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Sri Lanka: Militarization And Colonization In The Name Of
National Integration And Reconciliation

By Athithan Jayapalan

16 March, 2012

South Asia is a region where counter-insurgencies have been and are still waged by nation-states to subjugate minorities or marginalized communities' struggle for self-determinism. Various clever mechanisms are being employed to continue with the exercise of centralized and oppressive control. In the name of counter insurgency, many states have deployed military complexes and forces in regions where a national liberation struggle is mobilized. The systematic use of state violence against the local communities is aimed at creating an environment of fear and to facilitate subjugation and eradication of those who embrace the struggle for self-determinacy. This violence is often so selective that it targets the particular social group or minority the liberation is being fought on behalf of. It also targets their traditional homeland, since the violence is deployed almost exclusively within demarcated areas which coincides with the regions where the minority traditionally have been settled in and where it forms the majority . The Muslim Kashmiris in Jammu-Kashmir, Baluchi people in Balochistan, Karen people in North-West Burma and the Tamil speaking people in North and East of Sri Lanka are all victims of such state terrorism . Heavy militarization often resulted in permanent military occupation of the resisters traditional homeland (of the people who resist the state). The resistance being regional in its locus and minority specific in it orientation, is easily isolated and projected by state centric agents as being parochial and communalist. The counter insurgency war is legitimized since the accommodation of the self-determinist demands of minorities is conceived upon as being against and as a compromise of national unity, sovereignty, well being and even harmony.

One central strategy in the state counter-insurgency is to attempt the weakening of the resistance by disrupting the demographic composition of the ‘troubled region' through destroying the continuity in traditional settlements pattern. What one can see in Tamil areas in Sri Lanka shares a lot of commonalities with what the Israeli state does in West Bank and Gaza , where Jewish settlements are strategically established with state patronage since the states inception. This is done in order to breach the continuity of Palestinian settlements in the region: traditionally Gaza would be connected with the West Bank through the existence of Palestinian settlements. Such practices is not isolated to south Asia but have been employed by nation-states throughout history and in various parts of the world. Such tactics often has the aim and the effect of breaking the backbone of self-determinist demands, as the demand is conceptualized on the base that a nation has the right for self-determinacy over areas where they are and have traditionally been in majority.

Brief about the History of State violence against Tamil communities

In Sri Lanka state violence has predominately and throughout history been targeted at the Tamil speaking communities of North and East of the Island . It has also undeniable been used to eliminate or silence individuals and communities from other social backgrounds which the State i.e. those who hold state power, perceive as being anti-state. Such the case with many southern Sinhala communities during the JVP led insurgencies in 1971 and 1987-1990(in which combined over 40 000 Sinhalese lost their lives. However state violence which targeted at the Tamil communities has been persistent and increasingly systematic since independence in 1948, which renders it to be only understood as structural violence. This violence is embedded within the structures of the nation-state, its apparatuses and in its functioning as a centralized unitary political administration. This violence therefore has been perpetuated by successive governments in Colombo , from the UNP led to the SLFP led governments.

There is a long history of violence against Tamils in the island. From the sporadic but systematically carried out anti-Tamil riots of 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1981 and 1983, to the countless instances of massacres and disappearances of Tamils at the hands of the armed forces in the name of counter-insurgency since 1983. The realization of adequate judicial punishment for the atrocities against Tamil speakers seems near impossible. Even when a judicial procedure is initiated through presidentially appointed commissions to investigate the ‘allegations', e.g. as in the aftermath of the 1994/1995 ceasefire, the findings are kept a state secret. The trials against state agents are systematically obstructed. Trials are shifted to Sinhala dominated areas due to the request of the accused security personnel. The witnesses brought in have been silenced by death or other means of violence, and as a result no one is punished for the crimes {1} . There is therefore a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka for crimes against Tamils and anti-state elements. This also indicates the bias nature of the state's judicial system, where state agents or individuals under the state patronage enjoy impunity when indulging in state orchestrated violence {2} .

