A bulldozer covered with armour plates in the military's war memorial at Elephant Pass, Jaffna.Photo: Flickr / koolb
A bulldozer covered with armour plates in the military's war memorial at Elephant Pass, Jaffna.
Photo: Flickr / koolb

A garrison state?

Why is the Sri Lankan army running parks, shopping arcades, a vet clinic and a beauty salon?

Just two years ago, the Urban Wetlands Park was an abandoned tract of land. Located between Sri Lanka's commercial capital, Colombo, and administrative capital, Kotte, it functioned as an unofficial marketplace for building materials.

Today the trucks of sand, tiles and bricks are gone, as are the garbage and mud. In their place are shady trees and ornamental shrubs, neat walkways and an imposing fountain. But the chief jewel of this beautifully laid-out and meticulously maintained public park is an army tank. It attracts a lot of attention. Children clamber over it while adults inspect it. Sometimes, a soldier in uniform will explain its intricacies to the avid visitor.

An army tank in a public park would be an anomaly, but the Urban Wetlands Park is not just another public facilities. The Lankan army built it and handles its day-to-day maintenance. Uniformed soldiers are ubiquitous here, making sure that visitors follow rules, such as keeping off the grass.


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The Urban Wetland Park belongs to a new category of public facility which is becoming thick on the ground in Sri Lanka. Built, reconstructed and maintained by the military, these ventures range from parks, shopping arcades and cricket stadiums to hotels, restaurants, a veterinary clinic, a beauty salon and even a cruise ship. These projects provide the military a legal entry into the economy and civil society.

The Long Eelam War, which transformed the Lankan military from a semi-ceremonial entity into a brutally effective fighting force, ended in 2009. Though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is gone, the military remains more visible than ever. Defence costs still consume the largest chunk of the national budget. According to the 2012 Global Militarisation Index, Lanka is ranked 36th, far ahead of its Southasian compatriots, including India (74th) and Pakistan (47th).

Militarisation is an all too familiar phenomenon in the developing world. But Sri Lanka's brand of militarisation is qualitatively different from the standard developing-world models. Generally, the boundary line between military and civil spaces are violated by the military, either directly – through coups – or indirectly, by imposing its will on weak civilian administrations – Pakistan being an excellent case in point. There are leaders, who use military power to create personal dynasties; but they are former soldiers and the relationship between these familial regimes and their militaries resembles a marriage of equals – Egypt under Hosni Mubarak is an ideal example.

What the Rajapaksas need is not a neutral military, but a partisan military, which will throw its weight behind the chosen Rajapaksa candidate (brother or son).

What Sri Lanka is experiencing is something very different from this 'of the military, by the military, for the military' brand of militarisation. The Lankan militarisation drive is spearheaded by civilian leaders of a democratically elected government. Militarisation in Sri Lanka has not turned the military into an independent power centre, capable of imposing its separate agenda on civilian rulers. On the contrary, the military is rapidly being transformed from an apparatus of the state into an arm of the country's elected civilian president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa is the Minister of Defence and Urban Development, while his younger brother, Gotabhaya, is the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry. It is these two siblings, and not generals or admirals, who constitute the leading force in Lankan militarisation. Their purpose is not the promotion of military interests or the creation of a quasi-military regime, but a furtherance of their strictly civilian project of familial rule and dynastic succession.

Since his election as the president in November 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa has worked relentlessly to turn his family into Sri Lanka's imperium in imperio. The many public facilities named after him – from a loss-making budget airline to a new airport which earned less than USD 130 in May 2014 – is only the ludicrous tip of the iceberg that is Southasia's newest political dynasty. Rajapaksa brothers are in charge of defence, development and finance – offices that consume most of the national budget. The eldest sibling is the Speaker of the Parliament. Sons, nephews and other relations clog the upper echelons of state and government. In 2013, Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was removed via a questionable impeachment and replaced by former Attorney General and legal advisor to the Ministry of Defence, Mohan Peiris (a close ally of the family who had lied to the UN Committee Against Torture about the whereabouts of a disappeared journalist). Businessmen close to the first family are beginning to dominate the private sector economy. Important religious, professional and social institutions are increasingly coming under Rajapaksa control, either directly or through proxies.

