Sri Lanka: Militarizing the Land and Terrorizing the Minds
ASIA & THE PACIFIC, 23 July 2012
by Nirmanusan Balasundaram – TRANSCEND Media Service
“Given that 75% of the army’s divisions are stationed in the Northern Province, in addition to other formations such as task forces and independent brigades and regimental units, it is not unreasonable to assume that at least 60% of the army, i e, approximately 180,000 personnel, are stationed across the Northern Province.” - Notes on the Military Presence in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province | Economic & Political Weekly, July 14, 2012
Nearly four decades of asymmetric war between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil guerrillas ended in an unprecedented bloodbath, which was seen by some as “unacceptably high”. Regardless of the fact that such statements naturally arouse anyone’s cynical curiosity to know what could be an “acceptable level of bloodbath”, it confirmed that the State’s decisive victory over the guerrillas was achieved by massacring hundreds of thousands of Tamils. It was a well calculated and masterly executed systematic war plan which was grounded on state’s unwavering determination to annihilate any number of Tamils to reach their ultimate goal.
Consequently the Tamil inhabitants who traditionally lived in those areas were forced to vacate their native lands due to obvious concerns for their safety and security. These traditional places of habitation consisted of residences, places of worship, schools, community buildings, farm lands and coastal fishing zones.
War and peace.., and war again
In the aftermath of the large scale military offensives, the displaced survivors hoped that their right to return would be granted. But they could not have been more wrong about the intentions of the state. Instead, the end of the decades long military standoff has triggered off an accelerated plan aimed at further weakening and destroying the collective national life of the surviving Tamil population in the north-east of the island. Therefore the new wave of militarization and land grabbing taking place in the Tamil areas, should be seen as an integral part of the same systematic military offensives waged to subjugate Tamils.
The current land grabbing plans need to be understood as the calculated outcome of a state policy. The grabbed land is mainly taken for either militarization or colonization purposes. In principle, both militarization and Sinhalization projects are mutually interconnected and they are specifically designed to complete the annihilation plan of the Tamils as a nation. In addition, the policy is aimed at eliminating the collective national existence of the Tamils, and intends to ensure that any future Tamil national revival would never materialize.
‘The almost entirely Tamil-speaking north is now dotted with Sinhala sign-boards, streets newly renamed in Sinhala, monuments to Sinhala war heroes, and even a war museum and battlefields that are open only to Sinhalese. Sinhala fishermen and businessmen are regularly given advantages not accorded to Tamils. The slow but steady movement of Sinhala settlers along the southern edges of the province, often with military and central government support and sometimes onto land previously farmed or occupied by Tamils, is particularly worrying. These developments are consistent with a strategy – known to be supported by important officials and advisers to the president – to change “the facts on the ground”, as has already happened in the east, and make it impossible to claim the north as a Tamil-majority area deserving of self-governance.’ (Read : Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights”) To fulfill this policy without facing much obstacles and challenges, the incumbent regime has started appointing ethnic Sinhalese as administrative decision-makers on every prominent level in the north, which is an area where solely Tamil speaking people live.
For example, under this process, an ethnic Sinhalese has been appointed as the Government Agent (GA) of Mannar district and interestingly, this measure was taken following the intense Sinhalization process taking place in the district since the LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009. In a similar move, out of 15 Divisional Secretariats that comes under Jaffna district, already three Divisional Secretariat (DS) posts have been filled by ethnic Sinhalese, even though the people who live in all the three divisional zones are Tamil speaking families. ‘In the North, Jaffna included, the military and especially the Army is for all intents and purposes the government as the civilian administration remains enfeebled; the Province itself is run by a Governor, who until just prior to his appointment was the head of the Security Forces Headquarters, Jaffna.’ (Read: How Credible are the Latest Official Claims Concerning Troop Reductions in Jaffna?)
The motto: ‘Grab and occupy’
According to parliamentarian M. A. Sumathiran, “out of a total land mass of 65,619 sq km, Tamil people inhabited 18,880 sq km of land in the North and East. But after May 2009, the defence forces have occupied more than 7,000 sq km of land owned by Tamil people.” Moreover, the latest data reveals that at least 6,069 acres of public and private lands are occupied by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) for the purpose of opening up Sinhala colonies in the Vanni region. It is worth noting that this excludes occupied lands in Jaffna and the ‘Eastern province’.
The Tamil people are compelled to live through the negative effects of militarization in their day-to-day life while fearing that the state aided Sinhalization process would flush them out of the area in the long run. ‘The Tamil-majority north remains under de facto military occupation, with all important policies set by Sinhala officials in Colombo. The slow but undeniable movement of Sinhala settlers into the fringes of the north and other forms of government-supported “Sinhalisation” are reigniting a sense of grievance and weakening chances for a real settlement with Tamil and other minority parties to devolve power.’ (Read: Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights)
The occupation by the SLAF affects the normal civilian activities, including resettlement, education, religious and cultural activities and free access to resources such as agricultural and fishing zones. The latest edition of the Economic and Political Weekly (quoted at the beginning of this article) points out that given the extent and nature of the military presence in the north, it is not hard to see why some view it as an “occupation”. ‘Three years after the war, the Northern and Eastern Provinces together are the focus of 18 of the 20 Divisions of the Sri Lanka Army, besides other military units and formations. The military occupation of land and the militarization of land administration are especially serious issues with several ramifications. A ratio of 1 security personnel for every 5.04 civilians in the Northern Province or a force density of around 198.4 security personnel per 1,000 civilians’ cannot be defended in any circumstances, and is simply for the purpose of the Sinhalization and militarization of the Tamil nation.
