By Chamindry Saparamadu –
Ten years after the end of the war, terror has struck Sri Lanka again. The Easter Sunday tragedy and the events and issues associated with it bring national security to the center stage. The past few days, I have observed several efforts to understand and theorize the new phenomenon of terror and to find possible solutions and answers.
At a recently held conference of all political parties, important points were raised with regard to the relationship between national security and national reconciliation. It was highlighted that a country’s national security agenda and the national reconciliation agenda must not be seen and pursued as standing in contradiction to one another. This is critically important for Sri Lanka, at the current juncture that is striving to achieve both. An understanding of both is vital, not just in terms of discourse, but from a point of policy making and strategizing to deal with the current and future challenges. In this short article, I am sharing my immediate reactions on this issue.
For a number of reasons, rational or irrational, national security in Sri Lanka has come to be perceived as a project of the majority, the Sinhala Buddhist community. Linking of national security to one particular community is what makes security issues seem contrary to the objective of achieving national reconciliation. I believe there are many causative and explanatory factors to this unfortunate situation and if not dealt with now, would result in, us, as a country, losing a historic opportunity of making national security, a project of all communities.
The narratives in the mainstream liberal thinking and discourses, both locally and globally, have been consistent and continuous Sinhala Buddhist majority faulting game as well as fear of securitization as a concept. On both, the liberals, both in the island and outside, seem to converge. While the perils of securitization is a reality, as a result of such simplified understanding, each incident of violence is automatically interpreted and explained as a project of the Sinhala Buddhists and therefore and inextricably linked to the state and its armed forces. As we experienced the recent bombings in Colombo, how the blame game commenced and evolved was interesting to observe. The first and most immediate reaction was either directly or by insinuation implicating the Sinhala Buddhists in the attacks in most media and other platforms, explained as a historical and a continuous enmity between the Buddhists and the Catholic and or the Christian community. The conversations among elements injuriously infected with a Rajapakse phobia focused on former defense secretary and those who are connected as having staged the attacks to gain political mileage in the run up to the presidential elections. Shortly thereafter, when the Islamic States (ISIS) assumed responsibility for the attacks, the insinuations were that the Sinhala Buddhists are nevertheless culpable as a causative factor.
This simplistic understanding of violence runs contrary to reasoning or logic and loses its historical and political dimensions and explanation of violence in its many forms, manifestations and interpretations. To cite few, the horrendous Aranthalawa massacre, the attack on the Temple of the Tooth etc bear evidence to the fact that Sinhala Buddhists have been as much a victim of violence in the island’s long history of ethnic and other forms of violence. Despite such glaring evidence, the victim-perpetrator narrative that is being repeated and reinforced by the liberals continue to polarize the communities, and also jeopardize any chances of reconciliation.
This singular and limited understanding of violence is what led to war against terror to be defined in terms of violence against the Tamil people instead of explaining military operations in terms of an attempt at ending violence and establishing security. Such false depiction seemingly also obscures the many aspects of military operations including stabilization and humanitarian relief. We have seen such multiple roles played by the armed forces, during and after military operations and during and after crisis situations of the kind we witnessed during military operations in the North and East and in the aftermath of outbreak of violence in Aluthgama. The recipients of those efforts have been mostly the island’s ethnic minorities.
However, few things, wittingly or unwittingly done, have led to construction of the national security agenda within a majoritarian ideology and practice. And one that I would like to emphasize is the symbolic representation of our security achievements linked to gigantic images of the lion (representing the island’s ethnic majority) and singing of songs of Sinhala nationalistic flavor at ceremonies and other public forums. These and other forms of representations of military achievements within a Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian ideology have tended to alienate other communities from these accomplishments.
Further and most unfortunately, the composition of the armed forces does not reflect islands demographics in as much as the armed forces are mostly constituted of persons from Sinhala ethnic origin. In addition, their operations are predominantly unilingual in blatant disregard of the official language policy of the country. Such practices, however, executed, in my view has contributed to the imagination of national security within Sinhala majoritarianism.
Given the importance of national security at this crucial moment in our history, Sri Lanka’s challenge would be to design and execute an ethnically neutral security policy and strategies, particularly given the important aims of simultaneously achieving national security and national reconciliation, both. It is important to keep in mind that certain security interventions might appear to be or perceived as discriminatory against one community or another, as they might run counter to beliefs and cultural practices of one community or another. Cultural practices are critical to define and preserve cultural identities.
There is a need to strike the right balance between national security and national reconciliation, in a way that both only enable but not undermine one another. This requires designing a well thought out security policy and strategies that meet contemporary national security challenges but also one that supports the unfinished business of national reconciliation. This is only possible with visionary leadership, strategic foresight and thinking, pragmatism but above all sincere commitment to both ends to be achieved.
*Chamindry Saparamadu is a lawyer and a political activist based in Colombo