In post-conflict Sri Lanka, governance is being militarised.
After the defeat of the LTTE, it was hoped that Southasia’s most desirable capital city, whose many beautiful trees had been cut down due to concerns over security for President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brothers, would once again become people-, pedestrian- and environment-friendly. There was great optimism that life would indeed return to normal, that the barriers and checkpoints would come down, that tourists and foreign investment would flow back into the country, and that the economy would finally take off in an environment of peace and security. Residents of Colombo also looked forward to an end to the culture of impunity that had long surrounded politicians – breaking the capital’s speed limits at will, for instance; as well as to the lifting of the Emergency Regulations, which had also been used and abused by the state during the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when tens of thousands died in southern Sri Lanka.
Today, these hopes have been dashed. It is increasingly evident that the Colombo regime’s insecurities (despite or perhaps because of weeks of vainglorious victory celebrations), coupled with thirty years of war, has left an institutional legacy and security mindset – both of which will need to see considerable shifts before the country is able to see much positive change, economic or otherwise. The question on many minds now is: Will militarisation be a substitute for democratisation beyond the show of local elections in former LTTE-held areas? Plans are currently on the table to hold polls in the north, despite the fact that some 280,000 people continue to be interned in camps in the area, with serious restrictions placed on their mobility, and despite the fact that army and government-allied paramilitaries control the region.
It is increasingly clear that the governance cost and democracy deficit will be the most long-term impact of the three-decade conflict in Sri Lanka. The human price tag of those long years of war are evident in over 100,000 lives lost and maimed, and over half a million displaced at different times, including today. The mounting economic expenditure of the conflict is also evident in the fact that, during the final year of the war, the Colombo government spent almost 17 percent of gross domestic product on the war effort. This is partly the reason for the currently pending USD 2.5 billion loan request from the government to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sri Lanka has the largest armed forces per capita in Southasia, and is having trouble paying salaries, as well as electricity bills in public schools in the president’s electorate. Given the possibility of aid monies being used in a less-than-transparent manner, the IMF would need to ensure safeguards that any loan does not subsidise still-greater militarisation in Sri Lanka.
The culture of militarisation and impunity that the conflict had enabled needs to be rolled back. Although some contacts for military equipment from China and Pakistan were cancelled in mid-July, the trend seems clear: the culture of militarism and impunity continues, and the root of this may be the fear of war-crimes investigations sought by some members of the international community. Much work lies ahead if the narrative of economic boom in Lanka is to be realised. The challenge now is to move beyond a highly militarised, state-centric national-security paradigm, and instead to prioritise human security, development, transparency and good governance, which previously had enabled the island to achieve the highest social indicators in Southasia. It is only in this way that the military victory over the LTTE will be able to be translated into a stable and sustainable peace. But it may be that now that the LTTE has been ‘cleansed’ from Sri Lanka, it will also be necessary for the Rajapakses to exit before the country can revert to being a dhamadveepa (Island of Buddhism/Peace).
War, not peace
The last three years of war in Sri Lanka saw a serious erosion of governance structures, democratic institutions, and traditions of multiculturalism and co-existence among diverse ethnic and religious communities. It is clear that post-LTTE, the government will need to rethink the military-centric national-security state and the repression that it cultivated during the war – approaches that mimicked the tactics and strategies of the rebels themselves, when they ran a quasi-state in the Vanni. Indeed, during the final push to defeat the LTTE, the government discredited the very idea of peace. Those opposed to war and those who spoke for human rights were termed ‘traitors’, and many were attacked. Since the war ended, the government has publicised plans to build a war museum – rather than one devoted to peace and reconciliation. An astrologer who predicted difficult days ahead for the powers-that-be in Colombo was recently arrested, and was to remain under ‘observation’ for three months.
Perhaps most strangely, despite the war ending with the unambiguous defeat of the LTTE, plans are now being drawn up to enlarge the military. According to the then-commander of the Sri Lanka Army, General Sarath Fonseka, the military will be expanded by 50,000. This is, to say the least, an odd sort of military Keynesianism, given that the country does not produce its own arms and spends billions on armaments that it can hardly afford. Rather than expanding the armed forces, of course, the government should be moving to restructure the post-war economy in line with the new reality – namely, that there is no longer a rebel force on the ground. Instead, however, Colombo officials continue to legitimise militarisation by invoking vague security threats about LTTE survivors and the Tamil diaspora.
