by Mel Gunasekara
MANKULAM, Sri Lanka (AFP) –
In a wooden shelter in north Sri Lanka a soldier has swapped his gun for a pair of scissors, trimming hair and beards of civilians who now travel through what was a war zone until last year.
Business is brisk at the army-run salon, which also offers scalp and foot massages by battle-hardened soldiers.
Business is brisk at the army-run salon, which also offers scalp and foot massages by battle-hardened soldiers~pic: courtesy: AFP~click on pic for larger image
Next door is the "Military Cafe", where veterans of the government's long civil war against the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels now serve up tea and snacks to passing domestic tourists.
"The food is fresh. It's made in the nearby army camp. Prices same as elsewhere," said Corporal Nimal Karunaratne at the cafe in Mankulam, 190 miles (300 kilometres) north of Colombo as uniformed soldiers wipe plastic tables.
The small businesses are just two signs of how the end of the war last May has affected life in Sri Lanka.
Situated on the main A9 highway that links the northern Jaffna peninsular to the island's south, Mankulam was a stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels who controlled one-third of Sri Lanka as recently as 2006.
After a massive military offensive that attracted international concern about civilian deaths, the Tigers were eventually crushed in May last year.
But the northeast of Sri Lanka, scene of much of the fighting, has been left a scarred and deserted landscape as former residents are unable or unwilling to return to many of the villages destroyed by the war.
The area is still littered with landmines and other unexploded ordnance. With little or no civilian life, the military has set up shops along the highway selling groceries, top-up phone cards and food.
A few miles up the road, Malaysian mobile phone operator Dialog has erected advertising over a military hut selling snacks to local tourists. Many pose for pictures near the burnt-out shell of a bulldozer used as a makeshift tank by the rebels.
Back in the capital Colombo, a former naval troop carrier is being used as a venue for cocktail parties.
A sound system plays hits by Swedish pop-group ABBA as guests sip drinks and watch the sunset from the decks of the Jetliner.
As the vessel leaves port on its short evening voyage, dozens of navy women release colourful streamers and balloons. A naval tug blares horns and a sailor points out passing landmarks to guests.
"This is the new image that the Sri Lanka government wants to project," navy chief Thisara Samarasinghe told AFP as he mingled with guests aboard the ship, including diplomats, leisure industry executives and socialites.
During the final years of war, the Jetliner ferried 3,000 men and military supplies to the battlefields up and down the northeast coast.
It came under attack many times but was never hit, Samarasinghe explained to his guests as they took pictures of Colombo's shoreline.
The Jetliner began its new life in January as a floating banquet hall and a venue for corporate events, weddings and seminars.
Now operated as a commercial venture by the navy, the bill is 18,000 dollars for a five-hour cruise with a navy band and meals cooked by staff from a Colombo five-star hotel for 350 guests.
"We are not losing money, we are not making a lot of money, but let's say our order book is nearly full until Christmas," Samarasinghe said, declining to say when the vessel will be returned to its Indonesian owners.
In another example of military marketing, at Palaly airbase in the north of the island, airforce helicopters are on hire to businessmen.
Prices for an hour range from 950 dollars for a four-seater Bell 206 to 3,000 dollars for ride in a Russian-built Mi-17 transporter, airforce spokesman Janaka Nanayakkara said.
Despite the end of the civil war, the government recently proposed maintaining defence spending at about 1.8 billion dollars a year.
And the army size will remain at 200,000 men and women to ensure that the Tigers are unable to stage a comeback.
Critics say the military presence in all areas of Sri Lankan life is dampening entrepreneurial spirit and holding back post-war development.
"Without downsizing the military after the war, or returning leased equipment, the military is encroaching into the civilian economy," complained Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a consultant economist to foreign donors.
Sarvananthan, who conducts surveys on the northern and eastern economy, said the military must be cut back to allow Sri Lanka to grow a stable peacetime economy.
"It is a waste of public resources to pay specially trained people to do mundane things like pour tea and cook food for passing travellers. If there is no work, the military should be downsized to save money," he said.