17 May, 2022


Sri Lanka: Why Military Matters In The North?

By Col. R. Hariharan –

Col. R. Hariharan

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Victory Day speech this year on May 19 was largely a defensive discourse justifying the continued presence large army formations in the North. The sense of triumphalism that had become hallmark of Victory Day speeches was missing this year.

This is understandable as the President’s speeches from last year onwards have become increasingly reactive as international focus on Sri Lanka in recent times had been presenting it in bad light. Many of Sri Lanka’s problems are based on age-old prejudices and three decades of bad blood between the ethnic communities. The President, working on a short term agenda of his own, had given a short shrift to international concerns. And after three years these concerns are becoming matters of national concern. So it is not surprising the President’s speech addressed these concerns. The hiatus between the President’s line of reasoning and the U.S. comes out in bold relief, if his speech is luxtaposed against the scathing observations on security forces contained in the U.S. Country Report on Human Rights in Sri Lanka 2011 released on May 24.

The U.S. report said: “There were instances in which elements of the security forces acted independently of civilian control. The major human rights problems were unlawful killings by security forces and government-allied paramilitary groups, often in predominantly Tamil areas, which led many to regard them as politically motivated, and attacks on and harassment of civil society activists, persons viewed as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sympathizers, and journalists by persons allegedly tied to the government, which created an environment of fear and self-censorship.

“Other serious human rights problems included disappearances, as well as a lack of accountability for thousands who disappeared in previous years. Security forces tortured and abused detainees, poor prison conditions remained a problem, and authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens. A number of suspects detained by police or other security forces died under questionable circumstances.”

This is not the first time such concerns have been expressed by the U.S. and the West. But what makes it damaging is it has come after the passing of the much-maligned UNHRC resolution seeking accountability from Sri Lanka.

Specifically referring to the presence of army in the North the President in his speech said: “We are aware that the armed forces do not participate in the administration of the North or East. These regions are administered by the public service and the police. Despite this there are many who shout that the security forces camps in these areas should be removed. They ask us why they are not removed. But no one asks whether those who make such demands are not seeking to achieve what Prabhakaran failed to obtain through the use of ship loads of arms, aerial attacks, sea tiger and human suicide bomb attacks through 30 years of war of terror. Are they now not

asking this through different means?” The President’s statement regarding troops not participating in administration in North is not borne out by ground realities where troops have been interfering even in birthday parties, let alone indoor meetings of parliament members in Jaffna. This would mean troops are being ‘used’ unofficially.

A second aspect in the President has hinted at a potential resurgence of Tamil militancy and armed struggle in Northern Province as a justification for keeping troops in the North. Even if this requirement –which is notional at present – is accepted, it does not require the huge number of troops stationed at present in the North.

British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka HC Rankin has also contested President Rajapaksa’s claims on the role and presence of the army in the North. While conceding Sri Lanka’s right to maintain normal military bases throughout the country, like in the UK, he said the military deployment in the Northern and Eastern Province was very much different than that in other parts of the country. Rankin alleged that the government was maintaining a very heavy military presence in the Northern Region.

The statistics on army deployment in the North bear out the British High Commissioner’s concern was the same as Tamil minority concern. Out of 13 Divisions plus a number of independent brigades of army, barring four-division strength (about 40,000) and about 10,000 troops in training establishments and on other duties, balance of nine divisions and independent brigades with a strength of 150,000 troops are deployed in Northern Province.

According to latest census figures (released by Census Department in June 2012) Northern Province has a population of 997,754 (Tamils 934,392) out of Sri Lanka’s total of 20.2 million population. If we take these population figures, the troop deployment works out to about one soldier deployed for every six persons (including men, women and children) in Northern Province! Imagine what would have been the popular reaction if one soldier is deployed for every six members in a Southern Province!

[Of course, these figures will be disputed by the security establishment. Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe had told The Island that at present there were 15,600 troops in Jaffna Peninsula – three Divisions were deployed across the peninsula and Jaffna islands. Do three divisions make only 15,600 troops in Sri Lanka army? I have my reservations. ]

In his first Victory Day speech in 2009, President Rajapaksa said (made in Tamil, so that Tamil population understood him): “Heroic troops! The war against the terrorists is now over. It is now the time to win over the hearts of the Tamil people. The Tamil speaking people should be protected. They should be able to live without fear and mistrust. That is today the responsibility of us all!”