The review further states that a ’2012 memorandum of the US Department of the Army, building on the IDA study, notes that the force density in Iraq in 2007 (the time of the “surge”) was around 20 per thousand civilians. According to a Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) of the UK Ministry of Defence, in the mid-1970s the force density in Northern Ireland was 23 security personnel per 1,000 civilians. Further it refers to Goode’s (2009-10: 46) estimate that counter-insurgency security forces under French command in Algeria peaked at nearly 60 per 1,000 residents while the Russians committed more than 150 soldiers per 1,000 civilians in Chechnya in 2003, in the course of the bloody second Chechnyan war.’
The entire land area of the Jaffna district is 1,025 km² (out of 8884 km² of the North). It has always been one of the favourite targets of consecutive governments as it holds a symbolical value as the cultural capital of the Tamil nation. The city withstood the massacre on the occasion of the World Tamil Research conference in 1974 and the burning down of the Jaffna public library in 1981, which was known to be one of the largest libraries in whole of Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts. In addition, Jaffna is the only district in the island that has at least three daily news papers, despite various attacks on free media, including the assassination of at least fourteen media workers within a period of six years. Furthermore, Jaffna is relatively well-connected with the Tamil Diaspora living scattered around the world, despite it being occupied by the SLAF since 1995.
In reality people live under fear, while the military administration functions on the policy of the Rajapakse regime, projecting itself as a ‘symbol of normalcy and good governance ‘. Civil liberties, from freedom of expression to freedom of assembly, are denied. The desperate need of the people to live a normal life with dignity was clearly expressed even after the recent visit of an Indian delegation. “The people of Jaffna want the army to go back to the barracks,” said Congress MP E.M Sudarsana Natchiappan after his meetings in Jaffna in April 2012.
However, the details below reveal the gravity of the unaddressed humanitarian issues while the accelerated militarization and Sinhalization schemes are rapidly dominating the normal life in Jaffna.
Some 70,000 members from 26,000 families have been living as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in 23 Grama Niladari Divisions in Valikamam DS Division alone for more than a decade. While the pleas of these Tamil people who keep demanding their right to return to their ancestral lands has been conveniently neglected, programs for the Sinhalization process have been speeded up. For example, under the direction of the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry, steps have been taken recently to acquire 20 acres of land which belong to private owners in Oddakappulam, Vasaavi’laan East. It has been further confirmed that these lands have been occupied by the SLAF for the last 20 years which originally belonged to 200 families. In a similar move, a large Navy garrison is being constructed in Mandaitivu on 200 acres of agricultural land, which also belongs to Tamils.
The Sri Lankan Navy in Valikaamam West near Thiruvadinilai has acquired 100 acres of land belonging to a private owner in order to build a Navy Camp. The Navy in Maathakal have acquired lands forcefully in three Grama Niladari Divisions (J/150, J/151, J/152), blatantly violating the rights of 258 families who owned the lands.
Since May 2009, 151 families have been resettled in Ki’laali, where a Northern Forward Defence Line (FDL) was maintained during the war. Now, they have been moved back to IDP camps and are not even allowed to engage in fishing, upon which they depend for their survival. A similar development is also occurring in Seanthaanku’lam, which is located close to the Thellippa’lai area.
Despite the fact that the people have demonstrated their will to return to their native areas by making repeated appeals to the government officials, no decision has been made to grant them their lands. As a result, around 119 families of Va’lalaay Division are still not granted permission to resettle who currently live displaced in Ma’natkaadu, Ampankudaththanai, Point Pedro and Munai. Similarly, 45 families from the Allaarai Raamaavil area have requested the GA to stop the SLAF, from constructing a camp on private land by preventing the owners from returning. 73 schools, from four educations zones in Jaffna, have been shut down while the military governor of the Northern Province has announced that permission will not be granted to recommence activities of the Palaali Teachers’ Training College, since 57 acres of land belonging to training school remains under the occupation of the army which is a part of Palaali high security zone. Many more similar cases can be listed in the same manner, if needed.
Military occupation and Sinhalization are not only causing worries. But such policies create an atmosphere of permanent fear. ‘The army has grabbed vast expanses in the north, either to set up military bases, farm for profit or, many Tamils fear, resettle Sinhalese from the south and change the demographics. The construction of Buddhist monuments where no Buddhists live reinforces those fears.’ (Read: Abuse by Sri Lanka’s army rubs salt in wounds of war)
The massive slaughter campaigns carried out during the war did not achieve ultimate success in deterring the Tamils in the long run and forcing them to abandon their collective aspirations. Therefore, the victimized Tamils is now being subjected to a new wave of terror campaign through state aided land grabbing plan which go hand in hand with the processes of militarization and Sinhalization. A refreshed plan of selective assassinations, abductions and torture is being used as the relatively soft coercive tactics failed to deliver the expected results. Therefore the policy of colonizing the land is supplemented with a policy of terrorizing the minds of the surviving population.
Even three years after a destructive and protracted war, the repressive and intransigent character of the ethnocratic Sri Lankan state remains same and nothing but naked brutality lies at its heart. It does not show the slightest willingness to change itself into a democratic and pluralistic civilized body, since it does not contain the potential to transform itself. It is a lesson that Tamils learned in blood of several generations. But it still remains a lesson that needs to be learnt by the rest of the world.
Nirmanusan Balasundaram is a Freelance Journalist and International Human Rights Activist. He is also closely associated with INGO, NGO’s, and Civil Society movements in Sri Lanka as well as internationally. He is currently working as an independent consultant on peace building and conflict resolution. Nirmanusan comes from a long line of nonviolent activists, all committed to working for just peace, reconciliation and democracy in Sri Lanka. Throughout his life, he has been a strong advocate for a peaceful and just resolution to the protracted ethnopolitical conflict there.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 3.0 United States License.