The Sri Lankan Army Brutally Crushed a Separatist Movement. Now They Want You to Stay at Their Luxury Resort.

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Aug. 30 2013 8:08 AM

Soldiers at Your Service

The Sri Lankan Army brutally crushed a separatist movement a few years ago. Now they want you to stay at their luxury hotels and resorts.

A Sri Lankan army trooper patrols the island's northern town of Jaffna.
A Sri Lankan army trooper patrols the island's northern town of Jaffna on Sept. 18, 2011. The government has tried to rebrand its troops as a benevolent force for rebuilding and development.

Photo by Ishara S.Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

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KANKESANTHURAI HIGH SECURITY ZONE, Sri Lanka—Visitors to Thalsevana Holiday Resort are greeted a couple of miles from the hotel itself, at an army checkpoint. A courteous officer, flanked by several machine gun-toting grunts, emerges from a guard station to check guests’ passports and ensure they have a reservation. If everything is in order, guests are then cleared to enter the Kankesanthurai High Security Zone. Along the road are buildings whose condition reflects the violent history of the area: Offices of the Special Investigations Unit and Ordnance Corps are still pocked with holes from bullet and mortar fire.

Kankesanthurai, a sandy and palm-tree filled stretch on Sri Lanka’s northern coast, is one of dozens of High Security Zones throughout northern Sri Lanka, established during its war against the separatist Tamil Tigers. In 2009, the Tigers were defeated in dramatic and controversial fashion: Thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of the conflict as the government shelled the last rebel stronghold, some 60 miles southeast of Thalsevana.

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The Tigers have shown no signs of regrouping since that final assault, but peace has left an army with no one to fight. The government, however, has resisted calls to drawdown its massive security force. Instead, it has steered the military directly into an expanding range of businesses, perhaps none more conspicuous than tourism. The Sri Lankan military’s hospitality portfolio now spans from hotels and restaurants to whale-watching tours and airlines in an island nation that the travel guide Lonely Planet bills as this year’s best destination—a “cut-price paradise put back on the map.”

Thalsevana has had a peculiar path to becoming a resort. The area was mostly inhabited by Tamil fishermen before the Sri Lankan military appropriated some 6,000 acres here in the early 1990s. The government built a naval base in the newly created high security zone to enforce a blockade against Tiger resupply ships and to patrol against hit-and-run attacks by small “Sea Tiger” crafts. The area’s inhabitants were expelled without compensation. (They are currently petitioning the government, without much hope, for a return of the land).

On Thalsevana’s beach these days, the conflict seems a distant memory. Dusk casts a purple sky over the ocean as guests, mostly upper-class Sinhalese visiting from the south, enjoy beer and arrack (a local rum-like tipple concocted from coconuts) on a veranda after having taken a plunge in the warm and salty sea. All of the staff are active military personnel, and many have yet to master the fine points of civilian hospitality—some are clearly awestruck at the sight of a foreigner. They did serve vacationers before the war ended, but those were their direct superiors: officers on leave from frontline duty.

Thalsevana is just one of the military’s expanding and diversifying hotel offerings. Last year, the Army launched its own resort brand, Laya, a Sanskrit word that means rest and repose. “Our vision is to make the Laya brand one of the most sought-after resort hotels in Sri Lanka,” the chief of the army said at a news conference in November. But many see the military’s push into tourism and other businesses as highly disquieting.

The government’s pride in its prosecution of the war—and, conversely, what critics see at the extreme unseemliness of the military opening high-end resorts—is sharpest in what is perhaps the most unique of the military’s hotels: Lagoon’s Edge. Overlooking the body of water around which the Tigers made their last stand, the hotel is marketed to Sinhalese war tourists as an opportunity to bask in the afterglow of the battlefield where the military defeated the Tiger “terrorists.” The lagoon and surrounding land, however, was also the site of thousands of fleeing Tamil civilians, many of whom were shot and shelled by the Army—up to 40,000 civilians died during the last few weeks of fighting, according to the United Nations. What the military sees as a due monument, packaged for tourists, to its victory over evil, others view as triumphalizing war crimes.

Concern about the military’s creep into the private sector extends far beyond poor taste. Human Rights Watch and other watchdogs have documented ongoing disappearances, rape, and other forms of violence by security forces. More than four years after the end of the conflict, the military continues to rule the north repressively, controlling the area as its fiefdom apart from the rest of the country. Among their draconian restrictions in the north: public gatherings of more than five people are outlawed, and residents can still be detained as “terrorist suspects” with little or no evidence.

Figures vary but most estimates put the size of the security forces between 300,000 and 400,000, about one-half of whom are stationed in the lowly populated north, where the civil war raged hottest. That extreme troop density—around one soldier for every 10 residents—is among the highest in modern history, surpassing relative troop levels of the British in Northern Ireland, French in Algeria, and Russians in Chechnya during the height of their counterinsurgencies.  

The government has tried to rebrand its troops as a benevolent force for rebuilding and development. It’s true that in many quarters of the country, the military is seen as more efficient and professional than other public or private institutions. But it is hard to see how war-torn and economically depressed Tamil areas are well served by the military opening and staffing businesses themselves, rather than assisting local communities develop.

Critics say that the real motive behind the military’s enterprise is to lay roots for an indefinite large-scale presence in the north. “A lot of it is make-work,” says Fred Carver, with the London-based Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. “They have an army that’s far too large and they need to keep them busy and in place.” By running businesses, from hotels to farms, military units can seemingly normalize their presence, while continuing to watch over and manage the once-restive region without having to be deployed en masse in the streets, says Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a university lecturer and lawyer in the northern city of Jaffna. “It’s a process where the military wants to make itself part of daily life.”

And even if they’re serving beers and planting rice, military presence means military control. “It means keeping control over economic resources, it means control over land, it means control over decision-making powers, and ultimately it means demographic change,” says Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit conflict-resolution group based in Brussels. Keenan’s last point—demographic change—is particularly sensitive. Tamil activists, along with many international observers, accuse the government of attempting to re-engineer the social makeup of Tamil-majority areas, with soldiers and their families forming the first wave of Sinhalese settlers, to be followed, through incentives of land grants and economic privileges, by Sinhalese from other parts of the country. Top government officials have pointed to their desire to rid the country of ethnic enclaves. As the majority ethnic group on the island, Sinhalese should be a majority in each region of the country, argues Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “Whether it will take 10 or 20 or 30 years, it’s happening,” says Keenan.

That’s not to say that travelers should avoid Sri Lanka categorically; this is not Myanmar in the bad old days, where a military junta got kickbacks on every tourist dollar spent. But the peace here is complicated. Lounging around at Thalsavena during my stay, there was a retired Sinhalese officer who hadn’t been to the north in years. The area “was like hell” during the war, he said, and a vacation on the strand was just another dividend of peace. The question remains, though: Who really paid the bill?

Brendan Brady has reported from across Asia.

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