But this near-omnipotent family edifice is built on a foundation which is far from secure. The Rajapaksas currently control the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), but the party's real loyalties are believed to be with its founder's daughter, former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Mahinda Rajapaksa is a veteran within the SLFP, but brothers Gotabhaya and Basil, and son Namal, are relative newcomers. Their meteoric rise is reportedly resented by party stalwarts of long standing. This lack of acceptance may not affect the family's grip on power so long as Mahinda Rajapaksa remains president; however, in a post-Mahinda conjuncture, it can upset the succession plan.

Months after winning the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2010, the Rajapaksas managed to pass a constitutional amendment which removed presidential term limits and rendered the electoral playing field blatantly uneven. But Mahinda Rajapaksa is 68 years old and ill-health or death can nullify the advantages gained through the 18th Amendment. According to the Sri Lankan constitution, if the sitting president dies or is incapacitated, the prime minister becomes acting president; within a month a new president must be chosen by the Parliament, via secret ballot. Since the Rajapaksas are still far from hegemonic within the upper and middle echelons of the SLFP, the possibility of a section of the ruling party uniting with the opposition to elect a non-Rajapaksa as the new president is a very real one.

In such a closely contested succession crisis, the military might be able to tilt the balance. The Lankan military, unlike many of its counterparts in the developing world, has desisted from meddling in popular politics. This neutrality can seriously undermine the succession plans of the ruling family. What the Rajapaksas need is not a neutral military, but a partisan military, which will throw its weight behind the chosen Rajapaksa candidate (brother or son). They need the military tactically as well, to defeat electoral challenges and destroy democratic dissent. To ensure such a partisan intervention by the military, two key preconditions must be fulfilled: the military must be under Rajapaksa control; and the economic interests of military leaders must be tied to the continuation of Rajapaksa familial rule.

It is this very specific political context which gives Lankan militarisation its sui generis nature.

The uniformed octopus
Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd (RALL) is a private security company started with the objective of becoming the ‘premier security solutions provider in the country’. It employs around 4000 people (mostly ex-service personnel) and also runs a series of food outlets and a foreign employment agency. And it is a fully owned and managed concern of the Ministry of Defence.

Historically, the Lankan military played no role in the civilian economy. When RALL was set up in 2006, it was a total anomaly. Not anymore. Over the years, the military has made major inroads into the business world. The army now owns a resorts-brand, Laya, and a travel agency, Air Travel Services Pvt Ltd, which caters to both tourists and pilgrims visiting India and Mecca. It recently set up its own Directorate for Agriculture and Livestock and is planning to import 10,000 cows to set up a dairy business. The air force owns and operates Helitours, a commercial airline, and manages two golf courses, including the Eagles Golf Links, near Trincomalee Harbour. The Navy runs the Sober Island Resort, organises whale-watching trips and has illegally acquired around 900 acres of forest land close to the Wilpattu National Park to set up a hotel. A new military university is being set up in the Southern Province.

The Rajapaksas desire to change Northern demographics for electoral reasons just as much as Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists yearn to do so for ideological reasons.

In 2005, the year Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president, Sri Lanka ranked 51st in the Global Militarisation Index. Less than a decade later, it has moved to 36th place. And though the Military Expenditure Index has decreased marginally between 2009 (the year the war ended) and 2012, the Military Personnel Index (that characterises the military population in relation to the civilian population) has actually increased during peacetime. Despite the absence of a clear enemy, the military continues to expand, directly and indirectly. A new programme called ‘Api Army’ (We are Army) aims to recruit professionals into the army as volunteers. All new entrants to national universities must undergo a residential training session (called ‘Leadership Training’) in army camps. Principals of government schools are also sent to Leadership Training and awarded brevet ranks.

