By Rajeev Sreetharan
“There will be a political vacuum in the ethnic relations of this country as long as devolution is a non-starter, a mere word in the south. Despite the balance of forces, the cease-fire cannot survive for long in this political vacuum.” – Dharmeratnam Sivaram, 25.8.2004, ISGA Bashing: Much Ado about Nothing.
Almost three years later, all’s manifest. Optics vis-à-vis the humanitarian dimension, are nothing short of egregious. The 2002 cease-fire agreement, as legit today as Eelam IV is undeclared, has taken shrapnel in every clause but 4.4, as the SLA pushes North, violence of the Tigers remaining silent, docile, implying guerilla strategy, weakness, or both.
In the contemporary context, there’s no trust between the parties or mutually recognized platform for talks, thus no framework for peace. Whether or not opprobrium apropos human rights is sustainable, as long as the ground-based international dimension is impotent and multilateral military aid continues to flow, so will the war, regardless of how many devolution proposals collect atop an APRC table more likely to make excuses than move mountains.
Atavistically regressing into ‘no war no peace’, an overarching ‘no trust no talks’ endgame emerges, where escalation of the former perpetuates and ossifies the latter, typecasting war, the solitary exit strategy. Developments over the past months, on and off the battlefield portray a near diametric politico-military polarization between the South and North. This has passed a point-of-no-return whereby demonstrable leadership of one is increasingly liberated by its unpopularity in the other, as formally recognized structural constraints to an escalatory conflict cycle become more nebulous, cosmetic, per diem.
No simple reversal of fortune exists to return to a negotiating table based on a different military balance of power, negative peace dividend, vision of Lanka’s future. Collapse of the peace process, has in tandem constructed an edifice of retrogression, upon which the daily, dogmatic compulsion for war will make it increasingly harder to return to peace without passing through a ‘war for peace’ first.
The edifice of retrogression is defined politically by the SLFP devolution proposals which demarcated a new era of Eelam IV, militarily by the image and ground realities of SLA’s offensive dominance, and internationally, by the GoSL-LTTE relative symmetry of Western isolation.
First, in a broader context, from the 2005 Presidential elections through the de-merger ruling through Vakarai to the 2007 SLFP proposals to the June eviction of Tamils from Colombo to the recent banning of Tamilnet, upon a backdrop of human rights intransigence, there has been a linear trend of polarization and conflict escalation driven predominantly by the Rajapaksa Administration. In this context, the SLFP proposals were perfect, not for conflict resolution but for the contemporary historical moment, demarcating a more confrontational phase within Eelam IV, showing the international community a titular recommitment to a defunct peace process, playing to the Sinhala electorate, both necessary illusions for the administration’s presiding illusion of necessity, the military option.
Despite the hyperatomism and conditional autonomy put forth in the proposals which theoretically would make devolved regions conditionally non-autonomous, the proposal was aligned with the 2005 Presidential election manifesto’s raison d’etre, creating more space to prosecute war. The demonstration effect has buffered international actors under the aegis of the COI/APRC/IIGEP platform, bolstered internal support by stoking the same waves of JVP-JHU MoU dependencies and Southern populism which the SLFP rode to election.
This makes the SLFP proposals at this juncture, the Mahinda Chintanaya’s reincarnation, the SLFP Chintanaya, resonating dualities of Kumaratunga’s 1995 devolution package, presently, demarcating Rajapaksa’s end of the beginning a la the East, beginning of the end a la the North.
Secondly, when conquest comes easy, arguments for preventive/ preemptive war carry more weight. SLA military advantage in the East, despite determinants of LTTE regional strength/weakness and pre-existing presence, ‘strategic exfiltration’, an amorphous and ambiguous Karuna-Pillaiyan variable, in the media has been monolithically compressed into the moniker of SLA offensive dominance. This may prove costly as it obscures balance of forces with balance of de facto territorial sovereignty inter alia the strategic value and cost of holding non-governed spaces in the Northeastern theatre, while also distorting balance of threat vis-a-vis the guerilla dimension.
