Post-War Sri Lanka: Way Forward or More of the Same?

Without peace, there is no development; without development there is no peace, President Rajapaksa has said. Yet, for the overwhelming majority of the population he presides over, life is quite harsh under the growing burden of the militarisation of the economy and society. Despite rhetoric on the devolution of power about 50,000 Tamils are still detained in camps behind barbed wire. Under such economic and political conditions hopes for reconciliation and the strengthening of civil society look bleak. To understand why this is so and its attendant solutions some understanding of the formation of post-independence Sri Lanka needs to be elucidated.

The mode of social development in Sri Lanka was a result of colonial superimposition of capitalism on a society where feudal socio-economic and cultural conditions prevailed. Building such an economy required capital accumulation, wage labour, huge tracts of land and infrastructure, centralisation of power in the hands of a few, and a base for administrative assistance from the locals. They achieved this through abolishing the system of service tenure, imposing a unitary administration island wide and introducing English as the medium of instruction.

The long-lasting effects of this uneven capitalist development were reflected in the appearance of an economic divide between the haves who became increasingly affluent and the have-nots who became increasingly impoverished. The plantation economy generated issues of landlessness, land fragmentation, and lack of water for irrigation, giving rise to the so-called urban rural divide.

As the availability of land and water for agriculture became more acute, rural youth welcomed the introduction of free education and the change of medium of instruction from English to local languages as measures to alleviate their increasing unemployment. These responses expanded opportunities for rural youth for higher education. . The economic structure was not capable of providing sufficient jobs, resulting in a huge number of tertiary educated youth not being unemployed.

The state’s reaction to any socio-economic demand was often to curtail freedom, weaken political institutions, and move towards authoritarian forms of governance. So, class mobilisation in the south became totally based on opposition to social exclusion and economic deprivation. The militancy in the south predominantly represented the aspirations of the rural young lower-middle class Sinhala Buddhist constituency

Post 1956, state violence extended to suppress peaceful protests by indigenous Tamils. These tactics marginalised the elected representatives of the Tamil community, which resulted in the demand for a homeland by Tamil youth.  This situation led to cycles of political violence and counter-violence.

The war has had a devastating effect on the economy. Vast sums of money were spent on the war by the state and non-state actors, including the diaspora. The economy is heavily indebted due to the colossal military spending and this spending continues, as is evident from the recent military purchase agreements signed with Russia and China.

According to the government sources, 1,672,159 people received concessions due to their extreme poverty in 2008. The unemployment rate has gone up from 5.5 percent to 5.9 percent, according to the CIA Factbook. The real unemployment situation would be worse than the figure indicated. About 36 percent of foreign exchange earnings are due to a majority of rural people slaving as domestics in the Middle East and elsewhere overseas. 37 percent of the same rural people live in poverty

The grim reality that can no longer be hidden under any statistical carpet is the fact that during the war and after the war, the cost of living has been on the rise. The budget deficit has doubled during the four year of the current government. Compared with a government debt of at least 77 percent of GDP in 2008, in 2009 the debt has reached at least 83 percent of GDP. Total exports are estimated to have dropped from USD 8 billion in 2008 to USD 7 billion in 2009. Total imports are estimated to have dropped from USD 14 billion in 2008 to USD 10 billion in 2009. The IMF offered a loan of USD2.6 billion to Sri Lanka to avoid a balance of payments crisis.

All indications are that further restructuring of the economy, privatisation of public enterprises and deeper cuts to public spending are on the cards. There will be opposition to such measures, which will be met with state repression.

Reliance on China and Russia has helped Sri Lanka cover up its worse human and democratic rights violations. Sri Lanka has been able to successfully thwart all attempts of the international bodies, to have independent investigations into the nature of such violations. Avoidance independent investigations entangle the island more and more in the power play of major powers and to marginalise human rights.

During the last five years, the systematic undermining of democracy was and continues to be evident due to the many abductions, assaults, arrests, detention and killings of journalists. The rule of law had been undermined drastically by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations, which provided impunity for crimes instigated by the state. None of these issues were addressed after the end of the war, and do not seem to be part of the political of the current government.

. The repressive response adopted by successive governments in Sri Lanka to any group like the Tamils demanding their rights included the following: detention for extended periods of time in jails, maltreatment, torture and death while in custody, the disruption of civil activity, prolonged solitary confinement and holding people incommunicado without legal or family access, enforced disappearances, killing them (usually young people) in a ratio of one to ten or more to terrorise civilians, aerial bombardment of villages and scorched earth policies.

