Sri Lankan War Wounds Still Not Healed

After more than 25 years of tense, protracted, and bloody civil war, the guns fell silent in Sri Lanka. In May of 2009 the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as Tamil Tigers, gave Sri Lanka the golden opportunity to unite the divided island nation. Unfortunately, this never happened. The war was over; nevertheless, the conflict between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese has been gradually worsening and they were back to square one this week over the arrest of a pro-LTTE Tamil Member of Parliament — M.K. Shivajilingam — for allegedly commemorating an LTTE steward who died in a September 1987 hunger strike on the aftermath of the failed India-Sri Lanka Accord

Tamil advocacy groups have previously warned that the proclamation of “victory” over the Tamil Tigers would be a political blunder that would contradict the structural roots of the ethnic conflict in the country. People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) issued a statement warning the Sri Lankan Government that the decades old ethnic “conflict is far from over, and if the international community wishes to see decades of violence end in a just peace, it must act to acknowledge both the suffering and the rights of the Tamil community.” PEARL’s statement should be viewed with caution given the recent developments in Sri Lanka, such as the Tamil politicians’ vehement attempt to exploit the arrest of the MP to leverage their strength of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sinhala-nationalist majority government.

At the peak of this commemoration controversy, pro-government scholar and international expert on terrorism, Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, now an Honorary Professor at the Sir John Kotelawala Defense University, responded defiantly, which antagonized the Tamil politicians. “Those who glorify terrorists should be arrested, charged, tried and given the maximum punishment to deter others from following their destructive path. It will deter others funded by LTTE front organizations in the Tamil Diaspora from reviving the separatist agenda of the LTTE,” Dr. Gunaratna stated

Dr. Gunaratna continued by warning that, “If a democracy permits display of terrorist paraphernalia and allows the dissemination of propaganda, the next step will be protests and demonstrations breaking out into violence. Like the Islamic State and al Qaeda, LTTE glorified death. If commemoration and celebration of death are permitted, it will lead to a culture of destruction.” He also emphasized that “It is essential for the government to relist the delisted LTTE fronts overseas, as some of them are operating in Sri Lanka.” And recommended that “the security and intelligence platform in Sri Lanka’s north and east should continue for one generation until the separatist ideology disappears.” 

Dr. Gunaratna is perhaps stating the obvious. He is an academic striving to relate to real life situations. Terrorism that is rooted in inequality of a grieved man can best be combated by addressing political grievances. Further, Dr. Gunaratna has no solidarity with the Tamil community other than professional acquaintances. 

To make matters worse, as a Sinhala Buddhist scholar, Dr. Gunaratna is obviously biased against Tamil Hindus. Moreover, he is trying to address the symptoms of an issue, and in carrying it to an extreme, may cause other injuries and another set of symptoms with which others may have to content. However, one cannot deny Dr. Gunaratna’s right to state what he wants. He is heading a counterterrorism think tank, not a policy institute or academic institution focused on stability or sustainable peace. A butcher can only sell beef; he does not understand fish. It is also irrational to expect the butcher to serve up a tasty beef curry, since that requires a chef. A surgeon will always find an excuse to use the blade, whereas a natural medicine physician will try to heal slowly when it comes to other wounds and issues. 

The mainstream view among security practitioners, scholars and government agencies is that terrorism is wrong and undesirable, and that it is crucial to have effective policies which can eradicate or at least minimize terrorist incidences. However, just as there are varied conceptualizations of definitions of terrorism, so are there varied perspectives on how nation-states should deal with terrorist acts. 

Theories about the underlying causes of terrorism have also influenced how nation-states counter terrorism. Many scholars argue that a combination of push and pull factors are the underlying causes of terrorism. On one hand, push factors refer to adverse elements within one’s social surroundings which are likely to propel a vulnerable individual toward terrorism. They include factors such as poverty and unemployment, as well as perceptions of discrimination and political or economic marginalization. On the other hand, pull factors are ideational and psychological and are used to understand why recruits are attracted to terrorist groups. In this context, terrorist recruits may join groups they believe will give them a sense of belonging, as well as prospects of socialization benefits — such as fame and glory — that could be accrued by joining a terrorist group.

Many countries have implemented Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) projects to address the push and pull factors that lead to radicalization. The underlying rationale of CVE is that military force and extraordinary legal measures cannot on their own be used to resolve the underlying causes of terrorism. CVE focuses more on community engagement activities, including:

1. Tolerance-building dialogues through interfaith cooperation;

2. Trust-building between local law-enforcement agencies and their respective communities;

3. Political inclusion through civic engagement opportunities and community service;

4. Organizing community forums to educate young people about the dangers of extremism and

5. Training credible voices within communities, such as mothers, as advocates to counter the messages of recruiters.

During the course of nearly 40 years since the armed conflict erupted in July 1983, more than 150,000 lives have been lost in the conflict in the exotic island nation of Sri Lanka. Of course, one cannot expect the Sinhalese and Tamils to forget their past and live harmoniously as has happened in South Africa. It will take time. Now it is a country in transition. The incumbent government should give the ethnic Tamil minority reasonable autonomy, perhaps within a federal system such as Canada’s, after the rehabilitation of the displaced people and reconstruction of the war-ravaged north and east. 

Most of the 300,000 displaced Tamils have not yet been resettled in their original homes. New homes are still being built with the Indian government’s assistance. Although the rail track from Colombo to Jaffna has been repaired, the long-missed Yaldevi has resumed service, and an international airport in Jaffna has opened, the north and east of Sri Lanka remains underdeveloped and disconnected from the rest of the wider world. 

The international community should help rebuild and reconnect the war-ravaged northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. Simultaneously, the international community must also help speed up the war crime investigations and probe thousands of forced disappearances of Tamil youth. Only when the wounds of the war heal will there be the right climate for a political settlement. 

Canadian politician Tommy Douglas reminded us of the salient issues in his political allegory “Mouseland” about a troubled village of mice ruled by cats. The mice voted in black cats that represented the right-wing political parties on the spectrum, and then they discovered how hard life was. Next they voted in the white cats, that symbolized the left-wing parties, and things were different, but still not ideal for mice because the government was still run by cats. As the story continues, a mouse had the idea that mice should run their own government, not cats. This mouse was accused of being a Bolshevik and was imprisoned. The moral of the story: you can lock up a mouse or a person, but you cannot lock up an idea.

The LTTE may have been defeated militarily, but it was none other than former President Chandrika Bandaranaike who boldly stated that the LTTE was only the symptom and not the disease. The Tamils have a problem which will continue even after the LTTE is defeated, she declared after surviving an assassination attempt on her. The present and future rulers should remember and address the Tamil problem if they want lasting peace in Sri Lanka. 

Armed resistance is born in an extreme state of oppression. Militants can be eliminated, but militancy cannot in turn be eliminated as long as the underlying causes remain. Man does not live by bread alone. When all citizens are treated politically equal and there is no glaring disparity between the rich and the poor, only then will lasting peace be attained.

Featured Image: Rehman Abubakr / CC BY-SA

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