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Un-Making Old Choices

The Battle for Peace in Sri Lanka

by Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz, Asian Tribune, March 11, 2207

The bottom line is that rebellions score success by simply surviving the oppression. Therefore, it is academically fraudulent to interpret any withdrawal as a sign of weakness or regime collapse.


Sri Lanka an island of three nations, Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim located in South Asia. The island is popular both for deadly ethnic civil war and democracy. This article, however, only deals with the deadly ethnic civil war which has killed more than 70,000 Sri Lankanas, mostly the ethnic Tamils who predominantly live in the country’s war-ridden North-East, the region Tamils consider as their traditional homeland.

Mr. Rajapakshe, the President of Sri Lanka who came to power in November 2005 with an anti-Federal and Sinhala nationalist agendas, appointed an advisory committee and the All-Party Conference (APC) as his predecessors did, to initiate a political solution. However, the island is still holding its breath with a deep fear of another round of full-blown civil war between the security forces dominated by the Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers who claim they are fighting to win justice and peace for the Tamils, the second largest ethnic group.

Tamils and the Tamil Tigers often complain that the Sinhala politicians formulate polices and actions to please the Sinhalese. The Sinhala political class denies such Tamil opinions, and classifies the Tamil violent mobilization within the limit of terrorism. However, available literature on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict suggests that discrimination by the state and its institutions against the minorities, particularly the Tamils radicalized the Tamil youths, and thus polarized the polity (S.J. Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka 1992 and Jonathan Spencer, Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict 1990).

Understanding the Conflict Theoretically

Theoretically speaking, people surrender their sovereignty to the state to seek a common security, peace, and order. In divided societies, peace among the different groups and order would collapse when the ruling political class acts partially, in order to win the trust of a particular group. The duty of the state, functioning in homogeneous societies such as China and South Korea, is fundamentally different from its counterparts in deeply divided societies such as Sri Lanka, India, and Iraq.

States in heterogeneous societies can avoid the social and ethnic instability when they deliver fair policies. This would allow the minorities to identify with the mainstream polity. The Psyche of the minorities and economically ignored people is weak and insecure [because of their position in society] and, thus, likely to react against moves they think unfair. When the state executes plans apparently to win the political support of the majority group, it is highly likely a marginalized minority would mobilize against the state both peacefully and violently (Ted Robert Gurr, Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts, 1993).

The leaders in post-colonial societies rather then producing balance and fair policies to build their nations, have employed ethnic and religious slogans and promised symbolic emotional policies to win and hold power. Their attitudes weakened the modernity and thus produced chaos and instability. Sri Lanka is the classic example in this nature. Modernity, according to Western political science understanding, breaks down parochial identities of ethnic and religious groups and replaces them with greater understanding and harmony between the different groups. It is still true, but when political elites abuse modernity, the polity would not produce what it was expected to produce. Thus, in my understanding, placing the blame on modernity for the collapse of the polity does not carry enough weight.

In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese leaders who dominate the state and its institutions failed to taste the fruits of modernization. Rather than building a nation beyond the ethnic boundaries, they formulated policies to Sinhalanize the state and its institutions. The polices and actions such as the Sinhala-Only language Act in 1956, the Republican constitution in 1972, (which granted recognition to Buddhism as a state religion, re-affirmed the pre-eminence of the Sinhalese language in all aspects of public life and legitimized the unitary state structure), education standardization policies, brutal ethnic violence and cleansing, and resistance to power-sharing weakened the trust of the Tamil minority in the delivery of the state and its institutions, and thus alienated them from the mainstream polity. All this policies swayed some Tamils to adopt violence.

History is out there. One can understand the past with the different theories. The country needs to keep moving forward. But this would require serious constructive engagements from the political class in Colombo and the Tamil Tigers. The questions are whether the parties in conflict can sincerely think of political compromise? Will the political elites in Colombo freeze their symbolic war agendas to give peace a chance?

Militarization of the East

It seems the ruling political class in Colombo is very much interested in consolidating the military gains it scored recently in a chunk of the East. Politicization of those military gains is on the card in Colombo to consolidate power.

