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Sri Lanka at a Crossroads: Need to Win the Peace

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  • September 16, 2015

    History shows that there is nothing called a clean war. As someone said, when the war is over it is not always pertinent to judge who was right, it is perhaps more important to find out who is left.

    As the Second World War drew to a close, the conscious decision to use atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 aimed at bringing expansionist imperial Japan to its knees and the gruesome firebombing of Dresden in eastern Germany in February of the same year by the Anglo-American Air Force to drive the fear of God into Hitler’s Nazi rule are among the most potent reminders of unclean wars. Both caused innumerable civilian deaths, especially of women and children. A whole encyclopaedia can be written on the civilian casualties, some with lingering health issues, in the Vietnam War and those in Laos and Cambodia who were caught up in Henry Kissinger’s crossfire in Indochina.

    Thus when one talks about civilian deaths, tragic and unacceptable as they were, as the Sri Lankan military launched its decisive offensive against the murderous LTTE in the north of the country, the more objective observers argued for seeing things in the larger perspective and not rush into a value judgment.

    The reason I highlight these events is only to underline that civilian deaths have always been the tragic part of all wars. It is this aspect that makes ethnic and sectarian wars so fundamentally wrong.

    The Sinhala-Tamil ethnic divide, which eventually turned into one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history, has a history of its own. One cannot be faulted for pointing a finger at the divide and rule policy of the British colonialists when they ruled this Indian Ocean Island for almost two centuries, coinciding with their rule of the Indian subcontinent. The minority Hindu Tamils, who hadbeen living in the North and the East of the Island for more than a millennium, perhaps two,always felt alienated from, and discriminated against by, the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. Not all of these feelings were only perceived, many werereal.

    In postcolonial South Asia, a combination of narrow, parochial, chauvinisticattitudes, coupled withshort-sighted regional geo-political power play and interests, both within Sri Lanka and outside, did little to narrow the distrust. In fact, they further fuelled them. True, Tamils were in the forefront in business and civil administration of post independent Ceylon, subsequently called Sri Lanka. This is because they were, and are, as a group, hardworking, intelligent, articulate and industrious. They are also a more driven lot. But like minorities elsewhere, they too suffered from a perennial sense of persecution. Winning them over with the right policies and concessions where needed had to be the priority for the early political leaders.

    In the case of Sri Lanka, such traits were not in abundant supply among the Sinhala dominated political leadership. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 and thecollapse of the Bandarnaike-Chelvanayakam pact of 1957 are proofs of such shortcomings. Like in all such cases, each side blamed the other for the failure, further entrenching the deep distrust and widening the fault line between the two communities. The retaliatory riots of 1983, following the killing of 13 Sri Lankan military personnel by a Tamil group, when anything up to a thousand or more Tamils in Colombo were killed by Sinhalese hordes and Tamil homes were ransacked and torched while the authorities stood silently by, brought an already simmering discontent to the fore. The LTTEin its violent form under Vellupillai Prabhakaran was born. Regional politics in the form of interference then fed into the fray. In the end, it took the shape of a bloody war between the Sinhalese lion and the Tamil tiger, ironically, both Sri Lankan. The teardrop gem in the middle of the Indian Ocean had by then been drenched in its own blood.

    As the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka for four eventful and yet traumatic years between 1991 and 1995, I was in a position to see things first hand as one after another top Sri Lankan political leaders were brutally assassinated by the LTTE. The long list of victims included President Ranasinghe Premadasa as well as presidential aspirants Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. I had developed close friendship with all of them and they all had been good friends of Bangladesh. I also had an outreach to Tamil leaders, especially those who still nurtured hopes for a peaceful and an acceptable solution.

    The way I saw it as an observer, the West was ready to buy the Tamil grievances in the past without anyqualification. The Tamil diaspora in Europe and North America succeeded in articulating their case in a manner that the West fell for it hook, line and sinker. It was all a bit one sided and palpably unfair. The dynamics of the internal politics of the large Indian State of Tamil Nadu across the Palk Straits and its looming shadow on Sri Lanka’s body politic had also become a factor, not always a positive one. This only strengthened the Tamil hardliners as evidenced in the LTTE and Prabhakaran emerging as the strongest and perceptibly the sole voice of the Tamil community.The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in Tamil Nadu made it clear that Prabhakaran’s outreach had gone beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. His terroristic modus operandi should have caused the international community to proscribe him and his outfit long before it was actually done. A more balanced approach that included a tougher stand on the LTTE, ensured justice and fairness for all and preserved the unity and national integrity of Sri Lanka, was needed.

