Colombo, Development, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Trincomalee

After the Elections: Demilitarize Development for Sustainable Peace

“Counter-terrorism is terrorism’s best ally.” –Joseba Zulaika in “Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy” (2009)

On April 12, 2010 the majority of citizens of the island’s two main linguistic communities celebrated the “Sinhala and Tamil New Year” and the categorical end of war and terrorism with considerable optimism, despite lack of a clear political solution to the ‘ethnic conflict’. The New Year celebrations, the first since the end of the State’s 30 year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), were in the wake of recently concluded parliamentary elections that returned the ruling party to power. President Rajapaksa, who in January had already won the Presidential elections for another 6 year term, noted that the New Year brings into focus shared culture and kinship ties between the Sinhala and Tamil speaking communities in the island. There was not talk of ‘human rights violations’ or ‘war crimes’ or the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon’s plan to set up an Advisory Council on Sri Lanka. Members of the international community, particularly the west, congratulated the regime and seemed circumspect with regard to questions of reconciliation, reconstruction and the detritus of 30 years of war in Lanka.

The end of election season in Sri Lanka should see the beginning of sustainable peace, which is to be distinguished from the end of war. Although the war ended almost a year ago on May 20, 2009, and opened a space for dealing with its root causes, the country had been in transition in anticipation of elections. Now that the election season is over the challenge of winning the peace, demilitarizing democracy and governance for locally owned development, and integrating the minority communities to ensure reconciliation and lasting peace remains. The post-conflict challenges may be divided in two: immediate humanitarian and human rights issues and long-term political settlement with devolution of power to the conflict affected regions, restoration of democratic institutions and checks and balances, and recognition of and institution of multiculturalism. On both these counts the Government of Sri Lanka is under considerable pressure from India, the US and EU and the United Nations to speedily resettle internally displaced people and stem the tide of refugees.

The election outcome has made it increasingly clear that the island would be evolving its own model of post-conflict reconstruction, development and reconciliation with the help of mainly Asian neighbors and donors, principally, India and China, which tend to be less demanding than western donors on the human rights front. The ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was returned to power with a comfortable majority in the face of a divided and lack luster opposition, whose leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, would now be required to consider exit strategies, if the United National Party (UNP), historically, the country’s oldest and most inclusive political party which has been dealt a stunning defeat, is to pose a challenge to the hegemony of the emergent Rajapaksa dynasty. The low voter turnout – only 52 percent of the population is partly explained by this. The Tamil minority also seems to have been disinclined to come out and vote in numbers, and there has been an overall reduction in members of parliament from the minority communities. The ruling UPFA garnered 117 out of the 225-seat parliament, about 6 seats short of a two thirds majority required to change the Constitution. Rajapaksa has consolidated power with a hat trick of three victories if one counts the defeat of the LTTE, the victory at the Presidential elections and the parliamentary elections.

The April elections marked a new beginning for the people in the post-conflict zones of the north and east, who had been prevented from participating in previous elections by the LTTE. They were able to exercise their vote relatively freely and they voted for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA/ITAK). However, Douglas Devanandan an ally of the ruling coalition (UPFA), and former militant of the EPDP (Eelam Peoples Democratic Party), were able to secure almost a third of the votes in the north. Also noteworthy at the recently concluded elections was the defeat of the  hard-line nationalist Jathiak Hela Urumay (JHU) party and  JVP/ DNA (Democratic National Alliance) headed by the jailed former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka (who nevertheless won a seat), signaling that the majority are not impressed by extremism. With a clear majority and needing fewer hard-line coalition partners, Rajapaksa should ideally bring down the number of cabinet members and work with the TNA which has promised to cooperate with him to find a solution for the minorities with the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka Model

Various international terrorism, conflict and peace building experts had predicted that the thirty-year war in the island, one of South Asia’s longest, would drag on for many years. The comprehensive defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), listed as one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organizations, by the Sri Lanka Government’s armed forces in the tiny multicultural and multi-religious teardrop island, strategically located at the cross roads of major trade routes in the Indian Ocean was viewed by some international peace and conflict experts as a test case. The Rajapakse government had after all argued that it was fighting a ”war on terror”, and capitalized on the diminished tolerance in the international community for political violence in the aftermath of 9/11, despite recognition that ”one man’s terrorist may be another’s liberation fighter” –depending on the context. Some terrorism experts even suggested that Lanka may constitute a model to fight “terrorism” in South and South East Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (Guneratna). Others have been more circumspect about lessons to be learned from the Sri Lanka case, particularly, due to concerns about human rights and the need for a political solution to the minority issue.

Perspectives on the relevance of the Sri Lanka example for ending insurgent or terrorist conflicts differ depending on the commentator’s commitment to the spirit (rather than form), of democracy as well as recognition of the fact that rarely have such long drawn, low-intensity, globally net-worked and locally embedded conflicts come to so conclusive an end. Every conflict is different, and in other parts of South Asia “terrorism” and insurgency seems unlikely to wind down so efficiently unless the ”root causes” of violence such as poverty, underdevelopment and political and cultural discrimination are addressed.

