Colombo, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Post-war politics

Victors, if the pre-election shenanigans in the South are any barometer, violently differ on how to share the spoils of war. Unsurprisingly, the war and LTTE are still alive in the pre-election campaigns in the South. Victory against the LTTE and those who championed it are projected as superior, and better fit for political office than those who did not. The nostrums of national security gloss over concerns regarding IDPs. Promises of development abound, as usual without any real basis in economics. Promises of systemic political change, anchored to various pronouncements of the Executive, are also paraded, again without any real sincerity – minority grievances in and to the South, after all, remain largely peripheral to concerns over post-war economic recovery. This however is the first election in the South, the bedrock of the SLFP and its allies, conducted without the glue of war to bind them to a common purpose and enemy. The result is petty bickering, outrageous sexism and high incidents of violence against fellow candidates, usually reserved for those from competing political agencies. Those, especially outside the country interested in regime change, are advised to observe these trends. This fissiparous trend in what during war was an impregnable regime occurs independent of any impetus from the international community, NGOs or independent media. It is rather a reflection of the essential nature of our party politics and electoral system, where course correction eventually checks the worst authoritarianism. Without any all-engulfing effort like war enjoying support in the South, the design and establishment of hegemony becomes increasingly difficult. The regime, deeply cognisant and fearful of this growing disintegration within the party, will seek to contain it through mechanisms it controls and knows best – favouritism, nepotism, party political manipulation, and if the family future is threatened or thwarted, violence.

The end of war provided a significant opportunity for the establishment of a different and more progressive political culture, that we have so tragically lost. Internationally, our hydra-headed post-war foreign policy is about as nuanced and strategic as petulantly giving the West the middle-finger. Domestically, our policies of post-war reconciliation, constitutional reform and development are a mess. Ricocheting from the bizarre to the outrageous, policies and practices of government – from Police brutality to corruption – no longer contained or overwhelmed by coverage of war or by censorship are out in the open and generating public disdain. There is already a shift in media and editorials that were supportive of war yet increasingly impatient with the government’s handling of post-war realities. The tired worldview defining of patriots and traitors and the other pedestrian piffle this government loves to wallow in is political currency soon expended, and not easily replenished. It was useful in war-time. It is useless in peacetime.

We could have instead learnt from a significant failure in Africa – President Julius Nyerere and his experiment in one-party democratic socialism in Tanzania. As the economist Paul Collier notes in his latest book Wars, Guns and Votes, Nyerere’s political leadership built a sense of national identity, without resorting to the idea of an enemy to build this identity – “indeed, he emphasised a Pan-African as well as national identity”. His experiment in socialism was a failure, and in 1985 Nyerere publicly admitted his failure and stepped down from office, the first African head-of-state to voluntarily do so. And yet his enduring legacy, in a region riven with violent identity based conflict, was country enjoying a high degree of social and political cohesion and peace. Or we could learn from China. Zhang Pengjun, one of the key negotiators of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a polymath – diplomat, scholar, poet, playwright, Broadway producer and opera singer. He noted that differences in philosophy and ideology did not impede securing and protecting human rights. Who is of the same mind in the Rajapakse regime, despite their avowed affinity to China today? The economic prosperity New China enjoys is not because of the doctrine of socialism and revolutionary struggle against capitalism. It is because of economic liberalisation and participation in a global compact of nations. India offers very different lessons of identity formation, economic development and multi-lateral diplomacy, no less compelling. Is our government interested in studying and adapting from these and other post-conflict models of social cohesion, economic development and international engagement from Asia to South America and Africa? There is no evidence in this regard. Amongst a tragic collection of similar examples, the Prime Minister’s audacious reference to Monica Lewinsky in a derogatory attack on Hillary Clinton in the media recently and his repeated assertion at the Asia Society in New York that the ICRC was harbouring LTTE terrorists suggest that asinine policies and statements are, far from a source of embarrassment, a matter of pride for the Rajapakse government domestically and internationally.

Ergo, cui bono – therefore, who stands to gain or benefits?  The international pro-LTTE lobby for starters, and the pro-Eelam parties in Sri Lanka. The bungling of post-war policy-making by the government, it’s complete lack of over-the-horizon strategies to address challenges of peacebuilding, and above all, its incarceration of over a quarter of a million IDPs in hellish conditions gives succour to international campaigns supporting violent secessionism in Sri Lanka. There are also powerful regimes that appear to be our friends today who want this. Blueprints designed by them for post-war development, resettlement, reconstruction and military expansion in the North and East not just envision, but actively foment communal unrest in the future. A government pathologically unable to think beyond its own self-preservation and aggrandisement is easy prey for these mercenaries, who are equally adept at greasing palms and egos.

Despite all this of course, this regime will win the Southern Provincial Council elections, and go on to win the Presidential election next year. Thus unshakable and unbeatable in the short term, the EU for example may find that the manic frenzy of activity over the probable non-extension of GSP+ is useful to replay in the future to hold the government accountable for what it has promised regarding the resettlement IDPs, democratic governance and human rights. Unless there is damning evidence from US Department of Defence satellite imagery analysis, evidence of war crimes within Sri Lanka will be limited to the sort of partial narratives broadcast and published in British media recently. None of this registers domestically, or was an issue in the elections conducted yesterday. The significant violence within the SLFP and its erstwhile coalition partners in the lead up to the election signifies greater violence to come, especially as the memory of victory against the LTTE fades. Especially during a general election, this will result internecine violence that costs lives. This loss of life will decrease political capital and increase international scrutiny. Quite independently then, growing international and domestic pressure on multiple fronts could overwhelm and de-stabilise the incumbents to such a degree that the only thing needed for regime change would be the most difficult to engineer and envision.

A new leader for the UNP.

[A very badly edited version of this article appears in the Sunday Leader, 11 October 2009]