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De-militarizing Democracy and Governance in Sri Lanka

From National Security to Human Security

by Darini Rajasingham Senanayake, 14 July 2009

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July 9, 2009

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 thirty years of war has left an institutional
legacy and “security’ mindset that would need considerable shift before
Lanka takes off.

The question on many minds at this time is: will militarization be a
substitute for democratization– beyond the show of elections? The impact
of thirty years of armed conflict between successive Sri Lankan
governments and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), may be
analyzed 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 the final year of
war the GoSL was spending almost 17 percent 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 trouble
paying salaries. Yet, strangely since the war ended there are plans to
enlarge the military by 50% - 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
realized. The challenge now is to move beyond a highly militarized,
state-centric national security paradigm and prioritize 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 Militarization

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

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 GoSL 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 of 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
marginalized 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 that
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 treatment of them as a national security threat after
claiming to have ‘rescued’ them from the LTTE; as well as, failure to lift
Emergency Rule and disarm paramilitaries in the north and east; the
phenomenon of white van abductions of journalists, the failure to start a
process of demilitarization and reconciliation with the minorities has 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 Ministry of Defense. Such centralization has weakened democracy and strengthened the grip of the ruling family on
power. One Rajapakse is Defense 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
seventy percent 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 the 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’
that has rendered Sri Lanka ‘one of the world’s most dangerous places for
journalists’ according to the organisation, ‘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 of 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 militarization 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 marginalized 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 the “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. Principle 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, principle among
which was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi – 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 globalization at the end of the Cold War also given
considerable international sympathy for the plight of minority Tamil
speaking peoples in Sri Lanka. It was recognized 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 organization to maneuver and the
government capitalized on this fact by renaming the conflict in Sri Lanka
a “war on terror” and soliciting international assistance to shut down the
LTTE’s funding and supply networks from the disaspora. While the Rajapakse government waged a determined battle against the organization after abrogating the Norwegian–brokered Cease Fire in 2008, and provided the armed forces all that was needed by way of arms, ammunition, and men, the international context 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-WoT’ paradigm is however increasingly

Since 9/11, instead of measured and targeted responses to terrorist acts,
militarization 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 defense, even though the poverty and conflict trap is a
consequence of the transfer of resources that accompanies ballooning
defense 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 militarization and the ‘national security state”
had become pervasive with 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, and work toward reconciliation and address of
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.