REPORT: ‘Normalising the Abnormal: The Militarisation of Mullaitivu’
The full report can be read here.
Two years after the Sri Lankan government co-sponsored UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 30/1 and six months after it renewed its commitments in HRC Resolution 34/1, the Sri Lankan government has continued to fail to fulfil its pledges to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. A key commitment made in the HRC resolutions and a critical component of the conversation around transitional justice is meaningful security sector reform. Despite calls by numerous international bodies and repeated calls by Tamil politicians and communities, the Sri Lankan government has yet to undertake a comprehensive process to demilitarise areas in the North-East. As a result, the North-East remains under a military occupation that represses fundamental freedoms and contributes to on-going ethnic conflict.
In Mullaitivu District, where the last phase of the armed conflict was fought, the military’s presence has become even more entrenched over the past two years. This report accompanies an interactive online map produced by the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research (ACPR) and People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), illustrating the extent of militarisation in Mullaitivu District by documenting military structures and installations and Buddhist viharas.
From a quantitative perspective, the military has an extremely inflated presence in Mullaitivu District. Based on the number of brigades and their constituent troops, this report estimates that at least 60,000 Sri Lankan Army troops are currently stationed in Mullaitivu District; 25% of the approximately 243,000 active military personnel in the whole country. To put this figure in perspective, according to the Mullaitivu District Statistical Handbook in 2014, Mullaitivu District has 130,322, or approximately 0.6 % of the Sri Lankan population. This means there is now at least 1 soldier for every 2 civilians in Mullaitivu District – in effect, a military occupation. This excludes the numbers of Sri Lankan Navy and Air Force troops in the District, which are unable to be calculated with publicly available information.
The military’s occupation of land in Mullaitivu District is concomitantly significant. Comparing figures obtained officially from Divisional Secretariat offices through the Right to Information Act, unofficially from government sources, and from local sources it is evident that officially obtained government numbers significantly downplay the actual amount of land occupied by the military. ACPR and PEARL also found that the military’s extensive use of land demarcated as state forests and forest reserves is an under reported facet of the militarisation of the Vanni that requires further study. Hence on a careful analysis of the methodology used by the different actors in making their claims with regard to land occupied by the military and information available on the scale of the military presence, ACPR and PEARL are able to conclude that the claim of 30,000 acres of land being held by the security forces in Mullaitivu is credible. A key step in the demilitarisation process should include a comprehensive and transparent survey of lands occupied by the military in the North-East.
The issues that result from this extensive militarisation are more than just quantitative, however. The militarisation of Tamil regions is concerning for a plethora of reasons explored in this report. The Sri Lankan military stands accused of atrocity crimes against the very population in which it is immersed. Tamils must live next door to—and, in some cases, work for—those who bombed, shelled and brutalised their families and communities, all with impunity. The military’s presence facilitates land grabs and displacement and keeps families in ramshackle ‘temporary’ shelters as it utilises—and even profits from—privately owned Tamil land. This has a clear impact on livelihoods and economic growth in the region, as military-run businesses compete with private businesses on unequal terms. In fact, the military is one of the largest employers in Mullaitivu, ensuring a disturbing dependency of Tamil communities on the military for economic survival. The entrenchment of the military and security forces in Mullaitivu creates a pervasive and constant culture of fear and surveillance. It also further marginalises Tamil women. This report addresses each of these issues in turn.
The government’s security concerns allegedly motivates the military’s overwhelming presence throughout the North-East including in Mullaitivu. However, its encroachment into all facets of civilian life (economic, political, and otherwise) reflects the Sri Lankan state’s more insidious goal: the further breakdown of the island’s Tamil communities. The military has normalised its presence across Tamil areas, making Tamils accept and internalise the military’s presence in their everyday lives. For example, the military manages pre-schools, farms, hotels, and other operations, penetrating numerous aspects of Tamil community life.
The consequences of such omnipresent militarisation are widespread. Tamils must fear for themselves and their children as they encounter security forces on roads, in markets, and in schools while their community development is continuously obstructed. Trust within Tamil communities is inhibited by uncertainty over who may be reporting to the military. The military’s extensive presence inhibits freedom of speech and freedom of thought, since the military’s shadow hovers over all political activities, suppressing engagement in civic fora. It has become so engrained in Tamil society in the North-East that it no longer needs to be visibly seen for its presence to affect the community. The normalisation of the military’s presence in various aspects of life in the North-East has led to Tamils internalising this oppression.
The disproportionate presence of the security forces in the North-East is argued as being essential to prevent another armed insurrection from within the Tamil community against the State. This is a cynical argument which is deployed to normalise militarisation while being oblivious to the shared perception of the Tamil community which regards the Sri Lankan security forces as an occupying force. The perception leads both to internalisation of oppression and fuels further resentment between the majority Sinhalese and Tamils. Only a serious and genuine effort at security sector reform and demilitarisation will lead to sustainable peace and stability. The government should undertake genuine security sector reform to transition its security forces to the post-war environment that has now existed for eight and a half years.
As close observers of Sri Lanka know, the government will not willingly engage in security sector reform. The international community must prioritise issues around demilitarisation in all of its conversations with Sri Lanka regarding its transitional justice process. This is especially true as the international community prepares to review Sri Lanka during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and continues to monitor Sri Lanka’s implementation, or lack thereof, of HRC Resolutions 30/1 and 34/1. The continued militarisation of the North-East is having devastating impacts on Tamil society and further entrenching ethnic tensions. Thus, militarisation is a critical issue to address in the interests of sustainable peace and non-recurrence of armed conflict.
Read the full report here.