Why we need to go to a war

Let’s leave aside peace and democracy for the moment. Both wonderful ideas, but seemingly anachronistic in the imbroglio we now face in this country. The preservation of a modicum of dignity and trust in the eyes of our own peoples requires a re-assessment of the principles with which we conduct the processes of nation building in Sri Lanka. It is a sombre task, conducted in the full glare of our inability to prevent the continued killings in Sri Lanka, most recently, of our Foreign Minister.

So much has already been said of the late Foreign Minister that to say more of his death is almost unnecessary. As with the death of Taraki a few months ago, many revel in the post-mortem affinities that bound the deceased to all manner of party political ideologies and partisan rhetoric. The late Foreign Minister, despite his deeply controversial views regarding the peace process and final outcome of the Tamil national question, is now the hero of our times – painted red by the JVP, painted saffron by the JHU, painted green by the UNP, painted blue by the incumbents in government. It is a tragedy then, that as a nation, we seem to not have the ability to speak of the deceased in a manner that respects the dignity of the living. In capturing Mr. Kadirgamar’s merits in the framework of partisan ideologies and bias, we caricature a life that deserves more respect – for in death, we must be as true to our disagreements with him, as true in our opposition to some of his ideas, as true in our respect for an intellectual, as true in our appreciation of difference, the creative friction that forms the bedrock of all sustainable progress.

Thus, we mourn more than the death of Mr. Kadirgamar. Today, we face the death of tolerance and pluralism, of our ability as a nation to encourage difference without fear of persecution or death, to celebrate democracy for all our peoples, to eschew the rise of fascism. The President stands correct in flagging forces opposed to peace as responsible for Mr. Kadirgamar’s death. These forces, ranging from the intransigence of the LTTE to the facile and vacuous diatribes of the JVP need to be examined head on if we are to avoid, as many analysts have warned of before, the balkanisation of polity and society in Sri Lanka.

For once, let’s contemplate war.

Not however, a return to the brutalities of war in the battlefield, but a war against the further deterioration of the moral fabric of our society. What we contemplate is an active resistance to those who incite hatred and countenance any constructive critique of the State because of a perceived bias towards secret plans of the CIA to invade Sri Lanka and oust all Sinhala Buddhists to the Indian Ocean.
This war requires us to look back and ask hard questions.

• Has civil society done all it could have to bring the key stakeholders to a rights based peace process?
• Have capacity building measures – ranging from a plethora of workshops to numerous expensive study tours of state and non-state actors – resulted in any perceivable change in the actions of actors in the South and the LTTE?
• Have Sri Lanka’s political parties, caught up in their partisan banter, ignored the promotion and strengthening of peace, reconciliation, justice and democracy as national questions? We face, inter alia, a deep crisis of political leadership, where those elected to office develop a callous impunity to the aspirations of the masses. This rupture between political office and the fears and concerns of communities has seriously undermined the public support that is integral to a successful peace process.
• In our earnestness to bring in the LTTE to the democratic mainstream, have we mollycoddled them to the extent that they now feel comfortable in demanding that the process best fit their own concerns as opposed to one based on rights and justice for all?
• Have we ignored or underplayed post-ceasefire socio-political dynamics in the peace process? The confluence of extremist nationalism, the rise of religious intolerance, the failure to deliver high expectations of the peace dividend and rising inflation bolster a rising disquiet in polity and society that has seriously harmed the peace process.
• Have NGOs and their failure to create large people driven movements in support of peace, contributed in part to the inability to present a united voice against the continued fascism of the LTTE? Driven by the need to ‘brand’ peace initiatives, the desire for sole ownership and the unwillingness to share information and collaborate, the nearsightedness of NGOs may have prevented them from fully pooling their resources, activism and policy advocacy in support of structures that created a principled foundation for peace negotiations.
• Have we ignored opportunities to lock in the LTTE into the peace process? For instance, as some have examined, could more have been done to use Karuna to counteract the more brazen demands and actions of the LTTE of late? In our all out efforts to re-assure the sensitivities of hegemon, we may have lost opportunities to craft a peace process more reflective of ground realities.
• For all the spasmodic national level interest in reconciliation, could more have been done to engage communities on the ground – Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhala – in frameworks that engaged their shared trauma and envisioned futures that respect human life and dignity?

These are tough questions and that require honest and sincere introspection.

Given the overwhelming tendency to use the late Foreign Minister’s murder as a tool for partisan political gain, we must also be careful to base our observations in light of the larger peace process. It is this larger peace process that, with every killing – from those who now die almost daily in the North-East, to the high profile murders of journalists and political figures – weakens and falls prey to the rhetoric of those who are supportive of a pyrrhic military struggle against the evil of terrorism.

If our understanding of terrorism, as most recently articulated by the President, is one that recognises the importance of examining the structural underpinnings to violent conflict, otherwise called root causes, we must surely eschew any and all calls for a resumption of armed war.

