Revisiting peacebuilding in post-war Sri Lanka

“Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best Parliament and the best President, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be also wrong to expect a general remedy from them only. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all. We are all responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery.”

Vaclav Havel, writer, playwright and President of Czechoslovakia, 1 January 1990

All of my Powerpoint presentations on peacebuilding and violent conflict in Sri Lanka have at least one or two slides on how beautiful our country is. Foreign audiences in particular tend to see us as a wasteland of despair defined by bloodshed over 30 years. When shown the engineering marvel that is Sigiriya or the grace of a tusker in Udawalawe, the coiled strength of stalking leopard in Yala or facets of our architecture and life captured by Dominic Sansoni, they see images for the first time beyond the frame of war, violence and bloodshed in the media. They see what I see, home – loved first and the most. But in a context where hate and harm persist against those whose patriotic credentials, as defined and evaluated by a coterie in government, are suspect, peacebuilding even post-war remains a challenging undertaking.

My own introduction to the field of conflict transformation was by a happy accident. A close friend needed someone he could work with to help out with the design of possible process of conflict transformation that, at the time, could lead to a ceasefire agreement and a negotiated settlement with the LTTE. Working with Kethesh Loganathan, I read over 200 books, articles, journals and essays on conflict resolution and peacebuilding to create, along with my friend who concentrated on constitutional reform, an annotated bibliography of over one thousand pages dealing with locating fundamental principles of conflict transformation and key elements in the design of peace processes in other countries in Sri Lanka’s complex cultural, political, social and economic context.

I was hooked.

Here was a field I felt a degree in English Literature wasn’t entirely wasted. By 21, I had read most of the fundamental texts of conflict resolution. But long before the war drew to its conclusion in Sri Lanka, I was increasingly frustrated by conflict resolution’s theoretical and practical inadequacy to grasp, engage and transform the systemic violence in Sri Lanka, both related to the war in the North and East and also invisibly embedded in our day to day transactions, such as systemic discrimination and violence on the lines of gender, religion, sexuality, language and caste. The last book I read on conflict resolution and peacebuilding proper was Lederach’s The Moral Imagination. Locating peacebuilding in the courage to imagine and articulate peace even in the midst of violence, the Professor infuses conflict transformation with what reads and feels like religious faith. This is unhelpful, even a shade insulting, because peacebuilding in violent conflict is a bit more vexed than glorifiedkumbaya. I have never read a book devoted to peacebuilding since.

Perhaps this is partly why I still struggle to express peacebuilding to audiences deeply desirous of peace, but conditioned to see it solely through the lens of violence. When the palpable aspiration to peace is hostage to the parochialism of party politics, we must be sceptical of, nay, strongly oppose requests from government to  “join hands”, “unite” and “work together as Sri Lankans” to build peace. This principled opposition to such requests is not to eschew peacebuilding or derail vital development, for both can occur by holding government accountable to higher standards of governance in a post-war context. But the challenge of peacebuilding is now greater, for it needs to go beyond the comparatively simple dualism of an aggressor victim context to unravelling the root causes of violence, as they persist even after the end of war.

It is precisely here that even the US failed in Iraq. Both the Sri Lankan military and the US forces in Iraq were ultimately far superior to those of the respective enemy forces. Ironically, the quick and unprecedented success of war brings with it heady expectations of equally rapid and enduring social, political and economic dividends. And it is precisely here – in the transition from war to democracy – that victors are wholly incapable of and unprepared to design and implement a peace process. It’s simple – you cannot easily or successfully reverse engineer repression, censorship, racism, intolerance, anxiety, fear mongering and violence propagated during and justified on account of war. The Rajapakse regime – predominantly seen as saviours today – are outrageously guilty on all these counts, and now expect and demand from a grateful public to forgive and forget these indelible affronts to democracy on account of their success in war. This is not desirable or possible. In their accountability lies our path to peace. And there’s the rub. Peacebuilding is self-effacing. War is self-aggrandising. A regime used to the latter, cannot easily or effectively transform to the former.

There are more vexed challenges. A peace process is non-linear in its progression, where bursts of post-war social and political violence risk, inter alia, high profile, intra-party political assassinations and the ascendance of totalitarian military rule under the guise of a regime desirous of law and order. A peace process needs to include civil society as partners in the process of reconciliation. It is clear where the Rajapakse regime stands on this count. Post-war development requires us to urgently refashion our bungling, antagonistic and on many occasions downright farcical approach to international relations. As a sovereign country, our framework of relations with regimes such as China and Iran must not be hostage to the whims of certain regimes that have practiced extraordinary rendition. At the same time, post-war international relations must acknowledge that despite our domestic and foreign diplomatic braggadocio, infrastructure development on the scale required and envisioned for the North and East in particular is simply not going to occur with re-forged iron from Chinese or Pakistani armaments. We cannot, for no other reason than a grossly malformed and misplaced sense of national identity, cast aside help from the West. Let us never establish relationships with the international community based on pity, condescension or their hypocrisy. Let us also never forget that we are participants in a global compact that does not yet have a financial or moral anchor even close to competing with, leaving aside replacing, the West.

Most tomes on peacebuilding deal with theories from the stratospheric heights of academe, or are steeped in experiences so personal and rooted to a time, place, actor or context that they only make for splendid reading. 12 years ago, I was in awe of the literature of peacebuilding. I am now daunted by its enduring complexity on the ground, especially after a war fashioned to bring peace. Much has changed, including in the course of just a few years, the assumptions of conflict transformation in Sri Lanka. The role of third party mediation, the academic debates on the role of Norway as a facilitator or mediator, the incompatibility of its role in the SLMM and the negotiations process, the abject failure of the Regaining Sri Lanka framework, the optimism over the Oslo Declaration – all these are now of peripheral academic interest to wholly new political, economic and social dynamics. There is undeniable potential here for peace. Processing the challenges of peacebuilding however require us to acknowledge first that the average voter in the South and the Rajapakse regime, is essentially Sinhala Buddhist and see Sri Lanka, and being Sri Lankan, through an exclusive and essentially violent lens. Secondly, mainstream Tamil politics, now bereft of its militant flank, is dominated by antagonism and impatience towards the State and intolerant, maximalist demands that mirror that of Sinhala polity. This domination of party politics and all other spheres, including cultural production, by petty yet persistent ethno-political imperatives invariably exacerbates inferiority, distrust, fear and violence.

I do not believe in peacebuilding is a matter of faith, left to some divine agency to determine. I believe in it because it is the right thing to do and even if there is some vast karmic master-plan, we are its agents of change. I do not believe in it because I am opposed to war. I believe in it because it is what follows war, and prevents it. I do not believe in it because I am paid to. I believe in it because this is the country of my birth and it deserves democracy, not the farce of a single extended family and a bunch of goons dictating the terms and conditions of how we should be and what we should do. In the short span of 12 years, I have interacted far more with ordinary peoples deeply committed to peace than war-mongers. Though many of them are invisible to mainstream media and politics, they are a reflection of ourselves and what we can and must be post-war. I believe in peacebuilding because I cherish the beauty of Sri Lanka and fear its loss through violence and injustice that even after war is growing in intensity.

Peacebuilders live in hope and risk disappointment. It is, quite simply, what is demanded from post-war polity and society as well.

Published in The Sunday Leader, 19th July 2009

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