'High Security Zones' in Sri Lanka

25 Jun, 2007    ·   2321

N Manoharan analyses the side effects of 'High Security Zones' in the country

The recent setting up of new 'High Security Zones' in Sampur and Muttur areas of eastern Sri Lanka has brought to light issues revolving around these 'Zones': what is the rationale behind them? what are their side effects?

Having learnt about the relative success of such 'zones' in Israel, the Sri Lankan government started using the same strategy more extensively against the Tamil militancy since the late 1980s. There are four categories of zones declared from time to time through regulations either under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) or Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA): 'prohibited zones,' 'surveillance zones,' 'security zones' and 'high security zones.' While 'surveillance zones' and 'prohibited zones' are marked at sea and the adjoining coasts, the 'security zones' and 'high security zones' are demarcated on land. The 'surveillance' and 'prohibited' zones usually fall around coasts and territorial waters of northeast of Sri Lanka dominated by Tamils and Muslims. The main objective behind enforcing these zones is to prevent the LTTE from getting arms and other supplies through sea from its international network. The most affected due to such enforcements are, however, the fishermen.

The 'security' and 'high security' zones are the most controversial. They were basically set-up to protect military camps, strategic installations, and the lifelines of security forces in Jaffna - Kankesanthurai harbour and Palaly airport - from LTTE attack. These zones comprise large chunks of territory surrounding or encompassing strategic military installations. In the Jaffna peninsula there are 18 'high security zones' (HSZs) covering about 190 sq km. While the HSZs have by and large served their purpose of securing military installation, they have led to the displacement and economic deprivation of nearly 1,30,000 civilians. The displaced persons have to live either with their relatives or at refugee camps. This apart, there are large tracts of agricultural lands that fall under these zones that have deprived many farmers of their livelihood. About 16,027 farming families have been affected. Most importantly, since Jaffna has a "long history and tradition in land use, people wish to preserve their own land and house handed over to them by their forefathers."

The obvious questions the displaced persons, especially those living in refugee camps, ask are: "security for whom? For us, or, for the armed forces?" The displacement and consequent plight of the people has provided a fertile ground for the LTTE both for its recruitment and to strengthen its case against the presence of armed forces in Jaffna. While there is a military dimension to the LTTE demand, it tries to project the issue as a humanitarian one. During a Hero's Day speech (27 November 2003) Prabhaharan said, "Under the cover of high security zones, the Sinhala armed forces are occupying residential areas and social, economic and cultural centres.... As several villages, houses and roads are entrapped by occupation, several thousands of internally displaced are unable to return to their residences. Unless this problem is resolved, there is no possibility of normalcy and social peace being restored in Jaffna."

Both fishermen and farmers who lost their livelihood due to the carving out of 'zones' by the government in the northeast mostly look towards the LTTE for protection and employment. The main issue is that the people are not aware when their areas are notified or denotified as 'zones'. This leads to harassment from the security forces personnel as and when ordinary civilians trespass 'prohibited areas' inadvertently. Inter alia Tigers cite this as one of the reasons for the "control of land and seas by us in our homeland."

Continuation of HSZs in Tamil-dominated areas perpetuates a vicious cycle of suspicion. The government forces link dismantling of these 'zones' with complete disarmament of the LTTE, while the Tigers link their arms surrender to the final settlement of the ethnic issue. Both parties are aware that the LTTE cannot realise its dream of recapturing Jaffna peninsula as long as these HSZs exist. The parties appointed Lt. Gen. Sathish Nambiar to suggest a way out. In his eight-page report submitted in 2003 entitled 'Report on the Aspects of High Security Zones', Gen. Nambiar recommended a two-phase de-escalation - initially in and around the largely civilian areas of the Jaffna peninsula and later in the zones of strategic military importance - but linked to simultaneous dismantling of the LTTE operational military positions. Since neither side was comfortable with the recommendations, the Report was forgotten. It is appropriate, however to revisit the Report in the light of new developments on humanitarian front. In the interest of those displaced, both parties must climb down from their entrenched positions: the LTTE should consider moving its heavy weaponry from the target range and the government must vacate agricultural lands and public buildings like schools and temples. Confidence building measures must start from here.