The Lessons I Learned: Civil-Military Cooperation in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka

By: LTC Sylvester Perera, Sri Lankan Army


The Sri Lankan Army, the "Guardian of the Nation," fulfilled its duty to the motherland in 2009 by eradicating terrorism from the island after three decades of ruthless war. After the war ended, the rehabilitation and reconstruction of war-affected areas in the north and east became particularly important for national development. Compared with the rest of the country, the socioeconomic inequalities in these areas were clearly evident. The government needed to promote rapid development in all aspects of the economy, particularly infrastructure development. The use of the army for these development projects was a feasible and effective option for the government to fill the post-war vacuum in resources and people.

I was the commanding officer of the 8th Battalion of the Gemunu Watch in the Sri Lankan Army between 2010 and 2012. Our battalion was charged with conducting resettlement and reconstruction operations in remote areas of Batticaloa Province, along the eastern seaboard of Sri Lanka. After three decades of conflict against the LTTE, the government of Sri Lanka and its military embarked on a number of large- and medium-scale infrastructure development projects across the country. Batticaloa Province, where my battalion was deployed, had been devastated by the fighting. The people in the area were very poor, a situation the LTTE had exploited to ensure their own survival. Many of the people had been highly dependent on and supportive of the LTTE during the conflict, so it was not an easy task for us to win them over and gain their trust.

I was well positioned to compare these duties with my experience in 1995 in the Northern Province district of Jaffna, where I was involved in the resettlement of the Tamil people immediately following the liberation of the Jaffna Peninsula from the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).1 From these two experiences, I learned that communication with local residents, and making the effort to understand their aspirations and attitudes before we initiated our civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) projects, was the key to success. People must be committed to and responsible for improving their own way of life; if not, government development projects will not help them to achieve good results and will lead to problems such as unrest in the long run. It is of paramount importance to help people who have experienced a crisis, such as war, to heal their wounds, if we are to win their hearts and minds.

The Resettlement of the Tamil People in Jaffna, 1995

My battalion was deployed to the residential area of Jaffna city in 1995 to provide security and resettle the Tamil people who had been displaced during the conflict. During the initial stage of this project, we provided for residents' basic needs, including the distribution of food items. We also looked into the status of various welfare facilities throughout our area of control, such as medical clinics. After the resettlement process was complete, however, our battalion maintained a close watch on the behavior of those who had been resettled, because we felt that our efforts to enhance their welfare were not as fruitful as we had expected. For example, at the food distribution points, we asked people to fall in line to receive the parcels. Despite being in serious need of essential food items, some people were reluctant to form a queue to receive the parcels.

When we questioned them, we came to understand that there was a significant problem concerning their caste.2 Members of the higher caste were reluctant to move freely and stand in line among those of the lower castes. As a result, we had to change our distribution system to avoid provoking a negative situation. We also opened up shops where higher caste people could purchase the basic necessities that they were reluctant to accept for free. This problem of caste arose in other matters as well. If we had opted to ignore these concerns, it is likely that whatever services we extended to the people of Jaffna in good faith would not have been welcomed. It is even possible that neglecting to navigate within the deeply held caste traditions could have reignited local animosities and incited hostility towards the military forces.

Post-Conflict Welfare Projects, 2009

After defeating the LTTE terrorist group in 2009, the Sri Lankan government made immediate infrastructure development a priority. It implemented broad development programs called Uthuru Wasanthaya (Northern Spring) and Nagenahira Udanaya (Awakening East) to improve the infrastructure. These projects included rebuilding and repairing roads, hospitals, schools, and regional government administration buildings of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province, both of which had been completely devastated by war and neglect. The government allocated 253 billion Sri Lankan rupees (LKR) to the Northern Province and LKR 6.1 billion for the projects in the Eastern Province, which were intended mainly to raise the general standard of living in the district of Batticaloa.3 In addition, the army was assigned to provide humanitarian assistance and basic infrastructure development, primarily through housing and road construction.

My battalion was assigned to the Batticaloa district in Sri Lanka's Eastern Province, a majority Tamil region where there had been heavy fighting during the civil conflict. The battalion's chief role was to maintain security, but it also assisted in the reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure in the area and the resettlement of displaced people. CIMIC was a new concept for the troops of my battalion, who had previously been engaged in combat operations in the north. We were hopeful that this assistance would favorably influence the local people's perception of the army. The battalion was closely involved in various projects in the area, such as constructing houses and roads, and assisting people to develop their livelihoods. In addition, with the approval of the security force headquarters, I obtained the assistance of the Engineer of the Plant Squadron and the experienced troops of the engineer regiment to construct a minor road. Filling the dual roles of conducting CIMIC operations and providing security for the area was not an easy task for the members of my battalion, but they performed extremely well in all their military and civil-military projects, thanks to the hierarchical military structure: its command system, leadership, commitment, dedication, and discipline.

