Maithripala Sirisena’s victory over Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Sri Lankan presidential elections in January 2015 was enabled by massive support from minorities in the country — the Tamils and Muslims.
Clearly, the mandate was not just for a more accountable and democratic government that would reverse the creeping authoritarianism and family rule heralded by Mr. Rajapaksa, but also for addressing systemic issues that had gripped, and continues to nettle, Sri Lankan society. Chief among them is the issue of militarisation.
Following the triumph against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the military has taken a preponderant role in Sri Lankan society, particularly in the north.
In the Tamil-majority provinces, the large-scale presence of the military has been sought to be justified as a security response to the possible rise of post-LTTE insurgent forces. But as the participation of the Tamil community in election after election since the war suggests, that reasoning is flawed and unacceptable. The Rajapaksa regime sought to utilise its “triumphalist phase” by allowing the military to diversify into commercial activity, “development”, education, tourism and even policing, among others. The expectation from the new regime — especially among the minorities — was of a quick reversal of this dangerous trend.
Recent findings from the U.S.-based think tank, Oakland Institute, based on research and surveys done during the period December 2014-January 2015, have pointed to hardly any reconciliation between the government and the Tamils. And the occupation by the military of the land of those displaced in the civil war is a prime cause of resentment, not to mention the long-pending but ignored task of devolution of powers to the provincial councils.
The promise of a process of reconciliation and investigation of alleged war crimes has remained unmet, adding to the resentment. Recent reportage by this newspaper from the Northern Province has pointed to steady progress in the release of army-held land to some of the displaced Tamils.
This, and the setting up of a new Presidential Task Force on Reconciliation headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, are steps in the right direction. But these are not enough.
The extant militarisation holds dangerous portends; the example of Pakistan is there for all to see.
International pressure and electoral results have thus far pushed the envelope for the Sirisena presidency to take minimal steps to reverse the authoritarianism of the Rajapaksa regime. But the need is for a comprehensive demilitarisation plan that includes ways to demobilise recruits to the bloated military, so that Sri Lanka would soon be back to its normal self.