A War without Reporters

By Jayadeva Uyangoda

There are three main casualties in the raging war between the government and the LTTE: civilians, combatants, and information, in the alphabetical order. This is a war without reporters, a war about which the citizens as well as the outside world are being kept deliberately uninformed. According to the weekend English press, the government is contemplating a patriotic law. Will the proposed law ensure that the citizens remain further uninformed about the war and its day-to-day consequences?

Civilian Casualties

Events so far have also exposed the degree of callousness with which the two protagonists to this war treat the civilians caught up in the war. Creating an unmanageable humanitarian crisis, or a series of crises, seems to be a part of the LTTE’s immediate strategic objectives. The government, on the other hand, does not seem to show a great deal of commitment to assisting large numbers of displaced civilians who happen to be Tamils and Muslims.

Stories now coming from the survivors of Muttur are replete with horrendous acts of anti-civilians violence perpetrated by LTTE combatants on the Muslim community. These acts of forcible displacement and murder, allegedly committed by the LTTE, appear to be pre-meditated. They will make Tamil-Muslim reconciliation impossible for many years to come. And the government’s lukewarm attitude to the reported excesses by members of the armed forces does not say much about the capacity of the Rajapakse administration to extricate Sri Lanka from the present crisis.

Some ideological gurus of the government’s war efforts repeatedly argue in Colombo’s English press that ‘enemy’ civilian casualties are unavoidable in war. But the nature of this war is that it produces civilian casualties in considerably large numbers. Both sides have been using heavy weapons, fired from a distance – the government resorts to air strikes, long-range artillery and mortars and the LTTE long-range artillery and mortars. Deaths and injuries apart, civilians are being displaced in hundreds and sometimes thousands. As we have seen in propaganda photographs, bodies of dead combatants are allowed to rot in the battlefield. This is a very cruel war, indeed.

Meanwhile, aid agencies have found it difficult to reach the displaced, because there is no adequate cooperation from the warring parties. If this war has demonstrated anything new, it is that both the government had the LTTE have not grown up at all in the business of conducting an internal war. It is a pity that the global humanitarian authorities appear to tolerate this extremely distressing dimension of Sri Lanka’s current phase of war.

Confusion

Meanwhile, the citizens continue to stay in a state of absolute confusion about what is really happening. While President Rajapakse has been insisting that it is not war but merely a defensive, retaliatory, limited and ‘humanitarian’ operation, his influential ally, Mr. Wimal Weerawansa, has been visiting major army camps to address the soldiers and prepare them for a final patriotic war to protect the ‘unitary’ form of the motherland. When Deputy Defence Minister Ratwatte addressed the soldiers to motivate them to war, he also insisted that devolution and power-sharing was necessary to resolve the ethnic conflict. Our young friend does not seem to have any such ‘wrong’ ideas. The Manel Mal movement is not by any measure a mobilizational campaign for a defensive, limited war.

As much as hardliners have taken over the political push for an all-out war in the South, their counterparts are calling the shots in the North too. The LTTE seems to be relying entirely on a military strategy. In its execution, they have not shown much concern for humanitarian consequences. In fact, recurrent creation of complex humanitarian emergencies for the government seems to be a part of the LTTE’s calculations.

Political Consequences

The unfolding war is also producing its other political consequences. It is creating new tension between ethnic communities. It spreads hatred, fears and suspicions. War never helps community reconciliation and inter-ethnic peace. Meanwhile, some influential political actors see dissent as treachery. Advocacy of peace is portrayed as aligning with the enemy. The Bush doctrine on war on terrorism has already emerged in some circles: “either you are with us; or you are with the enemy, the terrorists.’

Will there be any space for the negotiations to resume? It may be the case that until some major military outcome of the war becomes clear, the parties will find it extremely difficult to return to the negotiation table. This is a war being fought to secure strategic objectives, not to resolve the conflict. Each side is committed to weakening the adversary in the battlefield. An unintended outcome of it would be for a new stalemate to emerge based not on strategic gains, but on catastrophic losses.

Patriotic Law?

Meanwhile, the war is beginning to have its negative impact on the democratic atmosphere in the country. The talks about the patriot law are not a good sign for democracy. Patriotism by legislation is actually a big joke and a big mistake. It can only fragment the polity further, institutionalizing very narrow and dangerous categories of ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors.’

Those who propose this potentially repressive legislation do not seem to have long political memories. They have not been in the democracy struggle either. The commitment of both the JVP and JHU to liberal democratic values in governance is quite thin. This indeed constitutes one of the major contradictions in the coalition regime presided over by President Rajapakse. The political visions and practices the President’s key political allies emanate from anti-systemic authoritarian desires of our society. They cannot take the country forward.

One would have hoped that after nearly thirty yeas of war, violence and setbacks to democracy, political parties had learnt that more democracy, and not less democracy, is the way to handle social and political conflict. Only the other day, a pro-government English daily reminded the country that President Rajapakse has a background in human rights and democracy activism. Let us hope the President continues to be committed to more democracy, resisting pressures from his coalition partners for less democracy.

Sri Lanka’s own experience shows that regimes that have resorted to authoritarian and repressive measures to fight even civil war have not come out unscathed. Both Jayewardene and Premadasa administrations thought that draconian legislation restricting civil and political rights, and using state power in its purely military and repressive forms, would help the state to fight the internal war successfully. Ultimately, they came to grief. Incidentally, Mr. Premadasa partially succeeded by crushing the JVP in 1988-1989 by means exceedingly anti-democratic methods. It is a sad irony that the victims of that bloody state repression are now the chief sponsors of attempts at re-arming the state with new repressive powers.

Peace through War?

It is now clear that neither the government nor the LTTE would be interested in a peace settlement until a new strategic equilibrium emerges. Sadly, the path to such peace is war. That is not the kind of peace people in this country would want. The peace that the citizens of this country deserve is peace without war, and not peace through war. Mass mobilization for peace through peaceful means is what the country needs in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully, the peace rallies and other initiatives promoted by various civil society groups might have that ‘butterfly effect’ to galvanise a broad social and inter-ethnic coalition for peace and democracy.

Meanwhile, unless prevented from escalating, the war started with Mavil Aru battle is likely determine the future dynamics of the ethnic conflict as well as the shape of the Sri Lankan state. It is too early to predict its possible directions. One only hopes that the government’s key decision makers are aware of the political risks and perils of what the media calls the Eelam War IV. [focusLanka]

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