Colombo Telegraph

Angels And Demons Of Democracy – In Lanka

By Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

In any society that is drawn into a protracted civil war, there are three curtail conditions for the future. 1 ) How to end the war with minimum damages 2) How to make sure such war is not repeated and 3) Fast socio- economic recoveries to fill the years of lost opportunities.

In Sri Lanka, where South Asia’s longest civil war of modern history took place, one is still debating on all three frontiers, perhaps with even deeper disagreements. The regime loyalists and ultra nationalist southerners believe President Mahendra Rajapaksa solved the conflict – the best possible way by destroying world’s most text book terrorist group with the same techniques they thrived on. Tamil nationalists (separatists or otherwise) firmly argue that Mullaivaikaal produced a ‘Rajapaksa Doctrine’ on civil war which is a genocide of minority rights groups. They continue to ask justice from the International Community.  The military nature of the conflict has ceased. While peace and social justice are far from realities, one can agree that there are no urban suicide missions blowing off caught up school children. Similarly there are no indiscriminative carpet bombing on targets killing all civilians in between. In the balance of games, southerners may be bit luckier than the Tamils of the North who still painfully live in the most militarized land mass in South Asia[1] That is the reality of war. The victor has more benefits. It is up to the morale conduct of the victor to be magnanimous.

The way the conflict ended is irreversible. Future historians will write the judgment. It is on the other two remaining factors that Sri Lanka, as a collective society could still make a difference however challenging or demanding a transformative moral imagination from all actors.

Risk of Recurrent (armed) Conflict

The GoSL has sold the war theme at every election during the last 25 years. And the southerners have more or less bought such thesis and mandated the parties those  promised to bring peace by ‘defeating’ the Tamil demand more at the military front and less at the negotiating table. It is a fact that even President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who campaigned on ‘peace’ platforms were equally ready with military options. They maintained that such strategy is fundamental for the balance of power formula. President Rajapaksa had no such doubts. Well supported by his ethno centric political partners, he campaigned on a military solution and delivered a bold – bloody end. Since then he also has successfully used war victory rhetoric to consolidate and recentralize power at all structural and intuitional level. Perhaps this president above everyone knows that peace as much as war is a political decision. William Zartman (2001)[2] assumed that ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ is the ripen conditions to end protracted wars, enabling a genuine desire to address the fundament reasons for the war and its collateral damages.

However, in the context of the Sri Lanka, such stalemate condition did not arise. While the impact of war managed to fear/damage the ordinary Sinhala society it never forced to alter the Sinhala political class or its ethnonationalist mindset. True, individuals like Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, and Ranasinha Premadasa met with brutal deaths; such departures did not make any fundamental alterations in the southern political or trading class. Instead the Sinhala politics further bunkered deep into ethnonationalist agenda mobilizing the entire state and its regional and international supporters for a total military victory and achieved it. This awards the GoSL to set the agenda purely on a victor’s justice framework. What we have witnessed so far is the absence of a visionary articulation of a wider national project for an undivided yet all inclusive post-conflict democratic Sri Lanka. On the contrary, the southern polity has architectured severe restriction and limitation for a democratic recovery. The extreme form of concentration of political, financial, militaristic and administrative control under one person and his family members, blocking the free flow of information and barring all Tamil political activism, have diminished the possibility of an early return to minimum democratic values.

However, in a comparative sense the opposite is true. Tamils not only suffered at very basic level of society, under the LTTE (more than of GoSL). The political, trading and intellectual class of the Tamil nation have been permanently altered and shattered at the end of the conflict. Except for a few imaginative diaspora activists who continue to believe that Prabaharan is still alive and will come back to fight for them, no one in the Tamil community is actively arguing for a return to war with GoSL. Such diaspora dreams are simply dismissed as despotic thinking of a few who never suffered under the war but stayed in their safe houses of ideology. In fact the multiple dynamics of the Tamil nation within and outside Lanka are in serious discussion on two issues: Immediate survival of the Tamils who had suffered unimaginable hardship and if possible a minimalist democratic recovery through negotiations. Geneva efforts and other occasional interventions ( like of David Camron) are only pressure tactics than a concrete plan to wage a war at Sri Lanka or separation by means of arbitrations. The Tamil nation at this stage, is too weak in it political morale and as always deeply divided on its collective action. Their hopes hangs on thin threads of International Community, multilateral agencies like UNHRC or regional events such as the return of BJP in India.

Thus the hypothesis of risk of return to war is a construction that is well serving the southern elites and newly hired service men from Rohan Gunarathna to DBS Jeyaraj. All what possibly happening is that GoSL, very successfully detecting and destroying many former LTTE activists whom they could not kill in the battle field and using the knowledge they have from former LTTE hardcore leaders such as KP and Karuna to strategically expose to gain political and electoral mileage. The news of Malaysian government arresting and deporting Tiger activists comes in a timely manner at an election, possibly will decide the fate of this regime or at least send strong signals that started transmitting since the Southern Province election.

Sinhala nation has a great capacity to memorialize their memories – even if it is mythological. They still recite the great war of Elara and Gamunu as if it happened few years back. They will remember the brutalities of the LTTE and always believe and justify the annihilation of anyone even falsely accused of being an LTTEer. In that context recurrence of war is a long shadow that fears the Sinhala mind to build any  trust in the Tamils or moderates who argue for a democratic recovery. There is only one political game that GoSL is engaged in. Reconcretized the centralized unitary rule under extended military mechanisms. In fact, if there is any possibility of return to war  scenario it may due to  weight of such dismantling of democracy  leading  to some regional up rise – not  in the north – but in the far south where the ordinary Sinhala family is waiting to see the actual direct benefit of the ‘end of war’. It is in this backdrop that regime will force the Sinhalas to remember that a known devil is better than an unknown angel especially when it comes to electoral politics.

*Suren Rāghavan PhD is a visiting professor at St Paul University – Ottawa and a Senior Research Fellow at Center for Buddhist Studies- University of Oxford.

[1] The Global Militarized Index (GMI) 2013 shows Sri Lanka at the highest place in South Asia with a score of 564 while Pakistan 528, India 459, and Afghanistan 429.

[2] Zartman, William ‘The timing of peace initiatives: Hurting stalemates and ripe moments’ Global Review of Ethnopolitics Volume 1, Issue 1, 2001pgs 8-18 DOI:10.1080/14718800108405087


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