Sri Lanka’s continuing tragedy: Unable to be at peace even in victory

Sri Lanka’s double tragedy 

By Brahma Chellaney

The New Indian Express, October 7, 2009

If
war-scarred
Sri Lanka
is to re-emerge as a tropical paradise, it has to build enduring peace through
genuine inter-ethnic equality and by making the transition from being a unitary
state to being a federation that grants local autonomy. Yet even in victory,
the Sri Lankan government seems unable to define peace or outline a political
solution to the long-standing grievances of the Tamil minority.

A process
of national reconciliation anchored in federalism and multiculturalism indeed
can succeed only if possible war crimes and other human-rights abuses by all
parties are independently and credibly investigated. United Nations
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged that civilian casualties were
“unacceptably high,” especially as the war built to a bloody crescendo. The
continuing
air of martial triumph in Sri Lanka,
though, is making it difficult to
heal the wounds of
war through three essential “Rs”: Relief, recovery and reconciliation.

Months after the Tamil
Tigers were crushed, it is clear the demands of peace extend far beyond the
battlefield. What is needed is a fundamental shift in government policies to
help create greater inter-ethnic equality, regional autonomy and a reversal of
the state-driven militarization of society. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa already
has declared:
“Federalism is out of the question.”

How elusive
the peace dividend remains can be seen from
Sri Lanka’s decision to press ahead
with a further expansion of its military. Not content with increasing the
military’s size fivefold since the late 1980s to more than 200,000 troops
today,
Colombo
is raising the strength further to 300,000, in the name of “eternal vigilance.”
The Sri Lankan military already is bigger than that of
Britain and Israel. The planned further
expansion would make the military in tiny
Sri
Lanka
larger than the militaries of major powers like France, Japan
and
Germany.
By citing a continuing danger of guerrilla remnants reviving the insurgency,
Rajapaksa is determined to keep a hyper-militarized
Sri Lanka on something of a war
footing.

Yet another issue of
concern is the manner the government still holds nearly 300,000 civilians in
camps where, in the recent words of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Navi Pillay, the “internally
displaced persons are effectively detained under conditions of internment.”
Such detention risks
causing more resentment among the Tamils and sowing
the seeds of future unrest.
The internment was
intended to help weed out rebels, many of whom already have been identified and
transferred to military sites.

Those in the evacuee camps
are the victims and survivors of the deadly war. To confine them in the camps
against their will is to further victimize and traumatize them.
Sri Lanka’s
interests would be better served through greater transparency. It should grant
the
UN,
International Red Cross and nongovernmental organizations at home and abroad
unfettered access
 to care for and protect the civilians in these camps,
allowing those who wish to leave the camps to stay with relatives and friends.

Then
there is the issue of thousands of missing people, mostly Tamils. Given that
many families are still searching for missing members, the government ought to
publish a list of all those it is holding — in evacuee camps, prisons, military
sites and other security centres. Even suspected rebels in state custody ought
to be identified and not denied access to legal representation. Bearing in
mind that thousands of civilians were killed just in the final months of the
war, authorities should disclose the names of those they know to be dead —
civilians and insurgents — and the possible circumstances of their death.

The way to fill the power
vacuum in the Tamil-dominated north is not by dispatching additional army
troops in tens of thousands, but by setting up a credible local administration
to keep the peace and initiate rehabilitation and reconstruction after more
than a quarter of a century of war. Yet there is a lurking danger that the
government may seek to change demography by returning to its old policy of settling
Sinhalese in Tamil areas.

More fundamentally, such
have been the costs of victory that Sri Lankan civil society stands badly
weakened. The wartime suppression of a free press and curtailment of
fundamental rights continues in peacetime, undermining democratic freedoms and
creating a fear psychosis. Sweeping emergency regulations remain in place,
arming the security forces with expansive powers of search, arrest and seizure
of property. Public meetings cannot be held without government permission. Individuals
can still be held in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months.

For the process of reconciliation
and healing to begin in earnest, it is essential the government give up wartime
powers and accept, as the UN
human-rights
commissioner has sought, “an independent and credible international
investigation … to ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of
international human-rights and international humanitarian law” by all parties
during the conflict.
Rather than begin a political dialogue on regional
autonomy and a more level-playing field for the Tamils in education and
government jobs, the government has seen its space get constricted by the
post-victory upsurge of Sinhalese chauvinism opposed to the devolution of
powers to the minorities. The hardline constituency argues that the Tamils in
defeat shouldn’t get what they couldn’t secure through three decades of unrest
and violence.

Indeed, such chauvinism seeks to tar
federalism as a potential forerunner to secession, although the Tamil
insurgency sprang from the state’s rejection of decentralization and
power-sharing. The looming parliamentary and presidential elections also make
devolution difficult, even though the opposition is splintered and Rajapaksa
seems set to win a second term.

Add to the picture the
absence of international pressure, despite the leverage provided by a
cash-strapped Sri Lankan economy. The
United
States
enjoys a one-country veto in the International
Monetary Fund, yet it chose to abstain from the recent IMF vote approving a
desperately needed $2.8-billion loan to
Sri Lanka. In the face of China’s stonewalling in the UN, Ban Ki-moon has
been unable to appoint a UN special envoy on
Sri Lanka, let alone order a probe
into possible war crimes there. Beijing provided Colombo not only the weapons
that decisively titled the military balance in its favour, but also the
diplomatic cover to
prosecute the war in defiance of
international calls to cease
offensive operations to help stanch rising civilian casualties. Through such
support,
China has succeeded
in extending its strategic reach to a critically located country in
India’s backyard that sits astride vital
sea-lanes of communication in the
Indian Ocean
region.

Today, reversing the
militarization of society, ending the control of information as an instrument
of state policy and promoting political and ethnic reconciliation are crucial
to post-conflict peace-building. So also is the need to discard the almost
mono-ethnic character of the security forces.

As world history attests,
peace sought to be achieved through the suppression and humiliation of an
ethnic community has proven elusive. It will be a double tragedy for
Sri Lanka if
making peace proves more difficult than making war. 

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

(c) New Indian Express, 2009.

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