A bloody New Year

2007 offers little hope of a return to peace in Sri Lanka.

The ceasefire agreement, what is left of it, is enervated and made even more irrelevant daily. The undeclared Eelam War IV shows no signs of abating. Violence in the North and the East increased dramatically in 2006. Thousands live displaced, unable to return to their homes, starving, without access to basic human needs and redress against repeated human rights violations. Many more have fled Sri Lanka to the South of India, recalling the exodus of refugees in the late 80’s. In the South, a draconian government with scant regard for securing and strengthening human rights uses the continuing intransigence of the LTTE to secure peace through negotiations as an excuse to clamp down on civil society, NGOs operational in the areas of governance, democracy, peace and humanitarian interventions and the media. Regulations enacted in 2006, most notably the anti-terrorism regulations that run counter to many fundamental principles of democratic governance, have stifled democratic dissent, the freedom of expression and the freedom of association. Many pro-peace rallies around the country have been routed by thugs and goons affiliated to MP’s in the government. A growing culture of impunity pervades the country. Half-hearted attempts to display to the international community the government’s interest in securing fundamental rights through the investigation of high-profile assassinations, killings and disappearances through the establishment of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) is, in effect, wool over the eyes of those who seek to hold accountable this government’s failure to bring to justice perpetrators of gross human rights violations. A sycophantic State media is prone to the slavish adulation of the incumbent President and his government, with little or no attention paid to the mismanagement of the affairs of the State, the allegations of corruption, the deterioration of fundamental rights, the increasing cost of living and the economic, political and social implosion in the offing. Supine advisors, jostling for favour, write long columns to the media on how the fashion du jour of espousing military offensives to secure Sri Lanka from the grip of terrorism is the only way in which we can engender sustainable peace, with a militarily emaciated LTTE believed to be more interested in a victor’s peace process. The LTTE, for its part, shows no interest whatsoever in confidence building measures and actions to display its interest in peace talks and the peace process. The intensity of conflict on the ground in the North and East, coupled with the alleged suicide bombings and terror attacks against civilian targets in the South, galvanise the perennial suspicion in the South that they are not really interested in any other option than Eelam at any cost.

Securing a modicum of peace in Sri Lanka in 2007 is going to be possible only through an emphasis on human rights and the need to see the conflict through a rights-based perspective. In this framework, the denial of livelihoods and the large-scale displacement of citizens in the North and East, in the interests of national security, are inexcusable failures of this government to secure the interests of large numbers of its citizens to live in peace. Disturbing in this light is the current thinking of those in power to cleanse the Eastern Province of the LTTE and in its place, place Karuna, and his “political party” the TMVP in power. Karuna is no democrat and the allegations of extortion, killings and violence against him and his cadre, which this government gladly turns a blind eye to, are in effect damning communities in the East to another regime with scant regard for democratic governance. Concerns raised by many local actors for a number of years, and confirmed by international missions and human rights organisations in 2006, of the Sri Lankan Army’s complicity in Karuna’s regime of violence in the East, including the abduction and use of children in conflict, are concerns that to date only meet vehement denial by Karuna as well as the government.

Denial, in fact, is the order of the day. The government denies almost every criticism of its conduct since assuming power in November 2005. Polity and society in Sri Lanka today is increasingly and perhaps irrevocably divided – either believing in the actions of the government as those that will foster peace or exacerbate the conflict. There is increasingly no middle-ground possible. The space for constructive dissent and debate on contemporary issues in Sri Lanka has severely eroded. With the President himself stating that citizens are either with him in his war against terror or against the common man, this is a difficult time for peace initiatives that are in effect against such gross over-simplifications. Accordingly, civil society is increasingly marginalised – especially voices in support of a negotiated settlement and the strengthening of human rights. The increasing intolerance and impunity is a heady mix that’s ripe for the growth of violence. As noted in the November 2006 Executive Summary of the Peace Confidence Index (PCI) survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives ,

