Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Defeating the result and the cause of war – Role of the mass movement

About a week ago, Dilan Perera, the Minister of Justice happened to say something of a timely need – that there should be a political solution with some form of devolution of power if we are to defeat the cause of the North and East conflict and it can be done only by the politicians. He stressed that only politicians can ensure sustainability of the military victories of the Army. A good point and I’d say a brave remark at a time when the entire peace discourse is over flooded with a war discourse and at a time war has become an ideal solution to the war. But he has forgotten another party who has a big say in this conflict. Although under-presented, manipulated and used, masses of Sri Lanka had always acted and would act an important role in solving the social aspect of this conflict. To be direct, a political solution implemented overlooking the masses or without adequate participation of the masses, will not be sustained. This article will be looking at the concept of the ‘civil society’ in Sri Lanka and their attempts to generate a peace constituency in the recent past (during and post peace process 2002-2005). In doing so, it will question the capacity of the civil society in building peace with its limited assets, particularly in terms of persons. It argues that peace building attempts of the civil society as well as those of the politicians should be extended to incorporate the political society represented by the masses if peace attempts to be successful.

Importance of the civil society in transforming identity based conflicts by facilitating institutional, structural, behavioral as well as cultural democracy is stressed by scholars both local as well as foreign. Camilla Orjuela who had done extensive work on Sri Lankan civil society states that civil society can play a successful role of “(1) preventing violent conflict, (2) working in war zones, (3) supporting negotiations and settlements, and (4) endorsing reconstruction and reconciliation”. Civil society in Sri Lanka is said to be weak, politicized, divided on ethnic, urban- rural and gender lines and created and sustained with external assistance. Moreover, it is subjected to binary segregation:  nationalists and non-nationalists. If I am to speak with reference to positive peace, nationalist civil society has contributed negatively while the work of the non-nationalist civil society is rotted and stagnated due to their inability to overcome limitations set by them themselves. Pathetically, today the civil society in Sri Lanka is equated with non- government organizations (NGOs).

In 2002, war weary Sri Lanka diverted from her long adopted strategy ‘war for peace’ to ‘negotiations for peace’. An entire peace environment was created, “peace workers found themselves ‘fighting a winning battle'” (Orjuela in Civil Society in Civil War: Peace Work and Identity Politics in Sri Lanka, 2004). They took on the role of mobilizing and increasing the awareness among the masses about the need for peace by conducting peace education programs, study visits and media campaigns. They also took measures to build support base for peace and bridge inter ethic relations. They intended to reduce prejudices among ethnic groups and increase mutual understanding of each other’s sufferings. Consequently, they meant to increase the backing for peace initiatives. They targeted grass-roots, professional groups, religious leaders and Sri Lankan Diaspora in their manifestations for peace. Social movements such as Sarvodaya carried out Sama Bhavana (Peace Meditation) in Colombo, Trincomallee as well as in Anuradhapura and thousands of people participated. Apart from that various others carried out conflict resolution and peace building workshops, art and cultural activities. With the re-opening of A9 road which connected Jaffna and southern Sri Lanka during the ceasefire, interactions between North and South increased and as a result facilitated the activities of the grass-roots.

It is alleged that despite the pragmatism used and the momentum created, the peace process 2002-2005 is rather short sighted. UNF government preferred to have the minimum mass participation and instead counted on the blessings of Malwathu Asgiri Mahanayakas, Colombo civil society elites and media editors. With the upsurge of nationalist politics in the country lead by the opposition parties, Sinhalese nationalist civil society represented by the Patriotic National Movement (Desha Hitaishi Jathika Viyaparaya), Manel Mal Movement and National Movement against Terrorism (NAMAT) managed to mobilize a large portion of the southern population against the peace process. The peace lobbyers found it impossible to tackle this force. In the post peace process context, forces marginalized by the peace process, mainly the political opposition gained recognition of the grass roots. Campaigners for peace were regarded as the traitors to the country’s integrity and sovereignty. National Anti War Front which was formed in order to encompass all sections of civil society to support and strengthen the peace process by creating awareness about the need to build sustainable peace with the participation of all sectors in the society, met up with a massive protest on the part of Sinhalese nationalist civil organizations such as Patriotic National Movement and NAMAT.  Post peace process environment showed that it is difficult to generate a mass movement for peace in Sri Lanka with ethnic polarization, deep-rooted nationalism on both sides (Sinhalese and Tamil). The entire peace movement was divided and the absence of a mass movement for peace was felt hard.

Civil society for peace or civil society in general in Sri Lanka has failed to fit in or include the political society in the country which accounts for the majority of the population. Civil society in countries like ours represents only a small portion of the society and the rest is formed by the political society. According to Partha Chaterjee (in The Politics of the Governed), machineries of the welfare state which aimed at ameliorating living standards of the people of post-colonial states reduced populations into ‘descriptive categories’ facilitating administrative, legal, economic and electoral policies. Consequently, statuses of people were transformed into subjects not citizens by outstripping the agendas of ‘republican citizenship’ put forward in the liberation struggle. In the West, on the contrary, civil society was connected to the nation-state which was formed on the concept of popular sovereignty and equal rights to citizens. Laws documented in the constitution declaring that every man and a woman in the country is a citizen with equal rights contradict the actual situation. As one gentleman living in Karikattiya, Mundal told me, the only right he has enjoyed so far being a citizen in Sri Lanka is the right to vote and the only thing he has got from the government is the identity card.  He does not feel like a proper member the society. Like him, majority of the Sri Lankans do not have citizen-state relationship. They are looked after and controlled by various government bodies which bring them into a political relationship with the state.

Past experiences have shown that it would be extremely necessary to extend the civil society to integrate the political society if a peace process is to be broadened and to be successful. It is a pity that most of the decision makers, policy makers and other academic intellectuals fail to see this simple truth and continue to observe grass roots as a passive community. Non violent civil society has subjected to the same fate as that of the weak, hypercritic ‘ala-elite’ anti-ragging movement in the University of Peradeniya which is betrayed by the insiders themselves and contribute to the ‘othering’ at a different level and serves a selected community. It doesn’t make an effort to transcend the established boundaries.

If or if not this war to be ended by a military victory of the Sri Lankan Army accompanied by a political solution presented by the politicians, mobilization of the ordinary people towards peace is indispensable. It is high time we decide if the desired Peace = military defeat of the LTTE + political solution + ? or – ? Masses.

Are we ready to miss another opportunity?