Fear eclipses the minorities. For the war-torn Tamils in the north and east it is the fear of social anarchy and everyday violence. It is fear of violence within the home, by the neighbours, on the roadside and of the police and the military. For Muslims living around the country, it is the fear of insults, of mob attacks and a state turned against them.
How does one explain the contradiction between the widespread military presence meant for repressive order, and the social anarchy taking hold of a war-torn society? The government claims the massive presence of security forces in the country is there to ensure the order necessary for development and economic prosperity, but then, how are Muslim businesses targeted with impunity?
The military and the police are the arms of the state that deploy legitimised violence, including lethal force. Indeed, historically some political theorists have defined the state as the entity that has a monopoly on legitimised violence. In this context, looking at the use of lethal force and violence by the state is instructive. In the war-ravaged districts of the north and east, the overbearing and intimidating presence of the military is ubiquitous, but hardly a bullet has been fired since the end of the civil war in May 2009. However, in many instances, as soon as there is protest on an issue, whether in the university or on the streets, the military steps in to shut it down. Until recently, it was extreme Sinhala Buddhist organisations that were targeting mosques and Muslim-owned shops as part of an anti-Muslim campaign. However, during the episode of organised violence in June 2014 against Muslims in Aluthgama, where a pogrom led to the killing of three Muslims and a Tamil, people in the affected area stated that security forces allowed the attacks to take place.
In the post-war years, the state has used lethal force to suppress protests. Most of those victims have been from the subaltern classes and incidentally belonging to the Sinhala community. A free trade zone worker was shot and killed when militant protests defeated a problematic pension bill in Katunayake in 2011. A fisherman was shot and killed during massive protests in 2012 that shut down coastal areas as the government increased the price of kerosene by 50 percent over night. Also that year, two prison rebellions, one against horrendous conditions in Welikada Prison in Colombo and the other in Vavuniya Prison, resulted in prisoners being injured and killed. And in 2013, villagers in Weliweriya protesting the contamination of local water by effluence from a factory were killed as the security forces crushed their street-blocking demonstration.
The military has many avenues of repression ranging from the threat of violence to the possibility of using lethal force. The power and legitimacy of the military is a reflection of the uses of state power and the role the ruling regime gives to the military. And in each country the military has a different relationship to the state and other state institutions. In Sri Lanka, there have been growing concerns about the relatively large defence budget, which pays the salaries of a larger number of security forces personnel. A more significant concern might be the militarisation of state institutions in recent years. The Urban Development Authority was merged with the Ministry of Defence in 2010, a move that has facilitated slum demolitions and ‘beautification’ of cities to promote tourism. Regulation of NGOs has also been brought under Defence, leading to the curtailment of NGO work. And a number of civil administrative posts – from the governor of the Northern Province, government agents in charge of district administration and diplomats, including ambassadors – have been given to military generals.
In the post-war years, the state has used lethal force to suppress protests. Most of those victims have been from the subaltern classes and incidentally belong to the Sinhala community.
In the Vanni, the military has been providing employment to young women and men. Young Tamils are being recruited into the military as soldiers. The military is also recruiting young women into the Civil Defence Force to work as pre-school teachers receiving a salary of around SLR 21,500 (USD 165), in stark contrast to underfunded pre-schools in some community centres that pay pre-school teachers SLR 3000 (USD 23). Young men and women are also employed on a monthly basis in military farms in the Vanni, where the monthly salary is SLR 18,000 (USD 138). Such monthly salaries are hard to come by in the northern districts where a crisis in the rural economy is pushing many youth to seek employment in West Asia. But the question remains as to why the military is responsible for such employment rather than some other arm of the state? In addition to these changes at the institutional level, there is also the process of militarisation and its impact on society, which is particularly acute in the war-torn districts.
Visible and invisible
In the post-war north, the military retains a large and visible presence. There are imposing camps with massive gates. The military has taken land and installed barriers in places declared High Security Zones, where civilians are not allowed. Places like Killinochi town and Elephant Pass are marked by the distasteful sight of massive monuments commemorating the military and the war. Military personnel are also regularly on the move, from the jeeps and trucks to the bicycle squads that seek to recruit youth and patrol the roads by night. They are involved in construction of buildings and public facilities, including parks, libraries and schools, decorating northern towns for festivals such as New Year and Vesak (Buddha Purnima), and even providing entertainment to the local population.
