By Rajeev Sreetharan
As a child, with no roof by night or rice grain by day, it must be hard studying mathematics while multi-barrel rocket launchers blaze from nearby jungles.
In Jaffna, bodies pile, dead, nameless, mutilated, ad nauseum; in Muthurajawela marshes, they decompose; in Punguduthivu’s coast, they drift ashore on picturesque turquoise-aqua waters, barbed-wire white sands, decapitated, in fertilizer bags.
Since January 2007, hardliners hold the helm; the shadow war, shadow war’s shadow – the humanitarian crisis – have come to light, peace process shoved to the dark.
On the ground, the usual suspects – impunity avec pre-2002 nostalgia; 200,000+ refugee populations; aid shortages; a fragmenting Southern polity; a 12-month+ trend – the SLFP-UNP, GoSL-LTTE axes polarize, matching in pace the Karuna-TMVP pursuit of self-internationalization, building political identity in the global sphere, a potential harbinger of messier devolution politics.
Battle fronts push northward, Batticaloa-Amparai to Batticaloa-Mannar, a theater opens in the airspace. In Colombo, conflict transformation via committee image-branding continues, the CoI, IIGEP, APRC, ostensibly different permutations of the same set of experts, informally expected to progress, resolve no more, than Sivaram’s, Kadirgamar’s, Raviraj’s investigations, the Majority/Minority reports, the CFA, the Mahinda Chintanaya even.
After the TAF (Tiger Air Force) strike, media black out, talking points du jour, balance of threat has changed balance of power, realigning the politico-military strategic equilibrium from Vakarai’s fall to post-Katunayaka’s aftermath. The defense establishment caught with its 2-D’s down, one aircraft strike has given months of reportage detailing Sinhala primacy and diminishing LTTE military capability a twist.
However, LTTE strategy sans the Katunayaka anomaly, lurks in Vanni’s thickets fluctuat nec mergitur, between guerilla strategic withdrawal, conventional defeat. The current dispensation’s strategy is more visible, opting to place all its mortar shells in one basket, upon a three tenet edifice:
1. In the post-9/11 international system, Lanka has sufficient political capital as a state actor, a weak player in the global economy, with a conflict lacking a transnational threat-component, to weather international opprobrium on the humanitarian rights front.
2. Despite Karuna’s assumed raison d’etre, anti-LTTE = pro-GOSL, and 28-year anti-GoSL v. 3-year+ anti-LTTE alignment, the Rajapaksa Administration perceives the alleged SLA-Karuna dependency stable enough, militarily, politically, to hold the East until the Northern theatre is won in the 3-year timeframe.
3. The post- Vakarai push for the North, inter alia LTTE military capacity, presumes a strategic rationalization that SLA territorial gains are more attributable to SLA strength than Karuna’s 2004 defection.
Beyond polity fragmentation, ipso facto improbabilities of North-South diplomatic renormalization, three invisible drivers shape Eelam war IV’s trajectory: counter-terrorism regime alignment, dependency on highly localized infrastructure, Lanka’s changing ‘democracy’.
As GoSL has learned via hard knocks, a hard line, counter-terrorism regime alignment as a state actor bears challenges, and failure to balance the protection of national security and human rights can lead to either international opprobrium, unwanted shifts in military power balance. The negative repercussions of refugees, privation has manifested, as Samarasinghe/Sooriyarchi forewarned, which conflated with the LTTE countering SLA defensive aggression with guerilla soft power balancing, in concert, paints a post-2007 picture of an aggressive GoSL, a defensive LTTE, thereby temporarily mitigating polarizing impacts of ‘LTTE’ identity in the post-9/11 international sphere. This has also pushed GoSL-LTTE symmetry of international isolation, vis-à-vis human rights, terrorism, historically closest to level, the sparse international media backlash inter alia Katunayaka, Weber stadium, LTTE’s Paris hierarchy, demonstration effects.
These shortcomings, though blemishing a regime legitimacy already tarnished by a rolling laundry list of post-9/11 no-nos and allegations, including SLFP-LTTE/SLA-Karuna collusion, are not irreversible. Changing GoSL image may face limited political ramifications beyond naming-and-shaming, given transnational bilateral agreements made in Hambantota while conflict, humanitarian crisis spread. In the short, this trend frames a counter-terrorism alignment legitimating conflict escalation, necessitating a paradoxical dualism: balancing the selective localization of human rights, Karuna, impunity with the selective transnationalization of the LTTE threat.
The second driver is infrastructure. What’s disputed in Lanka’s historical narrative, subjectively, can be ascertained from Lanka’s infrastructure, empirically.
