The Sri Lankan military’s control over the political and economic life of the Northern Province is deepening the alienation and anger of northern Tamils and threatening sustainable peace.
Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights and Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military, the two latest reports from the International Crisis Group, examine how de facto military rule and various forms of government-sponsored “Sinhalisation” of the Tamil-majority region are impeding international humanitarian efforts, reigniting a sense of grievance among Tamils, and weakening chances for a real political settlement to devolve power.
“The construction of large and permanent military cantonments, the seizure of private and state land, and the military-led cultural and demographic changes – all threaten Sri Lanka’s fragile peace”, says Alan Keenan, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst and Sri Lanka Project Director. “Instead of giving way to a process of inclusive, accountable development, the military is increasing its economic role, controlling land and seemingly establishing itself as a permanent presence”.
Sri Lanka’s Northern Province has been at the centre of the country’s post-independence ethnic conflicts and the quarter-century of civil war that came to a bloody end in the north in 2009. Now it is the focus of the government’s proclaimed efforts to rebuild a united Sri Lanka and move on.
But instead of providing the almost entirely Tamil-speaking north with a peace dividend, militarisation and government reconstruction efforts have dotted the region’s roads with Sinhala language sign-boards, streets newly renamed in Sinhala, monuments to Sinhala war heroes, and even a war museum and battlefields that are open only to Sinhalese. The slow but steady movement of Sinhalese settlers along the southern edges of the province, with military and central government support and sometimes onto land previously farmed or occupied by Tamils, is particularly worrying.
Government restrictions on aid and early recovery activities, often enforced by local military commanders, have prevented the effective delivery of many social services. The military’s influential role over northern development policy has marginalised the largely Tamil civil administration. Its heavy-handed response to public protests and alleged involvement in enforced disappearances and other extra-judicial punishments have further eroded civilians’ trust in law enforcement.
Continued militarisation and Sinhalisation of the north threaten to render pointless the stalled negotiations on devolution between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Those negotiations and international pressure should therefore focus first on demilitarisation of the area, reestablishment of civilian and democratic governance, and an end to any government-supported Sinhalisation. Donors and development agencies should speak out clearly about the lack of democratic conditions in the north and insist their programs be developed in consultation with local communities and leaders and implemented by an autonomous civil administration. Approving the resolution on Sri Lanka tabled at this month’s UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva is a critical immediate step.
“By adopting policies that will bring fundamental changes to the culture, demography and economy of the Northern Province, the government of Sri Lanka is sowing the seeds of future violence”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “It runs the risk of inadvertently resurrecting what it seeks to crush once and for all – the possibility of violent Tamil insurrection”.