Ampara, Batticaloa, Human Rights, Human Security, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Trincomalee

Much Ado about Eastern Democracy?

After one cease-fire, two formal peace talks, three wars, we wade deeper into Eelam war IV, and we’re back at square one. Or is it we never left?

Over 2000 deaths post-2006. Post-tsunami, over 700,000 refugees upon a decimated Northeast bloated with bone and shades of displacement. Unidentified gunmen, parcel bombs, white vans, lurk in every shadow. From Devakumaran to Senpathi, infants in Kayts to civilians in Dehiwala, the value of human life varies inversely with rising prices of petrol and rice, rates of inflation and centralization. And a panoply of issues like the 17th amendment or justice for 17 aid workers dangling a top Temple Trees’ to-do list, in the contemporary context, no more a blunt sword of Damocles, unable to slice even warm butter. 

Meanwhile, the slide to war and isolationism continues. 

The opposition is unable to soften the hard line. Support for war continues to reinvigorate the ontology and ideology of a defensive Tiger. Newly empowered minorities compete for voice in a post-conflict East. The majority of the majority quasi-insulated by regionalisms endemic to Lanka’s war do not bat an eye, as the international community continues to serve up innocuous sanctions and rhetorical comforts to the bleeding. 

Square One is Eelam war IV, Black July, the before and after of each JVP insurrection and Eelam War. Aside from Indo-Lanka and the CFA periods where the center’s hand was pressurized by hands-on international engagement, conflict settlement logic in the domestic and international contexts more or less remains. 

Domestically, the slide to war has abetted a reversion to old predilections in politics. Regarding its international context, the slide to isolationism has reflected the incumbency’s reversion to an inward-looking equation of regime survival where the military option is the only option, democratic transformations in the East double as a human rights counterweight. 

In the domestic context, firstly, like before, ethnicity, not multiethnic nationalism, reigns hegemonic.
Some still hope a dead Prabhakharan and bullet-backed ballots in non-Sinhala areas despite displacement are panacea to a half-century quest for co-existence. Others await a crippling LTTE counter-strike to change the power balance, or to watch a post-Thopigalla East with Pillaiyan at the helm degenerate into a Pandora’s box of paramilitancy and political opportunism. And others neglecting semi-authoritarian trends in governance since the Mahinda Chintanaya’s dawn, optimistically await a resurrected constitutional democracy, the rehabilitation of a regime whose notion of justice is defined by a rule of law compromised by the role of lawlessness and cultures of impunity and political non-accountability. 

Secondly, in Eelam war IV the power-sharing dialogue which matured during the early cease-fire period has regressed to Eelam war I polarizations. 

It seems the shared understandings, GoSL-LTTE renormalization, confidence-building measures, areas of overlapping consensus, and peace dividends nurtured during the CFA between the protagonists were indeed not irreversible. In retrospect, the CFA, its benign legacy undone in half its time, was when it existed more or less the absence of war. Also, the symmetry of support for a GoSL which from CFA to Eelam war IV switched from pro-peace to pro-war, suggest that support is more tied to the government than to regime policy towards settlement. 

Thirdly, an albatross, the following logic of regime survival hovers again. 

As long as mortar shells in the North continue to out number half-coconut shells and ad hoc blasts in the south, the optics of regionalized victory and justifications for inflation and costs of living may be delivered to the dominant electorate, thereby sustaining consent for the military option. The support for war, the distribution of displacement and violence, the political opposition opting to mobilize on economic rather than anti-war and non-Sinhala humanitarian crises platforms in the southern electorate, are symptomatic of this logic. Also, the return to war, like the past, unilaterally disacknowledges the LTTE as a stakeholder in any process of political settlement, an understanding militarily and politically re-established before every historical transition to talks. Nevertheless, this changed strategic equilibrium is not necessarily unpalatable to Vanni leadership. As new UPFA-TMVP and UNP-SLMC combines enter the fray, the existence of the LTTE as a political and m
ilitary actor continues to breathe at the heart of all coalition politics island-wide. 

The regime’s thinking inter alia the international context to Eelam IV has been predominantly defined by isolationism, and sustaining and sanitizing the image and substance of a democratic South-East axis. 
Firstly, the policy of isolationism, elsewhere interpreted as “strategic deterrence”, comprised of commitments to militancy and humanitarian neglect, has gained momentum since 2005, its corrosive effects diluted by multipolarity. 

