A Ballet of Bullets and Ballots

By Rajeev Sreetharan

A thought-experiment: if a tree falls in a forest upon deaf ears, did it make a sound? If children are abducted in Batticaloa without witnesses, was there LTTE/Karuna recruitment? If shells rain in Jaffna without media coverage, did anyone die?

Relapsing from post-2007 to pre-2002, momentarily embracing a path to Eelam IV over Geneva III, in coming weeks the parties may find themselves between a (Alan) Rock and a hard line, as these metaphysical questions may find physical salience on the ground, in places like Kadavaanaikulam, Valachchennai refugee camps, trilingual headlines, makeshift bedrooms of Vakarai-Muttur-Sampur IDPs, given the proclivity towards political compromise and intention to tilt a future political negotiating platform in the present, militarily.

Though there’s no military solution, capitulated ad nauseam by the international community, there’s a dominant military agenda. The gestalt modus vivendi seems to be, si vis pacem para bellum, reflecting GoSL/LTTE strategic stances which have scripted a string of offensive defensives from Mavil Aru to Sampur to Muhamalai to Vakarai to recent maritime insurgency and counter-insurgency campaigns, embedded within a linear trend of conflict escalation since the 2005 Presidential election, LTTE-driven boycott.

The peace process collapse into GoSL-LTTE politico-military polarization illuminates the continued challenge of conflict transformation, implying 2002-2006 was essentially Eelam “x” holding its breath. The human security vacuum in the East, reinstatement of PTA, the de-merger ruling, and tacit skepticism of the APRC and IIGEP in the short regarding containment, are all conducive to conflict escalation, downgrading the CFA and Geneva Conventions to conditional privileges rather than unconditional rights in certain regions.

After Vakarai, equations have changed. Intellectual positions on depopulation, demographic composition, de-merger, devolution have translated into the viscera of death, destruction, displacement, despair on the ground. After President Rajapaksa’s press statement from Vakarai itself, based on zero-sum territorial valuations of power, Lanka’s military pendulum is at a pro-GoSL tilt. As Eelam IV may intensify in the North, as the language of force subjugates the diplomacy of compromise, as the procetion of national security further obscures the plight of human rights, international/domestic elements of the GoSL-LTTE post-Vakarai strategic equilibrium warrant unpacking.

Internationally, on the U.S. front, spreading anti-American sentiment apropos the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy, benchmarked by the democratic congressional majority in November 2006 and end of the Bush Administration in 2008, may alter the international counter-terrorism climate, to carte-blanche avec human rights constraints. Given the surge of 20,000 American troops to Iraq, Condoleeza Rice’s activity in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia and restarting moribund Isreali-Palestine talks aim to generate breathing space for setbacks in the region against a backdrop of growing opposition from Syria, a nuclear Iran. If America’s pressured into passive Eurasian diplomacy by a de facto anti-American alliance, comprised of nations like Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, increasingly, America will become further dependent upon bilateral ties with India, China, and thus Lanka. By 2017, the emerging Russia-India-China axis may shift an eroding post-Cold War American hegemony toward a multi-actor world order, where the U.S.-India, and thus U.S.-Lanka bilateral tie will rise in strategic saliencec.

Overall, U.S.-Lanka engagement and Rice’s December 2006 message, a solution “lies in a negotiated settlement that meets the aspirations of all communities,” incorporate longer-term ambitions of American presence in the South Asian region, tangentially granting proximity to a rising India, nuclear North Korea. Statements from Nicholas Burns, Rice, should be interpreted without quarantining U.S.-Lanka relations from U.S.-Middle East policy, a changing U.S. international image vis-à-vis the “war on terror” as seen from above, the terror of war, as seen from below.

The Netherlands/India have displayed reciprocal engagement policies. The SLMM, reduced to Nordic/Icelandic nationals post-EU ban, in liaise with GoSL/LTTE leadership, has decided to curtail its engagement during this period of conflict escalation, like Norwegian mediation, for facilitation is only effective when diplomatic channels between negotiating parties are open. India, impelled by GoSL’s rebalancing of defensive militancy and humanitarian norms, TNA- Karunanidhi pressure on Delhi, has pulled out of the Sampur thermal power plant project and initiated a de facto Indo-Lanka military embargo. Also, in contraposition to President Rajapaksa’s strategy of addressing counter-terrorism and economic growth in parallel, Praful Patel of the World Bank at the Galle Development Forum stressed development vision can’t exist independently of the conflict.

In the domestic sphere, as GoSL-LTTE are militarily deadlocked in Nash equilibrium, each perceiving the other immune to self-initiated changes in strategy towards de-escalation, the TMVP’s trying to create a legitimate political identity in the East, shedding its para-militant genesis. Capitalizing on a collapsed peace process due to war, and SLFP-UNP MoU due to the cross-over issue, as parties jockey for composition of a future parliamentary majority, the SLFP, UNP, and SLFP-SLMC MoU may play off each other, jockeying for position based on increased dependencies the Rajapaksa administration may perceive with the SLFP-(JVP-JHU) axis. However, stabilizing the multiparty eco-system, the idée fixe du jour, despite prominence in reportage, may not impact the North-South dialectic, intensifying humanitarian crisis, de-escalation dividend given differentials in the subnational security and negative peace agendas as calculated by GoSL-LTTE leadership.

As civil society, treading in the complex interdependence of political identities, ethno-politicization of socio-economic and humanitarian issues, it’s easy to lose the wood from the trees: in the Eelam “x” context, ethnolinguism, party politics, caste, culture, mytho-history, and religion are simply different prisms to interpret collective privation, a means of subconsciously aestheticizing powerlessness to further mute the cries of the voiceless and safeguard current distributions of privilege.

Such complexities of nation-building have blurred the urgent need for state-building and crisis of intra-Lanka institutional overstretch. The mea culpa of militarized machtpolitik in a post-9/11 global system is, as domestic visibility increases internationally, how normative governance within a state balances counter-terrorism and humanitarian norms will become a lever of compromise in future negotiations, for both GoSL/LTTE.

From the Peloponnesian War over two thousand years ago – caused, in Thucydides’ famous words, by “the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”—to Eelam IV and the growth of SLA presence in the East and the fear this may cause in Kilinochchi, to the Vakarai exodus/Peloponnesian Pride attack, the divisive tensions sustaining conflict boil down to simpler tensions between national/ subnational insecurity, how we are governed where we live.

Through a mother’s eye, the fallen are children; through eyes of war, the dead are martyrs. Each cloud of MBRL smoke, capsule of cyanide, grain of flour, molecule of funeral ash co-author Lanka’s modern history, a beast that mutates with no memory, consciousness, emotion. At the moment, aspirations to build a multicultural, multiethnic cosmopolitan society writhe beneath the plural monocultural mantra, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” chanted on both sides of the subnational fulcrum.

As LTTE strategize apropos rebalancing politico-military parity pre-Geneva III, the Rajapaksa Administration choreographs the next act of Lanka’s Eelam IV ballet: ballots in the East, bullets in the North.

The path to peaceful co-existence remains via mutual commitments to compromise, replacing the drive to seek legitimacy in our ancestors by seeking meaning in our children. Whether within imagined geographies drawn by the Mahavamsa, Mahabaratha, Rajapaksa regime, the British Raj, to maps of where suicide bombs and aerial bombardments strike, the leadership’s challenge is that of catalyzing conflict transformation through peaceful change, which still, prima facie, remains terra incognita.

To engage in war, on some level, one must distort the idea of humanity – divide it completely by uniting partially. Dostoevsky wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Today, in Lanka, it can be judged by hiring a van, driving up A-15.

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