Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Monday, 29 June 2009 01:09 UK

Sri Lanka's expanding peacetime army

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

Leelawathi Mahagamaralalage
Leelawathi Mahagamaralalage's family is proud of their military tradition, despite the human cost

It is just over a month since Asia's longest civil war in modern times came to an end, with the Sri Lankan government's declaration that it had finally defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels (LTTE) on the battlefield and killed nearly all their leaders.

Yet the army chief says he wants the army, already 200,000, to increase in size by 50%.

To see what the military means to many Sri Lankans, I visited the peaceful bungalow home of Leelawathi Mahagamaralalage, set among banana trees in a village.

Taking pride of place in her front room are shelves with pictures of her family, but mostly of her second son, Nandana.

Plastic surgery

When we get out the album, she weeps. It shows his funeral. A Sri Lankan army soldier, he was killed in battle 12 years ago, aged just 20.

Tamil MP Mano Ganesan
This expansion of the Sri Lankan army in such large numbers gives us wrong signals
Tamil MP Mano Ganesan

She still mourns him and treasures every memento including his final letter.

She has two other sons.

Nandana's elder brother, Chandana, was 14 years in the navy. But a year ago, in a Tamil Tiger grenade attack, he lost much of his hearing, and needed plastic surgery.

With her third son in the police, Leelawathi, despite her pain cherishes all her sons' achievements - and cherishes the armed forces.

"I feel so sad - but proud, too," she says. "I have only the memory of one son. But I am happy because I have two more sons. Even if a family has 10 people, very often, every one of them will join the military, the same as in my family."

The wounded brother Chandana, now retired, lives next door with his family. He fully supports the government's plan to expand the armed forces even now the war is over.

'Searching for heroes'

"The LTTE have no leader now. So the small number of LTTE cadres who are left will try to form another organisation and will try to become leaders, as a matter of pride, and will tell the world that they are the LTTE," he believes.

"So the army must be on alert and observe everything these people are doing, and take any action needed to prevent them forming again."

Brig Udaya Nanayakkara
Camps will be established to see that no terrorist activities take place
Brig Udaya Nanayakkara

Boosted by that pride, which is strongest in Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority population, the forces are recruiting.

The capital, Colombo, has many posters praising the military. Sinhala-language television stations still carry advertisements to entice applicants, telling them their nation is "searching for heroes". And many are joining up.

The military says the ambitious plan for the massive 50%increase in size is grounded in the need to quash possible militancy and also to help with development work.

It will also step up its presence in Sri Lanka's north, where hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees are currently interned in camps by the government with no freedom of movement. The authorities say they are concerned about their possible LTTE links and are therefore screening them.

They say that many of the refugees are still "with the LTTE… at least mentally". But they add that 10,000 "LTTE cadres" have been separated, under tight security, within the camps.

When the people eventually return home - which the government says most will do by the end of this year - they will be accompanied by the military for an uncertain period of time.

Sri Lankan soldiers
Many Sri Lankans are fiercely proud of the military

The military spokesman, Brig Udaya Nanayakkara, told the BBC there are plans to build more military bases in the north.

"Presently two security force headquarters are established in Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi," he said.

"Under these headquarters camps will be established to see that no terrorist activities take place in those areas in the near future.

"That doesn't mean people can't go and settle down. People will be able to settle down. But we will have to see that the whole area activities are being monitored by some organised establishment."

That means normality in northern Sri Lanka is still a very long way away.

For many Sri Lankans, the stepping-up of military activity is too much.

'Progressive forces'

A Colombo Tamil MP and leader of a small non-ethnic party, Mano Ganesan, worries that the military is becoming too influential in everything the government does. He fears this will mean less attention is given to political measures to secure the ethnic reconciliation which President Mahinda Rajapaksa says he wants.

Chandana lost much of his hearing in a rebel grenade attack

"If we're going to expand the army more and more, what does it mean?" he says.

"It'll not only be bad for Tamils but also bad for the democratic, peace-loving Sinhalese progressive forces who want a united Sri Lanka where all the people can live equally with each other, who are against a Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic state.

"This expansion of the Sri Lankan army in such large numbers gives us wrong signals."

The root cause for Tamil extremism - he says - is "the national ethnic question. Which needs, will demand, a political solution."

The government, however, says it is necessary to bolster the military, even now.

Much of Colombo, especially the downtown business area, is still guarded by checkpoints - what some would call a ring of steel. Filming or photographing them is strictly banned.

To date, the end of the war has seen no change in this. The Sri Lankan state is attached to its military.

Slogans on the wall of the defence media centre say "It's the Soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press; It's the Soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech."

After decades of war, demilitarisation and a relaxation of security measures are not going to happen soon.

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