Consequently, the center has been able to thus far counterbalance prospects of long-term economic sanctions from the West and opprobrium vis-à-vis the humanitarian dimension by aligning with the “rise of the Rest” a la China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and so forth. Counterbalancing isolation from the West with alignment with the Rest has enabled the regime to extend buffer space to prosecute the military option. However, this either-or logic, that there is either alignment with the West or the Rest, in the Lankan context is arguably a false geostrategic dichotomy, born of coupling illiberal governance with a counter-terrorism anything-goes mentality. 

Complementary to this, post-2005, there has been an incremental politics of sustainable non-engagement by key international actors. This has developed in parallel to conflict escalation and the paralysis and dissolution of most peace process/good governance related bodies on the ground. As bodies such as the SLMM, COI, APRC, IIGEP weakened, as opprobrium and isolation from Western-based institutions intensified, with no dog in the fight, Co-Chairs members became more withdrawn, resorting to the soft power of rhetorical attacks, which in Lanka, seem to have little impact. This CFA-Eelam IV dual trend of growing international non-engagement and domestic institutional decay within the conflict structure, by negative inference, articulates among these international actors, an ossifying consensus. 

In the short, a political solution hinging on a military settlement to the ethnic conflict will be accommodated as a necessary evil to resolving Lanka’s national question, whether or not it answers demands of the minority community.

Secondly, the democratic image of the East for the regime has emerged opportune and vital for modulating eroding international legitimacy and stabilizing a South-East axis which will allow the reconcentration of military resources in the Northern theatre. However, given the open collusion with the Karuna-cum-Pillaiyan faction and documented electoral malfeasance during provincial elections, to what extent the mandates of regional democratic transformation and regional counter-insurgency overlapped, if at all, remains obscure. Also, democratizing the East has depended largely on the centrality of the anti-LTTE platform in the consolidation of multiparty political alliance. As a result, now the Muslim voice is divided. The Eastern Tamil voice has also divided twice before, in 2004, and last year, leading to a Pillaiyan-led TMVP. These splits in the Eastern minority voice have materialized in the spaces of negative peace, implying interdependence between the SLA-LTTE military balance of power and Eastern political unity. Also, the timing of division preceding elections does not stipulate involvement from the center, but a marriage of convenience between divided Eastern politics and trans-regime compulsions toward granting meaningful regional autonomy is difficult to neglect in toto. Overall, for an incumbency with alliances and populist support not untainted by Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism, the political utility of Muslim and Eastern Tamil autonomy in a regional context where the LTTE may become a non-factor, in a political context where preserving unitarism and implementing devolution remain at loggerheads, remains unclear. 

In the domestic and international contexts, the island’s slide to war and isolationism creates an increasingly inward-looking political environment which within multipolarity can sustain the military option, arguably casting the UNHRC rejection, an ironic blessing. 

Beneath, a GoSL-LTTE zero-sum game of blame continues, largely allergic to broader notions of causality, as developments on the ground are increasingly rationalized within a “War on Terror” prism which tends to distort more than it illumines. 

A language of peace – where “demilitarization” is also doublespeak for “military victory”, “precondition to conflict resolution” for “political settlement”- reframes overt policies of war. The LTTE threat has taken on a Manichean character, depicted as weaker yet omnipresent, diminished yet existential, a paradigm enabling the Northern campaign to legitimate deteriorating security and governance across the island. The political management of Tamil identity has also become more nuanced, with combatant and non-combatant more or less obfuscated in the North; Pillaiyan cadres, TMVP, SLA, child soldier, and civilians separated in the East. 

And myriad questions remain. 

Is the East truly “post-conflict”? Will democratization inspire integration into Colombo’s formal economy, or will development in the East replicate the post-1995 Jaffna model? How viable is the TMVP’s political ideology apart from pro-GoSL and anti-LTTE stances? 

Does fear and institutionalized apathy of the governed undermine the democratic integrity of their consent? In majoritarian democracy, is real power in Lanka exogenous to electoralism? 

Answers may emerge as regional situations unfold. 

However, if policy and discourse doesn’t return to issus of power-sharing and reconciliation, and if new balances between postindependence history and post-9/11 realities aren’t reached, the slide to war and isolationism will continue. 

Alongside, illiberalism and impunity, xenophobia and violence, will inexorably run like a knife across the throat of a Lankan post-CFA political climate which could have been.