The conflict in Sri Lanka had been termed a ‘terrorist’ conflict, an ‘ethnic conflict’ and a liberation struggle. It was arguably all three, having begun as an ethnic conflict that subsequently morphed into a liberation struggle for the Tamil minority in the north east, only to become highly militarized and a self-sustaining dirty war with its own war economy. In the final stages the LTTE which claimed to be fighting for the rights and liberation of the Tamil minority in northeast Sri Lanka had become a terrorist organization that was as brutal to its own constituency as towards the Sri Lanka State from which it sought independence. At the same time, ending the thirty-year war in Sri Lanka was difficult and happened with considerable damage to the country’s democratic culture and institutions. Democratic culture and traditions tend to check the State’s propensity for internal war against segments of the citizenry who may be fighting for ethno-religious self determination or economic and social justice, or both, as was arguably the case with the Tamil and Muslim minorities in the northeast of Sri Lanka.

Demilitarizing development, ensuring Human Security

Though the war in Lanka is over the identity conflict that preceded it may persist in different forms until issues of power sharing with the peripheral regions due to over-centralization of State institutions, and erosion of democratic governance are addressed. The current regime’s preferred model of reconstruction and peace building appears to be fast tracking economic development and reconstruction as a solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka along the lines of authoritarian democracy visible in countries like Singapore and Malaysia, where the state’s emphasis on economic development has trumped and muted ethno-religious identity conflicts. This strategy may work in the medium term, until a comprehensive plan for devolution of power to the north-east regions is worked out. In the longer term, there would be need for the implementation for devolution of power particularly to the regions where Tamil speaking minority communities predominate — in the north and east.

Often conflicts that have their roots in poverty and economic marginalization by political elites and majorities that control the modern nation-state tend to be articulated in terms of ethno-religious identity conflicts. In other words “ethnic” identity conflicts tend to have a resource base, and there is a need to de-ethnicize conflict analysis in order to address the root causes of the conflict in Lanka. The majority of ordinary people in the conflict zones are tired of promises of “liberation” by various politicians and ethnic entrepreneurs peddling ethnic identity politics and ethnic “liberation” particularly in the wake of the LTTE’s failure to secure any respect for the grievances of the Tamil minority. Many citizens in the north and east simply assert that they wish to rebuild their lives and livelihoods and look forward to a decent education and future for their children. By and large, ethnic out bidding for short term political gain has become a feature of Sri Lanka’s post/colonial political culture in the absence of visionary leadership conscious of the need for inclusive development policies.

Devolution for Equitable Development

Sri Lanka which has traditionally had a far more vibrant democratic culture, civil society and a social welfarist approach to development than Malaysia or Singapore will need to finds its own post/conflict economic development model, between neo-liberal laissez faire policies and over centralised government led development. Neither of these approaches really worked in the past and it would be necessary to strike the appropriate balance between open economic policies and excessive government control of reconstruction and post/conflict economic development.

Simultaneously, economic development cannot be a substitute for the devolution of power or for human security. Indeed, for equitable and locally owned development, devolution of power is essential so that local communities benefit and are better able to benefit from the end of the war, and harvest the local agricultural and fisheries wealth in the north east, and benefit from the large-scale infrastructure projects. The military mindset that led to the concentration of power in the centre in Colombo under the Presidential Task force for Reconstruction in the North and East headed by Basil Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, is counter-productive to locally owned and equitable economic development, public-private partnerships, and entrepreneurship by the local business community in peace time.

The Military Foot Print and Civil-Military Relations

The first step in getting post-conflict economic development right would be unraveling of the vestiges of the war economy of terror, taxation and rent-seeking by those who carry guns, and ensuring that development is planned, owned and implemented by local people and communities in the north and east. Clearly, the trend to promote military businesses in the post/conflict zone that economist Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvanandan has identified in the field of transport and small shops and businesses along the A-9 , coupled with the need for security clearance for traders and business persons going to the north is counter-productive to locally entrepreneurship and conflict sensitive post conflict economic regeneration.

There appears to be a new form of militaristic development ongoing in various parts of the country. In the heart of Colombo, poor and vulnerable people, mainly from the minority communities who were displaced and impoverished by the war are being displaced and many of the city’s old and beautiful trees cut down at this time in the name of city beautification, security and “development”. The Urban Development Authority of the city headed by the Defense Secretary has authorized destruction of “unauthorized structures” even as in other parts of the country land is being appropriated in the name of development.

