Colombo, End of war special edition, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War


One year after the end of the war there is optimism in the country, particularly amongst sections of the business community. The government has taken the position that rapid economic development can be a panacea to the problems that afflict the country, including the long festering ethnic one.  South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hongkong, and more recently Malaysia and China, all point the success of tight political control coupled with the centralisation of power that yielded positive economic dividends.  There are predictions that the country’s growth rate can even reach rates of 10 percent like China and India depending on how effective the government is in tackling the economic challenges it faces.

Following the Presidential and General elections held earlier this year there is every reason to believe that the government will be in power for another six years.  Due to the central role of the government in the affairs of the country it is important to come to terms with the government.  A year after the war‚s end the three most salient characteristics of national politics are the three realities of a strong government, a weak opposition and the continuing political divide between the North and East and the rest of the country.

The two core features of the government are its commitment to ethnic majority nationalism and to the centralization of power.  The government mobilized the force of nationalism to enable the ethnic majority population to bear the cost of the war and win it.  The centralized power of the government enabled it to enforce its will on a plural society.  The intense concentration of power within the government itself points to the virtual impossibility of devolution of power to the provinces or sharing of power with the ethnic minorities.  There are reports that the government is not keen on implementing even the 13th Amendment to the constitution that was put forward as the solution to the ethnic conflict way back in 1987

There was a hope of the government shedding its nationalism after the completion of the war.  There was also a possibility of the people looking beyond the war to the needs of national problem-solving in other areas of the country‚s political and economic life. The ending of Rule by Emergency and reduction of the military budget became possibilities. However, the government has shown itself adept at keeping the war, and its institutions, at the centre of the people‚s attention even a year after the war.  The regular victory celebrations have been one means of accomplishing this feat.  Now the government has found another reason to justify its military focus.

During the years of the war, the LTTE provided the government with the rationale for harsh laws and for militarization of society.  Now it is the turn of the Tamil diaspora to provide that rationale.  The pro-LTTE diaspora has been busy setting up branches of a Provisional Government of Tamil Eelam in various countries.  In addition, the Indian government has decided to proscribe the LTTE for a further two years on the grounds of increased activity by LTTE remnants in Tamil Nadu.  This has given further strength to the Sri Lankan government‚s case for vigilance, including continuing anti-LTTE actions that call for taking the battle abroad.

Accordingly, the war has not really ended for the government, and most people in the country who gave the government its resounding majorities at the recent elections are likely to agree.  Even though the LTTE was destroyed at great cost on the battlefields of the North last year, and the government claimed the credit, the government will be able to show a need to prepare for a revival of the LTTE in the future.  Government leaders have referred to their strategies to counter the LTTE abroad, including sending military officers to staff Sri Lankan embassies in vulnerable countries.

The new international threat of the LTTE will undoubtedly be used by the government to place restrictions on the democratic freedoms that Sri Lanka is entitled to have in a time of peace.   It will justify close scrutiny of NGOs and other possible Trojan horses.  The Emergency Regulations and Prevention of Terrorism Act will remain the law of the land that are applicable on a day to day basis.  The spectre of separatism rising again from the Tamil diaspora may also prompt the government to reduce the potential for misuse of devolved powers available to the Provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment.  It can also be used to justify the further concentration of power in the Presidency.

The government has an election-winning and power-centralising formula that will be hard to overcome.  While the government emphasizes an indigenous model of problem solving and national development, it can look towards the successful models of South East Asia where authoritarian rule accompanied rapid economic development.  However, the government will need to guard against the possibility of corruption and abuse of power growing out of hand, as it did in the Philippines under Marcos and Indonesia under Suharto.  This can lead to economic failure. If the economy gets into trouble, not even the power of nationalism will be able to sustain the government, as in 2001.

The other danger will come once again from the North and East in the still longer term.  If the people there continue to feel alienated and unfairly treated, there will surely be another call for rebellion that a new generation will be willing to heed.  The cycle of rebellion may repeat in the absence of a mutually acceptable political solution.  The government‚s alternative to provincial level devolution seems to be decentralization to smaller units.  The problem with the type of district or village level decentralisation that the government appears to be contemplating is that this form of devolution, while it may facilitate economic growth, does not address the issue of inter-ethnic power sharing.

There is also a strong nationalist sentiment that has grown stronger with the government‚s military victory over the LTTE that whatever ethnic conflict there may have been has been resolved with the elimination of the LTTE.  It is believed that rapid economic development of the country, including the North and East, would productively engage the energies of people and reduce the impetus towards ethnic-based politics.  However, such an analysis is not in keeping with international experience.  Ethnic-based grievances and desire for self-determination exists in both rich and poor countries which economic development by itself cannot dispel. Tibet in China, Kashmir in India and Chechnya in Russia give ample testimony to the resolve of aggrieved ethnic minorities to seek some form of regional self-government above all other values.

At time when there is a measure of optimism about the future, it is appropriate to recall that the centralisation of power that took place in 1972, and again in 1978, did not bring about the desired economic development.  On the contrary, the centralisation of political power, and failure to devolve power to the ethnic minorities, accentuated the ethnic conflict.    Whether it will be on a large enough scale to be to the detriment of economic development is the question.  Unlike in the 1980s when the Tamil rebellion took off, the Sri Lankan security apparatus is well prepared and Tamil society in Sri Lanka is weaker.  But nationalism can be an unquenchable force.

Sri Lanka is not alone in facing this challenge. There are many other countries that face similar political dilemmas. The challenge is to transform those which mainly espouse majoritarian democracy, or the interests of the ethnic community that forms the majority, to those which embody the principle of an equitable distribution of power among their ethnic communities.  It has been stated that the enemy within resides in the ideological orientation of the government that construes nationalism as the promotion of the interests of the ethnic majority, which breeds ethnic disunity. As has been pointed out by scholars in the field, political stability in pluralistic societies without internal power-sharing mechanisms or systems of governance which are responsive to the aspirations of ethnic minorities is simply not possible.

[Editors note: Dr. Jehan Perera is the Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.]

End of War Special Edition