By Jehan Perera –
Less than five years after the end of the three decade long internal war, the government has warned that the LTTE is regrouping and plotting to renew its violent campaign for a separate state again. This warning has come in the context of a shootout reported in the North that led to the killing of three LTTE members by the military, who according to the government, had shot and injured a policeman in the leg. It is plausible that there are small groups within the local population as well as internationally who may be plotting some violent acts, even if they know that the conditions at the present time do not permit sustained rebellion. The slain persons are accused of having had connections with the Tamil Diaspora and had prominent targets in mind. It will be ironic if Sri Lanka, which achieved what seemed impossible by defeating the LTTE, should lose its prospects for peace so rapidly.
It may have been a coincidence that this violence, which is the first LTTE-related violence since the end of the war, occurred soon after the passage of the UNHRC resolution calling for an international investigation into the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war. But this coincidence has been helpful to the government in justifying its security-centered approach to governance. The government has refused to cooperate with the UNHRC investigation. It has also banned 16 Tamil Diaspora organizations and 424 individuals whom it has accused of promoting terrorism. It may be noted that prior to the vote at the UNHRC in Geneva, the Northern Provincial Council, the TNA and Tamil civil society groups issued statements in support of an international investigation, which was diametrically in opposition to the government’s own position. But now there is fear now amongst these groups, and the mobilization of civil society protests against the government’s approach to accountability and human rights issues has virtually collapsed.
Reports from the North indicate that the military role has grown and the space for civil society to function has shrunk due to permission for activities that has to be obtained and is either not forthcoming or is deemed to be impossible to obtain. The security forces conducted extensive cordon and search operations and arrested over 60 persons, including civic activists, prior to the final shootout. It is tragic that after defeating the LTTE so totally on the battlefield, the government is edging towards a situation where the military is being called upon to play a greater role in the lives of the people. The situation is so bad that when I wished to visit the North last week and see for myself what the situation on the ground was, I found it difficult to find a partner organization to take me around. They feared they would be compromising themselves in the eyes of the security forces and also those they took me to meet.
There is a high level of skepticism, especially in the North and amongst members of the ethnic minorities, about the government’s claims about the revival of the LTTE, and even about the genuineness of the shoot-out that allegedly took place in the North last week. The three LTTE cadres were reportedly shot dead after being surrounded by the military. If they had been captured alive, they could have provided a wealth of information regarding their alleged mission. The justification for these doubts is strengthened by the government’s exclusive focus on building up the strength of the military to counter the possibility of terrorism in the future. The failure of the government to take an equivalent interest in finding a political solution gives justification to these doubts.
The absence of transparency which is the usual attribute of the military has led to the sense of skepticism about the claims of the revival of the LTTE. The absence of transparency and any sign of forward movement to politically resolve the problem create the space for a counter-conspiracy theory that suggests that all these efforts are to strengthen the government’s military stranglehold over the polity. The only way to dispel this suspicion is for the government to move forward in regard to a political solution. Political scientists have for a long time been able to show that ethnic conflicts are difficult to resolve. However, in those few cases where there has been a total military victory by one side the situation is generally more stable than in those where there was a negotiated settlement.
The essential ingredient in consolidating peace after a military victory is to address the political roots of the conflict that gave rise to the war. This realization and wisdom is present among the vast majority of the moderate population that the roots of the conflict must be addressed. The problem is the failure on the part of the political leadership to apply this wisdom in a problem-solving practical and statesmanlike manner. Although the LTTE was defeated militarily, the war that lasted three decades would have created a significant number of persons who imbibed of their violent ideology and continue to hold it to their hearts, even though they may not openly advocate it. Until there is a political solution that is acceptable to the moderate majorities in all communities, and is institutionalized in practice, there will continue to be justification to maintain a high level of military presence.
The radicalisation of any section of society, along ethnic or religious lines, is essentially indicative of the failure of the state to establish a system that is politically secular and democratic and socio-culturally inclusive. The failure of the Sri Lankan state to provide security to those groups, comprising different ethnicities and religions to work together and remain integrated, as occurred recently when a mixed Muslim-Buddhist media conference was attacked, is not a positive sign at all. During the past month, the prospect for post-war reconciliation has suffered major setbacks. The situation in the country after the passage of the UNHRC resolution that calls for an international investigation into last phase of Sri Lanka’s war has been one of escalation of confrontation both locally and internationally.
There is no doubt that the government is today capable of responding to any challenge to its authority on the ground regardless of international implications. However, without genuine reconciliation, a society will be left with the same hatreds, fears, and anxieties that gave rise to the conflict in the first place, exacerbating the possibility that conflict will again break out. By its own actions, and lack of action, the government is giving credence to international claims that it is not serious about accountability for human rights violations of the past, and is not creating the political conditions for reconciliation in the present. What happens internationally will be outside the control of the Sri Lankan government. However, what happens internally within Sri Lanka is well within the government’s control.
In countries that are in the midst of violent conflict the military is invariably built up and kept on active duty to quell anti-government offensives. But once a political solution is in place, the need for the military lessens. Sri Lanka is presently in a trap, where the larger the military role in governance gets, the bigger the mistrust, and the bigger the mistrust grows, the more important seems the role of the military in governance. So long as the government fails to present the country with a political solution, it will be difficult to dispel the belief that the government’s priority is to maintain a strong military that will do its bidding, right or wrong, rather than to democratize society and to resolve the ethnic conflict. It is through forward movement with regard to a mutually acceptable political solution that the government can best restore its credibility with the moderate sections within the country and the international community.