Winning peace in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Elusive Peace Dividend

by Brahma Chellaney

Far Eastern Economic Review (October 2009)

Such is the misfortune of war-scarred Sri Lanka that even after military victory in the civil war, the island nation is unable to find peace. Months after the Tamil Tiger guerrillas were crushed and their top leadership eliminated, Sri Lanka has done little to begin addressing the root causes of conflict or to outline a possible answer to the longstanding cultural and political grievances of the Tamil minority, which makes up 12% of the 21.3 million population. Consequently, the government risks squandering the hard-won peace. It will be a double tragedy for Sri Lanka if winning peace proves more difficult than winning the war.

From being a self-proclaimed “island of paradise” in the early 1980s, Sri Lanka became an island of tremendous bloodshed for more than a quarter of a century. But even by the country’s gory record, the bloodletting this year was unparalleled as the Asia’s longest civil war built to a bloody crescendo. Thousands of noncombatants, according to the United Nations, were killed in the final months of the war as government forces overran the Tamil Tigers, who had established a de facto state in Sri Lanka’s north and east. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that civilian casualties were “unacceptably high.”

Ignoring international calls to suspend offensive military operations to help save lives of trapped civilians, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a naturalized United States citizen, pressed ahead with their military campaign, under the command of General Sarath Fonseka, a U.S. green card holder. The offensive actually bore a distinct family imprint, with another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s special adviser and architect of the political strategy. A third brother, Ports and Civil Aviation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, awarded China a contract to build Sri Lanka’s billion-dollar Hambantota port, which Beijing today values as a prized jewel in its “string of pearls” strategy in this region—the thoroughfare for much of the international oil-export supply and nearly half of all global seaborne trade. An increasingly sea-minded China, instead of competing with the U.S. in the Pacific, has turned its attention to the Indian Ocean, employing its rising oil exports as justification.

Such is Sri Lanka’s vantage location that it sits astride vital sea lanes of communication. Beijing, in return for being allowed to make strategic inroads, provided Sri Lanka with offensive weapon systems that helped break the long-pending military stalemate on the island. Chinese Jian-7 fighter-jets, antiaircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other weapons played a central role in helping government forces unravel the Tigers’ de facto state. Chinese weapons began pouring in from 2007 when, in response to a daring 2007 raid by the Tigers’ air wing that wrecked 10 government military aircraft, Beijing quickly supplied six warplanes on long-term credit.

China also came to the rescue of a tottering Sri Lankan economy, increasing its bilateral aid fivefold in one year to $1 billion in 2008 to emerge as Sri Lanka’s largest donor. It even got Pakistan, its ally, actively involved. With Chinese encouragement, Pakistan—despite its own faltering economy and rising Islamist challenge—boosted its annual military assistance loans to Sri Lanka to nearly $100 million last year while supplying Chinese-origin small arms and training Sri Lankan air force personnel in precision-guided attacks.

Put simply, China gave Sri Lanka the military and economic power as well as the diplomatic cover to prosecute the war as it wished in defiance of international condemnation. As in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Burma and elsewhere, Chinese support directly contributed to the Sri Lankan bloodbath. In fact, Sri Lanka is just the latest case illustrating how China aggressively pursues strategic interests by employing its U.N. Security Council veto power to provide political protection to a human-rights abusing government.

India’s role also has been deplorable. For years, India had pursued a hands-off approach toward Sri Lanka in response to two developments: a disastrous 1987-90 peacekeeping operation and the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Having been outmaneuvered by China’s success in extending its strategic reach into the Indian Ocean, New Delhi got sucked into providing major assistance to Colombo over the last few years, lest it lose further ground. From opening an unlimited line of military credit for Sri Lanka to extending naval and intelligence cooperation, India provided important war-relevant support in a deteriorating humanitarian situation.

