October 31, 2012 8:14 pm

Sri Lanka’s military moves into moneymaking

Activities range from the mundane to the exotic

Last month Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s younger brother, opened a mall in a revamped colonial-era racecourse in the centre of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. Yet instead of viewing renovations undertaken by skilled local craftsmen, the economic development minister admired work by a less expected group: the army.

In the three and a half years since the war against Tamil Tiger rebels ended, the military has arguably increased its hold on national life. There is little sign of troop levels falling, a record budget increase is promised next year and moneymaking operations spread in a range of directions.

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In the north, where most of the forces remain stationed, the army runs roadside cafés in the majority of towns. Soldiers in civilian clothes cycle around selling bread. Other activities are more exotic: the air force opened a golf course in the east this year and the navy runs whale-watching tours on the southern coast. Any tourist keen to zip over to either attraction can do so on an army-operated helicopter ride.

Much of this commercial activity is presumed to stem from another of the president’s brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who controlled the wartime forces and has since expanded their reach to include urban development. This gambit has ensured their involvement in construction and beautification projects such as Colombo’s racecourse refit.

Few are willing to criticise Gotabhaya Rajapaksa openly, given his reputation as the regime’s enforcer. His fearful image can only have been strengthened when an article last year in the New Yorker confirmed that he keeps a tank of sharks in his garden.

Yet the army’s growing role remains regrettable, says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political analyst based in the northern regional capital of Jaffna. It is part, he says, of a wider problem of military encroachment into public institutions and other areas of civilian life in the aftermath of the conflict.

Others, however, see a more innocent explanation for the trend. “The army here are skint while the troops are incredibly bored,” says one charity worker operating in the north. “So these things keep them busy.”

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