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Why the Govt Cannot Further Reduce Military Strength in the North

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Udaya Gammanpila

By Udaya Gammanpila

The Western countries change their slogans quite often. In early 2009 their slogan was ‘declare a ceasefire!’ Thereafter, it turned to different slogans such as ‘Resettle IDPs,’ ‘Punish war criminals,’ ‘Stop abductions,’ ‘Disarm paramilitaries’ and ‘Establish Northern Provincial Council.’

The latest slogan of the Western community is ‘Speed up demilitarization of the North.’ In simple terms, they want Sri Lankan armed forces to withdraw from civil activities and to remove their camps from the North, claiming military presence is the biggest barrier to restore the normalcy.

After the military victory in May 2009, 28 battalions have been withdrawn from the North. The strength of these battalions was more than 21,000 personnel. 90% of the roadblocks have been removed. 99% of military patrolling has been stopped.

However, the Western community is still not satisfied with the progress made by the government. So, let us critically review the situation in the North to ascertain why the government is not in a position to further reduce the military strength in the North.

Objective of the Humanitarian Operation

The objective of the government’s Humanitarian Operation was to defeat the LTTE, not to destroy the LTTE terrorists. Hence, nearly 12,000 terrorists who surrendered were rehabilitated and released to the society. No government has released such a huge number of terrorists to the society within 3 years. Sri Lanka did this release despite its bitter experience in the past.

After the JVP insurgency in 1971, the government decided to rehabilitate the majority instead of punishing them. Unfortunately, the rehabilitants took part in the JVP’s second insurgency in 1987 showing unreliability of the rehabilitation process. Therefore, military forces have the responsibility to keep an eye on the rehabilitated terrorists.

There is equal number of terrorists who escaped from the LTTE during the late stage of the war. These terrorists joined the LTTE as teenagers. Hence, they lost their childhood. They had no opportunity to study or play. They had been brainwashed to hate Sinhalese. They had been trained to act violently. Until recent past, they proudly possessed the weapons and people obeyed their command through fear of life. In this backdrop, they must be frustrated with their new life where they lack recognition and employability. They must be dreaming of going back to their golden era.

Media still report about the recovery of weapons hidden by the terrorists. Different varieties of weapons from hand-grenades to rocket launchers have been found in the North in the recent past. More than 20,000 ex-terrorists (both rehabilitants and deserters) along with hidden weapons definitely set the stage for another armed uprising. Therefore, strong military presence is essential to avert such an uprising.

Risk of the LTTE re-emerging

Although we eliminated the terrorist separatism in Sri Lanka, Tamil separatist movement is very much vibrant and active offshore. They enjoy unbelievable recognition by the Western States. They have access to prominent figures in the West. They receive prominence in international media. They have liberty to hoist the LTTE flag although the LTTE is a banned organization in most of the Western countries.

The Western community in attempting to use Tamil separatists to tame Sri Lanka, as India did in the 1980s. Moreover, according to unofficial reports, there are newly established LTTE camps in Tamil Nadu. In this backdrop, there is a great risk of the LTTE re-emerging in the North. Hence, strong military presence in the North is inevitable.

Elimination of terrorism means not only destroying terrorists, but also destroying weapons and military infrastructure of the terrorists. The military forces still engage in recovering huge loads of weapons, bombs and ammunitions. In other words, there are incomplete responsibilities of the military in the North.

Most of the North was under terrorist control during the last 35 years. During the terror period, the government machinery from the Chief Secretary to grassroots level officers such as Grama Niladharies was under tremendous pressure. They became the ham in the sandwich receiving contradictory commands from the military and the LTTE. Hence, they prefer to be inactive out of fear of their life. After the war, the governmental machinery in the North is yet to recover from their bitter experiences.

This results in inefficient and inadequate governmental machinery. Hence, the government is forced to use the military as alternative machinery for supplying reliefs and improving infrastructure facilities. The military has made a significant contribution in constructing houses, roads, schools and hospitals.

History of invasions

Only one invader has entered Sri Lanka from the South in the written history of 2,600 years. That was Chinese General ‘Zheng He’ who invaded Sri Lanka in 1411. Everybody else invaded Sri Lanka from the North. Brutal invaders such as Sena Guttika, Elara, Kalinga Magha and Chola Vijayaraja were among them. Soon after the defeat of King Elara by King Dutugemunu, a battalion of military forces landed in Mannar in support of King Elara. King Dutugemunu was able to defeat the landed force at Rana Maduwa which is now known as Iranamadu.

Since then, Sinhalese Kings always ensured a strong military presence in the Northern part of Sri Lanka. The Western colonial rulers also continued this practice realizing the vulnerability of the Northern Province. In light of the above, maintaining strong military presence in the North is imperative from a security perspective.

Sri Lanka’s biggest challenge in respect of the North in the post-independent era was not security, but smuggling. As in the case of invasions, smugglers also landed in the Northern Province. Since India was merely 32Km away from Sri Lanka, smugglers brought different goods from India to Sri Lanka by boats.

The illegal goods such as narcotics and weapons were brought to avoid the security establishment. Other goods were smuggled into Sri Lanka from the North to avoid the payment of custom duties. Hence, the government established army and navy camps in the North to curtail the smugglings. In order to control the smuggling, the government has to maintain a strong military presence in the North, even in the post-LTTE era.

The total military strength of Sri Lanka is more than 300,000 personnel. If the government decides to keep 10% of the military forces in every province, the North’s share will be 30,000 personnel. There are two administrative reasons to locate more military forces in the North than any other province. The government dramatically strengthened the military forces in several folds with the escalation of the war against the LTTE. These newly recruited soldiers were directly camped in the North.

If they are to be located in another province, new camps with all infrastructure facilities should be built spending millions of rupees. There is no additional cost to keep them in the North since there are already built camps. Secondly, the North has the least population density in the country.

Hence, there are adequate bare lands to maintain camps. However, the government has to acquire large lands for camps if it decides to withdraw military forces from the North. There are no such lands available in the other provinces which are thickly populated.

The above analysis justifies continuation of the present military strength in the North. Anybody who proposes to further reduce the military strength in the North must be having ulterior motives such as supporting separatism or encouraging smugglers

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