Reducing military presence in the north is a tricky challenge for the Government. The danger of LTTE sympathisers destabilising the region needs to be counterbalanced by a growing international and political focus on the issue. In such an atmosphere, striking a delicate balance is difficult and often open to criticism and fraction from all sides.
The seriousness of the point was emphasised by President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the recent Victory Day celebrations, where he insisted that it was not possible to reduce military presence in the north because the LTTE Diaspora and other factions were still active and could sow discord among the people. In such an instance, he stressed that withdrawal of troops would only leave the region vulnerable.
He also stated that there was no difference between the north and the south as there are military camps in all parts of the country. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa this week told the BBC that the north does not solely belong to Tamils but there are other communities living there as well. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) however maintains that military presence in the north is higher than in the south, with one military personnel for every eight civilians.
The situation was put under further stress by British High Commissioner John Rankin’s remarks calling for a speedy reduction of the military from the north and the reaction from the Government. Moreover, steps have now been taken to assure the diplomatic community that the military presence in the north is being reduced with top military commanders meeting with the Australian High Commissioner.
Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe had briefed the Australian High Commissioner on the present situation, adding that the military was gradually reducing its presence in Jaffna and being replaced by the Police since civil administration had been established in Jaffna. He had pointed out that the High Security Zones were being phased out with most of the land and houses already being returned to the owners. He had assured that the process would continue as security would allow.
Such steps from the Government are prudent since they send a clear signal of actions that are being taken to return the north to civilian rule. However, there are several more actions that can be taken to emphasise the Government’s intentions and build relations with the international community. The step to allow diplomats to visit the north and make appraisals for themselves is a positive decision with even the Singaporean Foreign Minister taking time off from his five-day visit to tour these areas and see post-war progress.
Perhaps the Government can also expedite the action plan on how to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report, which initially recommended that the military presence in the north be reduced. As an issue that is highlighted in the LLRC, it would also be mentioned in the action plan and thus would bolster confidence as well as giving a transparent timeline to the Government’s intentions.
Detailing the number of military personnel, their tasks and how its presence has been reduced in the north during the last three years would also show the Government in a positive light as it would give a clear picture of the progress made. Promoting frank discussion, open engagement and transparency would go a long way to reassuring not only the political and diplomatic community but the people of Sri Lanka as well.