Why the Sri Lankan government won’t listen

Colombo, Sri Lanka — The best efforts of the international community to bring the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka to an end through its diplomatic interventions seem to have come to naught. The joint visit of the British Foreign Minister David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner was full of controversy, but seems to have yielded little other than that. Vocal sections of the government, media and the general public saw bad faith in these European moves and did not hesitate to make their views known.

This perception also seems to have induced the government to deny a visa to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, prompting him say that the Sri Lankan government’s attitude was exceedingly strange and to reject an invitation to visit Sri Lanka at a later date. For the past 50 years, Sweden was one of the most generous development supporters of Sri Lanka, but from next year this partnership is to end, and the recent mishap will do little to facilitate a positive review of this situation.

Those who oppose international intervention in the humanitarian crisis in the country believe that their motive is to force a ceasefire upon the government in order to extend the life of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A week ago, under heavy Indian pressure including a fast by the aged chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunandhi and members of his political party, the government declared an end to combat operations and to the use of heavy weapons and air power. But barely had the statement been issued, and the fast in Tamil Nadu ended, than evidence began to be provided that the fighting on the ground was continuing as before, with air strikes included.

With both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE holding determinedly to their positions, the war is set to reach its inevitable conclusion. During their visit to Sri Lanka the two foreign ministers stressed, albeit without much success, that their sole concern was that of the civilian population trapped in the battle zone and not any petty political advantage to themselves with their domestic electorates. They also denied that they had any ulterior motive in trying to give the LTTE a breathing space so they could revive but were only seeking a way out for the civilians.

The desirability of a negotiated end to the war that would save civilian lives is not only a European position. Even activists from the Third World with an anti-imperialist orientation hold to the same view. A view of the current situation from the distance that foreign countries have is that the war is ended, and there is no more need for killing or trapping people. The LTTE is hardly in a position to revive its fortunes with its territorial control, which once extended to 15,000 square kilometers, now whittled down to less than six square kilometers.

However, the perceptions of the Sri Lankan parties to the conflict are different, and this is what finally matters in determining what happens on the ground. There is a worry in one section of the population, and a hope in another, that the LTTE under its leader Velupillai Pirapaharan is capable of repeating the past so long as he remains alive and in combat mode. The past experience has been of the LTTE fighting its way back to a position of strength from a position of weakness.

One example was when the Indian Peace Keeping Force battled them into the jungles in the period 1987-90, and again when the Sri Lankan army recaptured most of the north in 1995-97. On both those occasions, the LTTE withdrew into the jungles and reemerged to take back control over the territory that they had lost. The role played by the LTTE leadership in any revival in the near or distant future is what is in question today.

The other insight into the Sri Lankan belief as to what really works comes from the experience of the two Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or People’s Liberation Front, insurrections. At the conclusion of the first insurrection in 1971, the lives of nearly all of the top leaders were spared. They were captured, charged in courts of law, imprisoned, rehabilitated and pardoned. This all happened in textbook fashion in terms of process and the sequence of events.

But the outcome was not a change of heart. A decade and a half later they plotted, were provoked, planned and launched a second and bloodier insurrection and exacted a much heavier price from Sri Lankan society. At the conclusion of this second insurrection, virtually the whole of the JVP leadership were eliminated. Two decades later, with their militant leadership decimated, there is no sign of another militant revival by the JVP.

Today, it is this double experience from Sri Lanka’s past that seems to be shaping the government’s thinking and with it that of the majority of people who are behind the government in its military mode of conflict resolution. There is no doubt that the government leadership, which is in close touch with the international community, is aware of the frustration and disfavor with which its military solution is being viewed in much of the world. But it is still going ahead because of its conviction that there is no other way.

The tragedy is that by its conduct in keeping the civilians hostage, and by its refusal to accept its defeat on the battlefield, the LTTE is adding to the conviction of the government and the majority of Sri Lankan people that there is indeed no other way to end the war. Now the die appears to have been cast to the military option. In these circumstances, the best that can be done is to secure the lives of the civilian population who have already crossed over into the government-controlled areas.

The international community, which is critical of the government’s military mode of conflict resolution, is nevertheless providing much-needed humanitarian assistance to these people and is prepared to provide even more. Japan’s one-time peace envoy Yasushi Akashi was the latest international dignitary to visit the government’s welfare camps for the displaced in the north, and to pledge Japanese assistance. There is much goodwill and desire to help that needs to be accommodated in the best interest of the victim population and in keeping with the values of democracy.

(Dr. Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an independent advocacy organization. He studied economics at Harvard College and holds a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School. ©Copyright Jehan Perera.)


