More than a decade since the end of the armed conflict, the Sri Lankan military has raised a deadly new unit in Kilinochchi, the heart of the Tamil homeland, reportedly to “eliminate the internal and external threats”.
A flashy new video from the newly raised 1 Corps states that the new unit "is the highest tactical organization” in the Sri Lankan army, with a range of units including the war crimes accused 58 and 53 Divisions.
“Special operation forces are highly trained and extremely motivated operators,” said the military produced video. “They are silent professionals in surgical strikes which are strategical and highly sensitive in nature.”
The video, which features a range of staged scenarios, showed blacked out troops with the skull-and-crossbones special forces insignia conducting mock operations.
The new unit will “eliminate the internal and external threats to our motherland” warned a booming voiceover. “The special forces regiment have launched well-planned and well-executed operations against the vicious terrorists and have achieved great results”.
Interspersed with clips from 2009, in which the Sri Lankan army shelled hospitals and the so-called ‘No Fire Zone’, the video also showed troops breaking into homes and raiding vehicles, as well as underwater operations and a beach invasion.
It then listed the range of operations the new unit will be tasked with, including “overt and covert operations in conventional and non-conventional military operations, in remote urban or rural areas… raids, reconnaissance and surveillances, clandestine operations, capturing of key points, urban fighting operations, airborne operations, waterborne operations and long-range patrol operations”.
“The special forces brigade has excelled in the Sri Lankan army,” the video continued. “They will continue to combat for any conflict in the future.”
Accused war criminals in charge
The military claimed that the new unit is the “brainchild” of Shavendra Silva, a Sri Lankan army commander who is barred from entry to the US over his role in the execution of surrendering Tamils.
He is not the only prominent accused war criminal linked to this unit.
Major General Harendra Ranasinghe has been appointed commander of the 1 Corps and took up duties last week “amid religious rites and rituals”, according to a military website. Photographs show Ranasinghe dressed in all black receiving blessings from Sinhala Buddhist monks.
Ranasinghe was heavily involved in the 2009 offensive that killed tens of thousands of Tamils. Apart from leading military units, he has been identified in a video clip where Tamil TV presenter Isaipriya is seen alive and surrounded by Sri Lankan soldiers in 2009. Isaipriya was executed in Sri Lankan military custody, with her subsequent photographs showing her body bearing the signs of sexual abuse. She was just 27 years old when she was killed.
Isaipriya in O'liveechchu, 2001.
The Sri Lankan army initially boasted of its killing, displaying Isaipriya’s name on an official military website alongside other LTTE cadres. The military stated they had been “killed on 18 May 2009 by 53 Division troops”.
A UN investigation found:
“Reasonable grounds to believe that security forces captured Isaipriya alive and then killed her with gunshots to the head execution style. Further, based on the images of Isaipriya’s dead body and those of many other women, the OISL believes that Isaipriya’s dead body was desecrated.”
“Ranasinghe to date has never been questioned about what happened though he’s clearly visible in the video with Isaipriya, whose semi-naked corpse was also seen in trophy photographs,” said the ITJP in 2020, after he was promoted up a rank last year.
“One has to ask what it means to Isaipriya’s surviving family – driven into exile – to see a material witness to their daughter’s execution promoted to Major General,” said ITJP’s Executive Director, Yasmin Sooka.
Despite more than 12 years since the end of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka’s militarisation has continued to rumble on. The latest unit follows a trend that has seen the security force expand their reach across the island, and the Tamil North-East in particular. The Tamil homeland remains under intense military occupation, with previous studies showing that some regions had as many as 1 Sri Lankan soldier for every two civilians.
That militarisation does not look like it will abating soon. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s finance minister Basil Rajapaksa declared on Friday that he “will not abscond our responsibility for national security which is the foundation of freedom and prosperity”.
Basil Rajapaksa on Friday.
“We have been able to ensure national security in line with the aspirations of the people. There is immense public support for this. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that we have been able to better strengthen ethnic harmony, political and economic stability, elimination of terrorism, and counter-extremism in the country,” he continued.
Last month, he presented the Appropriation Bill for 2022, with the largest budget allocation once more earmarked for the Ministry of Defence. According to Janes, the proposed defence allocation accounts for 15% of total government expenditure for 2022, a 14% increase over the allocation in 2021.
Whilst the massive defence spending continues to grow, Rajapaksa also warned of “agents of foreign powers disguised as social activists are exerting a considerable pressure on our society”.
“Such so called activism can overthrow strong and populist governments,” he added. “It is not possible for a government alone to manage. Therefore, I invite all citizens of this country as responsible citizens to be vigilant about this situation.”
The heart of the Tamil homeland
“This is the first time in the military history that this combined type of highest tactical fighting formation, 1 Corps with Reserve Strike Forces (RSF) and Special Operations Forces (SOF) as a force multiplier came into being under one command,” said the Sri Lankan army last month.
The raising of a new unit, in what was once the de-facto Tamil Eelam state’s administrative capital, has affirmed fears from locals that the military continues to target Tamils.
“Why does the military continue to have the Tamil people in its scope so long after the Mullivaikkal massacres?” questioned one activist, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of their safety. “The military state occupies our homeland, they arrest us, they torture us. And now they are intensifying their presence with their most hard core troops stationed in the Vanni.”
“They are making it abundantly clear – The Sri Lankan state will never let the Tamil people live in peace.”