The daily presence of the military has led to a mixed reception from the local people. Some claim the military is at least doing some useful work, and provides a sense of security in the context of theft and petty crimes. However, there is also fear of the military uniform and guns. The Jaffna population has learned to live under the shadow of the military since 1995. And the military in turn has learned to control the local population. Indeed, military control is not just about domination alone; there is a subtle process of adaptation on both the part of the military and the local population it controls, which shapes the military’s hegemonic presence. There is also a feeling of humiliation for the population to live under the gaze of the military and to know that the military’s priorities are supreme. While the signs of massive physical destruction are fading as war-torn infrastructure and buildings are being rebuilt, it is the visibility of the military that is the most obvious reminder of the war, the tremendous losses and the unbearable suffering.
In any event, compared to the first few years since the end of the war, the presence of the military has declined to some extent. At one point, there were military checkpoints at every major junction in Jaffna town. Some of the houses where personnel stayed have been returned to their owners, and the military has consolidated its presence into the larger camps. However, despite such decline in military-held land, the military also engages in new land grabs, which have led to protests. Furthermore, the military presence has expanded through surveillance by non-uniformed military personnel and the use of proxy agents. The military and the police work with a range of individuals, including former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres, to gather information. Auto-rickshaw and van drivers, barbershops and internet cafes are also used for surveillance purposes. Such activities are not very subtle due to the non-professional character of informants, who themselves are possibly under pressure to provide information. Perhaps it can be said that the primary purpose of surveillance is to intimidate the local population by sending the message ‘we are watching you’. In this way, the more invisible presence of the military is insidious.
Co-opting of individuals and everyday institutions in this manner has real social consequences. It leads to distrust, resentment, and also hierarchies of power backed by the state. The politicisation of social institutions under an authoritarian regime and the suffocating nature of militarisation and surveillance take their toll on society at large.
In some countries, militarisation is aimed towards regimenting all of society with a totalitarian mindset. Indeed, the recent moves to provide compulsory leadership training spanning a couple of weeks for all entrants to national universities raised such fears. However, the policy was more an attempt to break the powerful student movement and the major protests against the privatisation of education.
The process of militarisation in Sri Lanka is not one of a fascist order, where militarisation usurps all of society. Nor does the military as an entity on its own have untrammelled power. Rather, militarisation in Sri Lanka is the project of the ruling regime to control society and weaken opposition to its rule. Furthermore, in the north and east, the military is seen as an external entity that is a physically occupying force, particularly among the people living in those regions. Here, a major gap remains that is both ideological and social in character, which the military cannot occupy. The linguistic and ethnic differences that shape everyday interactions between the military and the Tamil population are significant. The Northern Provincial Council elections in September 2013 reflected this tension as the Tamil National Alliance won a landslide victory, despite the problematic efforts of the military to support the coalition of parties backed by the Rajapaksa regime. Indeed, the elections represented a major protest vote, and the Tamil population’s expression of resentment against militarisation and the related humiliation they face in their day-to-day lives.
In this context, where the military cannot achieve a regimented society, violence within has been growing. Many observers claim the military is behind such violent incidents. However, the more worrying dynamic is the increasing condition of social anarchy. Allegations of sexual violence by the military do gain attention and should be dealt with by the state. However, the far more pervasive sexual violence within the community and in the family needs to be addressed as well. Such deterioration at the social level is linked to impunity.
In the context of surveillance and manipulation, a culture of impunity takes hold, as people believe it is who they know that matters. Despite the rhetoric of rehabilitation, former LTTE cadres and supporters, in particular, are cynically manipulated or used by the military even as they are excluded from society. Opportunistic individuals seeking power attempt to befriend the police and the military. The culture of impunity is shaping social violence. Small disputes have led to stabbings and killings. A nihilistic gang culture is becoming prominent among young men. Many social workers claim that the post-war context has seen an increase in women being abused, molested and raped by their own family members or others from the community. In this way, an emergent anarchy in society is related to militarisation, but also shaped by a deepening economic crisis and the lack of social and political vision and leadership.
Economic and political failure
The backdrop to the continuing militarisation and social anarchy is the failure of reconstruction and the bankruptcy of the Tamil political leadership. The reconstruction of the war-affected economy has, for the most part, failed. Rural incomes in agriculture and fisheries are declining. Employment opportunities are minimal, particularly when it comes to those jobs that can provide a monthly income. Reconstruction programmes initiated by the government and many donors have emphasised self-employment schemes, which have not only failed, but atomised individuals in the process and let them suffer on their own.
Women have had to increasingly take up the economic burden of the household. Some are working in the new garment factory in Killinochi or the free trade zones in Colombo, while others are going abroad for domestic work.
The youth have no routine in life. Day-wage work is irregular. Indeed, amidst such social and economic disorder, the climate is ripe for the emergence of gangs as a form of cohesion for destitute and hopeless youth. The culture of overt violence is linked to the structural violence in the economy characterised by the failure of rural incomes and massive indebtedness.
