Will there be a political solution after Government’s military success?

by Jayadeva Uyangoda

With the impending total defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, this secessionist group will cease to be a political force in Sri Lanka. But will there be a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the aftermath of the government’s military success? Events in the coming weeks and months will show the extent to which President Rajapakse can open up a new political process to lay the foundation for a new polity in which the majority as well as the minority communities can live in dignity, equality and coexistence. However, in the short run it is difficult to envisage a situation where the government will give priority to any extension of the existing devolution framework towards greater regional autonomy. Usually, one-sided military victories are not followed by major political reforms.

The present phase of Sri Lanka’s war seems to be coming to an end with the impending defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Even if the remaining LTTE fighters go underground to launch a guerrilla campaign, the Sri Lankan state has become militarily so strong that the armed struggle phase of Tamil politics has now reached an end. Rehabilitation of the LTTE as a post-armed struggle movement does not seem to be possible in the near future. With the defeat, the LTTE will also cease to be a factor in Sri Lanka’s politics. With this significant change of balance of forces in inter-ethnic relations, the future of Sri Lanka’s Tamil nationalist politics might remain uncertain for some time to come.

The ending of Sri Lanka’s long drawn-out civil war poses both opportunities and challenges for the island’s  government as well as the people. Many Sri Lankans are likely to breathe a sigh of relief on the possibility of the prolonged bloodshed coming to an end. The war has for the past two and half decades brought immense suffering and misery to the people of all communities. Death and injury for combatants as well as civilians, displacement, outmigration, falling victim to artillery shells as well as suicide or roadside bombs, destruction of communities – all these affected Sri Lankan citizens with no distinction about their ethnic identity. Violence devoured many political leaders belonging to all communities. The democratic process also suffered severe setbacks. Communities became polarised and suspicious of each other. The country’s economic and social progress too suffered. Sri Lanka needs to recover from all these setbacks. Past military as well as political attempts to end the conflict had repeatedly failed. It now appears that the present Sri Lankan government’s determination to crush the LTTE in war has produced a decisive outcome.

Yet, there is probably no direct co-relation between a military triumph over the LTTE and resolving the country’s accumulated problems. The latter requires a range of new initiatives to politically rebuild Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s post-civil war future will depend on how the government succeeds in laying a firm foundation for a pluralistic, democratic and inclusive polity in which war and violence will not be required to highlight either group grievances or suppress resistance to the state emanating from the marginalised ethnic and social groups.

The central question that will occupy the world attention concerning Sri Lanka is: will there be a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the aftermath of the government’s military success over secession? Sri Lanka’s president has repeatedly emphasised that once the LTTE is defeated, his government would introduce a political solution.

However, moving in that direction will not be an easy proposition. A one-sided military victory in an ethnic civil war is not likely to open up new political space for the government to initiate political reforms giving the ethnic minorities any measure of self-rule, which had dominated the agenda of the defeated rebellion. Branding the LTTE insurgency as terrorism and crushing that “terrorism” should not obviate the fact that the secessionist rebellion, despite its defeat, represented Tamil political aspirations for equality and autonomy.

Making the prospects for early political reforms narrow is the influence exercised by the hard line Sinhalese nationalist parties and groups on the policy agenda of the Rajapakse administration. In their thinking, Sri Lanka does not have an “ethnic problem” as such. What exists is a terrorist problem, spearheaded by the “terrorist” and “fascist” LTTE. In their argument, the military victory over the LTTE is adequate to resolve that problem. But very few outside Sri Lanka are convinced of this reading of the island’s prolonged civil war, although major world powers backed President Rajapakse’s own “war against terrorism”. International actors, from India to the US, seem to be very keen that Rajapakse moves quickly to politically consolidate the military gains by offering a “devolution package” to the Tamils. Events in the coming weeks and months will show the extent to which Rajapakse can open up a new political process to lay the foundation for a new polity in which the majority as well as the minority communities can live in dignity, equality and coexistence.

Inter-community reconciliation is the other complex challenge. The war and violence has pulled the three main ethnic communities – the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – apart. It has also intensely ethnicised visions of political imagination. In the intensity of the conflict, driven forward by violence and more violence, strong arguments had developed on all sides to the conflict for unilateral, zero-sum solutions which only a military victory could ensure. Peace was seen as the outcome of war only. Negotiated peace through compromise, although attempted a number of times, ultimately became a proposition both undesirable and illegitimate. These are positions shared in both Sinhalese and Tamil societies. Politicians, ideologues and the media thrived on reinforcing politics of polarisation and hatred. Now, the State has achieved a unilateral military victory. The challenge facing President Rajapakse and his government is to inaugurate a new phase in the island’s political life, based on the principles of pluralism, inter-group equality and power-sharing. That requires the recognition that the members of the Tamil community, even after having been caught up in an armed rebellion against the State, are citizens of the country with a right to equality and dignity.