    On being elected President in 2005, Mahinda Rajapakse, riding on a wave of Sinhalese nationalism, resolved to invoke the military option to bring the war to an end. There was enough justification, and support, for such an approach. The LTTE under the unbending and ruthless leadership of Prabhakaran had adopted a hard line approach and had closed all other options. Prabhakaran had over the years taken most moderate Tamils out of the equation by simply killing them in cold blood. The dead included such personalities as Neelan Tiruchelvam, Kumar Ponnambalam and Foreign Minister Lakhshman Kadirgamar. He saw them as betrayers to his “cause”. The sense of fear among the moderate Tamils was pervasive.

    The military superiority, which the Sri Lankan armed forces had acquired over time, proved decisive. The LTTE, already facing some dissensions within, was roundly defeated. Prabhakaran, who looked invincible till then, lay among the dead.
    President Rajapakse had won the war in the battlefield. The general public reacted with a sense of euphoria, not just because that the LTTE had been defeated but more that prospects for peace had become real. The challenge for Rajapakse now was winning the peace and winning the heart and minds of the Tamil population, especially those in the North and the East of the country who had for so long been used to being ruled by Prabhakaran. How far Rajapakse had moved in that direction since the end of the war had remained a major question. The chest thumping celebrations of the Sri Lankan Military at every anniversary of the fall of Jaffna, even long after the event, would have given little comfort to the Tamil community. In fact, they felt humiliated.

    As the fallout from the Versailles Treaty at the end of the First World War reminds us, humiliating the vanquished is not always the best way forward. The rise of bellicose German nationalism under Hitler proved how such moves could be devastatingly counterproductive. Celebrating victory over your own people cannot become an annual ritual, especially when the trust deficit ran deep and not enough confidence building measures had become visible. Rajapakse’s government had consistently refused to open the country to outside scrutiny of the alleged excesses by both sides during the final days of the war and the conditions of those displaced internally by the war. For this, he and his government had faced international criticism and censure, albeit, not always fairly.

    President Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally of Rajapakse who unseated him earlier this year as President, has shown early signs of a more reconciliatory move. The victory of the UNP Alliance in the recent Parliamentary elections means Ranil Wickremesinghe retains the office of the Prime Minister. The combination should augur well for genuine reconciliation. However, for both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, this is a challenge of unprecedented proportions. Indeed, they are faced with the Himalayan task of moving the country towards enduring peace and stability. The challenge is heightened by the fact that it has taken more than three decades and more than a generation to deepen the divide. Sri Lanka cannot afford to wait anywhere near that long to bridge the gap and generate mutual trust. What the country needs is genuine goodwill and support from all stakeholders inside and outside to move the reconciliation process forward and build on the peace, and all at the right pace.

    It must also not be forgotten that Rajapakse’s defeat in the Presidential elections earlier this year and in the subsequent Parliamentary polls had more to do with issues of governance and his autocratic style of running the affairs of the state, not so much his handling of the Tamil issue. Many in Sri Lanka will continue to credit Rajapakse for bringing the bloody war to an end, especially where his predecessors had failed. He is also credited for the consequent dramatic upward turn of the island’s economy. Investor confidence in Sri Lanka is on a sustained high. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will be well advised not to lose sight of that side of reality while seeking genuine reconciliation. Striking the right balance through a series of tangible measures needs to be the order of the day. The international community, both near and far, should exercise a degree of caution before pushing too hard, lest the whole process gets derailed.Along with the genuine grievances of the Tamil minority, Sinhala sentiments need to be taken into account. The role of the hard-line Buddhist clergy will need tactful handling. The military’s sentiments may need to be factored in.Anything perceived as being one sided can give rise to a new set of obstacles. The wounds on both sides are still fresh as they are deep. Healing them cannot be an overnight exercise. A combination of short term steps, midterm measures and long term planning needs to be set in motion.This could include Constitutional and legal arrangements where felt necessary.

    The author is a former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh and had served as the High Commissioner and Ambassador of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Germany, Vietnam and the United States.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India