The war in Sri Lanka started officially in 1983 and ended in 2009 with the elimination of the LTTE leadership by an unprecedented and brutal military offensive, but already in the 1960's the state has been involved in setting up military complexes in the north , under the pretext of combating smuggling from south India. In 1961, after a popular non-violent civil disobedience campaign was conducted by the Federal Party, the entire North and East province (NEP) was paralyzed and effectively cut off from the south and the government control. The party had initiated this campaign as response to a series of discriminatory policies enacted by Colombo and the violence unleashed with impunity in the anti-Tamil riots of 1956 and 1958, where Tamils in the south of the island were targeted, and an estimated 400 Tamil speakers had been reported murdered. The Satyagraha campaign took the shape of an effective mass mobilization against the centralized state. There was even an independent functioning of Postal services run by Tamil postal worker unions. This caused paranoia in Colombo , the paranoia led the parliament to authorize the Sri Lankan army ( SLA ) to intervene. It was to be sent to quell a popular protest by its own ‘citizens', and this was the first time in the island's post-independent history the army was sent in to quell a civilian protest. This sowed the seed for the militancy which erupted in the 1970's among the then younger generations.

In 1979 the SLA was sent into the NEP again, but this time to deal with the growing Tamil militancy. This marked the beginning of the continuous militarization of NEP spanning over three decades and at various stages has seen the involvement of the Indian armed forces. The military presence has even been drastically increased in the NEP since the ‘end of hostilities' in May 2009. According to findings published by the oppositional Sri Lankan newspaper Sunday Leader under the title ‘ The Rajapakse Troika' on 25.10.2011 {3} , the SLA alone is allocated around Rs 113 billion in 2012, while the Ministry of Defense (MOD), which now the Ministry for Urban Development is attached, is allocated Rs 215 billion. A total of 20 percent of the anticipated expenditure bill of the government is allocated to Ministries which are all under the Rajapakse family. The Army is allocated 5 percent more funds than it received in 2011. Now that the Government is scheduled to allocate more financial resources to the military and the MOD, one cannot evade the conclusion that the Tamil homeland is indeed under military occupation and is most likely to be so in the future.

The Post War Scenario

The systematic militarization is most evident through the heavy presence of High Security Zones (HSZ) and the state sponsored settlements which are established throughout the NEP. These colonies are often situated inside or in near proximity to the HSZ, so in effect the settlers are given armed protection and also assistance in monopolizing local natural resources within and near the designated HSZ's.

Since the ceasing of armed conflict in May 2009, there has been a change in the manner of colonization and militarization of the Tamil Areas. HSZ's have been constructed throughout war and colonization has continued since the major state sponsored Gal Oya Project in the 1950's {4} . Since the war's end these processes have been carried on unhindered and with greater continuity. Even in the resettling of many of the 350 000 displaced Tamils incarcerated in welfare camps during the last war, a common pattern seems to be found; Tamils are re-settled either in their traditional villages or placed outside it due to the existence of HSZ. In cases where there is an existence of HSZ nearby, the returnees are prevented from returning to the traditional livelihood practices such as sea shore and inland fishing or various forms of agriculture and pastry. While the HSZ denies Tamil civilians the freedom of movements within its vicinity, the Sinhala speakers in state sponsored settlements tend to often monopolize the local fishing and agriculture activities by being given access through state patronage to the local sea shores, fishing grounds and agricultural and pastoral land. Another aspects of the heavy military presence, is the atmosphere it seems to create upon returned IDP's and the Locals. The deployed military is predominately Sinhala male, and as will be mentioned later, involves itself in various aspects of civilian life. The presence of the military which was mobilized against Tamils for over three decades, the high numbers of widows in the NEP and the prevailing culture of impunity, combines to creates an highly insecure environment for the locals and in particular women {5} .