Good Intentions Can Go Wrong

As became clear from my earlier experience in Jaffna, good intentions can go wrong. My battalion was tasked to open a "welfare shop" to provide basic necessities to the public, but the project did not have good results. At that time, there was no regular transportation system to give the rural population access to the main town, and there were only a few local shops owned by villagers. The items in these rural shops were very expensive compared to the shops closer to the main town because of the costs of labor and transportation. To remedy this, the battalion invested LKR 200,000 to open a village shop that could provide basic goods at a cheaper price, because we had no labor and transportation costs and were able to purchase items in bulk at wholesale prices. The local people benefited greatly from the new shop.

After a few months, however, we began to hear complaints against the soldiers running the shop from certain villagers in the area. When we inquired into the complaints, we learned that the lower prices in our welfare shop had badly affected the families who earned their income through the village shops. For that reason, when I took over command of the battalion, I decided to close the welfare shop immediately. Although the shops owned by the villagers had higher prices, they were an important source of income not only for the shopkeepers, but also for many local families that were involved in other businesses connected to these shops. We had to ensure that our welfare projects were helping and not harming the villagers and their local economy.

As a result of this experience, I decided to make arrangements to improve the income and livelihood of the villagers in the area of Batticaloa West, where my main camp was situated. Their main sources of income were cattle farming, fishing, and rice cultivation. The villagers found it difficult to find a steady market for their products, so I started a yogurt production project with milk we purchased from the local farmers. To increase the involvement of our own personnel in this project, some of our disabled soldiers were trained to run the manufacturing process. The purchase of their milk was a great help for the farmers and their families, raised their incomes, and made them happy. We arranged to sell the yogurt at a nominal rate to the other military camps and made it available to our food supplier, who, in return, sent it back to the camp twice a week as dessert with other rations. Similarly, we ordered several varieties of small fish from various sources and introduced them into the main tank (reservoir). Although this project took a long time to bring results, the fishermen in the area benefited in the long run. I also made arrangements to distribute 5,000 jackfruit plants among the farm families for cultivation.4

Helping People Help Themselves

As mentioned earlier, I received permission from higher headquarters to engage the Sri Lankan Army Engineers to construct a minor road in my area. Apart from the engineers' work clearing mines and conducting demolition in support of the resettlement process, their road and bridge development projects were much superior to those of civil contractors in terms of cost, time, and the quality of work. The army's use of advanced technology and machinery, plus the fact that its workforce did not draw overtime and was not paid by an employer who needed to make a profit, considerably reduced the costs of construction.

Yet the road construction that the engineers had carried out in the area so far was not sufficient to satisfy the needs and aspirations of the local Tamil people, so I made the request for another small road to be built. Surprisingly, however, this effort also negatively affected the villagers for a number of reasons. When a civilian contractor undertakes a project such as this, he rents housing, land, and other local resources, including laborers. The military, however, is self-sufficient in this respect. Consequently, villagers lose the opportunity to gain employment and supply the required resources for the project. It is important to be mindful of the sources of income for local people. Simply putting in a road will not satisfy all their needs and expectations. For this reason, I decided to stop using the army for road construction, and the project was continued by private sector organizations and NGOs, which recruited local villagers to carry out the work. This decision to allow the private sector and NGOs to get involved created favorable conditions for the villagers and simultaneously increased both their incomes and their commitment to development.

In this post-conflict situation, the government's welfare projects extended to rebuilding religious and other civilian institutions, and again were conducted by the army. Our forces cleared and renovated hospitals, schools, religious sites, and other government institutions in order to improve living standards, establish a link with local leaders, and win the hearts and minds of the general public.

The administrators of these local institutions also had a tendency to call in the security forces to conduct welfare services, perhaps because they knew that army personnel, who were noted for their discipline, would take up the challenge and complete the tasks efficiently. We realized, however, that taking over these kinds of jobs would not pay good dividends in terms of community relations. Continuous military engagement in the rebuilding of religious and social institutions disrupted the community's active participation in its own religious and social affairs. As a remedial measure, I coordinated with religious leaders in the area and had them organize some sramadhana (volunteer labor) in their area of control. We helped by supplying amenities such as water bowsers (tankers), transportation, and snacks, so that the volunteers could finish these jobs in good spirits and with camaraderie, and thereby remain involved. Our endeavor tremendously improved the relationship between the local social institutions and the villagers, under the patronage of the military.

