It was a bloody New Year.
The high profile assassination of an Opposition MP and a bomb explosion in the heart of Colombo are tragic markers of what 2008 holds for Sri Lanka. To add to the drama, the Government of Sri Lanka on the 3rd of January unilaterally withdrew from the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed with the LTTE in February 2002.
As we write, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has folded its operations, Norway’s continued role and relevance as a peace broker is highly suspect, human rights abuses grow apace within a culture of total impunity and the country is set for total war.
2008 is Sri Lanka’s 60th year of independence from the British. It will also be one of the country’s most violent and brutal. There is no longer even a vestige of a peace process in Sri Lanka. Statements by those in power and their actions suggest that waging war will be the government’s only priority this year. Upon this bloody altar of violence, fundamental rights, dissent, critical debate, media freedom and democracy itself will be sacrificed. No ifs, ands or buts – the Government’s message is stark and simple. One is either a patriot and for the war against the LTTE, or one is not and with the terrorists.
The annulment of the CFA is significant in this regard. One could well argue that the CFA was in fact redundant for quite some time. Both sides seem to have used the CFA for parochial militaristic ends. As a document that under-girded a peace process, built public confidence and ostensibly facilitated the entrance of the LTTE into the democratic mainstream, the CFA is a dismal failure. While the LTTE itself never gave up its practice of terror and the pursuit of maximalist demands through violence, more disturbing is that significant sections of the Government and the Sri Lankan Army, over the past two years, have actively engaged in or turned a blind eye towards the same methods used by the LTTE in their war against it. This has included the recruitment of child soldiers by Government sponsored para-military groups in the “clearing” of the East, the targeting of civilians, blatant abuse of human rights, an utter disregard of democratic governance and the openly racist en masse arrests, detentions and evictions of the Tamil community in the South. Terror against terror, an eye for an eye.
The CFA had no real mandate or mechanism to deal with this escalation of hostilities between the LTTE and the Government. It was an instrument designed to engender and monitor the opposite. Faced with significant challenges it could not predict, prevent or mitigate, the CFA in the past two years became a laughably tragic anachronism – a document given birth to and sustained by socio-political and military dynamics that no longer even remotely hold true.
Nevertheless, it was the idea of the CFA that was important. Its existence was a yardstick with which to measure just how much the LTTE and Government had deviated from what they had agreed to jointly pursue and peacefully. Its existence was the basis for conditional donor aid from the co-chairs to the peace process – European Union, Japan, the United States, Britain and Norway. The CFA was thus a document that was not an insignificant marker of hope – that somewhere, somehow, its existence could once more rejuvenate a meaningful peace process.
That it is no more is indicative of several things.
Firstly, the Government today cares little for the censure of the Donor Co-Chairs who to a large degree shaped the international community’s engagement in the peace process in Sri Lanka. The statements and policies of the European Union, Japan, the United States, Britain and Norway are today severely vitiated by a new alignment of foreign policy to the likes of Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran and the Czech Republic (corrected after Dayan’s comment below). This poses a significant challenge to civil society and pro-democracy NGOs, whose primary funding base is now their greatest liability and mark them out as being partial to Western, donor driven interest at odds with the violently exclusive Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the Rajapakse administration. The public perception of unpatriotic and foreign agendas undermining the war against the LTTE, posing a real and palpable threat to “national security” and fuelled by the incitement of hate and harm against I/NGOs by sections of the Government, will invariably result in human rights, media and pro-democracy activists and organizations facing increasing levels of violence directed against them. Some may be killed. Many will face vicious verbal abuse. Others will be forced underground or seek asylum abroad. Concerns articulated by civil society over the demotion of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in Sri Lanka and enervated mechanisms such as the Commission of Inquiry (COI) and the International Independent Group of Experts (IIGEP) will not even register in the imagination of the voter in the South who will only perceive the LTTE as the greatest violator of and threat to human rights in Sri Lanka. Local and international organizations, including bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors and their foreign and local staff who work to strengthen and safeguard human rights in particular will be blacklisted, deported, banned and thwarted – openly and with total impunity. Field staff in particular will be in the line of fire, literally.
Further, Sri Lanka’s domestic and foreign policy will be increasingly shaped by extreme nationalist forces. The JHU’s (Jathika Hela Urunaya) deeply embedded yet cunningly invisible role in the Rajapakse administration is vital in this regard as it will be their obnoxious totalitarian ideology that will find the greatest expression in the Government’s strategies and policies this year and into the future. This in turn will pose a challenge to the rabid and vocal extremism of the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna). In withdrawing from the CFA, the Government takes the wind out of the JVP’s populist rhetoric. The party’s political insignificance in 2008 is cemented by a single master-stroke and while it will continue to be more vocal and paint itself in contra-distinction to the JHU’s avowed patriotic leanings, the JVP can only ever exist in relation to the political fortunes of the Rajapakse administration. It is an unholy marriage and one that is unevenly matched in terms of political clout – the President and the SLFP now commands a vote base traditionally of the JVP that the party can do nothing to prevent the further erosion of. Withdrawing from the CFA was necessary and vital in this regard.
The end of the CFA is the end of the SLMM. The end of the SLMM means that a vital mechanism that bore witness to and reported on the gross abuse of human rights by all parties to the conflict in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka. We can expect human rights violations to not just grow significantly, but disturbingly, for such abuse to go unnoticed and unreported.
The gross economic mismanagement of the Government and rampant corruption will go unnoticed. As a recent poll conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives discovered, when asked whether they were aware of the report published by the multi-party Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) on record levels of corruption in major State institutions in Sri Lanka, majorities in all four communities (Sinhala- 60.4%, Tamil- 61.4%, Up Country Tamil- 87.9%, and Muslim- 67.2%) were unaware of the report. Ignorance, as the adage goes, is bliss especially for an administration that will increasingly viciously and publicly brand anyone who brings to light its corrupt practices, including opposition political parties and journalists, as unpatriotic and those in the pay of the LTTE.
With the CFA out of the way, propaganda on its all out war against the LTTE will capture the imagination of the Sinhala voter in the South, who will in effect legitimize and support the Government’s rampant militarism. The end of the CFA is the dramatic end of yet another lost opportunity in Sri Lanka’s perennially doomed tryst with a just and lasting peace.
2008 began bloody. Sadly, it will end even more so.
 Sunanda Deshapriya is a Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and the convenor Free Media Movement. Sanjana Hattotuwa is a Senior Researcher at CPA and Editor of Groundviews, www.groundviews.lk.