Outside the (semi)urban Colombo-Kandy core, responsible for approximately half Lanka’s GDP, the rest of Lanka, more or less, is an agricultural colony with globalized nooks. The distribution of infrastructure prima facie, implies inter-regime proclivities in the ethno-populist discourse and southern polity’s overarching stance towards state-building, integration, reconstruction, relief, and socio-economy inter alia the Northeast issue. As Eelam IV presses northward, infrastructural geometry will become a security force Achilles heel. To fuel a multi-year offensive in the North and hold the East with Lanka’s extant military-industrial complex, with GDP concentrated in the Colombo-Kandy core and dominant theater of war concentrated in the Northeast, the push is sustainable, but not self-sustaining. In these areas, there’s negligible formal economy integration; the High security zones, camps in KKS/Palaly are dependent on highly localized infrastructure segregated from local communities, in turn disconnected from Colombo-Kandy.
‘Liberating the North’ will logistically stipulate a network of center-to-periphery supply lines, pulling capital, cadres, resources from Colombo-Kandy, a hurdle born of decades of postindependence underdevelopment. By 2010, this may induce: inflation, relief related Donor dependency, pursuit of economic bilateral agreements and bandwagoning within a regional bloc thereby distributing war’s economic, security costs.
The third driver is a changing tension between Lankan and non-Lankan “democracy”. Is democracy just the ballots, or is it more? What of institutional underpinnings? Constitutional liberalism?
Contemporary political instabilities in emergent democracies as Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, East Timor, and aspiring states like Kosovo, in addition to post-2003 U.S.-democratization efforts in the Middle East, equaling the Rwandan genocide in death toll, have complicated answers.
In the global discourse, the Rajapaksa Administration’s soft power strategy partly leverages the historical political capital of Euro-Atlantic democracies in Lanka’s democratic image, at times equating the former, to the latter. In this process, Lankan “democratic norms,” like impunity, ‘white van abductions’, are replaced with Euro-Atlantic democratic norms of humanism, constitutional liberalism, rule of law. Lanka’s ‘sovereign democracy’ – a la the post-Soviet Russian coinage – is in this scenario a cross-pollinated hybrid of Lankan and Euro-Atlantic democracy, a form of ideological bandwagoning, which in addition to creating a platform for international community non-engagement creates a stronger argument within the ethnic conflict for the state actor and status quo vis-à-vis terrorism, human rights, security, Westphalian homogeneity.
In coming months, the Southern consensus and consequences may shape a leadership increasingly driven by Manichean paranoia and neoliberal hubris, the former a lacunae semi-axiomatic of waging hybrid guerilla-conventional warfare where territorial gains may not alter balance of threat, the latter, a necessary evil of Eelam IV’s economic burden, a choice presupposing Lankan modernity can cope with Western modernization.
From the purview of constructive de-escalation, in retrospect, Vakarai was no different than Katunayaka given no ethno-politicization of populism; Mahinda Chintanaya, no different than Maveerar Naal, given non-distortion of conflict drivers; Weber Stadium no different than Maavilaru, Pooneryn, given peacekeeper security is unilaterally endorsed; A-9 closure, no different than Maavilaru, given human suffering is non-hierarchical.
To speak of devolution models now, amidst armed division, is akin to reaching for an umbrella in a hurricane. Power-sharing analysis, from Panchayat to Belgian/Canadian/Swiss models to federated unitary forms and the like, are ad hominem, at the moment unlikely to pave paths from division to de-escalation, better reserved for post-negative peace rapprochement, renormalization period.
Regardless of where in the post-independence to post-9/11 continuum you delimit context, subtext, Eelam ‘X’s timeless ecosystem persists untouched– an inter-regime cycle of violence and voicelessness on the periphery, the metastasization of transitional injustice and culture of impunity, together an arranged marriage of convenience, plaguing the fragile peace process. Lack of transparency, information flow due to deteriorating human security environs, have thrown self-defense, preemption, prevention in a blender, giving the Bismarckian precept – preventive war is suicide in fear of death – a Machiavellian twist.
So, can Karuna become Kryptonite? Is intra-Lanka, the same as pan-Sinhala? In democracy, is it “democratic” to speak of elections given massive displacement, dislocation? Will ballots in the East beget blood in the South?
There aren’t simple answers. We’re left with the same battle, different bromides – ‘Giddensianism’ at the center, ‘Wilsonianism’ at the periphery, all ultimately, flowery language to describe battlefields where few roses bloom, to comprehend a conflict cycle which currently, using bodies as thread, has sutured hawk wings to bloody branches of the olive grove.
Whichever way you respin spin to reinterpret interpretations of Lanka’ interdependent histories, casualties of war congeal, and as Cicero said, inhumanitas omni aetate molesta est- inhumanity is harmful in every age.