This year the Colombo government has also began a process of re-registration of land in NEP, an area where there is little documentation available on land holdings due to the destructions of war and the multiple displacement suffered by the civilians. If this was done with the intend of redistributing land to the local populations, there should be no protest, but it is done to wrest Tamils off land and place it within the grip of an oppressive state who can then distribute at its will. It is thereby a subject of heavy opposition from the political representatives of the locals {6} . Inevitably it will continue to and is at the present being distributed to state and military officials, foreign companies, Sinhala settlers and businesses from south.

State sponsored extra-local exploitation is not unfamiliar in the island, as evident when one regards the history of colonization of Traditional Tamil speaking areas, from Patti'Palai Aru (Gal Oya), Ma'naal Aru (Weli oya) to the newer settlement schemes in Jaffna, Vanni and East. Therefore one shall not expect otherwise from the state at the present under its banner of development. Amidst the frantic display of reconciliation and unity by Colombo 's propaganda machinery, there have been many reports of large scale colonization of Sinhala speakers from South in the NEP over the past year.

Colonization under the pretext of Development is not a new phenomenon

In the 1950's and 1960's there were relative labor shortages in the sparsely populated areas situated peripherally within the Tamil speaking districts of Trincomalee, Batticola and Amparai (Eastern Province) {7} . The Government took the advantage of this factor and planned major labor intensive irrigation and development schemes, in these schemes there was a strategic ignoring of the available local labor, which hailed from Tamil speaking communities. Instead Sinhala speakers from the southern districts of the island, where brought in as laborers. Then followed government sponsored housing of the Sinhala speakers, whereas the local Tamil speakers where displaced. The first major anti-Tamil riot in 1956 happens in such a context, where the Sinhala settlers organize attacks to displace Tamils and Muslims from their traditional villages that were situated near the Gal Oya irrigation and housing projects in Ampara district {8} . Tamils who were settled in separate quarters with the Sinhalese in the colonies were also attacked, and it resulted in the complete displacement of Tamil speakers from the areas designated to the irrigation scheme. The selective violence handed out by the mobs claimed over 150 lives.

From the 1970's onwards, the colonization tactics modeled on the State's experience in the Eastern Province were employed on the Vanni region (the Weli Oya and Maha Weli developmental schemes being testimonies to this). In the Post war scenario, one can see these tactics resurge. Labor intensive govt. sponsored projects are declared in the NEP under the pretext of development, local Tamil laborers are ignored, and extra-local laborers are bought in under the pretext of work and settled with houses and land. The main motives behind such a strategy seem to colonize Tamil majority areas with extra-local Sinhalese. By doing it the government is cleverly attempting to satisfy depressed Sinhala workers and farmers by utilizing their grievances within the broader state agenda. Instead of providing them with secure livelihood opportunities in the south they are seduced into the commercial ‘development' projects in the traditional Tamil provinces with an undertone of Sinhala supremacy. Thus the Government is providing cheap laborers as well for various investment projects headed by international companies in the NEP. Displays of Sinhala supremacy seems to be suffice to seduce the masses and imbue a deep embedded legitimacy to the Rajapakse house in the Sinhala nationalistic psyche.

Conclusion: Militarization and Imperialism goes hand in hand

Beside the HSZ and the land redistribution drive, many ‘development' schemes are headed or will be headed by the military. Businesses of various kinds is run or owned by the military in the NEP. Such development schemes for the region will increase as investments start to flood in. Imperialist states ranging from the Western states to the Russian, Chinese and Indian state have all hurried to invest and carve out pieces of the newly conquered north and east. Power plants in Sampoor are being built with Indian aide and a Russian company is to explore oil outside the Mannar coast in North {9} . A federation of Belgium firms has ongoing talks with Colombo , Indian banking giant Axis opening branches in Jaffna and Tata is to involve itself in tea plantations in the East. A Malaysian firm is to construct renewable energy facilities in Jaffna in order to sell the power back to the residents of Jaffna . Colombo seems to know how to attract and facilitate investors and the banner of development is convenient for both the conqueror and the plunderer.

