Strategic Demilitarization in Sri Lanka: Paradoxes and Trajectories

Military land-grabs and military-owned businesses have perverted the development-security nexus in Sri Lanka. The high levels of militarization in the Northern and Eastern Provinces lead to a worrisome downward spiral in which local citizens bear the brunt of the costs. Therefore, maritime securitization in Sri Lanka’s High Security Zones should be balanced against the country’s pressing social and economic development needs.

Nathasha Fernando
December 09, 2020

For 30 years, Sri Lanka was ravaged by a civil war between its government and the terrorist group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which sought the political autonomy of the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the island nation. Although the war ended in 2009, the Northern and Eastern Provinces remain highly militarized with an undisclosed number of Army and Navy camps. During the tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2009 to 2015, one of the national security priorities was to engage in heavy militarization of these regions--which are ethnic enclaves of Tamil and Muslim minorities--to curtail separatist ambitions. The major concerns against this militarization narrative were persistent issues regarding military land-grabs and expanding military-owned businesses that hindered development for the region’s citizens. As a result, during the following Wickremesinghe-Sirisena government, which lasted from 2015 to 2019, various proposals for demilitarization were discussed in detail. However, with the recent election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president and Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister, the prospects for demilitarization look grimy. As increasing militarization results in serious social and economic costs in northern Sri Lanka, a growing militarization narrative should be balanced against the region’s developmental needs.

Robust Naval Presence in Northern Sri Lanka: Setting the Context

During the Civil War, Sri Lanka’s government stationed its Rapid Action Boat Squadrons in bases along the northern and eastern coast to disrupt LTTE’s logistical supplies. Protecting Sri Lanka’s critical maritime infrastructure, especially the Trincomalee harbor in the Eastern Province, which has the capacity to dock submarines, was considered paramount. Today, non-traditional threats such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling, irregular migration, illegal explorations of marine resources, illegal fishing, maritime accidents, and human trafficking still pose important maritime security implications that require naval presence.  

Northern Sri Lanka has 40 naval bases alone, manned by almost 5,000 personnel. Out of them, there are eight large key naval bases: SLNS Uththara in Kankesanthurai, SLNS Agbo in Madagal, SLNS Elara in Karainagar, SLNS Kanchadewa in Kayts, SLNS Wasaba in Delft, SLNS Gotaimbara in Pungudutivu, SLNS Welusumana in Mandaitivu, and a base in Vettilaikerny. As the island nation’s first line of defense from external security threats, these naval bases allow the Navy to protect Sri Lanka’s territorial sea--an area of some 18,060 km2 and the larger Exclusive Economic Zone of around 437,400 km2

Source: Maritime Boundaries Geodatabase, Flanders Marine Institute. 

Although Sri Lanka does not operate a blue water Navy, its Maritime Search and Rescue Region is 27 times that of its land mass, extending to 1,738,062.24 km2, and cannot be easily monitored with current naval capabilities. Therefore, cooperation with neighboring India, with its three-dimensional blue water capability, is crucial for maritime security.

To complicate matters, Sri Lanka’s relationship with India has been a bumpy one due to Indian involvement in its civil war. Ever since, frictions such as the Indo-Lanka Accords, India’s international voting behavior in the United Nations, Indian interference in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs, and Palk Strait fishing issues have only continued to sour relations. While the mitigation of such issues requires cooperation between both navies and coastguards, instead, these issues strengthen those within Sri Lanka who are pushing the militarization narrative in the Northern Provinces. 

The Call for Demilitarization

A study by the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research and People for Equality and Relief in Sri Lanka points out that the Sri Lanka Army’s presence in the Mullaitivu District alone amounts to 60,000 personnel, which is one soldier for every two civilians. Sri Lanka has become the most militarized region in the world. The resulting increase in military consolidation of land has expanded to non-military uses encompassing agriculture, tourism, and military-owned business ventures. For instance, the military used its land-grabs in the coastal villages of Ragamwela, Panama, and Shasthrawela to set up camps and luxury tourist hotels. Furthermore, the demarcation of High Security Zones, and forcible eviction of people as a result of these land-grabs, have exacerbated issues of internal displacement of Tamil and Muslim civilians. Essentially, military ownership of land in the northern and eastern coastal belts is impeding the day-to-day lives of residents in these contested areas.      

Moreover, the military presence inhibits locals to take advantage of new economic opportunities. For example, as a cornerstone of the Sri Lankan economy, the tourism industry amounts to 12 percent of its GDP. In countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, the increasing trend of touristic island-hopping has generated income for many private business owners. In Sri Lanka, the many tiny uninhabited islands in the northern coastal belt remain untapped potentials being laid to waste by being declared as High Security Zones.

The Trend toward Militarization     

Unfortunately, the development-security nexus has tipped in favor of the military and is following a similar trajectory to that of Pakistan, where the military owns a large stake in the country’s business and commerce. The re-election of the Rajapaksa brothers, therefore, brings back old concerns of a heavily securitized monolithic national security state with economic development tipped in favor of the powerful and corrupt while the common man grows poorer. The discovery of natural gas deposits in the Mannar basin has given much cause to further tighten coastal security in northern Sri Lanka from encroachment and only worsen this trend.

Furthermore, in the post-war period, Sri Lanka remains deeply divided along ethnoreligious fault lines, with the decided militaristic preponderance under Rajapaksa bound to worsen Sri Lanka’s development trajectory. Recently, with growing anti-Muslim sentiments after the Easter Sunday Attacks, Islamic radicalization has also been used to justify the need for more militarization. However, increasing militarization would only become a source for growing radicalization, as it is more confrontational and hinders the social and economic development of the local citizens.

Balancing Securitization and Development

Ultimately, Rajapaksa’s government is left with a dilemma between securitization and development. In 2017, the Sri Lankan Navy had promised to return 100 acres of occupied land to the people. This proved to be an empty promise. However, to foster economic growth, assist its many displaced citizens, and avoid growing radicalization, the government of Sri Lanka must learn to balance its legitimate security obligations with its urgent development needs through strategic demilitarization. One step forward would be to remove army camps and smaller naval bases from the North and East. Servicemen could be re-distributed in central Sri Lanka with less population density while others could be provided alternative forms of employment within the private sector. Therefore, the business community in Sri Lanka must galvanize to demand corrective action and help to restore free-market functions away from military ownership. 

Nathasha Fernando is a francophone writer at OBOREurope and a current Msc. Strategic Studies candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.