Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Pyrrhic Victory

The LTTE might be on the cusp of defeat, but no viable solution to the ethnic conflict is in the offing.

Not very long ago, commentators on the Sri Lankan conflict were hinting that the latest set of sieges by the Sri Lankan Army were doomed to be interminable as it was assumed that there was no way that the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could be defeated militarily in the harsh terrain of the Vanni in north-east Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan army might have belied those expectations by managing to take Kilinocchi, the administrative headquarters of the LTTE, but the costs at which the Sri Lankan government has achieved this target beg the question whether the victory is indeed what the government claims it to be.

The LTTE, now cornered in a few square kilometres of the Mullaitivu forests, has vowed to continue the fight. Even as the Sri Lankan army entered Kilinocchi, it found the town deserted, pointing to the fear and distrust of the Sri Lankan government that the much traumatised and victimised people of the Vanni harbour. The government has of course promised to proffer a political solution to the conflict once the LTTE is completely vanquished. The displaced Tamils in the Vanni have been used as cannon fodder, subjected as they were to forced recruitment and conscription by the LTTE. And yet, they have betrayed no trust towards the “invaders” from the south. Such is the predicament of the Tamils caught in the humanitarian catastrophe that is the civil war in the north of Sri Lanka.

Why have the Tamil people of the Vanni opted to take refuge in areas under the thrall of an intransigent terrorist organisation facing defeat? Why has the Sri Lankan government not been able to win the trust of the displaced people despite the iron-fisted administration by the LTTE in the northern regions of Sri Lanka? The answer lies not just in the years of ethnic conflict and “majoritarian” impulses that have characterised the Sri Lankan polity but in the refusal of Sri Lankan governments in the present and the recent past (irrespective of the party in power) to sincerely address the federal question in the country. For all the lip service paid to devolution and recognition of minority rights, the facts on the ground – inhuman treatment of the minority population in Sinhala majority areas, a ruthless military campaign which cared little for the lives caught up in the conflict in the north-east, and continuing refusal of the Sri Lankan polity to think beyond a framework of the nation which privileges the majority population over the minority – suggest that the grievances that were at the root of the decades long civil war persist and fester.

During the present phase (the last two years) of the civil war, the Sri Lankan government has taken recourse to stifling dissent over the course of murderous actions that it has embarked upon. Journalists have been prevented from reporting from the war zone in the north, and a cult of violence and murder has pervaded the country, attacking anyone seen as a dissenting voice. The brutal killing of respected journalist and editor of the newspaper Sunday Leader, Lasanth Wickramatunga, a known critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and of the war trajectory followed by the government in the north, is just one inglorious example. Wickramatunga, in a poignant “posthumous” editorial, published in the Sunday Leader after his death, left no doubts about who was the real reason for the cult of violence that would eventually take away his life – the Rajapaksa regime. Wickramatunga's death follows a series of incidents targeting dissident media voices, such as the attacks on the premises of the television channel Sirasa TV early this year, or the multiple threats, detentions and abductions of dissident journalists (both Tamil and Sinhala writers). It is no wonder that Sri Lanka was recently rated at the bottom in press freedom in any democratic country in the world by the organisation, Reporters Without Borders.

Indubitably, the Sri Lankan government's endeavour to use “war to establish peace” – arguing that vanquishing and obliterating the LTTE is the first step to re-establishing a peaceful democracy – has ensured that violence as a means has now been ingrained as an end in itself in a country that has just celebrated its sixtieth year since independence. There remains no excuse for the Sri Lankan government now to refrain from offering a genuine federal solution to the ethnic conflict that has ravaged the country, now that the intransigent LTTE is seen to be on the verge of defeat. But the means adopted for the objective, a reliance on unremitting violence – inflicted even on civilians caught in the crossfire of the conflict or those who question this strategy – suggests that a return to a liberal regime of rights for the much harassed minorities or indeed a rule that respects civil liberties and democratic dissent remains impossible under the existing regime.

That the other major political parties, the opportunist United National Party, which has boycotted an all-party representative committee constituted to suggest a package of devolution, the ultra-nationalist Janata Vimukti Peramuna, and a blatantly supremacist Jathika Hela Urumaya have no viable alternative to offer, suggests how degenerate the Sri Lankan polity is today.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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