Apparently, the army seems to have taken the President’s advice literally to protect each and every Tamil. Otherwise, deploying such a large number of troops mostly composed of Sinhalas, even three years after the end of what is referred as a ‘humanitarian war’ (an oxymoron phrase) is not understandable. If it is not so, why deploy such large number of troops unless outburst of insurgency is imminent in the North? As there are no such indications, such a deployment would indicate the military establishment does not consider the prevailing situation in the North as normal. Is it so?

President Rajapaksa’s May 19th speech stressed that it would not be possible to remove armed forces camps in the North: “It is necessary to ask those who call for the removal of the armed forces from the North whether the ‘Diaspora’ and Eelamists have stopped their work although the country has returned to normal. It is no secret that those who conscripted children to war, and other war criminals who are leaders of the LTTE, are acting with freedom in foreign countries. Just as much as their work their demands also remain the same; they seek the same ends through different means. Therefore, we must ask if we in a position to remove the armed forces camps in the North and reduce our attention national security. That is not possible. Armed services camps are not found in the North alone. They are seen throughout the country. They are in Colombo and Giruvapattu in the South. These are found in our country. Not in any foreign country.”

The President’s argument has three elements of doubtful validity: (1) presence of army in North is related the work of the Diaspora and ‘Eelamists’ who are acting with freedom in foreign countries; (2) removing armed forces in the North will reduce attention to national security; (3) Army camps are found not only in the North but throughout the country so why remove them.

It is a shame that sabre rattling speeches by a small number of Tamils living a few thousand miles away is affecting the deployment of a national army of 200,000 that had recently vanquished a 100,000 armed Tamils.

If the history of Tamil insurgency is anything to go by, it did not originate in Canada or UK. It came about after the utter failure of Sri Lanka politicians including the Tamil kind to hammer out workable solution to the grievances of Tamil minorities. So if at all the President is serious about neutralising the Diaspora elements and Eelamist efforts to revive the LTTE, the solution to lies in Jayawardana-pura and Temple Trees and not in the North, where a hapless population (with 42,565 war widows) is trying to survive the day so that they can live tomorrow.

Large scale visible presence of troops in any civilian area (I am saying from own experience as a military officer who has worked in a number of insurgency areas) always makes the population uncomfortable not only in Sri Lanka but also everywhere. This feeling of discomfort is more likely in Northern Province because during the last three decades men (and women too) in uniforms of different hues had seriously dislocated normal life (what an understatement for the war weary) of civilian population. So deployment in the North is qualitatively different from those in Colombo or Giruvapattu in the South. Unfortunately, the President does not seem to have noticed this sensitive aspect.

The recent comments of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka on the same subject are interesting. Answering the question on the need for continued presence of military in Wanni three years after war, he said there was definitely a need. “But, we must decide to what extent they are needed, what they should do and where they should be. These things have to be taken into consideration. There are 12,000 former rehabilitated combatants. They can be good people. But, they can be misled. You need only 200 people to create problems in these areas.”

While the presence of former militants in the North justified deployment of troops there, it is important to note the operative part of the General’s statement is “we must decide to what extent they are needed, what they should do and where they should be.”

Army had always been present in the North in the past, even before the insurgency. And now after three decades of insurgency, no one can dispute its presence there. But it is the numbers and the way they operate that matters. Too large a number and too visible a presence of troops roject a lack of trust in the population and a feeling of insecurity among the rulers in their own administrative and internal security set up.

A ball park figure for pruning would suggest one fifth of the present strength of army in the North – after all Jaffna and Mullaitivu are not Timbuktu in Africa. And troops should stop intervening in normal life of the people and leave it to the police to deal with the population. Taking the troops away from policing duties will also give confidence to civil administration and police to take decisions without looking back at the Big Brother – the army.