The Rajapaksas argue that militarisation is good for the economy because it saves public funds and promotes development. “Only those who support terrorism can request to reduce allocations for defence”, proclaimed Basil Rajapaksa, presidential sibling and minister of economic development. This argument ignores a very simple fact: whether spent through military or development budgets, the funds are ultimately coming from the state exchequer. Moreover, the involvement of the military in public works is negating the classic economic advantage of such projects – the generation of direct and indirect employment opportunities in the civilian sector. This is particularly relevant in the war-torn north and east, where unemployment and poverty are reaching crisis levels. Finally, post-war Sri Lanka does not need a gargantuan military. A much higher level of public saving can be achieved by paring down the military to suit actual peacetime needs.

The military is also a far less efficient economic actor than private sector organisations because it does not have to concern itself with profit, loss, indebtedness or bankruptcy. Though the military uses public funds for its economic ventures, it does so unhampered by public oversight or transparency. Since the military is legally empowered to carry arms, it has a built-in advantage over its civilian competitors. Several civilian businesses have reportedly been threatened by their new military competitors. Militarisation cannot but introduce a major distorting factor into the Lankan economy which can result in serious inefficiencies, massive corruption and increased monopolisation.

There is an additional politico-social danger. As part of the militarisation drive, soldiers from the mostly Sinhalese army are compelled to perform ‘menial’ tasks, such as sweeping roads, often in public view. This would seem demeaning in a country where a man’s occupation plays a major role in determining his societal status. Sri Lanka has a long history of anti-minority populism. The abiding myth of the poor and oppressed Sinhala nation against the exploitative Tamils/Muslims/Christians often comes to the fore of political discourse at times of socio-economic upheavals. Injured personal pride can then turn into seething social resentment, creating a fertile breeding ground for anti-democratic and anti-minority fanaticism. This form of nationalism has been adopted at various times by many groups, particularly the SLFP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and formed the basis for the SLFP’s anti-Tamil ‘Sinhala Only’ stance in 1955/56 and the JVP’s Second Insurgency.

A Sinhala-Buddhist force
In June 2014, an altercation involving a Buddhist monk, his driver and three Muslim youths in the coastal town of Aluthgama grew into a murderous anti-Muslim riot, due to the toxic intervention by an extremist Buddhist organisation, Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force – BBS).  Addressing a meeting of the faithful in the simmering town, the General Secretary of the BBS, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero (a Wirathu-type Buddhist monk) thundered, “This country still has a Sinhala police, a Sinhala army. If after today a single Muslim or some other alien lays a hand on a single Sinhalese, let alone a robe, it will be the end of all these creatures.” Over the next two days Buddhist men (and a few women), often dressed in the white garb of piety, attacked Muslim homes, businesses and mosques, undeterred by a curfew and unimpeded by the presence of thousands of armed policemen and soldiers.

The Sri Lankan military is Sri Lankan in name only. In actuality, it is predominantly Sinhalese and Buddhist in composition, and Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist in ethos. How will the militarisation of an ethno-religiously pluralist society by such a monolithic military impact on inter-communal relations and on the rights and security of minorities?

Traditionally, Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists strongly advocated the state-aided internal colonisation of Tamil-majority areas. They realised that the consequent demographic changes would cause a drastic electoral disempowerment of Tamils. State-aided colonisation schemes implemented by successive Lankan governments contributed to the worsening of Sinhala-Tamil relations.

In the post-war period, this project has been embraced by the Rajapaksas for their own purposes. Having decisively lost the 2013 provisional election in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, the Rajapaksas desire to change Northern demographics for electoral reasons just as much as Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists yearn to do so for ideological reasons. The military has become the willing executioner of this joint Rajapaksa-Sinhala/Buddhist supremacist project to render Tamils thinner on the northern ground.

Military cantonments are being set up in the North with help from China. Buddhist temples are being built by the military in areas without civilian Buddhists to service these new Buddhist communities. According to a recent news report, “vast acres of land that were owned by Tamil families for generations have been handed over to Sinhala families, forming ‘new’ villages. The housing and other infrastructure facilities in these villages are being provided to the resettled Sinhalese families by the Sri Lanka army.” The army is rebuilding the Tamil village of Kokachankulam in the North as Nandimithragama. Nandimithra was the chief warrior of King Dutugemunu, who is revered by Sinhala-Buddhists for defeating the Tamil king Elara, and unifying the island. The new village also contains a giant statue, supposedly of the warrior Nandimithra, whose early exploits included ‘tearing asunder’ Tamils for desecrating Buddhist sacred monuments.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran has accused the regime of misusing the Land Acquisition Act to expropriate 6400 acres of land to build a military cantonment in Jaffna:

