“There was a period of hope, true, but we harbour the illusion that times of hope are devoid of tensions and conflicts when, in my experience, they are the most dangerous. Hope for some means its loss for others; when the hopeless regain some hope, those in power – the ones who had taken it away – become afraid, more protective of their endangered interests, more repressive.”
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
The suicide attack on the Army Commander Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on the 18th of April brought a decisive end to the naiveté regarding the intentions of the LTTE in the peace process. Maj. Gen. Fonseka survived the attempt on his life – several around him, including all his bodyguards, did not. As details of the suicide bombing trickled out during the course of the day with reports of a military offensive in the East, many felt war was imminent and the CFA also a victim of the attack.
The question we now ask ourselves are those we have asked before. Is the CFA dead? Why stay in a process that is detrimental to the interests of national security? Why continue a process that only serves to expose the hypocrisy of the LTTE, despite verbal pledges to honour the CFA and millions of dollars spent to curry favour with them to stay in it? If all out war, even if nasty and brutish, could be short and decisive, is it a better option than a failing CFA that is advantageous to the LTTE?
These are the very questions we asked when the Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated in 2005. On that occasion, what seemed to be wiser counsel prevailed when we were able to prevent a return to all out war in retaliation to what was an assassination that bore all the hallmarks of an LTTE, despite their vehement denials of having carried out the attack. Tuesday’s suicide bombing was indubitably the work of the LTTE and forces us to seriously question their bona fides in the peace process. Come to think of it, the essential tension in Sri Lanka’s peace process has always been with those who believe in engaging the LTTE to address the root causes of terrorism and those who feel that such a process and a CFA founded upon this premise, is bound to fail on account of the inherent character of the beast and its cold and calculated single-minded pursuit of an idea as its ultimate goal – Eelam.
We are entering into a new phase of the peace process, where limited warfare for strategic gains and footholds resides cheek-in-jowl with an active peace process. This may well be the way through which Sri Lanka embarks upon peace talks with the LTTE in the coming months. Certainly, the retaliatory attacks in the East by the Army, Navy and Airforce are to be seen in this light – where an armed offensive against the LTTE, the largest since the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002, was conducted without abrogating the CFA. To date, neither the LTTE nor the Government have stated that they wish to do away with the CFA.
In the future, we may well see limited, high intensity military offensives from both sides, with immediate statements assuring the general public that the ceasefire holds and that the offensive were retaliatory in nature and limited to military targets. The LTTE cannot risk a suicide bombing strategy against civilian targets in Colombo and metropolitan areas. Observing their propaganda campaign immediately following the retaliatory attacks by the armed forces in Sampur, they are interested in a moral high ground, which would be irrevocably lost in a campaign of suicide bombings against civilians. The government on the other hand entered the first round of Peace Talks with the LTTE in February 2006 as antagonists – a marked difference from the partnership for peace strategy employed by the UNF government previously. On account of this, it is not impossible to think of scenarios where defence intel and high resolution satellite imagery for instance would be used to send Deep Penetration Units (DPUs) into the heart of LTTE territory on missions to strategically cripple their ability to engage Government forces. In the East, greater we may see greater collusion between the Army and the Karuna faction to mitigate the LTTE’s operations. Subterfuge and stealth, on both sides, will take the place of highly publicised offensives – we may well be going into a phase of conflict where casualty figures are withheld for operational purposes, where both sides engage in tactics and counter-tactics aimed at strategically eliminating resistance to an all-out attack, should it occur. While a combination of international pressure against all out war and an interest in continuing peace talks will temper the Government’s actions on the battlefront, the LTTE actions will be limited as well to high-intensity surprise offensives (including suicide attacks) that aim for military advantage without precipitating large scale civilian displacement. The great danger of such a process is an escalation of violence. Trigger happy forces on both sides can’t be relied upon for measured responses all the time and despite the best efforts to contain offensives to military targets, civilians and collateral damage will inevitably change the socio-political dynamics in the North and the East. The end result could well be a gradual descent into a protracted war once again, with limited offensives giving way into larger military offensives that seek to gain and retain territory. A territorial battle, both on land or sea, will be severely detrimental to the CFA and may well see the end to any vestige of a peace process.
Leaving aside the military angle, I return to some thoughts I first expressed after the assassination of our Foreign Minister last year. They are, unfortunately, even more pertinent today:
• Has civil society and the much maligned NGOs done more harm than good in attempting to engage with terrorism in an effort to temper its extremism? In light of the continuing and blatant intransigence of the LTTE in the peace process, how do we assess the impact of the myriad of study trips, workshops and capacity building programmes that were championed as methods through which the gradual democratisation of the LTTE could be ensured?
• Are NGOs scapegoats for their detractors, who for purely personal reasons, now seek to hold them wholly accountable for the crises in the peace process today? What then of the failure of civil society writ large, of political parties to prevent violence, of elected representatives, of donors and the larger international community, or the institutions and mechanisms set up after the peace process, such as the various Peace Secretariats? Who is held accountable for their failure to progressively influence the contours of the peace process?
