Home 2009: 6 De-militarising democracy and governance in Sri Lanka

De-militarising democracy and governance in Sri Lanka

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Darini Rajasingham Senanayake discusses the challenges facing post-war Sri Lanka as it tries to move from a focus on national security to human security.


Sri Lanka was once a ‘model democracy’ with a welfare state and social indicators that were the envy of the developing world. Hence, there was great optimism that life would return to normal, the barriers and check-points come down, tourists and foreign investments flow back, and the economy finally take off in an environment of peace and security once the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were defeated. Residents of central Colombo who are daily inconvenienced by the security arrangements of the President and various VIPs that had turned the city into a veritable battle-field had hoped to see the barriers and check-points go. They have been disappointed!

After the defeat of the LTTE, it was hoped that South Asia’s most desirable capital city, whose many beautiful trees had been cut down to enhance VIP security, would once again become people, pedestrian and environment-friendly now that the war was over. Residents of Colombo also looked forward to an end to the culture of politicians breaking speed limits with impunity and the lifting of Emergency Regulations (ER), which had also been used and abused by the State during the Southern Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), uprising in the late eighties and early nineties when tens of thousands died in Southern Sri Lanka.

These hopes have been dashed. It is increasingly evident that the Colombo regime’s insecurities (despite or perhaps because of weeks of vainglorious victory celebrations), coupled with 30 years of war, have left an institutional legacy and ‘security’ mindset that would need a considerable shift before Lanka takes off.

The question on many minds at this time is: will militarisation be a substitute for democratisation – beyond the show of elections? The impact of 30 years of armed conflict between successive Sri Lankan governments and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), may be analysed in terms of human, economic, and governance costs.

It is increasingly clear that the governance cost and democracy deficit would have the greatest long term impact on the country. The human costs of three decades of conflict are evident in over 100,000 lives lost and maimed and over half a million displaced at different times including the 280,000 in internment camps in Vavuniya at this time. The mounting economic cost of conflict is evident in the fact that in the final year of war the government was spending almost 17 per cent of GDP on the war effort. This is partly the reason for a 1.9 billion IMF loan request at this time. Sri Lanka has the largest armed forces per capita in South Asia and has trouble paying salaries. Yet, strangely since the war ended there are plans to enlarge the military by 50 per cent – an odd sort of military Keynsianism given that the country does not produce its own arms and spends billions on armaments that it can hardly afford.

Much work lies ahead if the narrative of economic boom in Lanka is to be realised. The challenge now is to move beyond a highly militarised, state-centric national security paradigm and prioritise human security and development, which enabled the island to achieve the highest social indicators in South Asia. It is thus that the military victory over the LTTE may be translated into a stable and sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.

Governance cost of conflict and militarisation

The last three years of war to defeat the LTTE saw a serious erosion of governance structures, democratic institutions, and traditions of multiculturalism and co-existence among diverse ethnic and religious communities. It is clear that post-LTTE, the government would need to rethink the military-centric national security state and the repression that it cultivated during the war, which in some ways mimicked the tactics and strategies of the enemy which ran a quasi-state for a few years in the Vanni.

In his book “Brave New World Order” (Orbis Books, 1992, paper), Jack Nelson Pallmeyer identified several characteristics of a National Security State, the primary one of which is “the military not only guarantees the security of the state against all internal and external enemies, it has enough power to determine the overall direction of the society.. In a National Security State the military exerts important influence over political, economic, as well as military affairs… Authentic democracy depends on participation of the people. National Security States limit such participation in a number of ways: They sow fear and thereby narrow the range of public debate. They restrict and distort information; and they define policies in secret and implement those policies through covert channels and clandestine activities. The state justifies such actions through rhetorical pleas of “higher purpose” and vague appeals to “national security.”

Thirty years of war had significant impact on democratic institutions in Sri Lanka. During the final push to defeat the LTTE, the government discredited the idea of peace. Those opposed to war and those who spoke for human rights were termed ‘traitors’. Since the war ended, the government plans to build a war museum rather than a peace and reconciliation museum. An astrologer who predicted difficult days ahead for the powers-that-be in Colombo was recently arrested and would be under observation for three months.

Meanwhile, according to the army commander, the military would be expanded by 50,000, even though the war is over and Sri Lanka has one of the largest militaries per capita in South Asia. The recruitment of additional troops to man camps in the north-east is of particular concern and suggests that rather than restore substantive democracy, the government plans a form of military occupation with the collusion of allied Tamil paramilitary groups. Moderate Tamil voices remain marginalised and have raised questions regarding the legitimacy of elections in a region with such a large displaced population.

While the country is broke and in need of an IMF loan to pay among other things the salaries of soldiers and an enormous cabinet of ministers, which includes a number of the president’s relatives, the mindset of militarism lives on. The Sri Lanka government’s internment of 280,000 Tamils, some of whom were witnesses to war crimes and may give evidence, in barbwire fenced camps and its treatment of them as a national security threat after claiming to have ‘rescued’ them from the LTTE; as well as, the failure to lift Emergency Rule and disarm paramilitaries in the north and east; the phenomenon of white van abductions of journalists, and the failure to start a process of demilitarisation and reconciliation with the minorities have led the United States to extend travel warnings for those wishing to visit Sri Lanka. It seems unlikely that western tourists would return any time soon.

It is axiomatic that, as externalised threats are perceived and nations go to war, civil liberties and rights in the domestic sphere are eroded. This phenomenon was observed by Max Weber, a founding father of the discipline of sociology. While a number of ministries have proliferated those that actually have power to make and implement policy are few and controlled by the President and his brothers. Nepotism is extremis! During the last few years of the conflict, development projects were required to go through and get clearance from the Defence Ministry. Such centralisation has weakened democracy and strengthened the grip of the ruling family on power. One Rajapakse is Defence Secretary and the other, a non-elected member of parliament, who also controls reconstruction in the north and east. It is widely understood that together the triumvirate control 70 per cent of the economy via control of key ministries.

