By Jehan Perera –
The ISIS attacks in Paris and the French government’s declaration of a state of emergency are a grim reminder of the politically motivated violence that once held sway in Sri Lanka. In contrast to many other countries in the world today Sri Lanka is an oasis of peace and political stability. The military suppression of the LTTE made this peace possible. It was the excesses that took place in the final stages of the war, and in its immediate aftermath that put Sri Lanka in the international limelight, though for negative reasons. Thereafter the country was subjected to three resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council against the wishes of its government, until the new government decided to cooperate with UN.
The French government has said that it will be ruthless in its response to the terrorism that has struck it. International humanitarian law prohibits war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But it does not prevent ruthless responses against those who are aggressors. Sri Lanka is an example where the military response was successful. It may have to be armies on the ground that have to root out the ISIS as was done to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. When a militant organization is unwilling to negotiate and seek an end to violence, the military response will dominate. The more protracted the war against the ISIS is, the more turmoil and terrorism is likely to be the outcome. However, a military solution cannot be the final answer. The roots of conflict need to be addressed through dialogue and political solutions that include the other.
Sri Lanka’s failure came with the end of the war and the inability and unwillingness of the victorious government to close the chapter on the war by seeking the truth regarding the past, accountability for war crimes, compensating the victims and engaging in political reform that would heal the wounds of the war, and win the hearts and minds of the people in the war zones. The previous government’s refusal to take that course of action meant that Sri Lanka risked becoming an international outcaste and the subject of economic and political sanctions that would have generated new divisions and hatreds within the country, and with the international community. Fortunately the new Sri Lankan government has shown that it is possible to win hearts and minds even after a bloody and costly war. Both in terms of war and peace, what to do and what not to do, Sri Lanka could provide lessons to the international community that is struggling to come to terms with terrorism and its spread.
As part of its hearts and minds strategy the government has been returning land to the Tamil people from whom it was taken during the war to be high security zones that served as a buffer between the military bases and LTTE long range artillery. Such buffers are no longer needed. Large tracts of land have been given back to the people, as at Sampur. The process has been slow, but it is happening. The government has also decided to provide finance for the rebuilding of 65,000 houses in addition to the 50,000 donated by India. In addition, the vexed issue of Tamil prisoners held for years under the Prevention of Terrorism Act is also in the process of being resolved. An initial group of 31 were given bail by the courts, but this has not been satisfactory to the Tamil polity that wishes all the prisoners held to be released, as most of them have been in custody for over ten years.
The main cause for dissatisfaction at the present time is that the reform process is going too slow. Civic activists on the ground in the north and east complain of continued surveillance of their activities by the security forces. Key members of a group who were planning a public protest against the continued incarceration of Tamil detainees were visited by military intelligence officials who wanted them to call off their protest. They were summoned to the office of the governor by these intelligence officials where they were told the same thing. On the positive side, when the group of activists decided to go ahead with their protest they were not obstructed. In the past they might have feared that any disregard of government objections might lead to punitive actions taken against them, including disappearance.
After the change of government in January there is more space in society for dissent by those who are critical of the government. Likewise even the affected people and victims of past abuses appear prepared to give more time to the government to address their concerns, even though they can ill afford such delays. There is a willingness on the part of people on all sides of the ethnic divide to give the government a chance to prove itself. Especially those who are ethnic and religious minorities would not wish to jeopardize the stability of the present government and pave the way for the return to power of the former government leadership, which is now in the opposition and biding their time. Whether in Sri Lanka, or in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Nigeria, it is the masses of people who pay the greatest price when militants take up the battle on their behalf. The grief and shock at the carnage in Paris, needs to be accompanied by an awareness that entire societies in the Muslim world have been destabilized and are even being destroyed due to violence that has been imposed on them both from within and without.
The biggest flaw of the previous Sri Lankan government was its willingness to create inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife to keep itself in power. This could have led to catastrophic consequences in Sri Lanka. The rise of small ethno-nationalist groups such as the BBS, which attacked the Muslim community with impunity pointed to the previous government’s complicity. The BBS is today without any government patronage and is therefore reduced to a cipher and is hardly to be seen or heard. During the previous regime not even Muslim members of the government could get justice done by their community. When Muslim ministers of the former government came out with video recordings of the attacks that had taken place on Muslim owned businesses and mosques, no action was taken to arrest those responsible. If such injustices had continued, it would have created the ground for extremist Muslim organizations, even the ISIS, to have entered the country.
The manner in which representatives of the Muslim community participated in the funeral ceremonies of the late Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha, and their contribution of refreshments to the large crowds who attended the funeral, showed their desire to be part and parcel of the larger Sri Lankan polity. The Ven Sobitha was one of the few leaders of Sri Lankan society who spoke on behalf of the hapless Muslims when they were being persecuted. He pointed out that the attackers did not enjoy mass support and were a fringe group who got their power from their association with sections of the former government. He boldly accused the former government of engaging in cover ups to permit the attackers to do their dastardly deeds. The active participation of many Muslims at the funeral of the great Buddhist monk demonstrated their desire for peaceful coexistence in the country.
The other noteworthy aspect of Ven Sobitha’s funeral was the speech by President Maithripala Sirisena, where he recommitted himself to achieving the goals and political ideals that the great monk has set for the country. At the present time there is a sense of disillusionment at the slow pace of change, not only in terms of resolving the problems of the war affected people of the north and east, but also in terms of the basics of good governance, such as stopping corruption and prosecuting those who have been corrupt in the past. The fact that the President promised to implement the reforms that Ven Sobitha had stood for at his funeral is a sure sign that the government is on a course from which it will not waver. Sri Lanka continues to remain on course to be an oasis of peace and stability in a world where political violence is growing. The lesson of peacebuilding that Sri Lanka must offer to the world is the practice of universal values, inclusion and non-discrimination, in a society that strives for the wellbeing of all and the marginalization of none.