Other evidence of the growing militarisation is as stark. The Colombo regime recently unveiled a new military command, which came into effect in mid-July. Gen Fonseka has taken up a new position as Chief of Defence Staff, while Major-General Jagath Jayasuriya took over as the new army commander. President Rajapakse has also appointed Navy Chief Wasantha Karannagoda as National Security Advisor to the president, and Rear Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe as the new navy chief. Rather than demilitarising governance and restoring substantive democracy, such moves make it clear that the government in fact plans to continue on the course of militarisation in the post-conflict context. There is anxiety that the new arrangements are meant to cover up war atrocities and impunity, rather than institute a culture of accountability. There are also growing concerns about military occupation of the northeastern Tamil-majority areas, including a land grab taking place for new reconstruction projects (such as luxury hotels, for an expected surge in tourism) to be farmed out to regime cronies. All the while, moderate Tamil voices remain marginalised.
The lingering war mentality continues to work in other ways, as well. While the country is broke and in need of the IMF loan, Sri Lanka remains saddled with an enormous cabinet of ministers, which includes several of the president’s relatives. Though the number of ministries has proliferated under the current regime (to the point where Sri Lanka has one of the largest cabinets in the world), those individuals and ministries that actually have power to make and implement policy are few, and remain firmly controlled by President Rajapakse and his brothers. Such centralisation has inevitably weakened democratic governance, while strengthening the grip of the ruling family on power and the country’s resources. Together, the triumvirate of brothers Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil is widely understood to control more than two-thirds of the economy via control of key ministries.
The military victory over the LTTE is only half of the solution towards building a peaceful and stable polity. It will also be necessary to address the intra-group dynamics of conflict. Many of those who fought and died or were disabled were from poor, rural communities and marginalised castes. A war economy, based on terror and taxation or extortion by those who wielded guns, had grown strong, and many of the rural poor worked as soldiers. Women, meanwhile, were increasingly forced to go abroad, often to try to find work as housemaids in West Asia.
Now, in the context of rising unemployment due to the global recession, it will be critically important to boost the economy and provide jobs. Recently, the highly respected University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) reported that while navy-imposed fishing restrictions have been lifted in conflict-affected areas, significant tensions and inequalities remain: Tamil fisherman have reportedly been beaten and harassed by the navy, when Sinhalese fishermen brought to Mannar were confronted by the area’s traditional Tamil and Muslim fishing communities. The old resource conflicts and state-sponsored discrimination that were at the root of the thirty-year war may be returning, and need to be addressed in a transparent and objective manner.
The rigidities of a war economy, where corruption, rent-seeking and crony capitalism thrive, could well continue in the post-conflict economy unless there are structural adjustments and greater transparency in the reconstruction phase and in the use of donor funds. Colombo has very successfully assembled a group of Asian donors (prominent among them India, China and Japan) to counterbalance Western criticism of its conduct of the last days of the conflict. These donors place less value on transparency, human security and human rights, and tend to have a state-centric approach to security (see Himal June 2009, “Phantom aid”). Yet all the while, it is becoming increasingly clear that what is required is to move beyond state-centric security discourses, to address the root causes of conflicts in Southasia from a post-‘war on terror’ paradigm. Given the situation in Sri Lanka – a post-conflict situation in which the link between foreign aid, conflict and poor governance and transparency is well documented – innovative approaches in loan disbursement and monitoring are clearly necessary.
Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, rather than measured, targeted responses to ‘terrorist’ acts, militarisation and advocacy for military solutions have sometimes exacerbated the root causes of conflicts that, in fact, require social and political-economic solutions. During the years of the conflict, spending within the social sector and welfare state was reduced on the claim that development cannot occur without defence. This, of course, despite the fact that the poverty-and-conflict trap is a consequence of the transfer of resources that accompanies ballooning defence expenditure, socio-economic decline, increased regional and economic inequality, structural violence and aid dependence. Increasingly, it is obvious that inclusive development and peace-building is necessary for security in Sri Lanka – and that you cannot have one without the other.
As militarisation and the ‘national security state’ became pervasive over the past three years, significant erosion was seen of Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions and institutions. While the military victory over the LTTE is conclusive, it needs to be converted into a stable and sustainable peace. Other long-term, low-intensity, ethno-national conflicts in the region point to the fact that groups fighting for autonomy or rights for minorities can well re-group and return years or decades later, as was the case in Nepal and Aceh, Indonesia, unless there is a political solution that addresses the root causes of conflict. To ensure a sustainable peace, the government will need to win the confidence of minority groups, to work towards reconciliation, and to address the root causes of the conflict. Simultaneously, it would be necessary to repair a dysfunctional democracy whose institutions were significantly eroded in the course of decades of war-induced Emergency Rule.
Finally, Sri Lanka needs to reaffirm that it is a multicultural and multi-religious polity, including by setting up a commission on ethno-religious equality. The challenge will be to move from a national-security state to a human-security paradigm that puts people and equitable human development first in the post-conflict period, all with an eye to ensuring sustainable peace on the island.