Within days of the celebrations following the capture of LTTE’s de facto capital in January 2009, one of the island’s leading journalists, Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Leader newspaper, a liberal anti-establishment paper known for exposing corruption and nepotism in the state apparatus, was assassinated in broad daylight in Colombo. At his funeral, where thousands gathered, an effigy of Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was burnt. The slain journalist’s funeral was attended by political leaders, media representatives, civil society organisations and senior foreign diplomats in Colombo. The slain journalist, who was also a lawyer, had penned his own obituary three day’s before his assassination: “And then they came for me”, naming in all but words his killers. His final editorial published posthumously which has come to be known as the ‘letter from the grave’ constitutes a powerful indictment on the regime that would be hard to shake off in a country where astrology, the symbolic and uncanny, carries significant weight in politics. Minimally, the state remains accused of promoting a ‘culture of impunity’, which has rendered Sri Lanka ‘one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists’, according to ‘Reporters without Borders’. In the past two years, at least eight journalists have been killed in the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

As the war (including an information war) escalated, the phenomenon of extra-judicial killings rose. Wickramatunge’s assassination was in the wake of a series of killings and intimidation of journalists and lawyers, and attacks on independent media institutions in the south.. In August 2008, Sri Lanka lost its seat in the United Nation’s Human Rights Council and has since turned down several requests by the United Nations Human Rights Commission to set up an observer mission to monitor the situation in the country. At the end of the war, the United Nations Human Rights Commission called for an independent inquiry into war crimes by the parties to the conflict.

The culture of militarisation and impunity that the conflict had enabled needs to be rolled back. Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies per capita in South Asia and alternative jobs would be necessary for the over 200,000 troops. The military victory over the LTTE is only one half of the solution to building a peaceful and stable polity. It would also be necessary to address the intra-group dynamics of conflict. Many of those who fought and died and were disabled were from poor rural communities and marginalised castes groups. A war economy had grown, and many of the rural poor worked as soldiers and (women go as housemaids to the Middle East). In a time of rising unemployment due to the global recession, it would be necessary to boost the economy and provide jobs.

Myth and reality about “invincibility” of the LTTE: The global context

The ‘invincibility’ of the Liberation Tigers of Eelam and the terror threat they posed to world peace may have been often exaggerated. There were several reasons for the defeat of the LTTE. Principal among them was the changing global security environment that became increasingly hostile to groups that used terrorist methods post 9/11, as well as the egotism and compounding mistakes of the LTTE leader- Prabakaran, principal among which was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India. Prior to 9/11 and the global war on terror, the LTTE and its transnational network had grown and benefited from a period of relatively unfettered globalisation at the end of the Cold War, also given considerable international sympathy for the plight of the minority Tamil-speaking peoples in Sri Lanka. It was recognised that one man’s terrorist may be another’s liberation fighter.

After 9/11, with the global “war on terror’ there was far less international space and tolerance for the organisation to manoeuvre. The government capitalised on this fact by renaming the conflict in Sri Lanka a ‘war on terror’, soliciting international assistance to shut down the LTTE’s funding and supply networks from the diaspora. While the Rajapakse government waged a determined battle against the organisation after abrogating the Norwegian–brokered ceasefire in 2008, and provided the armed forces all that was needed by way of arms, ammunition, and men, the international context that had made the LTTE apparently invincible in the previous decades had changed. It is also arguable that the demise of the LTTE was also largely due to its leader’s egotism and the compounding of mistakes, including the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, which had turned India against the group.

The government of Sri Lanka has very successfully assembled a group of Asian donors, prominent among them China, Japan and India to counterbalance western criticism of its conduct of the last days of the conflict. These donors place less value on human security and human rights and tend to have a state-cenric approach to security. The need to move beyond state-centric security discourses and address the root causes of conflicts in South Asia from a post-war-on-terror paradigm is, however, increasingly apparent.

Since 9/11, instead of measured and targeted responses to terrorist acts, militarisation and advocacy for military solutions have sometimes exacerbated and aggravated the root causes of conflicts that require social and political-economic solutions. Social sector and welfare state spending has been reduced with the claim that development cannot occur without defence, even though the poverty and conflict trap is a consequence of the transfer of resources that accompanies ballooning defence expenditure, socio-economic decline, increased regional and economic inequality, structural violence and aid dependence.. Increasingly, it is obvious that inclusive development and peace building is necessary for regional security in Sri Lanka, and you can’t have one without the others.

In the last three years, militarisation and the ‘national security state” had become pervasive with a significant erosion of Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions and institutions. While the military victory over the LTTE is conclusive and there is little chance that it would regroup and return any time soon, the military victory needs to be converted into a stable and sustainable peace. Other long term, low intensity, ethno-national conflicts in the region point to the fact that groups fighting for autonomy or rights for minorities may re-group and return years or decades later as was the case in Nepal and Aceh Indonesia, unless there is a political solution that addresses the root causes of conflict. To ensure a sustainable peace the government would need to win the confidence of minority cultural groups, work toward reconciliation and address the root causes of the conflict. Simultaneously, it would be necessary to repair a dysfunctional democracy whose institutions were significantly eroded in the course of decades of war-induced emergency rule, which the government has still not lifted.

Darini Rajasingham Senanayake is a noted Sri Lankan academic and political commentator

Source: groundviews.org

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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