In the early hours of a fateful Friday, Sri Lanka’s capital became the stage for a distressing spectacle. A multitude of soldiers marched through the streets, preparing to unleash a merciless crackdown on anti-government protesters. The demonstrators had peacefully gathered at Galle Face Green, an idyllic ocean-side park in Colombo. Suddenly, without warning, the soldiers descended upon the camps, ruthlessly beating the protesters and leaving at least 50 injured. Amnesty International swiftly condemned this brutal assault, labeling it as “shameful” and a cause for concern.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the president of Sri Lanka, who had assumed office on July 13 amidst civil unrest, remained unapologetic about employing military force. He even extended the state of emergency that he had declared as acting president. In the face of criticism, Wickremesinghe lashed out at diplomats, including the U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung, urging her to “read your country’s history starting from Abraham Lincoln.” He provocatively questioned whether other governments would tolerate protesters illegally occupying their president’s office and refusing to leave.
However, Wickremesinghe’s democratic mandate is clouded with doubt. His party, the United National Party, secured only a solitary seat in the 2020 parliamentary election, and he lost his own. Yet, he managed to maneuver himself back into power when he was appointed prime minister by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This was Wickremesinghe’s unprecedented sixth time occupying the office, but he had never managed to complete a full term. Disenchanted protesters, yearning for transformative change, found themselves disillusioned as Wickremesinghe turned to the military to maintain his grip on power.
Sri Lanka’s military had already intensified its recruitment efforts and acquired deadly military equipment from multiple sources during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who assumed office in 2005. The army had been preparing for a brutal offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and sought assistance from both China and Western countries. Astoundingly, China provided nearly a billion U.S. dollars in military aid, including fighter jets, rocket launchers, and ammunition. European countries, such as Britain, also made contributions by supplying military equipment. The international community appeared eager to support Sri Lanka’s offensive.
These lethal weapons were subsequently employed by the Sri Lankan military to unleash a series of brutal attacks on hospitals, food lines, and so-called “no-fire zones,” where civilians had sought refuge. Desperate Tamil civilians pleaded for help from the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Tens of thousands of innocent lives were lost, and the U.N. later acknowledged its “systemic failure” in preventing a clear act of genocide. Estimates suggest that over 160,000 civilians lost their lives during the conflict’s final phase.
Rather than fostering reconciliation with the Tamil community concentrated in the northeast, the Sinhalese-dominated state persisted in its occupation of the Tamil homeland. This occupation not only enriched the state but also perpetuated Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony while suppressing demands for a separate homeland – a demand that Sri Lanka had outlawed back in 1978.
Under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership, militarization reached unprecedented levels. Even after more than 13 years had passed since the end of the armed conflict, the number of soldiers did not decrease. Rajapaksa boosted the defense budget, appointed military officials accused of war crimes to key civil positions, and reinforced the military’s stranglehold over the Tamil provinces.
Today, the reach of Sri Lanka’s military remains extensive. More than 30 agencies fall under the purview of the Ministry of Defense, overseen by military officials aligned with the powerful Rajapaksa clan. Military personnel exercise control over crucial aspects of the nation’s infrastructure, including airports, seaports, customs, utilities, agriculture, fisheries, land development, wildlife protection, and even the country’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
For Tamils, this military occupation leads not only to human rights abuses but also devastating economic consequences. The military operates various businesses in the Tamil provinces, obstructing free trade and stifling local enterprises. Local villagers are denied access to their own fields, while the Tamil homeland has transformed into a fiefdom for Sri Lanka’s military.
Moreover, the military’s pervasive presence has severe psychological implications. Soldiers make their presence felt even within Tamil schools, occasionally providing supplies or teaching English. They seek to cultivate loyalty among children through the distribution of uniforms, gifts, and frequent awards and sports ceremonies. The prevailing culture of impunity in the Sri Lankan military has allowed war criminals to evade justice, while the extensive powers wielded by the military impede the state’s ability to address the economic crisis and safeguard the rights of its people.
Dismantling the military’s stranglehold on power is a crucial step for Sri Lanka’s future. Tamil organizations have urged for a fundamental restructuring of Sri Lankan society, focusing on demilitarization, justice for war crimes, and economic reform. The international community also bears a responsibility in refusing to engage with Sri Lanka’s military, as such engagement simply legitimizes its actions. Addressing the crisis in Sri Lanka necessitates confronting the very institutions that sustain it.
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