There used to be talk of recruiting Tamil soldiers in the army; but nothing much appears to have happened. With the army already bloated beyond national requirements it may never come through in any sizeable numbers to make Sri Lanka army truly a national one. And that is all the more reason for the government and defence establishment to scale down the numbers and reduce presence of army in the North. And this can be a truly home grown solution that works unlike many others only in the realm of thought process.

It would also validate President Rajapaksa’s statement, “We have now given a new meaning to all the blood, sweat and tears shed by them on behalf of the nation.” Otherwise it is likely to be dismissed as yet another political overstatement.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E- mail:colhari@yahoo.com)

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Latest comments

  • 0

    why wants to begin terrorist matters in north?

  • 0

    This Indian Col.R.Hariharan is an useful idiot (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p008vd41)of GOSL. That is why he had conveniently forgotten LLRC Recommendations (on this subject), annexing large extents of highly fertile lands and villages for Army Camps and High Security Zones around such camps WITHOUT ANY PAYMENT WHATSOEVER And the appointments of Retired Service Personnel( who still don Service Uniforms)to the top Aministrative posts in North & East.

  • 0

    From where did the good Col. Hariharan get the figure of “100,000 armed
    Tamil militants”?? GoSL/SLA figures were, at the highest, around 15,000-20,000. By May 2009 substantially less and that included a fair number of forced conscripts of ages 12-17 as well – used mostly as Cannon Fodder.

    Much of the rest of the article is researched well. Col. Hari is one of the more reliable sources in the Indian side of the Sri Lankan scene from 1987 todate. It will be useful if he can do a study of the exact strength and influence of the various minor political parties in Tamilnadu – now increasinly vociferous in calling for a Referendum/Eelam in the NEP of Sri Lanka(outside the DMK of the Karunanidhis) This appears to be a sensitive subject which GoSL/Rajapakses have not given the degree of attention it demands.


  • 0

    Very good article by Col. Hariharan.
    He states, Quote
    According to latest census figures (released by Census Department in June 2012) Northern Province has a population of 997,754 (Tamils 934,392) out of Sri Lanka’s total of 20.2 million population. If we take these population figures, the troop deployment works out to about one soldier deployed for every six persons (including men, women and children) in Northern Province! Imagine what would have been the popular reaction if one soldier is deployed for every six members in a Southern Province!
    There lies one of the problems for the Singhala racist chauvinist government to bring about the political solution the international community has been requesting them to comply. 3 years have passed, they have only made it worse with their extremist, jingoist, and triumphalist statements with arrogance.
    The Tamil diaspora is agitating for independent, international investigations for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Any amount of army in the North and East, and tyranny is not going to solve or reduce that international pressure on the GOSL.

    It will only increase and the IC will soon understand why the Tamils took arms to defend themselves from all the atrocities, indignities, humiliation, and violations of every kind by a repressive, oppressive and suppressive armed force which does not even speak their language, share their religion, culture or heritage.

    That qualifies that armed force to be an alien force, in the villages, towns, districts of the Northern and Eastern province.

  • 0

    @Senguttuvan. Col. Hariharan was in charge of the MI of IPKF for 2 or 3 years and he saw all the Indian combat/experience first hand. What he means 100,000 Tamils (armed) must be the reference to the 100,000 Tamil who were killed. both armed and unarmed in 2009.

    Interestingly, Gota comes up with a figure of 7,400 Tamils killed in 2009. Was he joking?

    That number includes all the LTTE that were killed, including those carrying the White Flag and Tiger flag during the surrender. All the civilians supposed to have been killed by the Tigers when they were escaping.

    Between Rajiva and Gota as well as Fonseka, they will come up with a theory that the Army and the Rajapakses increased the Tamil civilian population in 2009 and not a single civilian was killed by the army.

    What do you call such people in the English language?
    May we need to ask the dumb witted English Professor? Or Terror experts Rohana, Roberts or Blackler? These are the new fairy tales they write!

  • 0

    Very perceptive and insightful article. Good

  • 0

    Ref the comment on 100,000 armed Tamils in my article.

    I clarify this is the approximate total of Tamils involved in insurgency from all armed insurgent groups from 1983 to 2009 and not necessarily the LTTE only.

