Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Identity, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Whose reality in Sri Lanka?

No one will deny that Sri Lanka has experienced dramatic changes over the past 18 months. The military defeat of the LTTE came as a surprise to many defence and security analysts, including myself. But the issues that gave rise to the vicious rebellion – and in some ways provided it with the fuel to persist and expand – have basically remained untouched.

Even the former General and Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Sarath Fonseka (now controversially imprisoned) believed that the LTTE could be defeated in a classical military sense yet continue to operate as some form of low-level insurgency.“ A useful way for understanding the military defeat of the LTTE is to analyse the strength of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces, the weakness of the rebels and the role played by foreign states.

Firstly, the government“s effort to enhance the military capabilities of the armed forces was crucial. In part this was achieved through a sheer increase in numbers and military equipment (basic and advanced alike). But it also consisted of an investment in learning lessons, developing more innovative and sustainable military operations (including cutting off supplies to the rebels and stressing the need to retain territory), and utilising harsher tactics (more on this later).

Secondly, the impact of the split within the ranks of the LTTE should not be underestimated. The defection of the group led by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, which at the time was known as the “Karuna Group“ (now the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal), proved to be highly significant. Not only did the “Karuna Group“ provide valuable assistance to the armed forces, it also contributed to the wider problems the rebels were having in raising funds from the Tamil diaspora and in procuring weapons.

Moreover, while it was obvious that Prabhakaran was a tyrannical egomaniac, not even Fonseka could have predicted that the rebel leader would fail to prepare his group for what eventually transpired. In other words, from a purely strategic perspective, Prabhakaran did not trust his own subordinates to operate a different version of the rebellion if required. There was no plan for the LTTE to transform into a cellular network structure for urban-based assassinations and attacks on key strategic installations.

Thirdly, the role played by foreign states in facilitating the defeat of the LTTE is important to recognise. For example, China and Pakistan have been very happy to sell arms to Sri Lanka while Iran has provided cheap finance and invested heavily in infrastructure development. These and other friends have also provided diplomatic protection to Sri Lanka, which has just served to complement the Indian government“s ambivalence regarding recent affairs in its southern neighbour.

Despite all of this, if the causes, dynamics and consequences of the conflict are not addressed, then“some sort of“future violence or even insurgency (perhaps very different in nature to what we have seen over the past quarter century) is likely. Smashing the LTTE does not in itself solve the fundamental“problems that have gripped the country since independence.“Without appropriate action, the prospects for meaningful reconciliation between communities are bleak. In such an environment, fanatics from all ethnic backgrounds could ferment violence.

I maintain that there is no such thing as a “military solution“. From a conflict resolution perspective, the concept of a “military solution““to large-scale violence rooted in social, economic and political grievances and driven by greed is a contradiction in terms – if the aim is a just and lasting peace. Of course,“in itself, the defeat of the LTTE represents (yet another) opportunity to identify and overcome the very real barriers to such a peace. A good starting point would be to acknowledge that Tamils (and indeed all other Sri Lankans) need to be saved from“much more than“a brutal rebellion. Thoughtful commentators have identified what needs to be done.

Firstly, there must be an impartial and rigorous investigation into the conduct of the entire war. The Commission on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation is not up to the task of discovering the truth and ensuring that all parties are held to account for respecting international humanitarian law (IHL). For those who say that this is unimportant, ask yourself whether you would maintain this position if it was your family or friends who were killed during fighting (for the rules of IHL prohibit civilians from being targeted). The fact that many foreign governments demonstrate double-standards when it comes to accountability in armed conflict is irrelevant. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Secondly, governance issues in Sri Lanka need to be addressed. A concentration of power in the hands of a few – no matter how popular they are – is simply undemocratic. Nepotism is not new in Sri Lankan politics but that does not change how disturbing it is in the present. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution has been rightly criticised as a step towards authoritarianism. Moreover, Tamils and other minorities must enjoy genuine autonomy so that they may preserve their culture and realise their legitimate aspirations. This is not a threat to a unitary state. To the contrary, when all Sri Lankans enjoy their right to self-determination, it should reinforce the system that serves to protect and empower all of its citizens.

Thirdly, the human rights situation in the country remains of great concern. There is no longer any need for a state of emergency. Internally displaced persons and others directly affected by the war must be assisted in ways that link addressing immediate needs with long-term development. The several thousand Tamils detained in prisons or camps must be either charged with a crime or released and rehabilitated. Civil society and the media should be protected so that they feel secure in expressing their concerns.

Military expenditure should be switched to civilian goals, such as reconciliation and justice, building more effective public institutions at all levels, reducing poverty and inequality, and human rights monitoring. This is the path to freedom from fear and freedom from want. As it stands, many Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka have not shared in the sense of triumphalism that has swept the country over the past 18 months. Perhaps more importantly, they do not believe that the marginalisation and vulnerability they experience will begin to end anytime soon. For any Sri Lankan (or friend of the country) who believes in a better, shared future, this must surely force them to question their perceptions.