The Forever War?: Military Control in Sri Lanka’s North


Sri Lanka’s army soldiers stand guard in the back of a truck during the opening of a Bartleet Finance Limited investment branch in Jaffna, April 30, 2010. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lanka’s army soldiers stand guard in the back of a truck during the opening of a Bartleet Finance Limited investment branch in Jaffna, April 30, 2010. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The heavy militarisation of Sri Lanka’s northern province after the civil war’s bloody end in 2009 has been the subject of growing domestic and international concern. The large numbers of military personnel in the north, and the deep involvement of the military in the province’s governance, endanger the re-establishment of democratic institutions that is necessary to lasting peace (see our Nov 2013 report Sri Lanka’s Potemkin Peace: Democracy Under Fire).

Faced with international demands – including from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) – to “demilitarise” the north, the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) claims it has significantly reduced troops levels. It also says the civilian administration is fully functional and that “the involvement of security forces in resettlement and reconstruction activities … is being gradually phased out.”

This narrative is largely fictional. Best estimates based on available public information indicate the number of military personnel in the north remains extraordinarily high. Evidence from the military’s own publicity about its forces in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts reveals its deep involvement in civil affairs and administration, with the stated objective of“controlling and monitoring” the civilian population.

Adding up the numbers

The concerns around militarisation in Sri Lanka are not merely about numbers, yet the social and political consequences of the sheer number of boots on the ground are themselves disturbing. The government and military routinely deny that the post-war north is overly militarised and periodically claim troop numbers are on the decline. In advance of this month’s UNHRC meetings, senior government officials made a series of new claims in this regard.

On 19 January, President Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered a speech claiming the entire northern province held only 12,000 military personnel, a “drastic reduction” from 70,000 at the end of the war in May 2009, with fewer than 10 military camps in the whole of the north. Two days later, a presentation made by his secretary, Lalith Weeratunga, to the diplomatic community in Geneva indicated that army numbers in the north had fallen by a third, from nearly 120,000 in May 2009 to about 80,000 toward the end of 2013.

Leaving aside the contradiction between the president’s figures and those of his senior civil servant, the one-third reduction in troops claimed by Weeratunga begins from an artificially low baseline figure. We know from defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapkasa himself that the total size of the army at the end of the war was 300,000 (with 450,000 total military personnel), not the 200,000 claimed by Weeratunga in his Geneva presentation. Additionally, in 2009 and afterward, almost two-thirds of troops were stationed in the north. On this basis, even accepting Weeratunga’s claim that the northern total has been reduced by a third since 2009, some 120,000 army personnel would still be stationed in the north.  Considering that the population of the northern province is 1,058,762, this yields a density of one army member for every 8.7 civilians, an extremely high ratio considering that hostilities ended almost five years ago.

It is also worth noting that Weeratunga’s presentation refers only to army personnel and thus leaves out tens of thousands of troops with other services stationed in the north: at three large naval commands and allied naval detachments spread along the coast and islands, at air force camps and bases, and in special task-force and civil-defence force detachments. With these included, the ratio of all military and paramilitary personnel to civilians may well approach the 1:5 ratio previous studies have indicated. (This is even higher than the ratio of military personnel to civilians found today in Kashmir, at the height of the second war in Chechnya or the conflict in Northern Ireland, during the surge in Iraq, or even during the French occupation of Algeria.)

Wildly contradictory figures for the number of troops in the north are nothing new. On 17 June 2012, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa reported a substantial reduction in the military presence in Jaffna district, saying just 15,600 personnel remained there. This claim was widely challenged at the time, not least because, as late as 9 July 2012, the website of the Civil Military Coordination (CIMIC) of the Security Forces Head Quarters, Jaffna, a website that is actively updated and maintained, stated that “[o]ver 35,000 troops are under its command”. The figures on the CIMIC website were taken down soon after this contradiction was pointed out.

Repeated attempts to mislead the domestic and international community regarding the scale of the military presence in post-war northern Sri Lanka directly contradict the GoSL’s stated commitment to restore democracy and civil administration to the north.

Development as militarisation: the case of security forces in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu

Following the war, Sri Lanka’s northern province saw the establishment of Security Forces Headquarters (SFHQ) in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. A close analysis of the organisation, mission and activities of SFHQ Kilinochchi – drawing from on-site observations and interviews as well as the army’s own publicly available information – indicates the military has taken over civilian governance functions ranging from economic development and humanitarian assistance to maintaining law and order. Of particular concern is the elaborate and highly politicised architecture of surveillance and control woven into the military’s extensive development activities.

