De-militarizing Democracy and Governance in Sri Lanka: From National Security to Human Security

Sri Lanka was once a ‘model democracy’ with a welfare state and social indicators that were the envy of the developing world. Hence, there was great optimism that life would return to normal, the barriers and check-points come down, tourists and foreign investments flow back, and the economy finally take off in an environment of peace and security once the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were defeated. Residents of central Colombo who are daily inconvenienced by the security arrangements of the President and various VIPs that had turned the city into a veritable battle-field had hoped to see the barriers and check-points go. They have been disappointed!

After the defeat of the LTTE, it was hoped that South Asia’s most desirable capital city, whose many beautiful trees had been cut down to enhance VIP security, would once again become people, pedestrian and environment -friendly now that the war was over. Residents of Colombo also looked forward to an end to the culture of politicians breaking speed limits with impunity and the lifting of Emergency Regulations (ER), which had also been used and abused by the State during the Southern Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), uprising in the late eighties and early nineties when tens of thousands died in Southern Sri Lanka. These hopes have been dashed. It is increasingly evident that the Colombo regime’s insecurities (despite or perhaps because of weeks of vainglorious victory celebrations), coupled with thirty years of war has left an institutional legacy and “security’ mindset that would need considerable shift before Lanka takes off.

The question on many minds at this time is: will militarization be a substitute for democratization– beyond the show of elections? The impact of thirty years of armed conflict between successive Sri Lankan governments and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), may be analyzed in terms of human, economic, and governance costs.

It is increasingly clear that the governance cost and democracy deficit would have the greatest long term impact on the country. The human costs of three decades of conflict are evident in over 100,000 lives lost and maimed, and over half a million displaced at different times including the 280,000 in internment camps in Vavuniya at this time. The mounting economic cost of conflict is evident in the fact that the final year of war the GoSL was spending almost 17 percent of GDP on the war effort. This is partly the reason for a 1.9 billion IMF loan request at this time. Sri Lanka has the largest armed forces per capita in South Asia and trouble paying salaries. Yet, strangely since the war ended there are plans to enlarge the military by 50% – an odd sort of military Keynsianism given that the country does not produce its own arms and spends billions on armaments that it can hardly afford.

Much work lies ahead if the narrative of economic boom in Lanka is to be realized. The challenge now is to move beyond a highly militarized, state-centric national security paradigm and prioritize human security and development which enabled the island to achieve the highest social indicators in South Asia. It is thus that the military victory over the LTTE may be translated into a stable and sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.

Governance Cost of Conflict and Militarization

The last three years of war to defeat the LTTE saw a serious erosion of governance structures, democratic institutions, and traditions of multiculturalism and co-existence among diverse ethnic and religious communities. It is clear that post-LTTE, the government would need to rethink the military-centric national security state and the repression that it cultivated during the war, which in some ways mimicked the tactics and strategies of the enemy which ran a quasi-state for a few years in the Vanni.

In his book “Brave New World Order” (Orbis Books, 1992, paper), Jack Nelson Pallmeyer identified several characteristics of a National Security State, the primary one of which is

“the military not only guarantees the security of the state against all internal and external enemies, it has enough power to determine the overall direction of the society.. In a National Security State the military exerts important influence over political, economic, as well as military affairs… Authentic democracy depends on participation of the people. National Security States limit such participation in a number of ways: They sow fear and thereby narrow the range of public debate. they restrict and distort information; and they define policies in secret and implement those policies through covert channels and clandestine activities. The state justifies such actions through rhetorical pleas of “higher purpose” and vague appeals to “national security.”

Thirty years of war had significant impact on democratic institutions in Sri Lanka. During the final push to defeat the LTTE the GoSL discredited the idea of peace. Those opposed to war and those who spoke for Human Rights were termed ‘traitors’. Since the war ended the government plans to build a War Museum rather than a peace and reconciliation museum. An astrologer who predicted difficult days ahead for the powers that be in Colombo was recently arrested and would be under observation of three months. Meanwhile, according to the Army commander the military would be expanded by 50,000, even though the war is over and Sri Lanka has one of the largest militaries per capita in South Asia. The recruitment of additional troops to man camps in the north-east is of particular concern and suggests that rather than restore substantive democracy, the government plans a form of military occupation with the collusion of allied Tamil paramilitary groups. Moderate Tamil voices remain marginalized and have raised questions regarding the legitimacy of elections in a region with such a large displaced population.

