On 19 May 2009, the President of Sri Lanka officially declared the end of a war that had lasted nearly three decades. Though we do not have an exact toll, in the final months alone, a number of reports indicate that tens of thousands died in the theatres of war. Gut wrenching photos of civilians, including children, caught up in the final stages of war recently revealed on the websites of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have rekindled memories of a bloody past many would much rather forget. Post-war, there is palpable existential relief in the South. Busses are taken without fear of bombs going off. Commerce and industry, including tourism, are at developing at record levels. The government has announced multi-billion rupee plans for the development of regions in the north and east most ravaged by war. Significant support for the ruling party was registered at the presidential and parliamentary polls held in January and April respectively. The promise of economic prosperity and development, and the absence of war, is packaged as a peace founded on a hard won victory. The key architects of this victory – including the President and his intemperate brother, who is the Defence Secretary – were deified and venerated soon after the end of war last year. A year hence, their popularity has only slightly waned.
And therein lies the rub. Peace is a simple construct in post-war Sri Lanka with an all-powerful government, which sees it as the end of war through the decimation of the LTTE and nothing more. There is little interest in political and communal reconciliation, transitional justice or accountability through robust investigations over growing allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity conducted by both sides during the final months of war in particular. Those who champion these concerns, who see them as integral to a just peace, continue to risk their safety and security. It is not just leading domestic and international NGOs, viciously and openly reviled by government, that flag growing concerns over the inability of government to win the peace. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, the Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva and a staunch defender of the Rajapaksa regime internationally and at the UN during the height of war last year, recently told the BBC that instead of the government reaching out to Tamil people and Tamil politicians post-war, there is “a studied silence or at best an ambiguity about the shape of the political settlement or the political reconciliation between the south and the north.”
For some, this does not matter. Commerce and industry in Sri Lanka, including blossoming small and medium scale enterprises, want political stability and care little for concerns over democracy and human rights. Tourism is booming, and few in the industry are openly partial to questions over the government’s democratic credentials. Above all, an anaemic opposition held back by an enduring crisis over party leadership, grassroots mobilisation and political vision is the government’s best friend. Ceding complete command and control of Sri Lanka’s future to the ruling party’s dynastic bent, the euphoria over the end of war has morphed into an electorate in the South at best only marginally interested in liberal governance. This gives a lot of leeway for government to brush aside concerns ranging from the mismanagement and misappropriation of public finances to more serious allegations of war crimes as facets of a vast conspiracy led Western powers hell-bent on resurrecting the LTTE and infringing the territorial sovereignty of Sri Lanka. One cannot underestimate the emotive power of such simplistic rhetoric to capture the imagination of a war weary, and given significant unofficial self-censorship of media, ill-informed electorate.
But should anyone care? To remember violence is to embrace the possibility of culpability, through direct support or inaction. This is not easy to contemplate for many in polity and society, and often leads to conscious denial of and vehement opposition to any process of accountability. Truth and reconciliation requires courageous political will, not unlike Mandela’s in post-apartheid South Africa. However, after war’s end, political will such as it exists in Sri Lanka is openly unwilling to entertain a process that could engineer its own demise. Therefore, to openly care about accountability and to call for it is to face, even post-war, a concerted and powerful campaign engineered by government and its supporters pegged to violence – verbal and physical – and parochial, self-serving definitions of patriots, traitors and sovereignty.
Perhaps it is easier to forget and move on? It is a proposition made by many, who out of fatigue, fear or a combination of both, feel that the best way for post-war Sri Lanka to move forward is by engaging government. Certainly, this engagement is possible for those who supinely conform and comply, and for self-gain, turn a blind eye towards much that is wrong with governance post-war. Unsurprisingly, there is no space, no meeting point with government for those who propose peace as more than the absence of war, a democracy as a cornerstone of sustainable development. Post-war, the government must win back the hearts and minds of those once under the jackboot of the LTTE. One would think this would be an easy task for a mature democracy, which we are made to believe, has endured the onslaught of terrorism. Yet, from the political to the symbolic, the Rajapaksa regime has egregiously failed in this regard and disturbingly shows no demonstrate signs of improving in the future. This is especially tragic given the historic opportunity for socio-political reform and constitutional change given the electoral majority the regime effortlessly commands. Which, to come full circle, is to interrogate exactly what Sri Lanka celebrates a year after the end of war.
Inter alia, we celebrate that our children will grow up in an environment much safer than it has been for nearly three decades. We risk disappointment to welcome the resurgence of hope, in a country that has savoured too little of it. We embrace new possibilities in social, political, cultural and economic domains. Elected and through national lists, comparatively young, dynamic MPs have infused a higher standard of debate in parliament, and also challenge the ageing, spent leadership of political parties with new ideas. Travel is now possible to areas hitherto closed off to the public. Repeatedly featured as one of the top destinations in the world for tourists post-war, the country has according to an interim report by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) recorded the highest growth in tourist arrivals in the world during the first two months of 2010. Clearly then, there is much to be happy about.
Yet, salient questions over deteriorating security conditions in the Jaffna peninsula, the continued alienation of legitimate Tamil aspirations, the predominance of dynastic rule over democratic governance and the marked lack of progress in addressing underlying grievances that gave life and succour to the idea of Eelam remain unanswered, risking peace as we know it. A decade hence, we may see this time as a slow, uneasy transition from a repressive war mentality to a more participatory democratic system. Though I remain cautiously optimistic, I fear that the essential nature of the Rajapaksa regime will return Sri Lanka to violence more virulent than what we now celebrate the end of.
An edited and slightly different verso of this article appears as Is This A Just Peace? New Matilda.