• Do we, even today, have a comprehensive blueprint for a peace process or are we , as we always have, responding to events by knee-jerk responses, which in turn define a strategy in the absence of one?
• In hankering for war, have political parties abandoned their social responsibility of promoting and strengthening peace, reconciliation, justice and democracy as national interests?
• Clearly, the LTTE is acting like a petulant child – the protracted issue of transport that delayed the second round of peace talks (before the suicide bombing), was largely on account of the LTTE’s lack of willingness to acquiesce to other viable alternatives of air transport proposed by the Government. What is the international community’s responsibility (if any), especially that of the Co-Chairs of the Peace Process, to pressure the LTTE into a more accommodative stance regarding options generated to avoid deadlock and stasis?
• For all the conflict early warning systems purportedly in place in the North and the East of Sri Lanka and for the myriad of peace committees also active in the region, why is communal violence is still a brutal reality? Why haven’t these structures been able to mitigate the violence, its duration or in advance, warn key stakeholders? What measurements do we use to judge the impact, if any, of such socio-political architectures for co-existence and the mitigation of violence? If they are proven to have been unsuccessful, who do we hold to account?
• What is the progress of demilitarisation of armed combatants as agreed to by the Government in the first round of the peace talks? Recent events in the East, now coupled with the suicide bombing, have erased debate on the progress of Government commitments. Strategically, if Karuna is a vital asset to the State in a war against the LTTE, what real hope is there of disarmament?
• Interest in the peoples voices with regard to peace remains scant – political parties, long since bereft of any public legitimacy on account of the parochialism of their Leaders, have taken it upon themselves to be the champions of war and peace. With a media largely silent and by extension in collusion with the forces that seek to erase the public voice from mainstream debate, what he hear, see and take for granted regarding the future of the peace process are actually extremely limited opinions of a few, as opposed to options generated by active listening to the aspirations of the peoples of Sri Lanka. When are we going to listen?
These questions – and indeed, many more that come to mind – necessarily involve a great degree of introspection by all the stakeholders in Sri Lanka flailing peace process. We cannot, any longer, go on in a manner that, amongst other factors, holds us hostage to the whims of a hegemonic LTTE coupled with the lack of adequate scenario planning by the Government, the lack of any research and advocacy towards a more resilient peace process design by the Peace Secretariats, siloed and flaccid peace initiatives by civil society, a dormant business community and the seeming inability of the donors, despite guiding theories of economic prosperity as a great carrot for peace, to have any real impact on the actions of the stakeholders.
So what now? Firstly, it is important to remember that though the CFA is now rotting at the core, it is nevertheless an important document that continues to stand, at least as a text that parties refer to continuously. The suicide bombing and the retaliatory attacks didn’t result in the total breakdown on the ceasefire and all out war, as some predicted. As the days pass, with news of more attacks on the army, greater unrest in the East and fratricidal wars between the LTTE and Karuna and the SLMM relegated to mere spectators, the CFA will shed even more blood.
In this melee, peace activism will again plunge into the depths of despondency.
There are some startlingly simple answers to this conundrum. For one, frameworks that strengthen public opinion against a descent into another decades long conflict needs to be amplified. Even those in favour of a Hobbesian war against the LTTE are far less enthusiastic about one that drags on for years, mirroring that which we have had a respite from since late 2001. There is a need for a single voice from civil society, including business, on the need for restraint and moderation in all our actions, in full knowledge of the LTTE’s superior propaganda machine which is itching for any incident or excuse to brand as intolerant the political and social forces in the South. Alongside military strategems, there is a need for a collective voice, with the people, for peace – those who said “I said so” need to be told that though doomsday scenarios dominated other peace processes as well, the outcome of negotiations can be very different if well planned and founded upon a bedrock of public support for peace.
There is a lesson here for those who put up posters clamouring for a war “against Prabhakaran to save the Tamils” and to the JVP and JHU who think that Sri Lanka, sans any of their own party members of course, should go to all out war to “defeat” the terrorism of the LTTE. Realistically, it may well be that the present violence gives them fuel for their vitriol against a peace process, but to give into their rhetoric is folly, since it disregards a vast spectrum of activities that can be conducted, from the grassroots upwards, that use the aspirations of the people as a bulwark against violence. In other words, we need to mobilise for peace more than any mobilisation for conflict. No true democracy is bereft of vibrant debate that vigorously challenges decisions of a government. No truer patriot than someone who contests, even to death, the actions taken in his or her name that may well be on account of an inability to envision alternatives.
This then is where we stand. We are resolutely against the LTTE’s hypocrisy of word and deed and stand resolutely against all forms of violence. However, we recognise that violence, like it or not, is likely to be a dominant feature of the peace process in the months to come. However, and this is essential, the peace process itself must not be allowed to die – we must be as committed to peace now as we have been in the past, recognising the violence alone, no matter how precisely calculated and meted out, will never bring a peace worth dying for.
Our imagination, even in light of seemingly insurmountable challenges, is what enables us to seek new ways to build peace. We must never let it wane.