Sri Lanka military presence in Northern Province
by R Hariharan on 26 Oct 2014 1 Comment

The writer was asked to comment on the Northern Provincial Council asking the Sri Lankan defence forces to vacate from their province. According to the TNA leaders, the army occupies nearly 25 per cent of the total land area in the province. But according to the Sri Lanka ministry of defence, the total area under the forces in NPC is less than five per cent. Is the army justified in occupying a small portion of land in a former conflict zone?


Right to station troops anywhere in the country 


This is a slightly complex question linked to the post-war socio-political environment in Sri Lanka and Northern Province. There is no doubt the Sri Lanka Government has every right to station troops in the Northern Province or anywhere else in the country. Nobody would have questioned it in normal circumstances. The Northern Province was involved in an armed conflict waged by the LTTE and the Government for over 25 years and together both sides have lost a total of over 100,000 lives in the serial wars. After the rout of the LTTE, the people of Northern Province who had lost their kith and kin, livelihood, properties and much more are yet to fully recover from the trauma of war.


During the last five years the government’s efforts have been mostly to revamp the public services and infrastructure. It has failed to attend to their political, social and survival problems. As a result the government has failed to a create climate of security and trust in its actions among the public. Had the government approached the problem of rehabilitation with greater sensitivity, probably nobody would have objected to the continued presence of the army in the midst of a predominantly Tamil province.  


Un-kept promises on devolution


Ever since he came to power, President Rajapaksa had made repeated promises to India and the international community to devolve reasonable powers to the Northern and Eastern provinces.


A report in The Hindu (October 29, 2008) of an interview with the President said: “Asked about the contours of the political solution he had in mind, Mr. Rajapaksa explained his four ‘Ds’ approach – Demilitarisation, Democratisation, Development, and Devolution. When the 13th Amendment was introduced in the Sri Lankan Constitution at the instance of the Indian government, it could not be implemented in the North and the East because “there was no political will on either side to implement it.” But as a political leader, he had announced his government’s “intention of implementing this for the first time. We have given that assurance to the Tamil people of my country and to the international community. We are going to do it. This is not to satisfy anybody. It is my duty by the people of this country.”


But he never kept his promises; all that has happened since then is that he has stopped speaking about the 4 Ds and 2 Ds – demilitarisation and devolution – have been forgotten.


India extended support to President Rajapaksa’s Eelam War despite severe domestic opposition from Tamil Nadu because he promised to implement not only the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (giving a level of autonomy to Tamils) but go beyond that (13+). He has not given what he can or cannot give when TNA presented its demands when they held 15 rounds of meetings. He has used the ploy of leaving the job of evolving a consensus solution to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) in which no opposition party is participating as they suspect its credentials.


This PSC was a needless exercise since in the history of Sri Lanka as many as five commissions have examined in detail the different aspects of the Tamil autonomy question. So clearly Rajapaksa is trying to buy time using PSC rather than resolve the issue. This has created a crisis of confidence not only among Tamils and opposition parties but in India as well as among the international community about Rajapaksa’s credibility. This is affecting the perspectives of various stakeholders in viewing other related issues like the presence of the army in the Northern Province.   


Structural problems 


Records of ownership documents of land of people affected by the war are not readily available. So, through a process of inquiry, the administration is deciding the rightful ownership of land. This is a slow process and has provided an opportunity for others including the army to delay the return of land to the owners. A case filed by affected peoples is pending in the courts to speed up the return of the land seized by the LTTE and later by the army from the LTTE to the owners.


The chief minister of the Northern Province can hardly fulfill the promises the TNA made during the elections on restoration of land to the rightful owners. He can do little about it because he does not have a say even in the appointment of a chief secretary of the province, let alone major issues. In this environment, only mutual hostility between Colombo and Jaffna seems to be flourishing. Naturally the TNA is peeved.


TNA’s burden


The TNA had acted as the political proxy in parliament for LTTE before the war. Some of its members who are ardent supporters of the LTTE and independent Tamil Eelam have not been able to come to terms with the failure of LTTE’s war which cost at least 80,000 young lives to achieve the goal of separate Tamil Eelam. Their latent sympathies have been fanned by overseas remnants of the LTTE who are trying to stage a comeback in Tamil areas. Though they do not enjoy support from most of the people, even their failed attempts are enough to raise the suspicion of the army as they would never allow separatist insurgency to raise its head anywhere again.  


This has helped to create paranoia about the revival of Tamil militancy among the Sinhala population. Politically it suits Rajapaksa to keep this paranoia alive to retain Southern Sinhala support. It also provides a justification for the army’s continued presence in strength in the Northern Province. On the other hand, the TNA often speaks in two voices due to a schism within the leadership on taking a more pragmatic approach to curb separatist and militant voices within. Thus, the ethnic suspicions continue in Sri Lanka, colouring all political actions.  


Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group Paper No 55801 dated October 13, 2014

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