While the country is broke and in need of an IMF loan to pay among other things the salaries of soldiers and an enormous cabinet of ministers that includes a number of the president’s relatives, the mindset of militarism lives on. The Sri Lanka government’s internment of 280,000 Tamils, some of whom were witnesses to war crimes and may give evidence, in barbwire fenced camps and treatment of them as a national security threat after claiming to have ‘rescued’ them from the LTTE; as well as, failure to lift Emergency Rule and disarm paramilitaries in the north and east; the phenomenon of white van abductions of journalists, the failure to start a process of demilitarization and reconciliation with the minorities has led the United States to extend travel warnings for those wishing to visit Sri Lanka. It seems unlikely that western tourists would return any time soon.

It is axiomatic that, as externalised threats are perceived and nations go to war, civil liberties and rights in the domestic sphere are eroded. This phenomenon was observed by Max Weber, a founding father of the discipline of sociology. While a number of ministries have proliferated those that actually have power to make and implement policy are few and controlled by the President and his brothers. Nepotism is extremis! During the last few years of the conflict development projects were required to go through and get clearance from the Ministry of Defense. Such centralization has weakened democracy and strengthened the grip of the ruling family on power. One Rajapakse is Defense Secretary and the other, a non-elected member of parliament who also controls reconstruction in the north and east. It is widely understood that together the triumvirate control seventy percent of the economy via control of key Ministries.

Within days of the celebrations following the capture of LTTE’s de facto capital in January 2009, one of the island’s leading journalists, Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Leader newspaper, a liberal anti-establishment paper known for exposing corruption and nepotism in the state apparatus, was assassinated in broad daylight in Colombo. At his funeral, where thousands gathered, an effigy of the Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was burnt. The slain journalist’s funeral was attended by political leaders, media representatives, civil society organisations and senior foreign diplomats in Colombo. The slain journalist, who was also a lawyer, had penned his own obituary three day’s before his assassination: “And then they came for me”, naming in all but words his killers. His final editorial published posthumously which has come to be known as the ‘letter from the grave’ constitutes a powerful indictment on the regime that would be hard to shake off in a country where astrology, the symbolic and uncanny, carries significant weight in politics. Minimally, the state remains accused of promoting a ‘culture of impunity’ that has rendered Sri Lanka ‘one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists’ according to the organisation, ‘Reporters without Borders’. In the past two years, at least eight journalists have been killed in the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

As the war (including an information war) escalated, the phenomenon of extra-judicial killings rose. Wickramatunge’s assassination was in the wake of a series of killings and intimidation of journalists and lawyers, and attacks on independent media institutions in the south.. In August 2008, Sri Lanka lost its seat in the United Nation’s Human Rights Council and has since turned down several requests of the United Nations Human Rights Commission to set up an observer mission to monitor the situation in the country. At the end of the war the United Nations Human Rights Commission called for an independent inquiry into war crimes by the parties to the conflict.

The culture of militarization and impunity that the conflict had enabled needs to be rolled back. Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies per capita in South Asia and alternative jobs would be necessary for the over 200,000 troops. The military victory over the LTTE is only one half of the solution to building a peaceful and stable polity. It would also be necessary to address the intra-group dynamics of conflict. Many of those who fought and died and were disabled were from poor rural communities and marginalized castes groups. A war economy had grown and many of the rural poor worked as soldiers and (women go as housemaids to the Middle East). In a time of rising unemployment due to the global recession it would be necessary to boost the economy and provide jobs.

Myth and reality about the “invincibility” of the LTTE: The Global Context

The ‘invincibility’ of the Liberation Tigers of Eelam and the terror threat they posed to world peace may have been often exaggerated. There were several reasons for the defeat of the LTTE. Principle among them was the changing global security environment that became increasingly hostile to groups that used terrorist methods post 9/11, as well as the egotism and compounding mistakes of the LTTE leader- Prabakaran, principle among which was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi – former Prime Minister of India. Prior to 9/11 and the global war on terror the LTTE and its transnational network had grown and benefited from a period of relatively unfettered globalization at the end of the Cold War also given considerable international sympathy for the plight of minority Tamil speaking peoples in Sri Lanka. It was recognized that one man’s terrorist may be another’s liberation fighter.

After 9/11 with the global “war on terror’ there was far less international space and tolerance for the organization to maneuver and the government capitalized on this fact by renaming the conflict in Sri Lanka a “war on terror” and soliciting international assistance to shut down the LTTE’s funding and supply networks from the disaspora. While the Rajapakse government waged a determined battle against the organization after abrogating the Norwegian–brokered Cease Fire in 2008, and provided the armed forces all that was needed by way of arms, ammunition, and men, the international context had made the LTTE apparently invincible in the previous decades had changed. It is also arguable that the demise of the LTTE was also largely due to its leader’s egotism and the compounding of mistakes, including the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi which had turned India against the group.

