I recently met a friend who’d been traveling around the north and east, talking to people. A lot of people there seem to be struggling to make ends meet, if they can find ends in the first place. One major economic issue there is military possession of land, which I think can be addressed while still ensuring the city of the whole country.
To me it is beyond a doubt that there needs to be a continued military presence in the north and east. We just came out of a 30 year war that almost destroyed and separated the country. That resolution was hard-fought and should be preserved. When the LTTE and JVP rebellions began, the Sri Lankan military and police were almost a ceremonial force and that had catastrophic consequences for the safety of everyone on the island. The Sri Lankan military needs to remain in a constant state of readiness and that includes deployment across the country. For Sri Lanka to grow, the central state must have a monopoly of violence and essentially take that brutal commodity off the market.
I also think that the military does not need to be occupying as much land as it does. High security zones were important, indeed, much of Colombo was barricaded and inaccessible, but now the security needs of the country are better served by giving people back their land (at a minimum) and re-integrating them to the better life that the LTTE forced everyone to sacrifice. That is, the security needs of the country need not be balanced on the backs of the neediest among us.
Last time I was in Jaffna a colleague had just gotten his family house back from the military. He was rich and well-connected and managed to pull some strings to get the land released. The normal process he had tried, however, was slow to the point of being useless. For an average person trying to get their 2 acres from some 100 acre plot that the military had taken would be impossible. However, without land people cannot get some of the grants Indians are giving for houses, nor can they build a house with their own money, nor can they grow anything to eat or sell. This is not to say that the Army is occupying random peoples houses willy-nilly, but they are occupying enough land that it is a problem.
I do think that the security need to have a military presence in the North and East can be balanced with giving people back more land as time goes on. It’s actually a complicated process – with deeds lost and people gone abroad or dead – but it has begun and it should be accelerated. People in the North are also being crushed under usury in the guise of micro-finance and they simply need help in terms of cash to put more than one meal on the table. The government should give incentives to companies to offer work, and the government should also create some government jobs. From what I’ve heard it’s actually not easy to employ people in these war-torn areas, either for reasons of motivation or lack of social and other infrastructure, but incentives can offset those disadvantages.
It’s good that the TNA is active in this Parliament and that they’re voicing their constituents’ concerns. It’s also good that the Prime Minister and President have committed to returning land.
The Sri Lankan military is disciplined and their presence is essential to preserving peace, but I do think they’ve done a good enough job that they can start pulling back from some of the high security zones while maintaining good intelligence and a physical presence in their bases and barracks. They can start pulling back without losing the peace that we’ve gained. Indeed, returning economic possibility to the North and East is the best security investment we could make right now.