Security Forces Kilinochchi (SF-K) was raised on 29 June 2009 “with the objective of restoring peace and normalcy in the area in order to assist the rebuilding of Kilinochchi district.” The headquarters complex is presently located in Iranamadu, along the main A9 highway. SF-K’s capabilities include three army infantry divisions (the 57th, 65th and 66th divisions ), eleven infantry brigades, and thirty-nine battalions, including engineering, services and medical units. In addition, the area under SF-K also has detachments of the Navy, the Air Force and the Special Task Force, the paramilitary arm of the police.

As in the case of other SFHQs, the Area of Responsibility (AoR) of SF-K does not correspond to long-established civilian administrative boundaries but includes a significant part of Mullaitivu district, while a part of Kilinochchi district that lies on the Jaffna peninsula is excluded. The AoR is divided among the three army divisions of SF-K as indicated in the map below.

Source: Security Force – Kilinochchi

Source: Security Force – Kilinochchi

The SF-K website makes clear that the population of the AoR has been meticulously surveyed, with different units of SF-K given the explicit responsibility of “controlling and monitoring” specific sections of the population. For instance, the website notes that the 661 Brigade, part of the 66th Division based in Pooneryn, “is Controlling & Monitoring 6595 Civil Population & 175 Beneficiaries & 18 not rehabilitated ex combatants”. Similarly, the 662 Brigade, also part of the 66th Division, is described as “Controlling and Monitoring 11844 Civil Pop, 334 Beneficiaries and 30 not rehabilitated ex combatants”.

The architecture to enable such “controlling and monitoring” is provided by a network of camps of varying sizes spread across the AoR. A number have recently been renamed “Civil Affairs Offices”, with a board outside prominently displaying the mobile numbers of three or four key personnel. These camps are first and foremost the eyes and ears of SF-K, also serving as launch pads for regular armed patrols, including on bicycles.

Integral to this architecture are other regimes of surveillance and control. Crisis Group interviews with residents in rural Kilinochchi indicate that many from the local community have been recruited as informers. While this leads to an atmosphere of suspicion and fear within communities, it is a central part of the military’s project of “controlling and monitoring” civilians.  In a similar vein a hotel employee reported that they had been “instructed” to have CCTV cameras on site. CCTV cameras are conspicuous by their presence even in ordinary restaurants in Kilinochchi, yet again raising awkward questions as to how the government can have it both ways: on the one hand, declaring that peace has come to the north; on the other hand, exercising draconian control over nearly every facet of civilian life, including eating out.

More striking is the central role SF-K’s development activities play in its clearly stated control and pacification agenda. Its web page on “Development and Employment” lists as one of the objectives of its development interventions “[a]ssisting in image building of the Sri Lanka Army in order to pacify the differences from the local population”.

Such ongoing work by the military runs counter to government assurances to members of the UNHRC that the army’s role in civilian affairs is being “phased out”. Instead, nearly five years after the war, military interference in civilian governance appears to be expanding rather than contracting. The SF-K website notes that the military oversee several civilian projects and departments, ranging from a housing scheme funded by the Indian government to the construction of nurses’ quarters at the Kilinochchi General Hospital and road construction by the Road Development Authority.

The SF-K website also refers to a scheme for “provisioning of Labour for Public and Private Sector”, while noting that the “progress of the scheme is yet to be informed by all the formations and battalions”. Promoting employment may be laudable, but the intervention of a powerful military establishment in the labour market raises many serious concerns, asCrisis Group has previously argued.

It is also clear that the SF-K is deeply politicised. The page on Development and Employment on SF-K’s website carries photographs of events (see below) that are obviously integrated into the election campaign of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). This is entirely consistent with reports of the military’s partisan role in the run-up to the recent northern provincial council elections.

Source: Security Force – Kilinochchi

Source: Security Force – Kilinochchi

Concerns over the large military presence in the north are compounded by the government’s continuing efforts to mislead domestic and international audiences. Even accounting for an element of exaggeration concerning its own development footprint, there is no doubt that the military continues to exercise a high degree of control over all aspects of people’s lives in the north. Reconciliation and lasting peace are made harder as a result.


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