948, the Soviet Union opposed the entry of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, claiming that Sri Lanka’s defence and external relations agreement with Britain meant that it was not fully a sovereign state.

The British attitude towards the protection of minorities is evident from their engagement with the rights of the up-country Tamils, indentured plantation labour brought over by the British to work in coffee and tea plantations. During decolonization, the British backed the Sinhalese elite in their negotiations with India on the rights of up-country Tamils, and in the year after independence the up-country Tamils were disenfranchised. This marked the first of many disastrous moves by the state that would undermine the formation of an inclusive and plural postcolonial polity. The British interests, as evident from the priorities of defence and external relations, meant they were mainly concerned about leaving behind a loyal regime in Sri Lanka.

As India became increasingly antagonistic, the British wanted to salvage as many allies as they could, particularly as the world prepared for the cold war. However, those narrow imperial interests of defence and external relations – what today are akin to the international order and global security – would sow deeper problems and feed into the tragic history of the Lankan polity.

The historic tension between defence and external relations on the one hand and on the other, the political process to address the problem of minorities – commonly called the ‘national question’ – is one major aspect constituting the current politics of postwar regime consolidation. The other important aspect is that of development, which is currently being articulated by the Rajapaksa regime as the catch-all solution for Sri Lanka’s political problems. In fact, it is the merging of both these issues under the rubric of security and development, a framing not unique to Sri Lanka but conditioned by the notion of stability and the interests of global capitalism, that is also shaping politics in Sri Lanka.

While the global notions of security and stability continue to provide the rationale for the defence establishment’s prominence, its particular structure has emerged out of the conflicts and war that have plagued Sri Lanka during the last many decades. The irresolution of the political problems relating to the Sri Lankan state and its minorities, and the increasing militarization of the state and society in its legal, administrative and ideological realms, which continue to shape civil military relations, require further analysis. This essay is a provisional attempt at a discussion on the historical, global and national facets of security and civil-military relations in Sri Lanka.

Before addressing the changes in civil-military relations, a few points on the process that led to the unprecedented scale of militarization over the last few years might be in order. Indeed, the qualitative shift in militarization can only be understood in the context of the tremendous escalation of armed conflict during the last cycle of the war compared to previous ones.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) used the early years of the much internationalized Norwegian peace process to adopt very aggressive tactics of civilian mobilization, intelligence gathering and infiltration and eventually, assassination of selected political opponents among Tamils and security forces personnel. Having targeted mainly Tamil dissenters between 2002 and 2004, the split by the Eastern Command of the LTTE led to the LTTE targeting cadres of the its Eastern Command who were on the run and the military intelligence personnel assisting such cadres. The assassinations escalated to other high profile targets. In fact, the Rajapaksa government came to power a few months after the assassination of the then foreign minister, a Tamil who was committed to a constitutional political settlement.

In the first year of the Rajapaksa government, the LTTE escalated the war by directly targeting the top military brass; there were even failed suicide bombing attacks on the Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka (April 2006) and Defence Secretary, Gothabaya Rajapaksa (December 2006). In addition to targeting military personnel, the LTTE also targeted hundreds of Sinhalese civilians in bombings. Such targeted assassinations and indiscriminate attacks were the backdrop of rapid militarization and, particularly important here, the unprecedented support of the larger Sinhalese population for both the war effort and militarization.

One of the last contributions of colonial rulers less than a year before independence was the Public Security Act of 1947 in response to mobilization by the leftists staunchly opposed to colonialism and imperialism. The emergency powers that this act bestowed have since been used to maintain Sri Lanka in a state of emergency for more than half its post-independence history.

The emergency had many uses historically. It was used to respond to the 1953 hartal, a major nationwide uprising in response to cuts in rice subsidy. It was also used to crush the JVP uprisings of 1971 and 1987-1990, when tens of thousands of Sinhalese youth were massacred. Thus began the history of a legal regime that was complicit with the repressive apparatuses of the state. However, it is with the emergence of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979, modelled after the British act used in Northern Ireland, that the Tamil community became the target of such repression.

Various acts of discrimination and pogroms against the Tamil community led to the emergence of Tamil militant groups that soon became the target of state repression. Thus by the early 1980s, a draconian legal regime, combined with the security forces’ complicity in blatant outrages and several acts of carnage such as the burning of the Jaffna Public Library by the police in 1981 and support for the government sponsored riots of July 1983 resulting in the deaths of over 2,000 Tamil civilians, led to a rapid decay of the security sector. The July 1983 massacre of Tamil political prisoners in the high security Welikade prison by Sinhalese prisoners, with the complicity of the state, is another case in point.

The Attorney General’s department covered up for that prison massacre, setting the stage for a systematic undermining of the rule of law. Thus, an increasing role for the military as the conflict escalated, combined with the draconian legal regime, took its toll on the criminal justice system. Indeed, the near absence of prosecutions of security forces personnel responsible for crimes committed in relation to the conflict reflects this deterioration of the criminal justice system and climate of impunity that continues to prevail.