The government of Sri Lanka has very successfully assembled a group of Asian donors, prominent among them China, Japan and India to counterbalance western criticism of its conduct of the last days of the conflict. These donors place less value on human security and human rights and tend to have a state-cenric approach to security. The need to move beyond state-centric security discourses and address the root causes of conflicts in South Asia from a post-WoT’ paradigm is however increasingly apparent.

Since 9/11, instead of measured and targeted responses to terrorist acts, militarization and advocacy for military solutions have sometimes exacerbated and aggravated the root causes of conflicts that require social and political-economic solutions. Social sector and welfare state spending has been reduced with the claim that development cannot occur without defense, even though the poverty and conflict trap is a consequence of the transfer of resources that accompanies ballooning defense expenditure, socio-economic decline, increased regional and economic inequality, structural violence and aid dependence.. Increasingly, it is obvious that inclusive development and peace building is necessary for regional security in Sri Lanka, and you can’t have one without the others.

In the last three years militarization and the ‘national security state” had become pervasive with significant erosion of Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions and institutions. While the military victory over the LTTE is conclusive and there is little chance that it would regroup and return any time soon, the military victory needs to be converted into a stable and sustainable peace. Other long term, low intensity, ethno-national conflicts in the region point to the fact that groups fighting for autonomy or rights for minorities may re-group and return years or decades later as was the case in Nepal and Aceh Indonesia, unless there is a political solution that addresses the root causes of conflict. To ensure a sustainable peace the government would need to win the confidence of minority cultural groups, and work toward reconciliation and address of the root causes of the conflict. Simultaneously, it would be necessary to repair a dysfunctional democracy whose institutions were significantly eroded in the course of decades of war induced Emergency Rule, which the government has still not lifted.

  • chanuka

    you were whining about the war while it was being fought. you’re whining about the post-war scenario now that it’s won. to what end? whose pocket are you in? any intelligent person will realise that although the military victory is complete, there are still pockets of terrorists out and about, especially in colombo. these need to be routed out before normalcy can fully return. as for the increase in armed forces spending, perhaps you should take a look at the democracies you kowtow to and see what they spend on defence. hell, switzerland is the world’s largest producer of landmines. so before you get on your ngo-funded high horse, take a look around the world and understand this: rose tinted spectacles are all very well, but hard decisions take strong leadership. if you’d have had your way, the war wouldn’t have been won. how disingenuous to whine now about how the post war situation isn’t the hunky dory utopia you want it to be.

  • http://www.esteem.com Justin

    With a twist of strategy, Mahinda Rajapakse said “for reconciliation to happen there must be a mix of ethnicities”. This he said to defend his view that there should be no federalism in Sri Lanka(SL), in an interview with a correspondent of “Hindu” newspaper. But Tamils are asking for the independence of Tamil Eelam(TE), also with a “mix of ethnicities”, and not federalism.

    Though a “mix of ethnicities” and aa “unitary state” existed for the past 60 years, there was no reconciliation in SL. Instead, a mental virus of anti-Tamilism, similar to anti-semitism, was planted into every Sinhalese to end up in an irreversible Sinhala culture of cruelty, ruthlessness and injustice to Tamils.

    Reconciliation is not a word for an eloquent political rhetoric or international deception. It is a Christian concept, based on the bringing together of distanced sinful man to holy God, by Lord Jesus Christ, dying on a cross as a sacrifice.

    Surely, reconciliation is a powerful spiritual tool to bring together the distanced, affected and wronged people to the affecting and wronging people, if only done with true spirit and lots of love. It worked in South Africa and it can work in SL.

    Experts say that for reconciliation to take place anywhere the precursors are; truth, justice, accountability, remorsefulness and restitution. The order of these factors may differ but all of them will have to take place without leaving out any of them.

    Fittingly, the Sinhalese should be made to see the truth that it is wrong to discriminate, subjugate, murder and rule over Tamils and occupy their land forcibly.

    Also, the Sinhalese will have to accept the political truth that Tamils have their homeland – although Sinhalese also lived along with them; named it as Tamil Eelam democratically in 1976-1977 by the fathers of the present Tamils; and have the right of self determination according to the UN conventions.

    Even if the political truth is known, without accountability and justice, there will never be remorsefulness from the Sinhalese and forgiveness from the Tamils to achieve reconciliation.

    If the Sinhalese are not willing to accept accountability for Tamil genocide, displacing about 300,000 civilians, killing and maiming tens of thousands and bombing and destroying property, they are not ready for reconciliation.

    If the Sinhalese are not willing to bring the war criminals to justice in a neutral court like the Hague, they are unwilling to reconcile with Tamils.

