ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 47

We’ve got it all: Let’s make mother Lanka a true paradise - Point of view

By Dhammika Herath

Johan Galtung, pioneer in peace and conflict studies explains that violence is of direct, structural and cultural forms. Direct violence is insulting the basic needs of others and is considered structural when it becomes a part of social and world structures. Galtung defines cultural violence as “those aspects of a culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion, ideology, language, art, empirical science, and formal science (logic, mathematics) – that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence”. ‘Cultural’ violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right or at least not wrong. Cultural violence can make violence look moral. Culture may make us see exploitation as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’.

Due to the decades-old conflict in our country, hardly a day passes without a significant loss of lives (direct violence). A little less than half the population languishes in absolute poverty (structural violence). Killing and extreme poverty have come to be seen as ‘normal’ (cultural violence). Therefore, Sri Lanka society suffers from all forms of violence.

Sri Lanka government delegation leader Nimal Siripala de Silva greeting LTTE delegation leader S.P. Thamilselvan at the Geneva peace talks.

All peace loving people in Sri Lanka feel that we need to explore all the available opportunities to solve the national problem in a way that meets the aspirations of all ethnic communities. Negotiation and national security are not necessarily incompatible although all previous peace attempts failed to materialize with tangible benefits and seriously compromised national security. These bitter experiences act as a drawback in the current peace process too. The resolution of the ‘national’ problem through military means might also be a possibility. However, such a course of action entails the sacrifice of people and the potential economic prosperity of the country.

As in any violent encounter, both parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka have committed atrocities. In conflict-ridden societies, these get deposited in the collective memory. Usually, each side remembers atrocities committed on one’s own side and, hence, thinks that they are the only ‘victims’. This results in even more intense hatred and anger and the collective memory impedes the achievement of peace. Violence leads to mistrust and my own research in the North of Sri Lanka has shown me that inter-ethnic trust is now at a low. In some cases, fear is manipulated and is more imaginary than realistic. Two decades of conflict in Sri Lanka has powerfully affected our readiness to notice and register ethnic grievances.

Yet, close and neutral observation reveals that actors in the conflict do have some very progressive qualities and different kinds of strengths. If we can freeze the past track record of the LTTE, we see that the LTTE has been clever, ingenious, creative and innovative. The LTTE cadres are committed to their task. As far as we know, the LTTE is not corrupt. The LTTE acted with remarkable efficiency when the tsunami struck. The unfortunate thing is that the LTTE currently uses all these qualities to kill their perceived ‘enemies’ (people). What if they can be motivated to use them for a good course of action?

Now if you side with the LTTE, I invite you to think about what is good and positive about the government and its allies. The government of President Rajapaksa is a strong government with extensive parliamentary control unlike in the earlier cases. Therefore, he has both the will and the capacity to take those vital and difficult decisions that have to be taken to solve the national problem.

Further, for the first time in Sri Lankan’s parliamentary history, there is an opposition willing and able to engage in constructive opposition politics. Ranil Wickremesinghe, to my mind is far from a weak leader. In fact, even after the loss of presidential elections, he did not change his views on the means to the resolution of the conflict. The fact that he stood up for his principles even after his election losses, speaks of a strong personality.

There is one more important actor who has the ability to play historically the most progressive role in Sri Lankan politics but unfortunately does not realise its prospects and potential: the JVP. The JVP has demonstrated marvellous ability to organise and bounce back from near total annihilation and has a national ideology which focuses on the aspirations of farmers and the workers. JVP is the only political party of the major ones, to advocate a smaller cabinet. If JVP can get rid of its ethnic bias, agree to credible power sharing and accept liberal economic policies, they have a realistic chance of playing a very progressive role to take Sri Lanka to elusive ‘development’. The JVP has to become a national political party by winning the hearts and minds of minorities as well.

If all the actors in the conflict use their aforementioned creativity, innovation, cleverness, devotion, commitment and experience to the benefit of the country, there will definitely be a realistic opportunity to get Sri Lanka ‘back on track’. According to the Human Development Report (UNDP, 2006) as of 2004 around 42% of Sri Lanka’s population lives under the absolute poverty of $2 a day and further 6% live under $1 a day. Roughly 29% of Sri Lankan children under the age of five are underweight. Around 21% of the population does not have sustainable access to safe water. A small but significant proportion does not even have latrines.

The economic consequences of the war are not born by the poor alone. The average middle-class office worker who toils in the morning and afternoon in the private bus under sometimes suffocating conditions pays this price partly because the state lacks resources to improve physical and social infrastructure due to exorbitant defence expenditure.

Therefore, it is high time to undertake a true effort to explore all the opportunities available to solve the conflict. At a time when the security forces have gained decisive military victories, devolution of power might appear insignificant. However, a concerted effort needs to go into the formulation of political proposals for reasons of sustainability. Even if the security forces obliterate the LTTE’s overt military assets, it would be impossible to prevent small scale guerrilla type attacks so long as there is a breeding ground for rebellion i.e., Tamil grievances.

Today is certainly not the era of secession. The best example is the European Union. Formed in one sense on the ideology of ‘new regionalism’ the European community is now truly a borderless community. The ‘new regionalism’ signifies a recent belief that within a given spatial region, the countries can develop extensive linkages in the fields of politics, security, economy, culture and so on. In fact, Europeans can choose to work, pay taxes or move to another European country freely. In the words of the famous development scholar, Björn Hettne, in Europe there is a ‘security community’. No country is perceived as a military threat to another. There is a ‘security complex’ when countries view each other as security threats. A ‘security complex’ can exist internally between two communities as well.

The mistrust between the government and the LTTE also represent a ‘security complex’. This discourages a ‘federal’ form of solution to the current conflict in Sri Lanka. However, a solution based on federal principles cannot lead to secession in Sri Lanka. The LTTE is too small to do that. A separate Eelam state is not viable in the long run-militarily, economically and politically. Of course, any federal solution will be preceded by decommissioning of all weapons in the hands of the LTTE.

Now, the ‘majority’ report is closely within our reach and those who truly love the country must mobilize to support this adventure. Sri Lanka has a reasonable level of natural resources (physical capital). It has a well educated population (human and intellectual capital). It is endowed with an age-old respectable tradition (cultural capital). People in this society have lived in harmony for thousands of years and are endowed with the capacity to cooperate (social capital). Therefore, it has all the necessary ingredients that are needed to put Sri Lanka on an upward growth trajectory. However, Sri Lanka must address genuine Tamil grievances through credible power sharing. Hence, everybody has to support this proposed solution. Moreover, whoever takes most of the burden in this task is certainly going to make history.

(The writer is a researcher at the Unit for Peace and Development Research Gothenburg University, Sweden)

Top to the page

Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.