The war in Sri Lanka is officially over. LTTE founder and chief-for-life, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is dead beyond all doubt, killed while trying to escape from the tiny strip of land in northern Sri Lanka where he had been cornered by the Sri Lankan Army. Most of the top LTTE leadership, as well as Charles Anthony, Prabhakaran’s son, have also been killed. But putting down the Tigers has been accompanied by a heavy cost. Tens of thousands of civilians faced indiscriminate fire by the security forces and were held hostage by the rebels in the last throes of war, used as human shields and denied access to basic amenities and medical attention. Even though the war has come to what can only be called a catastrophic end, with a huge and unacceptable civilian death toll and an impending humanitarian emergency, there now loom larger questions about the future of the Tamil community and Sri Lanka as a whole. These must be addressed with as much urgency.
The last 25 years of conflict have been irrefutably detrimental to Tamil political culture. The rise of the LTTE, in the early 1980s, was accompanied by the brutal silencing of dissent across a wide political spectrum within the Tamil community. The LTTE embraced a fascist political culture, and proceeded systematically to eliminate politicians, intellectuals and activists struggling for Tamil political rights. Many of these – such as Rajani Thiranagama, Neelan Tiruchelvam and Kethesh Loganathan – could now have been making a contribution in chalking out the future of a post-LTTE Sri Lanka.
The exclusionist politics of the Tigers has resulted in alienating the Tamil community, even as it targeted and massacred Sinhalese civilians, and ‘ethnically cleansed’ and attacked Muslims. The LTTE also precluded long-term sympathy for Lankan Tamils in India, through its assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. As such, the current quandary faced by the Tamil community – the decimation of its democratic political culture, and dashed possibilities for inter-ethnic co-existence and a political solution that addresses Tamil grievances and aspirations – is for the most part the consequence of the literally suicidal politics of the Tigers.
It must be said, however, that the exclusionist and violent brand of Tamil nationalism developed over the last several decades is only partly to blame for the current political predicament. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which predates Tamil nationalism and gained increasing strength after Independence in 1948, has dominated the politics of successive governments in Colombo. The Sinhala elite and both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), the two major political parties, have consistently undermined efforts at addressing the root causes of the conflict. Even today, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists are putting up major barriers to a credible political solution, and the two political parties seem to have willingly succumbed to the demagoguery.
The Tamil diaspora, and to a lesser extent the Sinhalese diaspora, has gravitated to extreme positions on these issues, mostly due to the distance and sheer disconnect with the processes back home. Indeed, the Tamil diaspora has long effectively functioned as the political and financial base of the LTTE and its war efforts. This goes along with politicians in Tamil Nadu, who have taken up pro-LTTE positions for opportunist political gains within their electoral base. The nationalist mobilisations of these actors living outside Sri Lanka, who do not face the direct consequences of the war, have been detrimental to the concerns of the beleaguered civilians in the war zones.
No more excuses
The machinations of these various actors notwithstanding, it is President Mahinda Rajapakse and his confidantes whose positioning will be decisive as to the course of events in Sri Lanka in the coming years. There is a very real danger of the ‘victor’ president entrenching chauvinism when there is a dire need for communitarian empathy. While calls continue within the country for a political solution, it is yet to be seen as to whether President Rajapakse will take this important step to develop a lasting peace in the country.
In the post-war environment, the culture of impunity and rights violations have to be addressed. The deteriorating institutions, including the state sector, have to be rejuvenated. For the war-torn north and east, a robust transitional process must address the concerns of the displaced, those uprooted by the LTTE over the years as well as by state action and the conflict. This needs to be the priority, rather than elections that might only serve to entrench armed actors.
With Sri Lanka now at a crossroads, the current juncture is critical to initiate steps towards engendering a democratic political culture and lasting peace. The confidence of the minority communities needs to be raised, so that they can emerge out of the culture of fear and alienation that has gripped them over the past two decades. Sri Lanka has seen similar openings in the past, but has sadly embraced a history of lost opportunities. Now that the guns have gone silent, however, the question remains as to how Colombo will make use of this new opening.
As a modicum of stability and security develops in the north and the east, the spirit and vision of the Tamil moderates who have been martyred must guide the Sri Lankan polity. This would mean implementing a political solution within a united Sri Lanka, but one that nurtures a genuine democratic culture, and one that includes power sharing at the Centre and real implementation of devolution of political power to the provinces. Unlikely though the suggestion may seem amidst the valorisation in which President Rajapakse is currently basking, he can evolve into a statesman only if he heeds the recommendations of the likes of moderates such as the late Neelan Tiruchelvam.