The Sri Lankan military is getting a makeover. Now that the war with the Tamil Tigers is over it is time to wash off the stains and spruce up. Military personnel may be spotted painting public buildings or engaged in projects to beautify Colombo, with defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa personally overseeing the transformation and development of the city.
The military playing a role in postwar reconstruction is not altogether misplaced but there is more to it than meets the eye. The Sri Lankan military, accused of grave human rights violations especially during the final stages of the war, is transforming itself by taking over many aspects of civil administration and governance.
Army trucks may now be spotted around Colombo selling vegetables rather than unloading barricades. War on food inflation, Sri Lankan style, is to get the army to buy vegetables from farmers and sell them cheaply by absorbing transport and other costs – never mind the structural problems with agriculture and food markets, including procurement and pricing issues. Indeed, one opposition MP wondered if the solution might soon include getting the navy to go fishing.
Despite the end of the war, the country’s administrative and diplomatic services are being militarised. A number of serving or former military commanders have received appointments in diverse state institutions and diplomatic missions, including as ambassadors. The governors of the war-torn northern and eastern provinces are, unsurprisingly, men of military pedigree – perhaps emulating India’s strategy of appointing former generals as governors of disobedient provinces like Kashmir or Assam.
The Sri Lankan Urban Development Authority has been brought under the purview of the defence ministry. Which ministry is better equipped for urban governance and waging a war on urban poverty and squalor? Reports of forced evictions and demolitions of slums involving the military followed, as did allegations by human rights groups of disappearances of beggars (described as eyesores or even security threats by senior ministers).
The National Secretariat for Non-Government Organisations, responsible for registration and monitoring of NGOs, previously under the social services ministry, and later the internal affairs ministry, is also now under the watchful eyes of the defence ministry. The director-general of the NGO secretariat has, however, assured that no pressure would be put on NGOs; the secretariat would merely “monitor where they work, to whom they cater and who are involved with them”.
Little wonder that NGOs working in the war-affected areas, for example, report being so closely regulated that initiatives involving work on war-related trauma or rights advocacy are routinely refused clearance. NGOs are apparently welcome to build toilets but not to misguide people into speaking about their rights.
The fast-expanding sphere of authority of the military establishment assumes another dimension when one considers another kind of convergence of power. In all, the four Rajapaksa brothers preside over the presidency, five key ministries (defence, finance and planning, economic development, ports and aviation, and highways) and the offices of the defence secretary and parliamentary speaker. With the two-term limit on the presidency lifted last year, things are looking good for the Rajapaksas.
With significant curbs on freedom of expression continuing, civil society heavily policed, political power concentrated, and governance militarised, things are not looking so good for democratic accountability. Sri Lanka looks more like an at-war rather than a post-war country, with a ubiquitous military – accused of serious crimes – enjoying unprecedented power and reward, including a 100,000-rupee (£570) bonus for every soldier having a third child (given the Sinhalese domination of the military, a profoundly troubling move). A brutal military victory, as many warned, may well entrench militarisation and exclusion rather than democratisation and inclusion.
All too stressful? Tune into Ranaviru (war-hero) Real Star, a reality TV show reserved for military personnel. If you prefer a holiday, the Sri Lankan army will be pleased to pamper you with “luxurious comforts at very reasonable rates” at the new Thalsevana beach resort – the second army-owned and managed resort – in Kanakesanthurai on the Jaffna peninsula, long part of the Tamil homeland. According to some, the resort is in a “high security zone”, so peace is assured – no annoying Tamils (they are all gone, somewhere) or dissident noises.
Forget war. In Sri Lanka it is peace that is really turning the military establishment on.
Vijay K. Nagaraj, research director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy.