WASHINGTON — The Sri Lanka Army has said it will vacate camps in the country’s northern Jaffna Peninsula before crucial provincial elections in September. Despite the international publicity the move has attracted, Jaffna’s residents say there is no significant downtick in overall levels of militarization.
Elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) next month will be the first. Legislation setting up provincial councils was part of a power-sharing treaty between India and Sri Lanka, known as the Indo-Lanka Accord. Enacted in 1987, the legislation was primarily created to resolve conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils, the country’s two largest ethnic groups.
Ironically, while elected councils functioned in the rest of the country, they never did in the north, in the only province that has a Tamil majority.
Following the military defeat of the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, in May 2009, the international community urged the government of Sri Lanka to begin a process of reconciliation through power sharing with the Tamil political leadership.
An important instrument of conflict resolution, or so the international community seemed to believe, was holding elections to the NPC. As de-militarization was a prerequisite for elections, two resolutions — in 2012 and 2013 — moved by the United States at the UN Human Rights Council included such measures.
However, the military has continued to govern areas where the Tamil are the majority, inserting itself into aspects of life usually serviced by civilians, and forcibly taking over and controlling land.
Residents of northern Sri Lanka complain that the presence of the military is not confined to uniformed personnel patrolling the streets, guns in hand.
“[The military] are in our schools supervising public examinations, in our homes [forcibly inviting themselves even to puberty ceremonies] … It was better when they were only on the streets; now the penetration is directed internally — into the core of community life,” says Kumaravadivel Guruparan, lecturer in law at the University of Jaffna.
The military involvement in the life of the community also has repercussions for the electoral process. As campaigning gets underway, the military is accused of supporting the government party against the popular Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
“When TNA candidates address public meetings you can be sure four or five military personnel will be hovering around in civvies,” said Suresh Premachandran, a leader of the Alliance party.
He also said there were instances of the military intimidating TNA candidates and barring the public from attending opposition election rallies. On March 30, well before elections were announced, a mob attacked a private meeting of TNA parliamentarians, injuring 13 people, despite a police guard.
The Associated Press reported on July 25 that Sri Lanka Army spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasuriya had announced that 13 military camps would be removed and the locations “handed back to original owners.”
The announcement that the military was closing its camps was an effort to neutralize the accusation that it was forcibly occupying private land. Many of its camps are built on private property, which has exacerbated Tamil grievances and enhanced barriers to reconciliation.
However, the Daily Mirror clarified that the camps the AP story mentioned were not closed entirely, but relocated to the “Palaly cantonment.” Moving troops from the 13 camps to Palaly cantonment, a former rebel stronghold, does not mean there will be any significant reduction of the use of private land for military use.
“[Military camps] are being relocated to Palaly High Security Zone, which is private land on a larger scale of anything these 13 camps may give up,” scoffed Guruparan, the University of Jaffna lecturer.
The High Security Zone is a vast area of land the government cleared in the 1990s by destroying homes, taking over fertile farmland and leaving residents to become “internally displaced people.”
The military is developing 6,500 acres of land it seized in the Jaffna peninsula into a huge base replete with a farm, a hotel, a golf course and other recreational facilities for its personnel. A lawsuit has been filed in the court of appeals on behalf of 2,176 displaced residents, as well as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Jaffna, which forfeited church property for the construction of the military base.
The need for the military to occupy private land is partly explained by a more fundamental problem: There are “150,000 soldiers encamped in the Northern Province,” claims Premachandran. “That makes it one soldier for every four or five civilians.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay arrived in Sri Lanka this week for a seven-day visit to review progress on demilitarization, the course of NPC elections and other human rights issues. She will report back to the UNHRC in September.
The question is whether the UNHRC and the international community will recognize that vacating private land is a façade by the military to persuade the UN that it is demilitarizing. What will the UN do? Will it impose strictures on the government for wriggling out of its commitments, or will they say sweet nothings and turn a blind eye?
J. S. Tissainayagam, a veteran newspaper editor in Sri Lanka, is now an editor and contributor to the Peter Mackler Media Freedom Blog. He was a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment Democracy in Washington DC in 2013 and a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard in 2011.