It is important to understand that insurgencies against the state sustain not necessarily because insurgents control a particular region or territory, but because they pose a serious ability to challenge the state. State forces can inflict heavy casualties in and outside of the territories where the insurgents are supposed to maintain their leverage. On the other hand, insurgents can make strategic withdrawal or continue to fight to sustain military gains depending on strategic needs and resources. The bottom line is that rebellions score success by simply surviving the oppression. Therefore, it is academically fraudulent to interpret any withdrawal as a sign of weakness or regime collapse.

Decline of Political Surge

To win the permanent peace in Sri Lanka, there must be a political surge; there must be serious engagements by the Sinhala leaders to reach out the Tamil Tigers and vice versa. Sadly, reality in Colombo and Killinochi, particularly in Colombo frustrates such hope and optimism. As many would have thought, the government of Mr. Rajapakshe distanced itself from the recommendations of the majority group and Vitharna’s proposals. Thus, the hope of the minorities, particularly the Tamils, is further wearing away beyond the confidence that government of Sri Lanka controlled by the Sinhalese would deliver justice and peace.

The political class in Colombo is interpreting the recent military progress in the East as a strategic failure of the Tamil Tigers - who met a similar fate in the past, but later turned things around for their favor in the Jaffna Peninsula. The political class in Colombo thinks that the Tamil question can be solved by simply militarily marginalizing the Tamil Tigers or supporting the forces of Karuna, whose forces, according to Alan Keenan, function “with support from the Sri Lankan military (Sri Lanka: between peace and war)” and became a recipient of the state support “to abduct children as soldiers to fight Tamil Tiger rebels (Sri Lanka youth 'seized to fight').” These two options militarily may produce some temporary success, but it is highly unlikely it can address the grievances of the North-East Tamils.

Those who refuse to reform the state and promote war need to realize that Sri Lanka will face an imminent collapse if the leaders of the Sinhalese continue to drum up war agendas. What is ironic is that even after the three decades of deadly ethnic civil war, the Sinhalese political class still lack political wisdom and the imagination to reform their “Mahavamsamized” mentality, the century-old state structure and its institutions to give a justice and peace to the minorities. The absence of such wisdom and imagination among the Sinhalese political class, not only further frustrates the ordinary Tamils, but also it effectively could breed the support for the Tamil violent movement, mainly the Tamil Tigers.

Reforming the Tamil Tigers

On the other hand, the Tamil Tigers need to reform their mentality to understand the reality and to digest new ideas, particularly they must respect alternative ideas and opponents. They need to exercise rational norms to defeat the ideas rather than targeting the authors of ideas.

Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis requires a constructive environment for political engagement. Political negotiations need popular support in order to win legitimacy. The Tamils may have negative opinions about the delivery of Sri Lankan government dominated by the Sinhalese. But nothing can be gained without the support of the Sinhala polity. Thus, the Tamil Tigers should win the hearts of ordinary Sinhalese in the South. Such approaches would also help moderate Sinhalese leaders to deliver a political compromise and autonomy, and could weaken the JVP and JHU, the forces that employ ethnic emotions to outbid the UNP and the SLFP to win the Sinhalese votes.

The bottom line is there must be a real political will and imagination in the hearts of the Tamil Tigers. They need to rethink their old strategies. Their refusal to absorb political moderation could cost them dearly both at home and the global arena. Political movements win peace and autonomy for their constituencies when they are able to perform right strategic choices. They and their constituencies may be better off when they prepare to re-structure their plans and choices.

Re-constructing the global approach

Since the US House of Representatives of the State of Massachusetts passed the Eelam Resolution calling for the creation of the Tamil state of Eelam in May 1979, the island’s ethnic civil war attracted huge amount global attention. In 1981, several British MPs sent letters and telegrams to then President Jayewardene calling for an end to imprisonment of Tamils without trial and for their release. Addressing the Commonwealth Parliamentary Seminar, held in Colombo in June 1981, Jayewardene angrily reacted and rejected their request.

In August 1981 the Tamil Nadu State Assembly, in India, passed a resolution unanimously condemning the violence and expressing sympathy with the Sri Lanka Tamils (A.R.M. Imtiyaz, “Conflict and Constitutional Solution in Sri Lanka.” Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, Vol.17, No.2, December 2004, pp. 23-42). In the 1990s and 2000s, the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict attracted more international attention. The more the Sri Lanka state discriminated against the Tamils, the stronger the conflict internationalized. That is to say, many Western countries including the US and Norway extended their concern and pushed both the Sri Lankan ruling class and the Tamil Tigers to meet in the negotiation table.