Basic demands for fair wages and working conditions have been suppressed by repeatedly alleging that individuals who made such demands were helping the LTTE by disrupting the war effort. The state apparatus including the security forces, the judiciary and at times presidential powers were used to sabotage or ban industrial action which the current regime will continue to use to keep itself in power.

Erosion of human rights in the last four decades because of political violence have resulted in more than one hundred thousand dead, mostly civilians, and hundreds of thousands displaced, who have become refugees in their own land. There are thousands of war widows, orphans, invalids, and millions of people walking around with mental scars.

Despite the talk about devolution of power, about 50,000 Tamils are still detained in camps in miserable conditions behind barbed wire. Under such circumstances, reconciliation between the peoples of Sri Lanka will be extremely difficult. The Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs) need to be rehabilitated and resettled in a way that is speedy, democratic and transparent. The financial transactions involved in rehabilitation and resettlement should also be transparent. As with the rest of the populace, the IDPs should have the opportunity to enjoy their freedoms and rights.

For the country to move forward its political elite needs to jettison these harmful policies. A shift in approach could commence with the demilitarization of society and the de-politicisation of the public service and the security forces. Paramilitary groups need to be disbanded; the security forces alone should maintain law and order, and do it without undue political influence. The 17th amendment to the Constitution needs implementation so that the police and other public sector organizations can fulfil their responsibilities independently and with accountability.

Participatory democracy and equitable distribution of the results of economic development are essential for any society to progress. So the problems created by capitalist globalisation need to be acknowledged and addressed. If solutions to these problems cannot be found internally, external forces could interfere for their own benefit.

Those who, value democracy, freedom and liberty need to actively show that they oppose the repressive political culture in Sri Lanka. They need to exert pressure on the state to negotiate towards a meaningful and just power-sharing arrangement. Power sharing will weaken both the social forces that favour internal subjugation as well as those favouring separation. This can only succeed under a strong leadership. Such an environment requires the building of a culture that treats the other with dignity, respect and fairness.

Sinhala and Tamil expatriates that helped perpetuate this conflict need to make a positive contribution to its resolution by engaging in dialogue within their community and with other communities. They need to become drivers of this paradigm shift by creating a new reality through their interactions with each other.

If peaceful coexistence through power sharing is not achievable, the probability of another conflict cannot be ruled out. Even though the Sri Lankan state has managed to militarily defeat the LTTE and physically eliminate its leadership, the lack of a just political solution could see the secessionist forces re-emerge. A way out of this would be the implementation of a constitutional framework that strengthens democracy and good governance and provides regional autonomy to the Tamil and Muslim peoples. Such radical political reforms, in the long term, will reduce mistrust and enable the populace breathing space on how best to go forward.

This is essential for Sri Lanka to move forward, because otherwise it will be more of the same in terms of the corruption, the corrosion of civic society, the debasement of public institutions, economic inequality and majority rule.

End of War Special Edition

  • davidson panabokke

    1. Denial of access for UN, ICRC, INGOs to Northeast = Prevention of development of Tamils/Muslims
    2. ”Development” by army and government ministries = further colonisation of Northeast by government ”colonisation” schemes (minor versions of those of the 50s/60s/70s /80s/90s so that they won’t be conspicuous).
    3. Restrictions on journalists into Northeast + Clampdown of dissent in Colombo = Enhancement of 1. and 2.

  • davidson panabokke

    People at the grassroots must be made to realise that the governance at the centre, economic prosperity of the peripheral South and the political(=socio-economic) prosperity of the Northeast are related to each other.

    Instead of driving the society by the essence of religion(=good governance) the poor are deprived of economic properity and the oppressed are deprived of political prosperity by being compelled to ”celebrate” religious festivals.

  • davidson panabokke

    http://blog.srilankacampaign.org/
    Weak UN Human Rights Council can be improved by engaging public in developing world democracies argues Campaign Chair, 16 March 2010:
    ‘’Speaking at the 2nd Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy, Edward Mortimer(Senior Vice-President, Salzburg Global Seminar), made a strong plea for human rights activists to do more to engage the developing world democracies who currently define how the UN Human Rights Council operates.”
    Panel on “Towards the 2011 Reform: Can the UN Human Rights Council Be Fixed?” Edward Mortimer, Geneva, 9 March 2010: ‘’….When we see positive change in governments’ behaviour at the UN, it generally reflects change within the societies that they represent. And therefore I believe that the struggle for improvement in the Human Rights Council is one that needs to be pursued not only through conventional intergovernmental diplomacy but also through political work at the level of civil society. It is through what people like us in this room say and do, not only at meetings in Geneva, but through constant and consistent advocacy within our own societies and in our interaction with each other’s societies. We must take the debate to the people.”