President Rajapaksa deftly played the China, India and Pakistan cards to maximum advantage for his war strategy. After key Tamil Tiger leaders had been killed in the fighting, including some who committed suicide by cyanide poisoning to avoid capture, President Rajapaksa—to New Delhi’s acute mortification—thanked China, India and Pakistan in the same breath for the victory. With its leverage undermined, India today is groping to bring direction to its Sri Lanka policy by defining its objectives more coherently, even as it struggles to respond to the apparent Chinese strategy to control naval choke points in the region. Indeed, the extent to which India has ceded strategic space in its backyard is evident from the fact that Bhutan remains its sole main pocket of influence. In Sri Lanka, India has become a marginal player despite its geostrategic advantage and trade and investment clout.

President Rajapaksa has been basking in the glory of his military triumph, lionized by nationalists as a modern-day incarnation of Dutugemunu, a Sinhalese ruler who according to legend vanquished an invading Tamil army led by Kind Elara some 2,000 years ago. His real test, however, begins now. As more evidence trickles out from Sri Lanka about the brutal military campaign he directed, allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity are likely to dog President Rajapaksa unless he decides to emulate the ancient Sinhalese king’s post-victory action in making honorable peace with the Tamils. So far, though, President Rajapaksa has had difficulty coming out of war mode.

How elusive the peace dividend remains can be seen from his decision to press ahead with the further expansion of an already-large military. The Sri Lankan military is bigger in troop strength than the British and Israeli armed forces, having been expanded fivefold since the late 1980s to some 200,000 regular soldiers today. In victory, that strength is being raised by 50% to 300,000 troops in the name of “eternal vigilance.” After the May 2009 victory, the government announced a drive to recruit 50,000 new troops to help control the northern areas captured from the rebels. The expansion would make the Sri Lankan military larger than those of major powers such as France, Japan and Germany.

Indeed, by citing a continuing danger of guerrilla remnants reviving the insurgency, President Rajapaksa seems determined to keep a hypermilitarized Sri Lanka on a war footing. Since he came to power, he has sought to frenetically swell the ranks of the military and establish village-level civil militias, especially in conflict-hit areas. With an ever-larger war machine, civil society has been the main loser.

Stable peace can be built only through genuine interethnic equality. Sri Lanka needs to transition from a unitary state to a federation that grants provincial and local autonomy. After all, the issues that triggered the 26-year civil war were rooted in the nation’s post-independence moves to fashion a monoethnic national identity, best illustrated by the 1956 “Sinhalese only” language policy and the 1972 Constitution that eliminated a provision against minority discrimination. Beside Malaysia, Sri Lanka is the only state in the world with affirmative action for a majority ethnic community.

The air of martial triumph pervading Sri Lanka is making it difficult to heal the wounds of war through three essential “R’s”: relief, recovery and, most importantly, reconciliation. A process of national reconciliation anchored in federalism and multiculturalism can succeed only if human-rights abuses by all parties are independently investigated, including claims that Sri Lankan troops indiscriminately shelled civilians caught up in the fighting.

The danger of renewed conflict in Sri Lanka cannot be dismissed. The killing of hundreds of civilians, possibly up to 3,000, in the still-uninvestigated 1983 anti-Tamil riots triggered a quarter-century cycle of bloody conflict. The killing of countless thousands this year could engender another cycle of violence unless there is genuine reconciliation.

This was a war with no witnesses, with the government having barred independent journalists and observers from the war zone. In that light, as Navi Pillay, the U.N. human-rights commissioner, has said, “a new future for the country, the prospect of meaningful reconciliation and lasting peace” all hinge on “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 sides during the conflict. Such a probe, however, seems a long way off, with Prime Minister Rajapaksa rejecting even regional autonomy and, to the chagrin of Tamils, demerging the northern and eastern provinces.

Another issue of concern is the manner in which the government still holds some 280,000 Tamil civilians in barbed-wire camps where, in the recent words of Ms. Pillay, the “internally displaced persons are effectively detained under conditions of internment.” Such detention, including of 80,000 children, risks causing more resentment among the Tamils and sowing the seeds of future unrest. The internment was officially justified as necessary to help weed out rebels. But authorities have had months to identify such suspects, and those that have been singled out already have been transferred to undisclosed 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. While the government has promised to resettle 80% of those in the camps by mid-November, it has yet to state a clear resettlement plan. One person allowed to visit some of these camps was Ban Ki-moon, who said after his tour last May: “I have traveled round the world and visited similar places, but these are by far the most appalling scenes I have seen.” Sri Lanka’s interests would be better served through greater transparency. It should grant the U.N., 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.