What Sri Lanka needs at this time is people-centered development that promotes human security and reconciliation among diverse ethno-religious communities. Yet, the military footprint is heavy along the A-9 and armed personnel carry out various businesses which constitute mission and mandate creep, inappropriate for the military in a democracy such as Sri Lanka where there has never been such a precedent.  At this time there needs to be rethinking and down-sizing of the military and other armed forces rather than the expansion of military businesses similar to the Pakistan or Indonesian military model. Such a precedent would impact negatively on the structure and culture of the Sri Lanka armed forces and tarnish their reputation in the long run. The excessive security for political figures and Ministers and the check point culture in Colombo is also costly and detrimental to the image of the armed forces, many of whom are increasingly uncomfortable with their new role of policing civilians in the absence of a clear terrorism threat.  The militant model of post/conflict development may elicit a back-lash and make “terrorism” a self-fulfilling prophesy.

For proper economic development the remnants of the war economy that functioned on terror and taxation with those who carried guns extorting and taxing the population that was apparent in the north and east during the conflict years must be fully undone. Local private sector and entrepreneurs need to have the space to start their businesses and provide employment. Currently, though the A-9 is open public transport to and from Jaffna is not done by civilian or business community. Rather, the Air Force operates flights to Jaffna and the buses are controlled by a government allied Tamil politician who still has a paramilitary outfit. The High Security zones which in Jaffna occupy prime real estate in the centre of town as well as, prime agricultural land around Pallay need to be released for agricultural and urban renewal. Land appropriation for tourism development in the post/conflict zones in increasingly a feature of the current development push that would cause new conflicts and the return of old. The road constructed by the Navy through Willpattu national part for a proposed tourist resort on the northern border of the park at the behest of the all powerful Minister for Economic Development and Tourism, is a case in point. The practice of claiming prime lands for “high security zones” that morph into super-luxury tourism development projects, with little regard for the local populations who were displaced is apparent in other parts of the county, particularly the post/conflict zones where rent seeking behavior by some national and local politicians and associated crony capitalists is counter-productive to the government’s stated agenda of sustainable peace building through equitable development.

Learning from the Past:  Ensuring Local Ownership of Development

Unless development is demilitarized in northeast “terrorism” may ironically become a self-fulfilling prophesy in post-conflict Sri Lanka, as Basque Anthropologist, Joseba Zulaika has noted in his perceptive book on how the international “terrorism discourse” post 9/11 has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The current development trust, with emphasis on infra-structure and road is top down, rather than people-centric. Citizens have yet to see the peace dividend materialize, and funds spent on the war machinery may be diverted towards education and health sectors which suffered considerably in the conflict years. Post/conflict development must be done to defuse the old land and resource conflicts and forms of state-sponsored discrimination against minorities that were at the root of the 30 year old war in the north east. The right to development that was stymied when the Accelerated Mahaveli development scheme did not benefit the minority dominated Vanni regions is an example of the need to avoid skewed development and the reality and perception of discrimination in various forms.

The fruits of post-conflict development in Sri Lanka must accrue to local communities in the post-conflict zones and resource conflicts need to be addressed in a transparent manner to ensure that local communities benefit from development that enables reconciliation. This is particularly important for people who have been caught between, displaced and traumatized by the 30 years of war. In the context, post conflict reconstruction assistance provided by foreign donors must have good governance conditionalities and be conflict-sensitive. There must be provision to ensure transparent tracking, monitoring and evaluation of aid projects to ensure that funds reach their intended beneficiaries rather than politicians, paramilitaries, rent-seekers and crony capitalists that thrive in war economies and post/conflict scenarios.

In the medium term then, the following conflict transformation challenges are apparent:

  1. Demilitarizing democracy and governance and actual implementation of the 13th amendment to the constitution, particularly in the north and east. This requires restoration of development and reconstruction decision making, planning and policy to civilian administrative structures in the north and east, while enabling capacity building of local government institutions and decision making in the provincial and district levels in post conflict regions.
  2. Divesture of the High Security Zones to enable internally displaced people (IDPs) to return and settle in their villages and urban centres, as well as, disarming of the Tamil paramilitary groups linked to the state now that the LTTE threat no longer exists on the ground.
  3. Dealing with the Tamil Diaspora since Diasporas often tend to be far more intransigent and unwilling to compromise than those who remained at home. Sinhala and Tamil ultra-nationalism is most visible at this time from the respective Diasporas, and there is an emerging disconnect between the Diaspora leaders and those in-country who wish to compromise and co-exist with “other” communities.
  4. Doing development right by ensuring good governance, and balancing a political solution for the minorities with economic development for all. Demonstrating that win-win solution is possible and that the progress and development of the minorities need not be a loss for the majority community.
  5. Restoring the Institutions that ensure accountability to the people such as the Bribery Commission and the Human Rights Commission which have become defunct on account of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, and setting up of a special mechanism for resolution of resources conflicts in the North and East.
  6. International aid donors will need to co-ordinate and target their assistance to maximize assistance to the people. In the context the EU may wish to revisit its decision to revoke GSP Plus concessions that would hurt the business community and poor women in the garment sector, while IMF would need to be clear about its aid conditionality to ensure greater accountability from the State.

Dr. Darini Rajasingham Senanayake