Alongside this multifaceted imperialist plundering, the armed forces are doing their part in the extraction of capital and resource in the NEP. Navy personnel run restaurants and hotels in Trincomalee. Army personnel run hotels, restaurants and vegetable retails in Vanni and Jaffna . This is effectively depriving locals of livelihood opportunity at one hand; on the other it creates various businesses in the name of development without the consultation of locals, which could facilitate the imposition of tourist facilities. Adding more abnormality to the picture, the mega morphed ministry of defense and urban development are now planning to expand the IT economy in the country. This is to manifest through training more than 260 000 army personnel in IT education in collaboration with Microsoft Sri Lanka {10} . State and militarist capitalism seems to be the trademark of the post war scenario where through the agencies of the state and the military, transnational companies will be facilitated to run their business after placing their investment within the respective ministries in Colombo .

In such a context the Colombo government deploys romantic rhetoric of National integration, peace, harmony and reconciliation, when in effect there is in the NEP militarization and colonization which has been perpetuated for the past four decades. This is not stating that the south did not experience state terror and heavy militarization, as under the JVP insurgencies. It implies instead that beside the JVP insurgencies, even though military presence was heavy in certain key areas and localities in the south, it was largely given legitimacy by many Sinhala speakers on grounds of being necessary to tackle the Tamil militancy. Now the military is increasingly becoming involved in civilian aspects of society throughout the island, even making inroads into the university system of the south {11} . Protest has proliferated since the war's end opposing the increasing power concentrated in the Rajapakse family. Sadly many of the protests from south seem to isolate the structural violence experienced by Tamils exclusively to the current Rajapakse regime. That for the past four decades successive Sinhala dominated government has made its presence in the traditional Tamil homeland as an oppressive state, is conveniently forgotten. With the discourses of National integration, Reconciliation and development state-centric actors are attempting to legitimize the manifestation of these processes at all cost. It is to happen if necessary under the barrel of the gun and with non participation from neither the locals of NEP nor their political representatives.

Athithan Jayapalan is a social anthropologist from northern sri lanka now settled in Oslo, Norway


{1} The case of Krishanti Kumaraswamy in 1996 gained enormous publicity and resulted in soldiers being convicted for the 5 murders. This case stands out as the only instance when killings of Tamil speakers by state personnel were given a verdict. The nature of verdict was however inadequate as it treated this as an single and isolated act derived of structure and wider pattern. See: “Twenty years of make-believe: Sri Lanka 's Commission of Inquiry”. Amnesty International 2009: page 11.

{2} To read in detail about a few cases See: “Post-War Justice in Sri Lanka : Rule of Law, the criminal justice system and commissions of inquiry”. International Committee of Jurist Report 2010: page: 58-59. For more about impunity see: “Twenty years of make-believe: Sri Lanka 's Commission of Inquiry”. Amnesty International 2009.

{3} http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/10/23/the-rajapaksa-troika/ (accessed 01.12.2011).

{4} See:” Sri Lanka 's Eastern Province : Land, Development and Conflict” . International Crisis Group Report 15 October 2008 : Page: 4-5.

{5} See: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/217-sri-lanka-womens-insecurity-in-the-north-and-east.aspx (accessed 24.02.2012).

{6} See: http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/14151-protest-in-vavuniya.html : http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-10-17/south-asia/30289071_1_sinhala-tamils-tna (accessed 24.02.2012).

{7 } There were traditional Sinhala villages in the Amparai district as well, but they were in minority, whereas Tamil and Muslim villages were the majority.

{8} Close to 20 000 settlers were settled of whom the large majority were Sinhala speakers, see:” Sri Lanka 's Eastern Province : Land, Development and Conflict” . International Crisis Group Report 15 October 2008 : Page: 4-5.

{9} See: http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/fullstory.php?nid=1882150664 (accessed 25.02.2012).

{10} See: http://www.lankanewspapers.com/news/2011/12/73084.html (accessed 25.02.2012).

{11} The Government passed a law making it obligatory for students entering higher educational institutions to undergo 3 months of boot camp under the guise of being given leadership training by the military. http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=33975 (accessed 29.12.2011).




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