“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue,” wrote George Orwell in his essay In Front of Your Nose. “And then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
By all recent accounts in the media, Sri Lanka is winning the war against the LTTE and how! Eight years ago, a year before the CFA was signed, when this author first engaged with ideas of peacebuilding and conflict transformation, where we are today was unthinkable. All texts read by and nearly everyone this author met, both local and foreign, said that a war against the LTTE would in no way militarily weaken them. The Army was seen as weak and corrupt, the LTTE agile, motivated and a guerrilla fighting force that had routed even the Indians. The CFA was, amongst other things, an expression of precisely this logic – a mutual recognition that, at the time, the State and the LTTE were evenly matched militarily.
I have had several occasions this year where together with colleagues and friends involved in constitutional reform and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka, we looked back on those years when hope for a durable and just peace in our lifetimes was at a zenith. Many today ridicule and deride those who were part of and associated with the erstwhile UNF peace process. There is certainly the recognition that much could have been done differently in hindsight, but the luxury of retrospection wasn’t available to those spearheading the process at the time. Revealing tomes by Bernard Gunetilleke, the former head of the Government’s Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process and Austin Fernando, the Defence Secretary during the CFA, highlight repeatedly policies and practices that at the time were hostage to, or the result of, realpolitik, inflexible and over ambitious deadlines, obdurate stakeholders, a hostile Executive, a moody leader of the UNF, the rapid rise of spoilers (actors, including political parties, opposed to the CFA) and overall, a peace process that was very badly engineered and executed.
Some, if not all of these were concerns that were identified and in no uncertain terms communicated to the government of the day and, whenever possible, to the LTTE by civil society. With both actors, one never really got a sense that input from civil society actually made any significant impact on internal policymaking and decisions. Perhaps the flood of information was its own undoing – there was no effective and timely mechanism to distil ideas of significance from the cacophony of competing voices in the public domain. This was reflected in the statements and actions of both parties as the CFA matured. The highfalutin discourses of the UNF’s chief spokesperson masked an exclusive approach towards peacebuilding that was dead against any alternatives that suggested the government of the day could and should do things better. The extremely hierarchical, exclusive process of decision-making, where even members of the UNP were kept in the dark about critical decisions and responses to events related to the peace process was manifestly one that was doomed to fail.
The LTTE for its part was, to put lightly, clearly not serious about peace and peacebuilding. Civil society organisations and NGOs based in Colombo had no real access to Prabhakaran, who appeared only once in public for a press conference in April 2002 – his first in over a decade – and thus had no option but to engage with (and believe) those from the Political Wing of the LTTE, which later turned out to be unsurprisingly far removed from the seat of power. A media report published in the Asia Times in April 2002, just before the press conference in the Vanni quoted Panruti Ramachandran, a former minister in Tamil Nadu who had interacted closely with Prabhakaran in the 1980s. Ramachandran noted that Prabhakaran was “abnormally insecure” and saw “a threat in a shadow that moves, in every step that a person he suspects takes and is anxious to decimate him as soon as possible”.
Not exactly a reassuring description of a peacemaker.
Thing is, it isn’t always easy to see what’s in front of your own nose. A generation – my generation – that has not known peace and born into bloody violence finds it difficult to imagine what it is. On the same day of the LTTE’s press conference in the Vanni in 2002, the then Interior Minister John Amaratunga noted in Parliament that 173 of a total 388 Army and Police checkpoints had been removed to date. Today, it is argued that this was silly and myopic. Then however, for many of us who had normalised the mushrooming of checkpoints during our lifetimes, their removal both as symbols of terrorism and as physical structures impeding free movement was hugely welcomed. It was a feeling hard to put down in words – a mix of the emancipation from the pall of anxiety and fear and the freedom to move wherever, whenever in Sri Lanka without having a reason to do so. If this author is asked what peace means, a tremendously difficult question to answer, it was what he felt at the CFA’s zenith – the freedom from fear.
