Colombo: Sri Lanka’s government plans record spending on defence and public security next year to pay for driving Tamil Tiger rebels from their last strongholds and end a civil war that’s left 100,000 people dead.
Defence ministry outlays are forecast to rise to 177.1 billion Sri Lankan rupees (Rs8040 crore) in 2009 from LKR 166.4 billion this year, according to the government’s Appropriation Bill tabled in parliament on Thursday. The legislation sets out expenditure estimates before November’s annual budget.
Tamils, who make up 11.9% of the population according to a 2001 census, are discriminated against by the Sinhalese majority, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) say. The government denies LTTE allegations that it is trying to end the conflict through force rather than reaching a negotiated settlement.
The Sri Lankan military pushed to within 2km of the LTTE’s northern stronghold this week, bringing President Mahinda Rajapaksa closer to ending the 25-year-old conflict.
Peace would allow Sri Lanka to reduce spending on its army, navy and air force from about 5% of gross domestic product (GDP), compared with about 3% in India and Pakistan.
“We need to spend as much on defence, because if terrorism is wiped out the country will boom,” said Vajira Premawardhana, head of research at Lanka Orix Securities Ltd in Colombo. “We can afford to cut down on capital expenditure in the short-term as an end to the war will bring in foreign investment.”
While the Bill doesn’t break down spending, Sri Lanka in the past bought ammunition and aircraft from countries including Pakistan, Ukraine and Israel.
The military has about 240,000 personnel and Kfir jet fighters and MI-24 helicopters to combat the Tamil rebels, who have transformed themselves from a jungle-based guerilla outfit into a group with land, naval and air wings and the Black Tigers suicide brigade.
Rajapaksa’s military spending has strained government finances, making it harder to meet its target of narrowing the budget deficit to 7% of GDP from 7.2% in 2007. The government will present the 2009 budget in parliament on 6 November.
The government is building roads, schools and hospitals in the nation’s eastern areas, taken from the Tamils last year in the biggest setback suffered by the group in the conflict.
“This is the first time perhaps in the last two decades for an all-out military effort,” said Dushni Weerakoon, deputy director of Sri Lanka’s Institute of Policy Studies. “Defence spending is a priority, and they are also looking at reconstruction of liberated areas.”
Hours after the Bill was tabled, a suicide bomber carried out an attack in a suburb of the capital, Colombo, injuring at least seven civilians, military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara said by telephone. The bomber was targeting the convoy of agriculture development minister Maithripala Sirisena traveling in the Boralesgamuwa area, Nanayakkara said. The minister was unhurt.
Asantha Sirimanne contributed to this story.