The army, including my battalion, also carried out some housing construction projects for displaced and homeless people in the war-affected areas. The government funded these projects with the help of some foreign and non-governmental organizations. When the army took over these projects, it did not give money directly to the homeowners or involve them in their own home construction, but simply went in and did the work. Some families were unhappy with this, due to a lack of personal satisfaction and sense of independence. Therefore, the villagers preferred the civilian government and non-governmental organizations to fulfill their housing needs. In most cases, people received cash from these sources to build their houses in stages and were highly committed to meeting their construction goals in order to obtain successive cash grants. The masons, carpenters, and laborers involved in these projects were hired from among the villagers, and even the suppliers of building materials were locals. Furthermore, villagers were free to choose their own housing plans, which allowed them to save some of their building funds to spend on other needs.

I was still eager to help these villagers. To supply their needs for inexpensive cement blocks to build their homes, I installed two machines for the production of this material. The project was able to meet local requirements, and the cost savings were passed on to the villagers. As a result, the villagers in our area were highly satisfied: they received their cement block supply at concessional rates and built their homes according to their own specifications.

Improving Local Government, Civil Institutions, and Education

The army was occasionally ordered by higher headquarters to involve itself directly with local administration by superseding local authorities, such as town councils, local councils, and various other state-sponsored welfare institutions. The military had the required leadership capacity and structure to complete projects more efficiently than could civil organizations, and its personnel were able to work around the clock to finish a task. Such successes caused further problems, however, because the civil authorities came to take it for granted that the military would be able to easily overcome every problem, even a natural disaster, without the involvement of the civilian sector. From my point of view, this negligence and lack of coordination by local government officials left a vacuum in the operational capacity of the civil organizations and created more havoc for the people. I therefore became a mediator for the local leaders to help them carry out their responsibilities and facilitate the effective functioning of their organizations.

Our other main concern was to encourage the villagers to educate their children. Most families could not afford to purchase books, clothing, and other necessary school supplies, and children were often required to look after the family's cattle and help with other farming work instead of attending school. To improve the children's educational prospects, I worked to get volunteers involved. My effort paid good dividends, and we received books, stationery, and clothing to distribute among the poor children of the village. In addition, I persuaded local religious leaders to talk to parents about their children's academic needs. With the distribution of the necessary school supplies, parents felt encouraged and voluntarily made arrangements for the schooling of their children. Gradually, school attendance in the area increased. Due in some part to our work, the cultural, educational, and social aspects of the community began to show signs of improvement, and the villagers took increasing responsibility for their lives.


Although most of the Sri Lankan army's projects in Batticaloa Province were successful, complete success was elusive for many reasons. First, we had to develop a basic understanding of the people's attitudes and concerns. Second, the military had difficulty convincing local officials to commit themselves to their work and take responsibility for restoring the smooth operation of the civil administration. Third, we needed to take into account the sources of local incomes, so that the direct involvement of military personnel in restoration projects would not deprive people of income from a variety of sources. Finally, we needed to make sure our presence and activity did not adversely affect the local people's ability to organize as an independent, self-sustaining society.

I gradually overcame these misjudgments by developing close connections with the people in my area and working to understand their aspirations and attitudes. I encouraged people to become committed to and responsible for their own lives. When a conflict ends and it is time to rehabilitate and reconstruct the basic infrastructure in war-torn areas, the military must be ready to cooperate with the government, NGOs, and civil organizations at every level, while bearing in mind the keys for success that I've outlined here. ²

About the Author(s):

LTC Sylvester Perera serves in the Sri Lankan Army.

  1. For the author's account of his experiences as a battalion commander during the Sri Lankan civil uprising (1992–2009), see Sylvester Perera, "The Sri Lankan Civil War: A Personal Reminiscence," CTX 4, no. 1 (November 2015): back up
  2. Caste systems have existed for centuries among both the Tamil and Sinhala ethnic groups of Sri Lanka. Before the kingdom of Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka, the ethnic Sinhalese people were divided into several castes according to their livelihoods. But with the collapse of the kingdom, the caste system among the Sinhalese gradually faded away. Sri Lanka's Tamil population historically was strongly influenced by South Indian culture and its religious system of castes. Today's Tamil population is split more or less evenly between the highest caste, called Vellala, and everyone else. The Tamil people of Jaffna, in particular, still strictly adhere to the rules of caste, and caste is a distinctive part of their identity. Vellala, for instance, will never mingle with lower caste people in any social or religious activities. go back up
  3. "Sri Lanka to Spend 253 Billion Rupees for Development of Northern Province," ColomboPage, 20 May 2011: ; "Defence Spokesperson Refutes Adverse Propaganda: Batticaloa Geared for Polls," Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka, 3 March 2016: go back up
  4. Jackfruit, a cousin of the breadfruit, is an important staple food crop in Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia.go back up
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