In recent times, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry was initiated in 2007 to look into fifteen grave acts of human rights violations with an international component to oversee the work of the commission. However, despite overwhelming evidence, particularly in two cases of the five youth extra-judicially executed in Trincomalee in January 2006 and seventeen aid workers with Action Contre la Faim (ACF) massacred in August 2006, there have been no prosecutions and the commission’s work was blatantly undermined. The cover-up of abuses by security forces personnel aside, the political interference that came with the rationale of national security has further debased the criminal justice system.

With the protracted war and a deterioration of the political culture, an increasing number of administrative institutions have also succumbed to politicization. The conflict prone North and East in particular have increasingly come under the writ of the military. Large swathes of land have been taken over as High Security Zones, displacing thousands of people from their homes and livelihood. Currently, the Governors of the Northern and Eastern Provinces as well as the Government Agent of Trincomalee are former military personnel.

Issues relating to land, resettlement of the displaced, road building, and fishing rights continue to be problematically shaped by the security establishment. The large role given to the military by the state to achieve a military victory against the LTTE has by no means diminished a year after the end of the war and now amounts to patronage to reap dividends from the war victory.

In this context, two recent events are revealing of the problematic nature of an increasing role for the military. In mid 2007, following the clearing of the LTTE from the Eastern Province, the area surrounding Sampur was made a high security zone. But the security purpose of protecting Trincomalee harbour no longer existed after the Sea Tigers were no longer present in the East, and the president said as much and promised that the people could soon return. But then plans were announced for a coal-fired power plant in the area, which meant the displaced remained homeless vagrants. This event coincided with the increasing rhetoric of how the military could also play a role in development.

More recently, following parliamentary elections in April 2010, the Urban Development Authority has come under the Defence Ministry run by the president’s brother, Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa. Within weeks, slum dwellings in parts of Colombo were demolished evicting thousands from their homes and livelihoods. If these two events are reflective of future encroachment of the security establishment into civil administration, then it certainly does not bode well for the rights of the marginalized.

The protracted armed conflict spanning decades has tremendous social consequences. Starting in the 1980s, the state began arming ‘home guards’ and used border villages as buffers against the LTTE. Such militarization of society along with the historically large number of military deserters, former Tamil militants and recent LTTE cadres, have led to social deterioration and violence. Addressing the social dimension of demilitarization will not be possible without a significant shift in the state’s attitude towards militarization.

The last years of the war came with tremendous mobilization of all arms of the state, including through nationalist war propaganda. The security establishment became keenly aware of the importance of the public sphere in keeping up the morale and to counter the LTTE in the propaganda war. In that context, Sinhala nationalist ideologues were given centre-stage in the public domain and particularly in the state media. A Media Centre for National Security was created to put forward positions on all matters relating to the war, and comment on a range of issues such as foreign policy and the political concerns of minorities. Worse, opponents of the war were threatened through the military media.

The public sphere has been polarized to the detriment of the minorities by both an overly security-centred view of political developments and the prominence of Sinhala nationalist rhetoric. Furthermore, journalists writing critically about the military came under severe attack, including killings and disappearances at the hands of death squads. The intimidation of journalists and the media along with aggressive nationalist propaganda, have had a serious impact even after the war in both debilitating dissent and shaping the public sphere, particularly with respect to discussions around the root causes of the conflict and a political settlement.

Despite the particularities of the war and militarization in Sri Lanka, the regional and global dimensions of this transformation should not be underestimated. Here the post-September 11 ‘war on terror’ led by the United States has had tremendous impact in shaping the state, security and politics in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the Sri Lankan state received considerable support over the last few years, both diplomatic and military, given the priorities of the global ‘war on terror’. For example, in 2006 both the Canadian government and the European Union listed the LTTE as a terrorist organization following the bans imposed during the previous decade by the United States and the United Kingdom. Direct military assistance also came in a large measure from the Asian powers during the last three years of the war.

The SAARC summit of 2007 in Delhi made security and anti-terrorism a priority and in the process provided regional legitimacy and support to the war efforts of the Sri Lankan state. The framing of regional issues around security continues to reinforce the security establishment in Sri Lanka. In that context, if one looks at the engagement on Sri Lanka by analysts and think tanks in India, it is reductive to issues of security and the related concerns of international relations, where Sri Lanka prominently figures in the perceived competition between India and China in the region.

For example, there are few Indian economists or political scientists following Sri Lanka with a more than cursory interest in the fate of its democracy and the deeper concerns of its people. Thus, the broader developments in the region and the regional framing of external relations are not conducive to necessary changes in civil-military relations in postwar Sri Lanka.

The Rajapaksa regime has used the war victory and the attendant euphoria in the South towards regime consolidation. This approach entails a prominent role for the military and Sinhala nationalist constituencies while undermining the openings for reconciliation and democratization. Indeed, the Rajapaksa regime has not shown any serious interest in seizing the historic opportunity to address the grievances and aspirations of the minorities – the problem that is the root cause of the conflict – through a political settlement.