Political reform in a framework of ethnic pluralism has not been easy in Sri Lanka. Political parties have never forged a consensus on reforms. Undermining reforms has been a part of the inter-party political competition. In a way, the war and military solution are the direct outcomes of the unwillingness of the Sinhalese political establishment to initiate meaningful state reforms to resolve the ethnic problem. Can an unreformed political system be reformed when the internal pressure for reform is no longer there, or against a backdrop where reforms had been resisted even when a secessionist insurgency had made state reform an urgent historical necessity?
That probably is the question to which India and the international actors should be keen to find a satisfying answer.

Considering the failure of the 2002-03 peace initiative and the LTTE’s agenda of returning to war, the international actors seem to have decided to back the Sri Lankan government’s strategy of defeating the LTTE militarily as a necessary first step towards creating a new “post-conflict” situation in Sri Lanka. Unlike in the past, the LTTE this time around faced a formidable international alliance that backed the Sri Lankan government. The thinking among the international actors seems to be that the LTTE had become the main obstacle to peace, security and development in Sri Lanka. This was a decisive shift from their strategy in the 2002-03 peace process in which they acted on the assumption that the LTTE should be made a co-partner in peace-building.

From the perspective of the internationals, Sri Lanka will now offer a new model of post-conflict peace-building and development achieved by means of a military victory by the State. But, many international actors, including India, would want to link post-conflict development assistance to political reforms to ensure devolution for the Tamil minority. With regenerated nationalism after the military victory over the LTTE, the Sinhalese nationalist forces will carefully monitor the actions of the international actors in Sri Lanka. Can the external actors play a role in reforming the Sri Lankan state through post-conflict economic assistance? The answer is not yet clear. But, what is somewhat clear is that external involvement in state reform can provoke Sinhalese nationalist resistance. In the mid-1980s, the Indian initiative for devolution in Sri Lanka was seized by the radical nationalists to launch a “patriotic” insurgency.

Even while the LTTE is facing military defeat, the civil war is not yet over. The remaining LTTE fighters are likely to continue their fight in the form of a guerrilla war. However, it would be extremely difficult for the LTTE to return as a significant military or political force. On the other hand, even assuming that the LTTE is totally defeated in the coming months, the ethnic problem will continue to remain. The government’s strategy for a post-LTTE Tamil society in Sri Lanka would be to work in alliance with the non-LTTE Tamil parties who are already in, or supporting, the ruling coalition. The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) which has also been fighting the LTTE along with the Sri Lankan army will make strong claims to control the provincial council of the north if the elections are held. The EPDP leader is a minister in the present cabinet.

In the Eastern Province the provincial council elections were held last month. The Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP – Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers), which broke away from the LTTE and then partnered with the army in chasing the LTTE out of the Eastern Province, is running the provincial administration there.

Dim ProspectsAs all this clearly suggests, the question of political solution to the ethnic problem will certainly be approached by the government from the perspective of state security and the unitary state. Thus, in the emerging framework political configuration in post-LTTE Sri Lanka, the government will give utmost priority to the goal of politically consolidating the military gains against the LTTE. The government’s strategy would be to ensure that the administrations of the northern and eastern provincial councils would remain in the hands of Tamil political groups that are loyal to, and controlled by, the Sinhalese political establishment. Therefore, in the short run it is difficult to envisage a situation where the government could give priority to any extension of the existing devolution framework towards greater regional autonomy. Usually, one-sided military victories are not followed by major political reforms. However, in the long run, the Sinhalese political establishment might learn that regional self-rule under unarmed, non-secessionist and integrationist Tamil political parties might not be a bad idea altogether.

While the armed forces of the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE are engaged in what appears to be the last stage of the war, two distinct political outcomes of the war need to be noted. The first is the immense historical setback which the Sri Lankan Tamil people as a community are now compelled to accept as the only major outcome of the 25 years of armed struggle and suffering, the trajectories of which have been largely defined by the LTTE. The second is the reassertion of the unreformed Sri Lankan state with unprecedented strength and global legitimacy, an outcome made possible in the post-9/11 world. Sri Lanka’s ethnic minorities as well those who are committed to multi-ethnic democracy and pluralism in the island need to reckon with the implications of these two developments before launching any new minority rights campaign.

(This article appeared in the Economic and Political weekly of India dated February 14th 2009 under the heading “Sri Lanka sans the LTTE”)

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