Sri Lanka is back on the brink. For all practical purposes, the ‘peace process’ has crumbled. Even as both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) time and again re-affirm their commitment to peace talks and the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), the violence on the ground presents a different reality. The increasing violations of human rights, extra-judicial killings and disappearances, and the audacious suicide bombing in Colombo aimed at the Chief of the Army earlier this year had already raised doubts about the commitment of both sides to peace.
For many, the situation resulting from the 15 June attack in Kebettigollawa may have eliminated such doubts altogether. Certainly it is the most serious challenge to date of the CFA, now worn and tired. The high publicity given to the mass funeral of the victims of Kebettigollawa brought to light emotions that whipped up zealous calls for an outright war effort against the LTTE. Any official rhetoric about peaceful negotiations seems aimed more at the international community than at the Sri Lankan people, in whose name this war is being fought.
Over the past few months, there has been a severe deterioration of the democratic fabric throughout the country. Journalists are under threat as never before. Also under fire are NGOs, which have cumulatively served as a central mechanism for supporting democracy and governance in a state incapable of safeguarding or strengthening them on its own. Several leading human rights advocates have been left fearing for their lives.
Humanitarian aid to the north and east has been severely hampered on account of the rising violence, adding to the suffering of communities ravaged by conflict and the 2004 tsunami. The rising cost of living seems unassailable, with a drastic increase in fuel prices. A culture of impunity that promotes the rule of the gun is also on the rise – with the state unable or unwilling to curtail the increasing lawlessness with measures consistent with the international covenants on human rights and democracy that it is has signed.
The commitment test
While it may be tempting to lay the blame for the present crisis on one side or the other, an objective assessment reveals the failure of both the government and the LTTE in taking the peace process forward.
Given recent developments, it would be only fair to have suspicions as to whether the LTTE was ever truly committed to transforming into a genuinely democratic force. Finished is the euphoria that greeted the engagement between the previous United National Front (UNF) government and the LTTE, and which continued until the talks with the incumbent government in Geneva in February 2006. The LTTE’s renouncement of the call for Eelam, and its willingness to consider a federal solution, now seem like mere facade, carefully crafted to engineer international and local support for a struggle it always intended to continue militarily.
International and local civil society-driven capacity-building exercises that have engaged the LTTE – ranging from workshops on federalism to study trips that examined models of governance in federal countries – have failed. As regards a final solution to the ethnic conflict, there is no appreciable difference in the approaches of the LTTE today. The hardcore rebel elements, who were never part of the peace process either earlier or now, seem to wield ultimate authority in the designs of the organisation. The hope that was generated in engaging with the LTTE, the rebel Peace Secretariat and its concert of local and international supporters was based on an essential fallacy: that the Secretariat was staffed by those able to influence the thinking of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his closest cohorts.
Also contributing to the collapse of negotiations was the lack of inclusiveness in a peace process that had been pegged to neo-liberal theories of economic prosperity during the United National Front’s tenure. The ‘peace dividend’, promoted as a windfall in economic prosperity and a lower cost of living, failed to materialise. Politically, the almost pathological inability of then-President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a united front to address the challenges of peace-building resulted in a splintered polity and society in the south. This, in turn, debilitated a national consensus on the necessary foundations for a political settlement of the conflict.
War for peace
Even as the problems facing Sri Lanka today are self-evident, solutions remain elusive. On the one hand, there are tired voices in civil society that call for levels of political leadership and acumen that mirror Nelson Mandela or Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sri Lanka’s favourite beacons of political perfection. Needless to say, such calls fall on deaf ears. What needs to be envisioned instead is a two-fold process through which we may be able to rekindle a sincere interest in a negotiated settlement.
Ironically, the first step is the need to recognise that another war may be precisely what is needed to galvanise the forces in support of peace. The peace lobby at present is frightened, fragmented and largely ineffective in the face of preparations for a war effort by both the government and the LTTE. The concert of forces opposed to any negotiated settlement, ranging from political parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to sections of the mainstream media, wield greater influence in shaping the hearts and minds of people than does the project-oriented activism of civil society, which has displayed a marked inability to scale up operations to mitigate the strident war-mongering. In such a milieu, voices in support of rights and democracy – key pillars of a just and lasting peace – are silenced.
War brings with it a perverse certainty of a defined ‘enemy’, and with it, the space to contest the actions of that enemy if they are in contravention of laws by which the state has to abide. Another war in Sri Lanka is of course unwinnable by either side – short-term strategic gains will inevitably lead to medium-term military contestation and long-term instability. The unceasing waves of military victories tempered by defeat will inevitably debilitate those supporting the argument of Colombo leaders who claim that military victory against the LTTE is possible. The inevitable exhaustion of forces in support of war, coupled with almost total economic collapse of the state (resulting from loss of tourism, investment and the possible targeting of key economic infrastructure by the LTTE), makes this a war effort that cannot continue for another 25 years. This is by no means a certainty, which is precisely why a second, parallel process needs to be strengthened: the need to increase the people’s voice in support of peace.
That the majority of Sri Lankans are in favour of war is a fallacy – believed by the very naïve – promoted for parochial gain by various political forces opposed to a negotiated settlement to the conflict. In fact, they are not – Sri Lankans know that a quarter-century of conflict has robbed them of their future, their children, their hope. It is absolutely necessary to capture communal hope for a future free of violence, and to promote this voice to the highest levels of policymaking. It is this voice that will temper the rabid calls for war by those who know full well that there is no life left in military struggle. It is this voice that will be the bedrock of the process necessary to transform the Sri Lankan state into one accommodative of the idea of federalism – the lynchpin of a final solution to the conflict. It is this voice, above all else, that will be the harbinger of a groundswell of opinion to force the political parties to heed the call for an end to conflict.
As things stand, it seems that Sri Lanka’s tryst with peace will only result when more lives have been lost. A peace process that ‘requires’ more lives to be extinguished is difficult to digest, but it is time to plan strategically. And it is in strategy that the incumbent Colombo government of Mahinda Rajapakse is the weakest. Bereft of those who can envision a process that locks in the LTTE, while at the same time allowing for dialogue at various levels, the government is bedevilled by both the paucity of advice to strengthen the peace process, as well as a glut of advisors keen to promote a military effort. This urgently needs to change.
Many claim the Kebettigollawa incident to be the last straw in the peace process. In this light, those in support of peace now need to consider the limited uses of violence to secure what Sri Lankans hold most dear – an end to conflict. This violence, however, is not necessarily in the nature of military offensives. It is the violence of the anger and despair in the voices of the people – the millions of Sri Lankans that are as fed up with the LTTE’s continued use of terrorism as they are with the state’s inability or unwillingness to put in place the necessary foundation to strengthen the peace process.
If war is seen as inevitable, and a political solution to the conflict remains distant, it is valid to question whether the wellspring of hope for a just and sustainable peace in Sri Lanka has all but dried up. It would be instructive to recall the experience of Nepal in this regard. For over a decade, the democratic process in that country, through its many ebbs and flows, slowly built constituencies able to articulate a clarion call for democratic and constitutional governance, an unequivocal rejection of the king’s authoritarianism, and a return to peace.
What we witnessed in April 2006 in Nepal was not the result of an overnight epiphany, but the slow moulding of public opinion in support of democratic options and rights, and its relationship to peace. The same can be applied in Sri Lanka. Build a People’s Movement for peace and democracy. The future of the island depends on it.