Sadly, the fear is back and it’s not from the LTTE. It’s to put simply the fear that Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, could be proved wrong by the very government he so passionately supports and defends. Dayan has repeatedly noted that the nature and constitution of the State during a total war against the LTTE will and must be different to that which comes after victory – seen here as the decimation of the LTTE and the beginning of a new social and political contract with our peoples. This author is deeply sceptical of this worldview. The Rajapakse administration is today a mirror image, in many respects, to the LTTE. The comparison is not drawn on the numbers killed, abducted, have disappeared or are otherwise victims of human rights violations. The record in this respect is clear and damning – the LTTE’s barbarity, mindless in one sense, but chillingly calculated in another, has ridiculed its avowed goal of emancipating the Tamil peoples from the systemic violence of the Sri Lankan State. Killing moderates, public intellectuals, dissenters, independent journalists, human rights activists, teachers, politicians and ordinary citizens with wanton disregard for human rights, the manic lunacy of the LTTE is well documented.
Less so is the rabid racism, intolerance, exclusive ideology, outright violence, shameless nepotism and other trappings of the Rajapakse administration, partly because it enjoys a high degree of support amongst voters. The extent and speed of the normalisation of violent government in the South seriously questions the ability of voters in Sri Lanka to hold their governments accountable to democratic practices. For example, the sudden and senseless eviction of Tamil lodgers from Colombo in 2007 was roundly condemned. But the statement by Gen. Sarath Fonseka recently that Sri Lanka ‘belonged’ to the Sinhalese and that other ethnic and identity groups were at best visitors was language of incredible violence that went largely unchallenged and without public outcry. The JHU, ever priapic from the comfort of its proximity to the office of the President, even took it upon itself to justify this outrageous statement. As a Sinhalese Buddhist, I felt deeply ashamed that a Government which did not condemn, or at the very least, immediately and unequivocally distance itself from the General’s witless blathering rendered it in fact no better than an enemy it is intent on decimating.
The conviction of those such as Amb. Jayatilleka springs from a yearning, shared with this author, for an enduring and just peace in Sri Lanka. It is also the result of the recognition, also shared, that the LTTE simply cannot be trusted as an honest partner in a peace process. But peace at what cost? There is a cruel irony here. Those who criticise the architects and instigators of the UNF led, CFA based peace process never fail to vituperatively note that it was hostage to the LTTE’s whim and fancy. Yet those same critics today fail to see the growing danger what’s in front of their own nose – the seemingly inexorable rise of the Rajapakse hegemony that is as detrimental to democracy as the LTTE. Where are the critics to hold the Executive accountable to the promises made in his election manifesto on good governance, democracy and human rights? Where are the critics against the culture of impunity that encourages attacks against independent journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists? Where are the critics to hold the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice accountable to the same measure of transparency and honesty it adjudicates in polity and society? Who today holds anyone in Government responsible for the findings of the two COPE reports tabled in Parliament? Why is it that Gotabaya Rajapakse cannot be questioned in the media over defence procurements and allegations of corruption? Where are the critics against the brutish behaviour of Mervyn Silva, who gains strength from the protection afforded to him by the Executive? Are all these and much more necessary evils of a regime in the South that will magically go away when and if the LTTE is decimated?
This author is acutely aware that though a just, durable peace is no closer to us today, this is unacknowledged by a public vaunt to believe the compelling fiction spun by the regime and, through the willing suspension of disbelief, uncritically support whatever measures taken for ‘national security’, however silly and outrageous they may be (for example, shutting down SMS services on Independence Day this year). This is why those who express ideas and opinions the regime finds inconvenient are so much at risk today.
Therein lies the danger. We are giving the LTTE hell today. They deserve it. We are also saying to hell with human rights, the rule of law and democracy itself, becoming with frightening ease the very beast we are fighting against.
Do we deserve this?
Published in Spectrum, November 2008.