At the same time, let us, with equal conviction, engage in a battle of ideas, based on the inviolable principles of justice and human dignity that grapple with solutions to the multiple crises of political legitimacy, democracy and peace facing Sri Lanka. This exercise goes beyond moving requiems for the dead. It requires that the living take up the cudgel of reason in order to battle with the ideologues of hate.

Sri Lanka requires a few radical changes to encourage such a war.

Firstly, the zero-sum bickering of the political parties in the South must stop. Our inability to envision and articulate a coherent and inclusive national vision for peace will only result in more violence. To this end, we see continuity of sorts in the peace efforts of the incumbent government and that of the previous government, despite early fears of a resumption of conflict on account of the choice of a coalition partner. This continuity must be strengthened – a common consensus arrived at, based on a vision of just and peaceful Sri Lanka – in order to engage the LTTE with the strength that cannot be swept aside or perceived as unstable or linked to parliamentary majority. Furthermore, continuity alone is no reason for complacency – much more remains to be done by the incumbent government in support of a sustainable and effective peace process.

The President and other political leaders need to articulate a strong, clear, inclusive and long term vision for peace and reconciliation, without which the vague meanderings of various elements within each party can seriously undermine efforts at building trust and nurturing reconciliation within and between stakeholders in the peace process.

NGOs in particular need to overcome their own infantile parochialism and create large movements for just peace and democracy that transcend organisational boundaries. It is a travesty that so much of human and financial resources are wasted on initiatives that overlap with each other. This waste is easy fodder for those opposed to the activities of NGOs and also runs counter to the trust building necessary with communities on the ground in support of positive growth and social change. As noted by the authors in an earlier missive on NGOs and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka:

The essential fragility of NGO interventions in the light of growing extremism and intolerance is becoming far too evident. NGOs need to develop ways in which they engage with such criticism head-on. It is only in the continuous process of dialogue with its harshest critics that NGOs can hope to maintain a semblance of credibility in the eyes of these critics.

The business community needs to step up to its responsibilities of peacebuilding – not just in raking in profits from impoverished communities, but transforming corporate social responsibility to encompass its unique role in conflict transformation. Efforts like Sri Lanka First need to be continued and expanded, with an emphasis on people before profit, if only because the stability of peace brings with it markets which are more willing to spend on more than the bare necessities of life.

International donors, in the form of the Co-Chairs especially, must live up to their proclamations in support of peace in Sri Lanka in deed. It is one thing to rap stakeholders for acts of violence in spite of the ceasefire agreement. It is another to make aid conditional and contingent upon strict adherence to the ceasefire agreement and to unequivocally inform that LTTE of the gross incompatibility between continued violence and the in-flow developmental aid in support of post-conflict rebuilding in the North-East.

Risking the impropriety of challenging the LTTE to show just how they have transformed their core leadership during the ceasefire to grapple with the democratic challenges of post-conflict nation-building, we must demand of them an inviolable commitment to eschew violence and engage in a passionate and committed struggle, conducted with non-violent but active resistance, towards the goal of meeting the aspirations of all communities and peoples in the North-East of Sri Lanka.

There will never be an epiphanic ‘ripe moment’ in Sri Lanka where all this falls into magically into place. We must actively fight to create and sustain the necessary ingredients that give rise to such a war against silence in the face of extremism. In sum, this requires a principled approach to peace and democracy in Sri Lanka. Just as much as a single vision for peace in Sri Lanka will never be able to capture all the shades of opinion that colour the definition of peace, the outright murder of voices in support of a solution to Sri Lanka’s continuing violence cannot be countenanced. Those who are responsible for such actions must be held accountable and exposed for what they are – pariahs and hypocrites, who have no place in our battle for peace. Let us also not dilute a truly multicultural ethic to mean that we are tolerant of and suffer in silence the bitter invective of those who support the resumption of conflict and are by extension opposed to all peace initiatives. These voices have no place in our society and must be culled, by the sheer weight of mass opposition to the ideas they seek to promote, which can only be created through democratic means and courageous initiatives that tackle such corrosive ideas head on.

It is manifestly bizarre to live in a country where diversity is a daily victim of virulent forces against the celebration of Sri Lanka’s rich tapestry of harmonious communal relations. Our great loss as a nation, after the murder of Mr. Kadirgamar, is that our enthusiasm to eulogise has glossed over a larger tragedy – we’ve run out of people of his calibre and now struggle to replace him in office with someone worthy of his legacy and intellectual acumen.

The only glimmer of hope for Sri Lanka lies in new voices of a new generation, both within Sri Lanka and in the diaspora, who are tired of our pathological inability to grasp the nettle of peacebuilding and are deeply supportive of a radical transformation of our political culture into one that encourages wars fought only within and between the minds of interlocutors. Victory, in these battles, lies not in the annihilation of one’s opponent, but in the slow transformation of their ideas into compromises that fashion the foundation of agreements in support shared aspirations.

Sri Lanka so desperately needs this transformation.

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