In the few years since the end of the war, war-torn communities have become hugely indebted through bank loans, lease hire purchasing of vehicles and pawning related to the earlier boom in global gold prices. And now, even the assets they held through the war in the form of gold have been depleted, and they find themselves greatly indebted through other loans. With few assets in place, families are coming apart and communities are torn asunder as there is no way out of the debts they owe to the banks and each other. Indeed, the abuse of women in the family and their abandonment is, in part, related to the widespread indebtedness in society. The vulnerability of girls and women is related to their economic marginalisation. When mothers are tied up in wage labour from dawn to dusk, their daughters are susceptible targets for abuse by a range of actors.
The only possibility of revitalising such social institutions is with political vision and leadership. However, the TNA is bankrupt. The TNA is singing to the tune of the diaspora and the Tamil media.
The only option to deal with the lack of incomes and indebtedness is to migrate for work. Thus, more and more youth from war-torn areas are seeking employment in West Asia, and have to deal with related social problems. Others are lured by agents and incur massive debts to take the dangerous boat journey to Australia. Thus, migration as a social response is increasingly sought by the bottom rung of society. When there are no opportunities at home and destitution stares at the younger generation, flight to another country is seen as the only option.
Displacement and migration are not new to Tamil society. In fact, a large section of the Tamil community has migrated for decades and formed the Tamil diaspora. With the Tamil middle class for the most part focused on sending its next generation to join the diaspora in the West, there is little commitment to rebuild social institutions. Indeed, the backbone of Tamil society in the form of education institutions, cooperatives and community centres are all in decline or in shambles, and the social will to reconstruct such institutions is absent. The older generation are withdrawing into religion, and women are called upon to find their strength through religiosity characterised by fasting and performing rituals. This retreat into temples is also linked to the reconsolidation of caste politics and forms of social exclusion. For the youth, and particularly young males, there is no outlet for their energies either in employable productive work or in meaningful voluntary social work.
The only possibility of revitalising such social institutions is with political vision and leadership. However, the TNA is bankrupt. The TNA is singing to the tune of the diaspora and the Tamil media. Indeed, all three forces have no vision of revitalising Tamil society and are only interested in peddling a discourse of victimhood and providing the false hope of international actors providing political deliverance. Thus, Tamil society is economically and politically in disarray, thereby fostering the conditions for social anarchy. Militarisation by the state reinforces these conditions. The military’s concern is the shell of order, where the infrastructure looks neat and things run on time. However, society in the north and east is slipping deeper into an abyss of anarchy.
Militarisation is a major aspect of the crisis in the war-affected regions, and it is a significant factor shaping state and society relations in the entire country. In this context, what is the way forward? As with any society ravaged by a civil war, demilitarisation is a priority, but it has to be linked to a process of democratisation and broader social and economic rejuvenation. At least in the north and east, the emergent anarchy is related to militarisation, the lack of a democratic visionary leadership and the deepening economic crisis.
Those who would like to see the military downsized should also consider alternatives for employment of young men and women, and broader economic possibilities confronting the processes of dispossession. Furthermore, the rejuvenation of social institutions can become a counterweight to the order being imposed from above through militarisation.
The TNA has taken up the cause of demilitarisation, particularly in relation to the military’s land grabs and its presence in the north and east. However, the TNA’s engagement does not recognise the social anarchy that is linked to militarisation. Furthermore, with the TNA unwilling to take a strong stand against the militarised politics of the defeated LTTE and lead the Tamil community through a process of self-critique, its criticism of the military is weak, and it cannot address the historical malaise that has led to social anarchy in the Tamil community.
While much of the analysis of militarisation is focused in the north and east, it is also an island-wide phenomenon, as social anarchy creeps in different forms into the rest of the country. The impunity of attacks on the Muslim community, in particular, is worrying. When Muslim activists are asked about their predicament, they mention their fear of a Sinhala Buddhist-dominated military, which they believe is against them.
Since the end of the war, few political actors in the south, and none of the parties other than the TNA, have directly taken on the issue of demilitarisation. This is in part because the military has been ideologically positioned as war victors, and the political parties fear a backlash if they demand demilitarisation. Thus, even to start a genuine debate on demilitarisation, the political parties, specifically the opposition UNP, must take the lead. But the UNP is currently in shambles.
In this context, the social efforts towards demilitarisation must continue. With respect to the north and east, releasing that region from the vice grip of the military through visits and protests by multi-ethnic and nation-wide movements is a necessity. Indeed, demilitarisation will become a reality only if resistance to militarisation takes an all-island character. A serious effort towards demilitarisation might be the most important effort in support of democratisation in Sri Lanka today.
~Ahilan Kadirgamar is a contributing editor for this magazine, and a member of the Collective for Economic Democratisation in Sri Lanka.