However, insincere attitudes of parties in the conflict and ineffective approaches of the global actors in the negotiation process failed both the hopes of Sri Lankans and the prospects of peace. But still they have a role to play. They need to re-construct their engagements.

One of their new priorities should deal with the concerns of the North and East Muslims who complain they have problems to be solved. North-East Muslims think they were totally abandoned by the relevant actors, and thus became politically orphans in the conflict resolution process. This is a really dangerous trend, and could help radicalize the section of the North-East Muslims if they continue to receive the same ill treatments (Muslims may be forced to take up arms). Moreover, existing global trends and spread of global Islam could impact the economically poor North-East Muslims when they continuously were being denied their share in the negotiation. Recent violent surge in Kattankudy, predominant Muslim town in Batticola District, against the Sufi sect of Islam and some related activities confirm the mobilization theory ( Muslim Youth terrorize Kattankudy).

The problems of the Muslims of the North-East deserve solutions. They are a separate ethno-religious group (though they still far behind to be identified as a distinct ethnic group for some factors). For that reason, their demand for the separate identity and choices should be respected, and their representatives must have separate seat in the negotiation table when the negotiation deals with the political autonomy issues.

It is important to point out that the North and East Muslims would not win any political concessions when the key parties of the conflict refuse to settle the conflict peacefully. With the intention of bring the parties to the table; there can be some tough leverage on both parties. International leverage often works when they effectively target the regimes, which are closely interconnected with the global system. The current global leverage mainly targets the Tamil Tigers. It is highly unlikely an embargo regime would produce peace or trigger positive outcomes when it unevenly targets a particular party in the conflict. In my opinion, disproportionate warnings and actions would discourage the parties to seek compromise and lead them to resist political compromises.

Sri Lanka, unlike North-Korea or Iran, is tightly connected with the activities of global economy. So, it may find difficulties to defy any effective embargo. Colombo cannot survive for a long period without the assistance of global aid and help. Therefore, it is very possible that Colombo would freeze its anti-minority and anti-Tamil agendas to re-build its (blood-ridden) economy, when the global community prepares to apply some strong leverage on its behaviors.

Also, global actors in Sri Lankan peace process need to educate both parties about the importance of human rights and political pluralism. Successive governments since independence have a good history of using violence against the Tamils: 1983 violence killed at least 2000 Tamils. Since then, hundreds of Tamil youths were abducted and later disappeared. Recently, protests in Colombo claimed that some “2000 people were abducted” since Mr. Rajapakshe came to power in November 2005 ( Protest held in Colombo against abductions). Moreover, Sri Lanka's police chief, Deputy Inspector General of Police Ashoka Wijethileka admitted the involvements of soldiers and police officers in connection with abductions (Police held over S Lanka kidnaps). The state sponsored abductions and killings targeting mainly the Tamils in Ahilan Kadigamar’s words, “has been the ultimate shame for any other government” ( Island in crisis). It is obviously embarrassing for the global actors to be identified with the regime which has no respect for human rights and democracy.

On the other hand, human right records of the Tamil Tigers and their tolerance for political debates are not worth enough of appreciation. The Tamil Tigers’ involvements in expelling Muslims from the North, and gusty killings in a praying time in Kattankudy at the Mosque are still fresh among many Eastern Muslims. These attacked believed to be intentional and carefully planned. Therefore, deserve to be classified as genocide. Further, some Tamil opinions define the Tamil Tigers as fascists and claim that the Tamil Tigers have zero-tolerance and commitment toward tolerance and moderation. These concerns must be addressed, and thus global actors cannot turn their blind eyes on the Tamil Tigers.

Conclusion: bloodbath or peace path

This country desperately needs a political solution to heal the marginalized groups. In the language of tactical political science, consociational democracy (power-sharing both at the central and regional level) could discourage the Tamils from endorsing the violent choices of the Tamil Tigers, and deter the Tamils from seeking separate state with its independent state institutions. In other words, power sharing democracy has the potential to weaken the Tamil Tigers, and to strengthen the political pluralism and human rights. Will Colombo and Kilinochchi have wisdom and imagination to reform their thinking and strategies? Can the Sinhalese leaders offer a political autonomy beyond the restrictions of the island’s century-old unitary state structure? The answers to the questions can determine the future of the island.

Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz - Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.


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