While there was much progress over the last two decades leading to a vibrant devolution debate and a number of viable proposals for power-sharing and devolution of power to the regions, as articulated for example by the Draft Constitution of 2000 and the All Party Representative Committee process which President Rajapaksa himself created in 2006, all such efforts seem to have been swept away by euphoria over the military victory.

The Sinhalese population is prevented from looking beyond the euphoria of victory by de facto censorship and limitations placed on public discussion. In fact, the Rajapaksa regime’s approach now seems to be one of enforcing overbearing security to dampen expression of grievances and to address political aspirations through a singular focus on economic development.

However, such an emphasis on security and development can have longer-term repercussions. The flip side of security is insecurity; any national security state with majoritarian compulsions will augment the perceived and real insecurity of the minorities. Furthermore, reconstruction and development policies in their current Colombo-centred form are likely to aggravate uneven development and undermine the social relations necessary for an inclusive economic geography.

Over the last year, the relationship between the Rajapaksa regime and the military gained much attention with the parting of ways by General Sarath Fonseka, the Army Commander credited with winning the war. While the trio of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa and General Fonseka were the prominent advocates and decision-makers of the war effort, the end of the war created tensions in relation to the politics of regime consolidation and General Fonseka’s prominence, to a large measure promoted by the Rajapaksa regime itself during the war.

General Fonseka’s hardline approach did not change after the war and he advocated a much larger role for the military, including doubling its size and a very repressive security regime in the war-torn North and East. Weeks after the war, the Rajapaksa regime clipped the powers of General Fonseka, leading to the antagonistic relationship culminating in the presidential contest between President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka.

The opposition United National Party, convinced that its leader will lose the presidential election, backed General Fonseka, creating some space for a contest, though both campaigns were Sinhala nationalist in framing and did not diverge much on substantive issues. While an unlikely victory by General Fonseka may have led to a much larger role for the military, President Rajapaksa’s resounding victory and subsequent imprisonment of General Fonseka too has paradoxically ensured a veritable decimation of any democratic opposition.

The larger point here is that General Fonseka’s candidature was a one-time event coming at a very particular moment, months after the end of the war. Furthermore, if the Rajapaksa regime had been willing to initiate a process of political reconciliation and demilitarization soon after the end of the war rather than attempt to capitalise on the military victory, the tensions that erupted with General Fonseka’s challenge could have been avoided.

While in the near future, attempts to keep the country on a military footing seem to be in the interest of the Rajapaksa regime, the economic and political problems displaced by the war are likely to surface in the medium term. Furthermore, the relationship of the military to the state and the elite classes should also be understood in a historical context. Despite a long and protracted conflict, the military in Sri Lanka, unlike in Pakistan, never had a successful coup; in fact, it has not even attempted one since the early 1960s. Thus, just as the Rajapaksa regime is strategically using the military towards its consolidation, the military leadership’s fortunes a year after the war are also dependent on the political and particularly electoral strength of the Rajapaksa regime.

There are now two possible future scenarios with respect to the role of the military. One, a diminishing role for the military in the post-war context as economic and political problems come to the fore. Two, the military is transformed and extended further into the process of governance. The benchmarks that could elucidate the first scenario, of a changing role for the military that ensures the independence of the civil administration, are as follows. First, repeal of all emergency regulations and the PTA, and removal of factors that inhibit the independence of the judiciary. Second, checks on the military presence in the North and East, and the dismantling of high security zones to reflect the end of the war.

Among the factors that have worked against the resolution of the ‘national question’ is an overly centralized unitary state. Indeed, the military through its direct chain of command is the clearest articulation of such centralization. Thus, a process of demilitarization is inextricably linked to the devolution of power to an overly militarized North and East. That is also the context for the call for devolution of police powers to the Provincial Councils and the greater representation of Tamils in the police force.

Some analysts have looked at the problem of militarization in Sri Lanka as one of a military economy relating to the budget of the defence sector and the number of people employed by the Defence Ministry. While military expenditure, which makes up a fifth of government expenditure and security sector employment roughly a twentieth of the seven million strong labour force, are high relative to regional figures and Sri Lanka’s own history, one should not overemphasize the military economy argument. Security sector employment and expenditure are not the determining factors for economic stability or for future economic turmoil in the country. The problem rather is the military’s public presence and prominence, the role given to it in governance, and the difficulties it causes for democratization.

The military’s control of land, of peoples’ mobility, its role in policing, of the resettlement process, and particularly, the positions of former military personnel in high offices such as Governors, Government Agents or in the Presidential Task Force for reconstruction and development, are the more worrying signs. Such a public role for the military inhibits democratic participation by the minorities and for that matter all of Lanka’s citizens. The need of the hour is a shift from the country’s war-time framing of security to a postwar framing of ground-up democratization. Ultimately, it is not security and development, rather addressing the political problems in their own right, that may determine the possibility of an inclusive and plural Lankan polity.