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Beyond the war psyche in Sri Lanka

Dust is finally settling on the euphoria generated by last year’s military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  Old concerns naturally give way to the new and a year later, people have different realities to grapple with including how to keep their home fires burning.

For President Mahinda Rajapakse and the government elected on an overwhelming  ‘gratitude vote’ for providing political leadership to crush the Liberation Tigers militarily, the post war call is to rebuild the lives of 22 million people-beyonds the rubble of yesteryear.

If winning the war was no mean task, leading this country post war to new heights and to achieve its true potential will prove a bigger challenge. This requires a collective and concerted effort to go beyond the war psyche that continues to grip Sri Lankan society.

Two crucial elections have been fought and won by the incumbency this year largely on the emotional premise of ‘a public demonstration of gratitude’ (read sometimes servitude) than to make prudent political choices. The appalling quality of some legislators demonstrates at what price gratitude may be expressed but that’s entirely a different topic.

It is no mean task to end a socio-economically as well as politically costly war. But a year later, the question is not about resting on laurels but about the need to create a winning formula that could take Sri Lanka beyond its present political wasteland.

History is replete with examples of war winning leaders being ousted from power only to be replaced by more strategic managers of economies. But the large majority of Sri Lankans, having entrusted the task of eradicating the LTTE militancy to the Rajapakse administration, installed them back in power- this time to lead a different war towards economic prosperity.

As we make grand plans for economic advancement and seek to absorb Malaysian and Singaporean economic models,  on the downside , such focus  indicates a willingness to compromise democratic fundamentals upon which this society was created and nurtured.

The war being over in May 2010, Velupillai Pirapaharan’s ability to revise the nation’s agenda sans notice and bombs that go off that instilled fear in people is now history. Yet the real challenge before President Mahinda Rajapakse is to ensure the transition of this nation into a true democracy.

Besides, in the absence of the LTTE, the government is faced with a unique opportunity to strike a better political bargain with the Tamil leadership in addressing the root causes of conflict.  The Tamil political leadership has been diluted and splintered in and there less likelihood for them to act like prisoners of some Tamil militant group and to make extreme demands that may be unacceptable to the majority.  Yet, the government remains stoically silent on the most vital question.

In a post war analysis, it is pertinent to flag some concerns the citizens have including the possibility of the re-emergence of violent conflict.  The Rajapakse administration appears to be concentrating fully on a developmental drive despite the absence of significant aid (hence the backdoor negotiations to urgently secure the GSP + facility).

But what is needed to complete socio-political transition in a country that has suffered three decades of war, the commitment to address the root cause of the conflict is nowhere in sight.

To begin with, the incumbency should have taken measures to ensure de-escalation and demilitarisation so that the rule of law can take root.  It is undeniable that huge compromises were made in this regard and provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Public Security Ordinance (PSO) in effect overruled many other laws.

It is only fair that the citizenry be allowed to experience normalcy, more so in the north east where thousands are still huddled in displaced camps. The introduction of normalcy can take place only if the government demonstrated a serious commitment to de-escalate and demilitarize-but no such action appears in the horizon yet.

Let it not be forgotten that the war effectively turned this nation into a national security state and the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers was achieved at great human and financial cost. Good governance and civil liberties took severe beatings in the process, but this should have been, at its worst, a very temporary state.

While it is a welcome change to hear about the appointment of a commission similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the results of such an effort may prove futile in a country where the chief executive himself defines who a patriot and a traitor would be and systematically divides the citizens into two broad camps. It certainly is no formula for healing ethnic wounds or promoting integration.

During this month, two positive developments have indeed taken place.  The government introduced effective amendments to the emergency regulations, enacted under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) and jailed journalist J S Tissainayagam was granted a presidential pardon to coincide with the International Press Freedom Day on May 3.  Yet these two moves are of symbolic value and too little for a nation that needs to experience more visible signs of demilitarisation to and a state of normalcy.

Though the election campaigns were replete with promises that range from dismantling high security zones to immediately resettling the internally displaced to generating thousands of jobs to curbing corruption, they simply remained election pledges.  It is pertinent to note that the need to address the root causes of the conflict did not even make to these war- hyped platforms, though so vital to complete this nation’s transition from a national security state to a post war, growth- driven and politically mature nation.

Yet, with the burdensome war consigned to history, Sri Lanka is presented with a unique opportunity to develop itself. This requires strategy and political maturity.  If the priority in May 2009 was to fight the war to an absolute end, a year later it is restoration of democracy, rule of law, ethnic integration and ensuing normalcy in the island.  Only huge efforts in these areas could augment effort at nation building.

The Sri Lankan opposition is virtually crippled in many ways. The common opposition candidate, Retd. Gen. Sarath Fonseka has been brought before a military tribunal for alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government, a clear message that Sri Lanka does not shy away from the Burmese model of dealing with democratic opposition. Less said of the fragmented United National Party (UNP) the better, except to note that the UNP’s perpetual leadership crisis only strengthens a government that relishes concentration of power.

Despite riding a popular wave, the government continues to wage a separate war against the media, and a presidential pardon to a single journalist, a very welcome move, till cannot conceal the reality of continued harassment experienced by individual journalists and media houses. Post war, journalists have also felt compelled to temporarily leave the country amidst continued and systematic harassment of certain sections of the media and of course the plight of missing political cartoonist Pradeep Ekneligoda remains a mystery.

The hype of recent times is about northeastern resurgence and Sri Lanka becoming Miracle of Asia. Indeed there are many developmental projects underway in the once war ton areas and it is hoped that the local people will soon benefit from these projects and enjoy the fruits long denied economic advancement.

But theirs is a social fabric torn asunder by militancy. The LTTE may not be active anymore, but there are other armed groups, some working with the government.  People are separated from their families, lost their homes, livelihoods and basic rights. Restoring their lives require a different miracle and this miracle must happen for Sri Lanka to move forward.

It is time to strengthen Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions and to introduce a more liberal legal regime that would not compromise civil liberties. It is time to embrace a new culture of openness and unity and a time for celebrating peoples’ fundamental freedoms.

Whether President Rajapakse is confident and mature enough to ensure those socio-political, legal and economic changes will ultimately be his litmus test.  He has certainly walked away with the trophy by defeating the LTTE. But the world continues to watch him as to how he may lead this nation beyond the phase of war.

If the President is keen to maintain his popular base and to go down in history as the leader who actually placed Sri Lanka under the sun, it is hoped he would take meaningful steps to complete the vital transition. Only then can there be permanent peace and Sri Lanka can be justly proud of what it can become.

[Editors note: The author is a lawyer by training having specialized in international law. A journalist for over 17 years, she has extensively covered the areas of politics, conflict, environment, culture, and history and gender issues. Groundviews interviewed Dilrukshi on Human Rights Day 2009 on the murder of Lasantha Wickremetunge, the Editor of the Sunday Leader, media freedom and human rights in post-war Sri Lanka.]

End of War Special Edition