• Support for a military solution is rising amongst the Sinhala community. At the polls conducted, a quarter of the Sinhala community extend their support for a military solution.
• Opinions very significantly between the communities polled on the commitment of the Government and the LTTE to find peace through talks. Many Sinhalese agree that the Government is fully capable of finding peace through talks, whereas a majority of the Up-Country Tamil community agree that the LTTE is committed to find peace through talks.
• The majority of those polled believe that it is likely a war will resume.
• The majority of Sinhalese amongst those polled agree that the Government should expand its military action including even to all out war in order to weaken the LTTE.
• Norway remains unpopular as a facilitator amongst the Sinhalese, the majority of whom are dissatisfied with its role and disapprove of it continuing to facilitate the peace process.
• A majority of the Sri Lankan community believe that it is the government that is responsible for protecting human rights. While 55% of the Sinhala community believe that the government has done enough to protect human rights, there is a sharp difference of opinion amongst the Sinhalese and Up-Country Tamils on this issue.

These findings are splinters of a fractured nation. Showing the growing support for a resumption of war, albeit of a Hobbesian nature, that will quickly weed out the LTTE and its threat to Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity, it also flags the growing differences of opinion regarding conflict and peacebuilding between ethnicities.

The victims of this war mentality are human as well as conceptual. The human cost of renewed conflict is already in the thousands, not counting the thousands of families rendered homeless and hopeless. The conceptual cost of renewed hostilities, perhaps more disturbing, is the stifling of voices in support of federalism, democratic governance and a rights-based approach to peacebuilding. Voices such as Kethesh Loganathan, a noted Tamil nationalist & intellectual, who at the time of his assassination was the Deputy Secretary General of the Government’s Peace Secretariat, have already been brutally silenced. Many more, in fear of their lives, have contemplated exile, or are now censoring their own articles and interventions in the media and in public life. The fear of death, palpable and real, stalks many leading peace activists in Sri Lanka today, and is one, because of its relative invisibility in light of the visceral atrocities in the North and the East, that has largely escaped international attention and condemnation.

How then can one maintain optimism and hope?

A difficult question to answer, the most obvious reason is because there is really no alternative to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka that is not a federal, negotiated solution that secures the inalienable democratic rights of (and for) all citizens. To this end, war may not be a mad idea conceptually – if it miraculously goes according to plan, war will secure the conditions on the ground that will then require the government to establish normative structures of democratic governance in the areas “liberated” from the LTTE.

Given our warranted suspicion of this ever taking place, and cognisant of the sordid history of many botched wars for peace efforts in the past, war must be considered as a bad idea. In other words, military offensives may secure tracts of land, but it is impossible to think that the incumbent government can secure the hearts and minds of those who have suffered the brunt of war and the victims of atrocities of not just the LTTE, but also of the armed forces of the State. And is it not the case that the same delays in governance, corruption, nepotism, and frustration with the delivery of government services, that has led to so much of hardship and despair in the war affected areas, are borne by all citizens, even those in the South? For the author, this is the central case for federalism – not as a just a solution for the ethnic conflict but as a means through which to secure better living conditions, better governance, better service delivery, and more accountable, transparent and responsive state institutions in the service of citizens in the South, West, East and North of Sri Lanka.

Regrettably, articulating views such as this in Sri Lanka today immediately relegates one to an increasingly abhorred minority. Worse, this minority is one that is perceived to write and speak in favour of enemies of the State, and are thus to be contained at all costs. Containment involves abduction, torture, the threat of violence and even outright killing. Sri Lanka today is not just at war against the LTTE. It is at war with those who support democracy, justice, the rule of law and fundamental rights. It is imperative that the international community supports democratic voices within Sri Lanka to ensure that Sri Lanka does not emerge victorious against the LTTE only to find a severe deficit of democracy. Accordingly, urgent and sustained measures are needed to secure & strengthen the rule of law and democracy in Sri Lanka. As noted in the Chairperson’s report to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) released early January 2007, we need to develop a Sri Lankan identity, that is:

The right of every constituent people to develop its own language, to develop and promote its culture and to preserve its history and the right to its due share of State power including the right to due representation in institutions of government shall be recognised without in any way weakening the common Sri Lankan identity.

This larger Sri Lankan identity, that we are so desperately in need of today, is founded on the respect for human rights, fostered through democratic means, sustained through non-military measures and made possible by meaningful power-sharing along federal lines.

It is this simple point that needs to be drilled into the minds of those in power, those with arms in Sri Lanka and those who do not understand the essentially pyrrhic nature of battle-cries – this year, and in the years to come.

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