October 30, 2014 / 10:41 AM / in 5 years

Commonwealth head urges Sri Lanka to ease military role in north

COLOMBO, Oct 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The head of the Commonwealth group of nations has urged Sri Lanka to decrease the military’s heavy role in civil administration in the country’s former conflict zone, in order to improve living conditions for war survivors.

Although the civil conflict between separatist Tamil Tigers and government forces ended more than five years ago, tens of thousands of security forces remain stationed in the former war zone in the north.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma praised Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development in largely Tamil-populated Northern province, but said demilitarisation was also necessary.

“Equally important are steps that empower the people of the province and those whom they elect as their leaders,” Sharma told journalists on Wednesday at the end of a five-day trip in Sri Lanka that included a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and a visit to the north’s Jaffna Peninsula.

“These include addressing legitimate concerns about restricted and monitored movement of both the citizens of the province in their daily lives and those visiting them for lawful purposes, and a continued reduction in the military security role in civilian life in the province.”

This is not the first time concerns have been raised about the military presence in the north.

Tamil politicians, human rights groups and the United Nations have voiced concern about alleged abuses being committed by security forces - ranging from intimidation and harassment to land grabs and sexual violence.

Rajapaksa’s government denies violations by its military and says the military presence is necessary as the threat of a resurgence remains possible.

Despite the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, there are thousands of insurgents still at large, supported by Tamil groups overseas that want to restart the war, military officials say.

A 2011 U.N. report found that 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war, mostly by the army. The government denies this and claims it has done its own investigation into war abuses.

The U.N., however, has embarked on its own external investigation, which has upset Rajapaksa. He says Colombo will not cooperate and allow investigators into the country.

Since the U.N. resolution on the investigation in March, the government has clamped down on the media and civil society groups dealing with issues such as human rights.

Earlier this month, Sri Lanka banned foreigners from travelling to the north.

Media rights groups say pro-government protesters and police have disrupted at least four workshops in the last five months. Political analysts say the government might be concerned that the media could help the U.N. investigation.

A Defence Ministry body that regulates non-governmental organisations in July banned activist groups from holding news conferences, issuing press releases and holding workshops for journalists. (Writing by Shihar Aneez, editing by Nita Bhalla and Alisa Tang)

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