The notice says that the claimants are not traceable! The owners of these lands live just outside the so called illegal High Security Zone, in camps maintained by the government itself. They have lived there for over 25 years. And although their title to these lands were checked and cleared by a Committee appointed by the Supreme Court in 2006, they were not permitted to go and resettle on the false assertion that de-mining was not complete. That it is false is demonstrated by the sight of soldiers cultivating these lands… Now suddenly, the government has shown its true face: these lands will be taken and given to others to occupy, who will become voters in the North. Similar notices have been issued in the Kilinochchi Distrct also. In the Eastern Province, instructions have gone out to acquire all the land that the military deems necessary for its purposes.

Sihalaramaya (The Sinhala Temple) is symbolic of this new symbiotic politico-military nexus. Built in the North by the military, its nominal chief incumbent is an extremist Buddhist monk, Magalkande Sudantha Thero. He is the Convenor of Sinhala Ravaya, a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist organisation implicated in a number of anti-minority activities, including the burning of a Muslim-owned meat shop in the Rajapaksa stronghold of Tangalle.

An imperfect weapon
From the inception of their rule, the Rajapaksas insisted on the Lankan military being a virtuous entity – uniformly good, efficient and law-abiding. Initially, this fantasy of the soldier as the hero-saint was necessary to sustain the myth of a ‘humanitarian’ operation with ‘zero civilian casualties’. Post-war, this fantasy is being maintained to justify the creeping militarisation of society.

According to an army spokesman, “None of our soldiers have suffered from PTSD… The culture in our country ensures soldiers do not suffer from PTSD.”

Facts belie this beguiling characterisation of the army. Increase in crimes perpetrated by the members of the Lankan military is becoming an open secret and a serious social concern. “Police statistics suggest that in the first four months of 2014, nearly 18 percent of reported crimes were committed by the members of the armed forces – a large increase on the 5 percent reported for the whole of 2013”, noted a recent news report. Experts blame the persistence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but the military disagrees. According to an army spokesman, “None of our soldiers have suffered from PTSD… The culture in our country ensures soldiers do not suffer from PTSD.”

High rates of desertion in peacetime provide another indication that the military is not the happy, contented and united fraternity Rajapaksa propaganda claims it to be. According to the same report, there have been close to 30,000 military desertions in the post-war period. Not so, insists the military spokesman: “Many of our soldiers are from rural areas, they are often absent during the harvest period because they are helping their families. More often than not they return once the harvesting is complete.” So here we have another Lankan first, on par with ‘wars which do not kill civilians’ and ‘militaries which are immune to combat stress’: seasonal desertions. Soldiers leave during harvesting season; soldiers return after harvesting season. These are not desertions; just de facto extended vacations!

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa castigated calls for military demobilisation, post-war, as part of an international plot to ‘destabilise’ Sri Lanka: “Can any sensible government send home those who risked their lives in the battlefield? Demobilisation can cause uncertainty and political turmoil, thereby undermine social as well as economic stability. Perhaps, those working closely with the LTTE rump expected us to send men home believing such a course of action will lead to a major crisis.”

Mass discharge or compulsory retirement is not the only way to pare down a military after a war. In Sri Lanka, demobilisation could have been achieved by a ‘golden handshake’ type voluntary early retirement scheme for soldiers and officers who had served in the war. Voluntary retirees could have been granted full pension rights and afforded a chance to obtain higher education or vocational training. There could have even been special start-up loan schemes to provide financial assistance to retired soldiers who want to engage in economic ventures. As the high number of desertions in peace time demonstrates, many soldiers want a chance to return to civilian life. Instead of demobilising, the Rajapaksas are trying to expand the military even further, because they need a strong and numerous military as the ultimate guarantor of familial power.

