Sri Lankans doubt military can end war. Growing numbers want negotiations to resolve ethnic conflict
Colombo, Sri Lanka — In the last few years, Sri Lanka's ethnic war has transformed parts of the gem-shaped island -- known for its spectacular beaches -- into scorched battlefields or stark scenes of slaughter. Over this period, too, the country has seen the transformation of its military forces from largely ceremonial soldiers into fierce combat troops. Now, equipped with sophisticated weapons, the military is motivated with a purpose -- to wipe out the country's Tamil insurgency.
But many Sri Lankans -- government officials, military men, and civilians -- have apparently begun to believe a military solution is not possible. Continued allegations of military abuses or massacres of Tamil civilians have raised doubts about the wisdom of Army offensives.
Within the military hierarchy itself, there are those who advocate a negotiated settlement to the island's Tamil-Sinhalese strife, even as both sides remain locked in a virtual civil war.
``There has to be a political solution,'' says Maj. Gen. N. Seneviratne, commander of the Sri Lankan Army. ``The military cannot bring about a solution to the problem, although we have to play our part in maintaining law and order.''
Tamils, who make up roughly 18 percent of the country's 16 million people, began waging a sporadic guerrilla war in the late 1970s. Armed rebels, now estimated to number between 5,000 to 7,000, demand a separate homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the island, where Tamils constitute a majority. The violence has escalated since July 1983, when a Tamil ambush that killed 13 soldiers sparked violent reprisals from the Sinhalese, the island's main ethnic community.
Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene, analysts here say, has been made increasingly aware that a military solution -- a threat he has held out in the past, if peace talks were to fail irrevocably -- would not be feasible. Sources say that when Army officers requested the Finance Ministry to increase defense allocations earlier this year, they admitted that the military could at best maintin a holding pattern -- and only temporarily.
Analysts also doubt that the country's economy can sustain prolonged military operations. Defense expenditures have risen from about $30 million in 1977 to over $350 million this year, a huge increase for an economy hit by low exports and falling foreign investment.
Nonetheless, there are concerns that if Indian-brokered peace negotiations fail, the Sri Lankan government will be forced to mount military offensives that it can ill afford. After the collapse of a cease-fire late last year, India has again managed to get the Jayewardene government and the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front to a negotiating table. India is reportedly trying to persuade the more radical Tamil guerrilla groups to join in the next round of talks.
``If proposals are not accepted, there is no alternative but for the military to take drastic action. There will be further bloodshed which would be devastating for the country,'' Seneviratne says.
Faced with the Tamil insurgency, the military has had to beef up its ranks, arsenal, and morale in a short period. Though relatively small in absolute terms, its numbers have more than doubled in the last 15 months alone, experts say. The Defense Ministry does not release figures, but some analysts estimate the armed forces strength at 30,000 to 40,000, including 4,000 members of the Special Task Force, an elite unit of police commandos and active reservists. A 4,000-man Navy patrols the 20-mile wide Palk Strait where guerrilla arms traffic passes through from islands off southern India's coast.
In addition to the military and police forces, there are an estimated 15,000 ``home guards'' or civilian troops, mostly farmers and villagers, who are issued arms with little or no military training. Deployed by the Home Ministry, their role is controversial, particularly in the northeast where many have reportedly carried out indiscriminate killings of Tamil civilians.
With the modernization campaign in the last two years, the military has expanded its materiel capability with massive purchases of arms -- from Israel, South Africa, Britain, Singapore, Pakistan, and China.
According to National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, Israeli intelligence experts were brought in for a few months in 1983 to train security forces in counterinsurgency methods. Western defense experts say some Israeli advisers still come in from time to time.
While their morale may have improved, the security forces have fast gained a reputation for atrocities against civilians in retaliation for guerrilla attacks, say local and international human rights organizations. In 1984, following the death of two military personnel in a land mine explosion allegedly planned by guerrillas, security forces reportedly went on a rampage in a northern town, setting fire to homes and businesses, and killing several civilians.
Last week, the government reported that a car bomb in the eastern city of Batticaloa killed 13 civilians. But residents, giving a higher toll, claimed six civilians died in Thursday's blast and nine were killed in a subsequent reprisal by government forces. No one claimed responsibility for the explosion.
Critics blame the government for allowing widespread indiscipline among the ranks to go unpunished. The government claims that since 1982, it has dismissed about 300 soldiers, including officers. But it says no court-martial cases have been filed for lack of evidence.
Part of the problem seems to lie in the ethnic composition of the security forces. Including new recruits, experts say, up to 98 percent of the military is Sinhalese. Among police ranks, Tamils account for only about 5 to 7 percent. Tamils claim discrimination against them in recruiting. But authorities say Tamil applicants and their families are threatened by guerrillas if they join the Army.
``An essentially Sinhalese Army,'' one international human rights group warned, ``inevitably identifies the terrorist guerrilla groups as Tamils and therefore sees its role not as a neutral force but to defend the Sinhalese. . . .''
Another problem is that the security forces' powers of arrest and detention have widened under the 1982 Prevention of Terrorism Act. This has led to abuses and torture, according to civil rights groups.
Earlier this year, a military campaign to wrest control of the northern city and district of Jaffna from Tamil militants, achieved only limited success. The government ``unilaterally suspended'' its bombing of the area in April, Athulathmudali says.
But analysts say the bombings ceased due to pressure from abroad, notably India, and rumblings from within the military. The campaign, they say, helped convince Army leaders that, contrary to the government's political rhetoric, elimination of the rebels was not possible -- especially while the rebels maintain sanctuaries in southern India, where there is a large Tamil population.
Even if a political settlement is eventually reached, observers say, Sri Lanka's program of militarization may prove difficult to reverse.