There also is the issue of thousands of missing people, mainly Tamils. Given that many are still searching for missing loved ones, the government ought to publish a list of all those it is holding in evacuee camps, prisons, military sites and other security centers. Even suspected rebels in state custody should be identified and not denied access to legal representation. More than 4,000 rebels reportedly surrendered in the final days 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.

Yet such are the costs of victory that Sri Lankan civil society stands badly weakened and civil liberties curbed. 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 advance government permission. Individuals can still be held in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months. On Aug. 7, Colombo announced that the Tigers’ new chief, Selvarasa Pathmanathan (known as “kp”), was in its custody, after he reportedly was abducted by Sri Lankan intelligence from a Kuala Lumpur hotel. The Thailand-based “KP”—the self-designated interim successor to Velupillai Prabhakaran, who died with his son and daughter on the battlefield—has yet to be produced before a magistrate or judge.

The Road Not Taken

For the process of reconciliation and healing to begin in earnest, it is essential the government shed its war-gained powers. Unfortunately, Colombo still seeks to hold onto its special powers and hold back the truth. Those who speak up are labeled “traitors” (if they are Sinhalese) or accused of being on the Tamil diaspora’s payroll. Last year, a Sri Lankan minister accused John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, of being on the rebels’ payroll after Mr. Holmes called Sri Lanka one of the world’s most dangerous places for aid workers. Recently, a well-known astrologer who predicted the president’s ouster from power was arrested. The U.N. Children’s Fund communications chief was ordered to leave Sri Lanka after he discussed the plight of children caught up in the government campaign. All this has made U.N. officials in Sri Lanka wary of saying anything critical of the handling of the situation.

In fact, the media remains muzzled. Journalists have been beaten up, abducted, imprisoned or killed. According to international organizations, at least 16 journalists have been murdered in Sri Lanka since 2004. Lawyers who dare take up sensitive cases face threats, so it is difficult for relatives of those missing to file habeas corpus petitions.

Another factor at play is the postvictory upsurge of Sinhalese chauvinism. Rather than begin a political dialogue on creating a more level-playing field for Tamils in education and government jobs, the government has seen its space get constricted by such chauvinism that is opposed to the devolution of powers to the minorities. This has compelled President Rajapaksa to declare, “Federalism is out of the question.” The hard-line 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 tars federalism as a 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 fragmented and President Rajapaksa seems set to win a second term.

Yet, reversing the state-driven militarization of society, ending the control of information as an instrument of state policy and promoting political and ethnic reconciliation are crucial to postconflict peace-building and to furthering the interests of all Sri Lankans—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. So also is the need to discard the almost monoethnic character of the security forces by recruiting more Tamils. Colombo has to stop dragging its feet on implementing the Constitution’s 13th amendment, which requires the ceding of some powers to the provincial level. But even if the process of devolution were to begin, it cannot succeed without an end to the present pattern of regular violations of human rights.

Sadly, there is little international pressure on Colombo, despite the leverage offered by a cash-strapped Sri Lankan economy’s need for external credit. 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 $2.8 billion loan that Sri Lanka desperately needed. In the face of China’s stonewalling in the U.N., Mr. Ban has been unable to appoint a U.N. special envoy on Sri Lanka, let alone order a probe into possible war crimes. The best the U.N. has been able to do is to send a political official to Colombo in September to discuss resettlement of the detained Tamil refugees. Indeed, in the absence of international pressure, 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.

It is thus important for the democratic players, including the U.S., the European Union, Japan and Norway—co-chairs of the so-called Friends of Sri Lanka—and India, to coordinate their policies on Sri Lanka, even though these players were remiss in discharging their responsibilities while the war raged. If President Rajapaksa continues to shun true reconciliation, these countries should ratchet up pressure on Colombo. The International Criminal Court has opened an initial inquiry into Sri Lankan rights-abuse cases; donor nations could lend support to calls for an international investigation into the thousands of civilian deaths and allegations of extrajudicial killings.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent, privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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