In August 2013, three unarmed civilians died and scores were injured when the military fired live bullets into a peaceful demonstration in Weliweriya. The demonstrators were protesting against a factory accused of polluting ground water in their area; the factory belonged to a businessman close to the Rajapaksa family and was located in the Gampaha District, the electoral base of Minister Basil Rajapaksa. The military charge against the mostly Sinhala and Buddhist protestors was led by Brigadier Deshapriya Gunawardane, who played a prominent role in the final battle of the Fourth Eelam War.

In the immediate aftermath of the Weliweriya shooting, in response to a massive public outcry, the army suspended Brigadier Gunawardane and three lieutenant-colonels from their posts. Recently, all four officers were reinstated and Brigadier Gunawardane appointed as the Military Attaché of the Lankan Embassy in Turkey. A clearer signal could not have been sent regarding the inseparable nature of military and the dynastic interests.

Sri Lanka is being turned into a garrison state despite the absence of an external or internal enemy. In August 2014, the army commander announced that new bases will be set up in each of the country’s administrative districts. The purpose of the emerging ‘national security state’ would be to ensure the stability and longevity of Rajapaksa Rule. A narrative which equates national interests with Rajapaksa interests (and accuses the opposition of treachery) justifies this use of the national armed forces as a Rajapaksa Praetorian Guard.

The Rajapaksas seem to be aware that their perfect weapon can boomerang on them someday. Consequently, Rajapaksa control of the military has increased in tandem with the military’s encroachment of civilian spaces. The military has been purged of disloyal elements. The family is also careful not to permit popular or charismatic leaders to appear from within the armed forces. Top commanding positions are often changed and the those retired from senior ranks are given bureaucratic or diplomatic postings. This has created an interesting paradox: while becoming more powerful vis-à-vis civil society, the military has become more powerless against the first family.

In Togo in 2005, the military extra-constitutionally intervened to make the deceased president’s son the new president. The father was a former military man, who came to power through a coup. That is one way Lankan militarisation can go, the way it is supposed to go according to its civilian authors. But the possibility of the military throwing away the Rajapaksa playbook and taking a more direct role cannot be ruled out. Even with a Rajapaksa succession, it could result in a new status quo in which the military becomes the senior partner. Or there can be a full-fledged coup, with the military stepping in to break a deadlock between Rajapaksa and non-Rajapaksa political blocs in a closely fought succession battle.

Coups can happen, not just from the top, but also from the middle and the bottom.

The military can emerge from the shadows even during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, if the ruling family’s Sinhala-Buddhist support base is substantially eroded due to economic factors. If the continued existence of dynastic rule depends on using force on not just the minorities but also unarmed Sinhala-Buddhists, and the democratic opposition is too weak to challenge the increasingly dysfunctional status quo, the military might step in, offering itself as the genuine ‘patriotic’ alternative.

Recently, more than one hundred disabled soldiers sought judicial intervention to prevent the defence establishment from slashing their post-retirement benefits. This incident is symbolic of another malaise visceral to the current militarisation. The upper and middle echelons of the three forces are well looked after, but the same cannot be said of ordinary soldiers; they are often compelled to work as indentured labour on the military’s economic project for little or no extra payment. This differential treatment can evolve into an irreconcilable conflict of interests, between the upper and lower ranks of the military.

Coups can happen, not just from the top, but also from the middle and the bottom. Eventually there can be a majoritarian bloc, consisting of those segments of Sinhala-Buddhist society, mainly small and medium scale entrepreneurs and mid-level professionals/bureaucrats, which is hardest hit by Rajapaksa economics (a combination of massive loan-based infrastructure projects, that have failed in income or employment generation, and tourism and hospitality industry, which involve taking over traditional agricultural lands to set up hotels). Such a bloc would support a captains/sergeants coup, and could install a regime which is wedded to an unmediated Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist agenda and a politico-socially illiberal ethos.

The future is not easy to foretell. But one outcome is a near certainty. If the militarisation process continues apace, Lankan democracy will be a clear loser, together with the idea of a truly inclusive Lankan nation – one based on the equality of the majority and minority communities.

~This article is a part of The Southasian military complex’ web-exclusive package. For information on the print quarterly, click here.

~Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan commentator based in Colombo.

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