Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Ridicule and reality: SCOPP, War and Peace in Sri Lanka

Sunit Bagree, October 2008

Whenever the government and security forces have faced criticism in relation to Sri Lanka’€™s armed conflict, the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) has always been swift to launch into a forceful defence of the state.

When countering specific allegations, SCOPP’™s responses can occasionally be of some merit. More frequently, however, its rhetoric mimics that of the Peace Secretariat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Like the LTTE, SCOPP has a tendency to make sweeping and dismissive statements about highly respected individuals and organizations. For instance, SCOPP has said that Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group, €˜does not really know the Sri Lankan situation€™. Similarly, SCOPP has also claimed that Human Rights Watch possesses a €˜lack of objectivity and balance.

In recent months, SCOPP has taken this approach a step further. It has taken to launching petty, patronizing and sustained personal diatribes against certain individuals. Two examples are Yolanda Foster, Sri Lanka Researcher at Amnesty International (belittled for being a young professional trying to make a positive difference), and Sreeram Chaulia, a PhD student at Syracuse University (SU) and freelance journalist (labelled a self-loathing Asian and mocked for researching at SU’€™s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs).

At this point the reader may be rather confused. What has age got to do with any debate in this sphere? What is wrong with working for an international human rights organization/movement as a professional? Why is it unacceptable for an Asian to criticise the domestic and foreign policies of Asian governments? And why it is so bad to be conducting research at a top ranked graduate school for public affairs?

These playground tactics bring to mind the academic and activist Noam Chomsky’€™s comment about the Australian journalist and documentary maker John Pilger. Chomsky said that when people become furious about Pilger’s incisive and courageous reporting, the only response they are capable of is

Interestingly, SCOPP has made a point recently of saying that it welcomes €˜genuine€™ criticism. One can assume that that means arguments that fall within bounds defined by SCOPP itself. Of course, this means that it is essentially impossible for any commentator to be opposed to both the actions of a discriminatory and oppressive state – which clearly lie at the roots of the conflict – and a breathtakingly brutal rebellion (as well as their respective proxies). The end result is that the ‘˜with us or against us’€™ mentality – also so strongly favoured by the LTTE – becomes reinforced.

Of course, even the best researchers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) make mistakes. Earlier this year, I conducted research on the relationship between international NGOs and national NGOs working directly on conflict issues in Sri Lanka. My conclusions suggest that both types of organization can perform a lot better, despite the lack of policy space in both government-controlled
areas and (particularly) LTTE-controlled areas.

At this stage perhaps I should admit that I am a young former NGO worker who has only completed postgraduate education. So at the risk of opening myself up to ridicule, I would argue that the behaviour described above is actually largely deliberate. This is because it is geared towards limiting debate and avoiding answering the really hard questions about achieving a just and lasting peace in the country.

The Tamil question is structurally about the legitimate grievances of a minority group. But the conflict has also evolved into a system which serves important political, economic and psychological benefits to a range of actors, most notably the conflicting parties themselves. In other words, while violence
in Sri Lanka harms many people (directly and/or indirectly), it also serves a range of powerful interests. And even though defensive violence may be necessary to protect civilians, it cannot in itself address root causes.

Only when Tamils believe that these injustices have been corrected will there be no support for, or ambivalence towards, the LTTE. This will only happen if the state recognises the limits of violence and makes the protection and empowerment of Tamils its main priority. Or, to put it another way, this will only happen if the war system is broken and the winning of Tamil hearts and minds becomes the unashamed central agenda of the dominant majority.

The government’€™s current talk of physically destroying the LTTE (an impossible task), coupled with its desire for only superficial governance reforms, suggest that, realistically, meaningful positive change is very far away.