Nov. 1. 2020
Making that weekly trip to the grocery store- for some is therapeutic- but for me, it’s a total chore. Just the sheer thought of having to immerse myself into the center of consumerist America with annoying music playing in the background and people everywhere amidst a pandemic fills me with dread. In America, it’s unfathomable, but for Tamils in Sri Lanka- leaving one’s home brings a whole different kind of fear that makes our shopping dreads a total subset of “first world problems”. The current heavy militarization of North-Eastern Tamil areas is a product of what Sri Lanka calls its “COVID-19 Response”. But how exactly does stopping Tamil children, women, and men at Vanni bus stations and ruthlessly checking through their belongings stop the spread of COVID-19? Beats me.
The militarization of the North-East is nothing new, however, and it certainly isn’t a brand new preventative measure to stop the Coronavirus. Militarization in Tamil Areas, in fact, is historically rooted in residue from the violence of civil strife which occupied the island for years. Although the war ended in 2009, the Sri Lankan government continues to oppress Tamil citizens through military surveillance. Despite calls by numerous international bodies and repeated calls by Tamil politicians and communities, the Sri Lankan government has yet to undertake a comprehensive process to demilitarize areas in the North-East. As a result, the North-East remains under a military occupation that represses fundamental freedoms and contributes to the on-going state of war. And there’s a variety of cases of Tamil areas which illustrate this very fact.
The best case to exemplify the on-going state of war is the Mullaitivu District. In Mullaitivu District- a blue-skied fishing area where the last phase of the armed conflict was fought- the military’s presence has become even more entrenched after 2009. The Adayaalam Center for Policy at Jaffna University did a study a few years ago which discovered shocking numbers regarding the citizen to soldier ratio in the district. According to that study, 25% of Sri Lanka’s military occupies the Mullaitivu district with the ratio of – 1 soldier per 2 civilians in the area. You read that right: 1 soldier per every TWO civilians in the area. If that doesn’t concern you, there are other things that make matters worse because of the lingering militarization in Tamil areas.
The most important consequence is that it exacerbates the island’s wounds instead of healing them. For one, the Sri Lankan military still stands accused of war crimes and unresolved atrocities against the very people they currently occupy. Secondly, the trauma from the war for families in militarized districts continue to linger as Tamils must live next door to those who bombed, shelled and brutalised their families and communities, all with impunity. Also, the entrenchment of the military and security forces in Mullaitivu district creates a pervasive and constant culture of fear and surveillance. Tamil women, especially, become subjects of this state of fear due to the trauma of sexual violence which persisted even after the war ended. Finally, the military’s extensive presence inhibits freedom of speech and freedom of thought, since the military’s shadow hovers over all political activities, suppressing engagement in civic affairs.
The exacerbation of the country’s wounds is not only implemented through the state by fear, but also by occupation of land. As the military continues to occupy the North East, it invades upon Tamil civilians’ private lands to keep its large, intimidating presence. While a key step of any demilitarisation process in the area should be to include a comprehensive and transparent survey of lands occupied by the military in the North-East, the state’s current lack of this type of transparency seeps into all facets of civilian life. The lack of transparency, accountability, and increasingly invasive forms of occupation reflect the Sri Lankan government’s more insidious economic & political goal:the further breakdown of the island’s Tamil communities.
The same Adayalam report previously mentioned claims that 30,000 acres of land are being held by the security forces in Mullaitivu district. This fact alone demonstrates that the military’s presence facilitates land grabs and displacement, and keeps families in ramshackle ‘temporary’ shelters as it utilizes privately owned Tamil lands. The land occupation of the military also has a more devastating impact on livelihoods and economic growth in the war ravaged region, as military-run businesses compete with private businesses on unequal terms.
The heavy militarization leads to internalization of oppression and fuels further resentment. Ultimately, by upholding an unjust power structure over the vulnerable, the Sri Lankan government continues to prolong the ongoing state of war. Only a serious and genuine effort on security sector reform, government-to-citizen transparency, and demilitarization will lead to a path forward for sustainable peace and stability.
Tamil people in Sri Lanka still have hope for the international community to act with urgency to free them from the current state of war and bring a permanent political solution to the island nation. It’s up to us to deliver that hope.