Divining peace

“All too often it is innocent men, women and children who pay the price of war. We cannot ask them to pay the price of peace.”

Report of the Secretary-General on peacebuilding in the immediate aftermath of conflict, United Nations

This morning, as I was writing this column, I noticed a strange pattern of tea-leaves amongst the dregs of satiation. The pattern suggested that the Chief Executive’s term in office was out of his hands and largely defined by filial ambition. The languid leaves also suggested that the boundless aspirations of the gods of war physically closest to him posed the greatest danger to his legacy and life to boot. Alarmed at such a bleak future and the danger it posed to our Executive Übermensch, I poured myself another cuppa. The damned pattern remained essentially the same, though just near the stem, a few leaves foretold an increasingly violent clampdown on dissent erasing any real threat to the government’s prospects over the long-term. Depressed, I switched to coffee, but have preserved the tea-leaves for production in court as evidence that the company responsible for its production is an agent of the LTTE. Evidently, what the LTTE could not win through violence, they are now clearly attempting to subliminally suggest through Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. Perhaps existing travel advisories to Sri Lanka must be revised to caution that shamans, soothsayers, psychics and astrologers stand the risk of arrest, interrogation and production in court if they see a future even a shade less luminous than government.

When I first got to hear from a friend of the arrest of an astrologer in Sri Lanka for daring to suggest a future that unsettled the regime, I thought it was a joke. This is a new low even for a government filled to the brim with humourless heroes. More than white vans, this arrest suggests something more sinister – that the government will viciously clampdown on any narrative, any dissent, no matter how trivial or disconnected with telluric realities. And this is the same government that asks us to place our confidence in its ability to engineer peace.

We’ve been here before.

The UNF’s disastrous design of a peace process, defined by a political leadership unable and unwilling to communicate meaningfully with voters in the South resulted in unmet expectations of economic prosperity that eventually contributed to the rise of violent Sinhala nationalism in opposition to the CFA and subsequently the government’s demise. Memories of voters are short lived. To constantly relive 12th May 2009 suggests the essential insecurity of a regime that cannot, and will not, move past its crowning moment. To do so is to enter the unfamiliar and uncomfortable domain of peacebuilding.

The very term peacebuilding suggests that peace exists in a state of siege or not at all.  But the hardest part of peacebuilding is explaining what it means, and must entail, to polity and society that for three decades have had their lives and imagination conditioned by war, emergency rule and normalisation of violence. Such societies unthinkingly peg peace to violent foundations, either in their support for terrorism or in their support for war against terrorism. Existing literature on conflict resolution deals very badly with an example like Sri Lanka, for it does not capture or offer any meaningful answers to the vexed problem of a government adopting, without care or concern, the very tactics of the terrorists they are fighting against in order to defeat them.

In a column that irked, among others, the Government’s Peace Secretariat during the war, I called the Chief Executive and his inner cabal of war architects “murderous brutes”. I see no reason to revise or retract this statement today, because it is precisely why we won the war against the LTTE so quickly and decisively. It is entirely possible, and obviously very desirable, that such people change for the better. But the challenge of peacebuilding and conflict resolution practice and theory as they stand today is to deal with a regime that does not after war’s end. The recently released UN Report of the Secretary-General on peacebuilding in the immediate aftermath of conflict is interesting reading in this regard.

Being a typical UN document, it is turgid, full of platitudes and needlessly long (though the “Please Recycle” notice on the front page suggests the UN is now more acutely conscious of how much of paper it wastes). It offers no new thinking or real innovation, and contains plenty of recommendations and proposes more studies. Yet it’s value lies in its reiteration to UN member states that peacebuilding after war is a tremendously challenging task especially for victors. It cautions that the post-war context brings significant challenges to political leadership and civil society, and that “threats to peace are often greatest during this early phase”. The report notes the value of coordination and collaboration between domestic, regional and international actors, “since no single actor has the capacity to meet the needs in any of the priority areas of peacebuilding”. A point that captures the UNF’s failure to embed the value of the CFA in the minds of the voter in the South warrants a fuller excerpt, for it is a set of challenges facing the incumbents in power today to a much greater degree (since the Prime Minister of the UNF was never seen as a god),

The end of conflict… tends to create high expectations for the delivery of concrete political, social and economic dividends. Building confidence in a peace process requires that at least some of these expectations are met. Equally important is effective communication and an inclusive dialogue between national authorities and the population, not least to create realistic expectations of what can be achieved in the short run.

The full participation of women in policy making is stressed, as well as the inclusion of civil society and those who have been socially, economically and politically marginalised. The report courageously notes that post-war, “some of the national actors with whom the international community must engage may be implicated in past human rights abuses or significant atrocities”. Disappointingly and unsurprisingly, the report does not go on to explain how the mechanisms of such engagement with regimes charged with war crimes can be fashioned. In line with the government’s post-war priorities, the report notes that “jump starting economic recovery can be one of the greatest bolsters of security and provides the engine for future recovery.” On the other hand, it stresses the importance of the safe and sustainable return and reintegration of IDPs, strengthening the rule of law, reforming the security sector, promoting inclusive dialogue and reconciliation. Juxtapose this basic common sense with the propaganda and actions of the Rajapakse regime during and especially after the end of war. No astrologer is needed to predict what is evident upon sober reflection of facts suggesting the hubris, insensitivity, arrogance and violent exclusion that defines governance and government.

In his Nobel Peace Prize address in 1998, John Hume noted that,

“All of us are asked to respect the views and rights of others as equal of our own and, together, to forge a covenant of shared ideals based on commitment to the rights of all allied to a new generosity of purpose.”

Where is this generosity of purpose today? Instead of it we have sprawling IDP camps, sarcophagi of hopelessness and destitution, where success is measured not by standards of human dignity and decency but by comparisons to what we think their lives must have been under the LTTE. The sheer absurdity and considerable violence of such comparisons are lost to many, perhaps on account of the greater farce of attempts to secure peace by abducting journalists and arresting recalcitrant astrologers.

In one sense though, the government’s avowed design for peacebuilding in Sri Lanka is heavenly, for it is certainly like nothing on earth.

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