One Response

  1. An earnest APPEAL to all those who strive for sustainable peace in Sri Lanka
    “The lack of engagement and communication, in turn adds to the sense of estrangement. This is not in the interests of either side, particularly the Sri Lankan people who yearn for peace, a just solution to the ethnic conflict and the hope of prosperity at least for their children.” – so said Jehan Perera, National Peace Council
    With the above end in view please spare a part of your valuable time to ABSORB the views submitted below.
    Too much of time has been wasted in discussing the origins of the problems and the paths taken by various persons to solve the problems in the ways they believed as the best. The problems have grown and evolved and had been twisted by many to suit their way of thinking.
    So, it is high-time we start thinking in terms of a solution that would address NEARLY ALL THE PROBLEMS rather than continue to criticize other people for their “faults”.
    Failures are the pillars of success. We have learned a lot of things through experience. With the experiences gained we will have to work for a change of heart not just a change of mind of the people in the country.
    “People who value democracy, equality and equity, needs to pressure the Sri Lankan state to take immediate action towards a meaningful and just power sharing arrangement. That is the only way to ensure security and the dignity of the peoples of Sri Lanka.
    If peaceful coexistence through power sharing is not achievable, the only other solution that would be available will be secession” so said Mr. Lionel Bopage, former Secretary of the JVP.
    There is a vast difference in the policy and thinking of the ORIGINAL JVP to which Mr.Lionel Bopage belongs and the policy of the present JVP.
    A new concept that moves towards a meaningful and just power-sharing arrangement and which is a great deviation from the usual thinking of the meaning of the word “devolution” is given below for the perusal and comments of concerned people.
    Many, who call themselves as ‘moderates’ and advocating a “Unitary State” in principle, are not willing to consider this NEW concept which gives a certain degree of ‘power’ with ‘responsibility’ to everyone including the poor and voiceless silent majority in the country and not excluding the so-called “minorities” while still maintain the “character” of a “Unitary State”
    Now, one word, for those who are actually and sincerely interested in fostering a united country by supporting “devolution” as a means to achieve sustainable peace. Please avoid thinking in terms of “devolution” and instead please try to think in terms of “sharing” of powers, rights, duties and responsibilities that cannot be taken back at any time by any government or individual by any method.
    The best political solution to address many of the problems faced by many sections of the society – particularly the poor, the politically weak and the “minorities” who do not carry any “political weight” – would be to DILUTE the powers of all elected representatives by separating the various powers of the Parliament and empowering different sets of people’s representatives elected on different area basis to administer the different sets of the separated powers. It has to be devolution HORIZONTALLY where every set of representatives would be in the SAME LEVEL as equals and in par and NOT VERTICALLY where one set of representatives would be above (more powerful than) the other, which is the normal adopted practice when talking of devolution, in this power-hungry world. It is because of “devolution” being evolved “vertically”, we have all the trouble in this power-hungry world. So, for sustainable peace it should not be the present form of “devolution” but “dilution of powers” or “sharing of powers” in such a way that no single or set of peoples representatives – other than the common people, the voters themselves – is superior to another. This system would eradicate injustice, discrimination, bribery and corruption – the four pillars of an evil society – and help to establish the “Rule of Law” and “Rule by ALL” for sustainable peace, tranquility and prosperity and a pleasant harmonious living with dignity and respect for all the inhabitants in the country. Everyone must have “equal” powers, rights, duties and responsibilities and most importantly everyone should be deemed “equal” before the law not only on paper but also practically – be it the Head of State, The Chief Justice or the voiceless poor of the poorest in the country.
    Since all political and other powers flow from the sovereignty of the people, it is proposed herein that these powers be not given to any ONE set of representatives but distributed among different sets of representatives (groups) of the people elected on different area basis (village and villages grouped) to perform the different, defined and distinct functions of one and the same institution – the Parliament – like the organs of our body – heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, nose, ear etc. – performing different and distinct functions to enable us to sustain normal life.
    A detailed version of the concept, which is quite long is available for discussion by interested individuals with an aim to change the hearts not just a change of mind of the citizens of this country who aim to preserve a UNITARY form of Government with every section of people from every part of the country PARTICIPATING in the GOVERNANCE OF THE COUNTRY in a practical and meaningful way. In a way it may be termed “participatory democracy”. In this system the country is NOT DIVIDED but the “powers of governance’ of the Parliament is separated and administered COLLECTIVELY by different sets of peoples representatives.
    The system suggested is neither “the federalism” for which “Thanthai Chelva” worked hard through non-violent means for nearly thirty years nor a “Two State Solution” for which the LTTE is fighting through violence means for more than thirty years. It is a combination of both and is between both. The solution can be compared to the policy of the EPDP – a partner in the government – “self-governance at regional level and collective governance at the centre”. The main difference between my suggestion and that of the EPDP is that my suggestion is for sharing of power horizontally and EPDP’s suggestion is for sharing power vertically.

    Give and Take is the best policy. Rule or control your “self” and allow everyone to rule themselves.



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