Furthermore, the perception of SLA offensive dominance is self-reinforcing, semiaxiomatic of structural asymmetries inherent in the South-heavy media complex afflicted by censorship, the opacity as well as the infrastructural and institutional deficits of the Northeast. Offensive dominance is also known to intensify arms racing, which has been conducted and supported openly in Lanka despite opprobrium: America, China, Pakistan, India.
However, there are downsides. As the SLA pushes North, supply lines will lengthen, increasing challenges and costs, given the vulnerabilities inherent in the terrain. Also, populations cannot be mobilized indefinitely if the civilian economy is to continue to function and Donor dependencies to be mitigated. The thinking and actions of the current dispensation in the military sphere, will ultimately expand the Northeastern theatre of war southward, and the assumption of pan-regional LTTE weakness, including the guerilla dimension, may prove dangerous.
Thirdly, the GoSL-LTTE symmetry of relative Western isolation has leveled, due to GoSL opprobrium for human rights and LTTE withdrawal/defeat on the military front, in concert creating a climate conducive to open criticism of the GoSL and measured tolerance of the LTTE, a new strategic equilibrium arising largely from an 11-month post-Mavil Aru period driven predominantly by the army. The catalogue of humanitarian woes committed by both parties, GoSL’s ineffective diplomatic campaigns abroad to manage tension on the human rights front, and the LTTE reaching saturation point inter alia isolation last summer, following EU/Canadian bans, reinforce this shift to symmetry.
If the SLA’s offensive dominance is not as strong as advertised and the structural impediments to ensuring security across the island are still vulnerable to the guerilla attack, the symmetry of relative isolation creates an environment where just as the international community has turned a blind eye towards the escalation driven by the current dispensation, it may in measured form do the same for the LTTE.
From Kumaratunga to Rajapaksa, Lanka’s peace process has regressed from a negotiated platform theoretically conducive to secular pluralism to the prospects of a settlement increasingly defined by xenophobic tribalism in pursuit of nothing less than the telos of totalitarian peace through just war. Modern Lanka suffocates in an ethos of ethic cleansing, where there is no code of ethics, moral center, respect for erga omnes norms upon which sovereignty is defined. Descending further into an isolated polarization, there is only the code of gehuwoth gahannan realpolitik governing the incumbency’s modus vivendi, which on the human rights front, has transgressed even the inchoate and malleable global rubric of post-9/11 jus in bello which has weathered atrocities such as Guantanamo prisons, the Darfur genocide, the Iraq debacle.
In the end, the edifice of retrogression is hardened by the administration’s asphyxiating ethos of ethic cleansing, which follows a no-holds barred approach to conflict resolution, be it human rights violations, acts of ethnic cleansing, a hardening culture of self-censorship and sousveillance, neglect of a predominantly non-Sinhala humanitarian crisis, or isolating Lanka from the West as Lanka fights a ‘war on terror’ defined and driven by the West.
The reality is ‘no war no peace’ – the endgame is ‘no trust no talks’ where unapologetic militarism is marketed as the only exit strategy. All the while authoritarianism surges in the center, a policy of self-isolation metastatizes vis-à-vis balance of Western aid donors, the ‘open arms’ of China, India, Pakistan, Japan, a counterweight to finger-pointing from America, England.
We have been at this crossroads before – the doorstep of full scale war. Maybe we have to accept that a predominantly non-Sinhala humanitarian crisis, alone, may never be a catalyst for conflict transformation, alone. Maybe the simple math of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism is as existential to the conflict as the Prabhakharan factor.
As long as we fail to differentiate symptoms of a weak state from trends symptomatic of escalating war (i.e. culture of impunity, humanitarian crisis), as long as we separate the Tamil civilian and Tiger cadre in the political sphere yet conflate them in the national security context, sans structural change in the status quo, Lanka’s woes will deteriorate, recur, ad infinitum.
If ‘democracy’ prevails on this path where ‘devolution is a non-starter, a mere word in the South,’ it shall pass through deballatio first, with the blinding hubris of a Leviathan, polluted by the overt Orwellianism of an enlightened demagogy whose centralized thinking accelerates back to the future, towards the golden years of Bandaranaike, around the bend to the so-called glory days of Ceylon.
The lofty rhetoric of ‘word and deed’ and ‘heart and mind’ will beget realities of Lankan blood and bone, sooner than later, if the tide doesn’t turn.