    I thank the reader who has called me an idiot. I am quite accustomed to being called names in the course of my writing on Sri Lanka for the last 8 years; actually this is the problem with Sri Lankan readers, they allow their emotion to get over common courtesy expected. Luckily most of my readers are more mature.

    • 0

      Well said Col. Hariharan and thanks for the clarification which was in your mind when you mentioned the #s 100,000.
      LTTE lost about 32,000 in 30 years and 11,6000 surrendered or captured.
      That makes it 44,000. May be a little more, although the 11,600 # is totally exaggerated and did not comprise real fighters. More like clerks, cooks, media, and other depts…care givers etc. It does not matter.

      The other groups, – You dealt with them for 3 years from 1987-1990 and India had enough information given their hands on involvement from 1983 to 1987.

      What is important to the Tamils now is how many civilians were killed in 2009, how they were killed and what happened to their bones. The UN had mentioned tens of thousands in their report, and the Bishop had said 146,467 dead and disappeared. Govt. figures are bogus…

  • 0

    With all due respect to Col Hari, the figure is unlikely to be 100,000 different individual fighting cadres in 30 years – even if one were to count the LTTE and other Tamil militants. GoSL/SLA figures I repeated
    as the highest number of Tamil militant at a given time is more likely.

    Forget the crude epithets of some readers here, Col Hari. We Lankan yakkos, from both sides of the divide, don’t mean very much when we hurl abuse at each other. We sometimes do it in fun too.


  • 0


    We tried once without arms then with arms to have a contitutional model like India and were not succeeded.

    Even the insurrection in south had a slogan ” Kolombata Kiri, Apita Kakiri” which means everything good for Colombo and everything bad for south, which means they fought for a decentralization of powers in SL

    We, the Tamils demanded for the maximum, everyone would be satisfied with a model like India, without a seperate state

    Again our insurrection is defeated and as an alternative we have a family dictatorship, something like Somalian clans

    We had 2 mass executions/ mass killings inside the sinhalese majority and a ethnic cleansing among Tamils. Muslims were expelled from north. There were no inquirries. Abductions are a daily procedure in SL.

    Can you imagine, you walk along the streets of Delhi, you will be abducted, you will be killed and dumped in sea? You are lucky, you don´t need to imagine this kind of scenario.

    This little island with a lot of resources and 2 harvests an year can do better in terms of economy.

    All the compromises and negotiations are ignored as everybody is scared of buddhist clergy.

    Can you imagine a Sinha Regiment, a Kotiya regiment and a muslim and a burgher regiment in SL under a united identity? If Madras, Sikhs, Gurka and calcatta regiments possible in SL, why not in SL?

  • 0

    Col. why dont U mind your own business:

    Leave SL matters to us. Sweep your house 1st be4 telling others.
    In India U have enough mass don’t U

    Pls comment on following issues ; the crimes committed by U the hindians :
    1. Gandhi Fam.
    Together with the tamil nadu political SCUM / RAW – created LTTE
    Responsible 4 over:. 100.000 +deaths destruction / 30+ yrs of WAR against terror
    2. Shipping lethal weapons & Gear to the Tamil terror scum
    3. IPKF: criminal role in SL. Raping / Killings & other covert & overt operations crimes committed in SL.
    4. Last but NOT least “Back stabbing SL in Geneva “.
    5. We had to spend valuable SL life’s to clear the mess U hindians made

    U Indian “ WAR Criminal gang “
    U are a shame for being an Ex Army officer

    Beside SL Army could be depolied any where, whts the prob.

    Its our NATIONAL Army

  • 0

    Thanks Col Hari for the article. You must also write about IPKF, in Sri Lanka how they violated Human Rights. Sir are you in a position to challenge the Indian Government about their comlicity during the last stage of war in Sri Lanka. I will appreciate if you have such guts to do that.
    Vasu Sagotharaya we know you well, keep holding until you with MR

  • 0

    Sri Lanka’s military presence in ANY part of Sri Lanka is of no business of outside elements. If anyone is not happy about the presence of Sri Lankan military in ANY part of Sri Lanka, then get on those boats and head for the West.

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