    Reconciliation is a holy concept and should be handled with honest remorsefulness and love. Can Mahinda Rajapakse do it? He says he can. If done two years ago,it would have saved the island and its people from a ruthless war, war crimes and genocide.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Darini once again epitomises the so-called intellectuals who preach from the pulpit but do not see that when they point a finger at a person four more digits are pointing towards self. The NGOs are but a recent phenomenon who exploit the island’s conflict to their own betterment. Case in point is that Tsunami saviours descended on this isle with kudos but Tsunami victims are still awaiting redress. Surfers from Britain came to Sri Lanka not to help the East but to get freebie holidays in sunny Sri Lanka. Indigenous Sri Lankans have been cheated by the INGOs. The country needs to get rid of this pseudo NGO menace and their profiteering from the misery of suffering Tamils. If the govt is guilty of perpetrating misery on the Tamils in the North and East these INGOs stand accused of exploiting them even more. Exceptions are religious missions and ICRC. All the others are cottage industries who cannot wait for the next funding application to yield kudos fortheir merriment. Somehow Mahinda senses this although I do not approve of his nationalism.

    Pearl Thevanayagam

  • The Underdog

    Just a clarification: the IMF loan, if it comes, can only be used for external payments (imports, loan repayment to foreign creditors); it can’t be used for paying salaries. This is a condition of the loan. The money goes to the central bank, not the treasury. The IMF lends money to help a country resolve a foreign exchange crisis, not a fiscal crisis. So our inability to pay salaries will not change even if we get the loan.

    One other point: from the conversations I’ve had with many people in Colombo, I haven’t met anyone who expected the checkpoints to disappear immediately after the war. Among the Sinhala and Muslim community, there’s even a preference for the continued presence of checkpoints to ward off the perceived threat from Diaspora-funded insurgents.

  • The Underdog

    @ Justin

    There seems to be some attempt at remorse from Sinhala and forgiveness from Tamils at dbsjeyaraj.com
    It’s a start.

  • Dayan Jayatilleka

    Does Darini know how long it took after the Good Friday accords, for the infamous Crossmaglen checkpoint with its towers and electronics, to come down?

    Man, oh man….

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    I have vilified Dayan long eonough but at least he has some blood from his father, an intrepid and just journalist who never cowed down to those in power. Dayan may be booted out but unlike Rajiva he would stand on his own merit.

  • Grim Hope

    @Dayan Jayatilleka

    I am still waiting for reply from you about Lionel Bopage’s claims? Seems like you are ditching from answering those. I think you are loosing your credibility.

    Lionel Bopage says
    “As a matter of fact, in the 80′s, it was Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamil militant groups (including his EPRLF) that demanded the establishment of a separate state of Tamil Eelam to address the issues of the Tamil people. Dayan was a frequent visitor at JVP public meetings demanding that the JVP accept Eelam as the only solution to the national problem. ”

    According to Lionel Bopages claims and the Gotabaya’s theories, you are a traitor as well. Just like the Prabhakaran etc

    So what do you say? I think other readers should question this also. Basically, he is a reformed traitor, just like the JVP etc… What this basically says is that… people need to be given a second chance….people change situation change…

  • punitham

    Darini
    Thank you for writing this.
    I wish to clarify a few points though:
    1.”they have been disappointed” -
    The reason why the barriers and checkpoints still linger on has got to do with the the structural violence that began post-independence and pre-LTTE
    2.”capital city, whose many beautiful trees had been cut down” -
    In the last three decades of army occupation, Northeast lost untold flora of trees and bushes – the forest cleared to put up the recent camps for 300,000 IDPs is only a speck of dust in comparison. In the last three years alone a large number of trees were cut down in Northeast by the Army.
    3. ”The last three years of war to defeat the LTTE saw a serious erosion of governance structures, democratic institutions” -
    Because the government institutions were not democratic enough in the first thirty years, we came to have the war in the last thirty years. But there seems to be no change even after the LTTE have been decimated:
    Internment camps for Vanni IDPs
    IDP camps thoghout Northeast.
    Restricted access for aid agencies and ICRC and UN to all camps in Northeast
    Northeast still cut off from the rest of the country.
    Media have no free access to the Northeast
    Sinhala fishermen plunder the sea around the North(UTHR report of 10 June) – assisted by the Navy
    Tamil fishermen still have severe restrictions in fishing
    Forced settlement of Tamils in the East away from their original homes in the East.
    Abductions/murders/”disappearances” continue in Northeast without investigations
    Recommendations of UN, ICG, AI, IBA and ICJ of last few decades not yet begun to follow.