Sri Lanka’s North: Recipe for Renewed Conflict
International Crisis Group, Colombo/Brussels, 16 Mar 2012 - 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”.
Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights
Asia Report N°219 16 Mar 2012
Deepening militarisation and the lack of accountable governance in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province are preventing a return to normal life and threaten future violence. Scene of the most bitter fighting in the civil war, the Tamil-majority north remains under de facto military occupation, with all important policies set by Sinhala officials in Colombo. The slow but undeniable movement of Sinhala settlers into the fringes of the north and other forms of government-supported “Sinhalisation” are reigniting a sense of grievance and weakening chances for a real settlement with Tamil and other minority parties to devolve power. The international community, especially those governments and aid agencies supporting the reconstruction of the area, should demand a fundamental change of course and should structure their assistance so as to encourage the demilitarisation and democratisation of the former war zone and full respect for minority rights.
With the massive number of troops in the north have come various forms of Sinhalisation. The almost entirely Tamil-speaking north is now dotted with Sinhala 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. Sinhala fishermen and businessmen are regularly given advantages not accorded to Tamils. The slow but steady movement of Sinhala settlers along the southern edges of the province, often with military and central government support and sometimes onto land previously farmed or occupied by Tamils, is particularly worrying. These developments are consistent with a strategy – known to be supported by important officials and advisers to the president – to change “the facts on the ground”, as has already happened in the east, and make it impossible to claim the north as a Tamil-majority area deserving of self-governance.
The Northern Province has been at the centre of a half-century of ethnic conflict. Comprising the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni region, the latter largely controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from the 1990s until 2009, the province bore the brunt of the 25 years of war that came to a bloody end in May 2009, with up to 40,000 civilians killed and the military defeat of the LTTE. The north constitutes the core of the homeland claimed by Tamil nationalists and fought for by the guerrilla. Tamil demands for self-rule in the north (together with the now multi-ethnic east) have been bitterly contested by many Sinhalese; the failure to grant regional autonomy gave birth to demands for a separate state and led to civil war. While the conflict continued, large portions of the north functioned as a refuge for Tamils fleeing violence and discrimination in Sinhala-majority areas in the south, while also putting them under the control of the totalitarian LTTE. Some 75,000 Tamil-speaking Muslims expelled from the north by the movement in 1990 – now grown to as many as 200,000 – remain displaced from their homes and lands.
Deepening militarisation of the province presents a threat to long-term peace and stability. Far in excess of any legitimate need to protect against an LTTE revival, the militarisation of the north is generating widespread fear and anger among Tamils: indeed, the strategy being executed runs the risk of inadvertently resurrecting what it seeks to crush once and for all – the possibility of violent Tamil insurrection. The construction of large and permanent military cantonments, the growing involvement of the military in agricultural and commercial activities, the seizure of large amounts of private and state land, and the army’s role in determining reconstruction priorities are all serious concerns. They are discussed in a companion report, Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military.
This report examines how effective military control over the civil administration as well as control and surveillance of civil society, along with government-supported Sinhalisation, has undermined many of the expected benefits from an end to the war. Enforced disappearances, violent crackdowns on protestors in various towns and extrajudicial punishments have shown the sharper edge of military policing and revealed the deep mistrust on both sides of the civil-military and Tamil-Sinhala divides.
Continued Sinhalisation and militarisation of the north threaten to render pointless the stalled negotiations on devolution between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the clear favourite among Tamil voters in the north after victories in parliamentary and local government elections. Despite strong pressure from the Indian and U.S. governments, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa shows little inclination to offer any tangible devolution of power to the north (or the multi-ethnic east); even the limited powers legally devolved to provincial councils under the current constitution are not in practice shared. In the absence of a functioning provincial council – despite repeated government promises of early elections – the north is ruled directly by the governor, a retired general and presidential appointee.
However important devolution of power ultimately will be, the longer current policies are allowed to remain in place, the harder it will be to achieve meaningful power-sharing with a Tamil-majority north. Government-TNA negotiations and international pressure should therefore focus first on the demilitarisation of the province, the reestablishment of civilian and democratic governance, and an end to any government-supported Sinhalisation. The government can begin on this agenda by implementing the many sensible recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and demonstrate its commitment by presenting a concrete roadmap for reconciliation and democratisation. Donors and development agencies can support these changes by speaking out clearly about the lack of democratic conditions in the north and by insisting that their programs be developed in consultation with local communities and leaders and implemented by an autonomous civil administration.
Colombo/Brussels, 16 March 2012