A recent statement by President Mahinda Rajapaksa that there will be no withdrawal of the army from the north has raised concerns about the Sri Lankan government’s intention as regards its demilitarisation.

Explaining his position, the President, in his interview to Al-Jazeera, asked: “Then, if the other Provincial Councils also asked me to withdraw their army camps all over the country where can I have the army?”

Ever since the ethnic war ended in 2009, different sections in the country have repeatedly raised issues of heavy militarisation in the north and east and the interference of the army in civil matters.

The government’s argument against demilitarisation is often centred on the question “Where is the space for accommodating the troops?”, but what many in the north are asking for is, in fact, not a complete withdrawal of the army but its confinement to barracks.

R. Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance — which saw a resounding victory in the first ever Northern Provincial Council polls held on September 21 — said the presence of the army in the north has not been conducive to civil activities and is unwelcome. “Therefore, the military presence must be minimised and confined to the barracks,” he told The Hindu.

Referring to the army’s “disturbing role” during the recent elections, Mr. Sampanthan said that in addition to army personnel engaging in “subtle intimidation”, it was strongly believed that the army was involved in the attack of a TNA candidate’s home two days prior to the elections — an incident that drew some strong comments from international election monitors as well.

“We urge the President to give his careful and earnest consideration to the matter and respect the wish of the people of the Northern Province,” he said. The TNA has also been urging the Centre to replace the current Northern Province Governor — who was formerly serving the army — with a civilian.

Speaking of the implications of militarisation, Dharmalingam Sitharthan, leader of TNA’s constituent People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) said the army’s constant surveillance resulted in a sense of fear gripping people of the north.

Soon after the elections — considered a political milestone — the focus of political debates in Sri Lanka shifted to the extent of power and autonomy that the new Provincial Council will have. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court’s recent ruling — which came days after the elections — that powers over land will remain with the Centre, and the President’s statement on withdrawing the army have only sparked more concern about the government’s actual intent regarding political devolution.

The developments not only increase the challenge facing the new TNA administration — the TNA received the lion’s share of about 80 per cent of the total votes polled in the recent elections — but also point to the Sri Lankan State’s apparent reluctance to devolve powers meaningfully.

Down but not out

Emphasising the need to address the issue of militarisation, Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, development economist and principal researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development said the overt presence of uniformed army personnel may have come down in the north since 2009-10, but there are plain-clothed personnel, virtually everywhere.

“Even in the markets, selling vegetables,” he said.

Instead of a point blank refusal to withdraw the armed forces, the government should look at confining the army to its barracks so that such interference in day-to-day life is minimised, he added.

According to Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurasinghe the number of military personnel had come down from 26,400 in December 2009, when he took over as commander, to approximately 13,200 now.

Denying all charges against the army — including those by international monitors and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay who was in Sri Lanka a month ago —he said “one or two instances may have been there”.

Challenging the new TNA administration to deliver, he said: “leave the army alone, we have no political role in this country”.

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