ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 07
Columns - Telescope  

Divide and rule: It's democracy stupid, in east

By J.S. Tissainayagam

The funeral of a Karuna faction cadre killed in a recent clash with a rival group.

Local government elections are expected to be called in the East soon. The government has already taken steps to invalidate nominations received for the 2006 polls and will probably call for fresh nominations when the election is announced. Words such as 'elections,' 'democracy' and 'participation' are loaded with associations.

These associations are set to trigger in our minds the picture of soliciting and building consent from the people on the question of who will govern them, or seeking their views at a referendum on a contentious proposal. We are also conditioned to assume the result of the plebiscite will find acceptance in the electorate, and more important, is acceptable for us too. In other words, elections confer popular legitimacy on a programme.

But associations and images that words such as 'elections' and 'democracy' invoke are also used by cynical, designing agencies to legitimise illegal and contested actions. Such exercises are anointed with sanctity because the world's most aggressive regimes today, such as the US and its western allies, including Japan, are all functioning democracies that claim to govern their people through consent.

Further, this highly-regarded aspect of democracy is also a well-tested counterinsurgency tactic. It is used in the pacification of areas where rebellions have been suppressed, not necessarily for reconciliation among warring parties, but to manipulate public opinion and lend a veneer of legitimacy on partisan and controversial actions.

The recent US Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Manuel (COIN) put together in the wake of the US encounters in Iraq states: "Counterinsurgents often achieve the most meaningful success in garnering public support and legitimacy for the government…. Every action, including uses of force, must be 'wrapped in a bodyguard of information.' While security is essential to setting the stage for overall progress, lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope. Particularly after security has been achieved, dollars and ballots will have more important effects than bombs and bullets."

The pacification process usually includes two elements other than elections: winning the hearts and minds of the population and a massive media blitz on the liberation of the contested area. There is a revealing snapshot of how the media was manipulated by the Pentagon to create a Rapid Reaction Media Team (RRMT) "designed to ensure control over major Iraqi media while providing an Iraqi 'face' for its (US) efforts" even before the invasion of March 2003.

According to a white paper prepared by the Pentagon and quoted in an IPS story, "After the cessation of hostilities, having professional US-trained Iraqi media teams immediately in place to portray a new Iraq (by Iraqis for Iraqis) with hopes for a prosperous, democratic future, will have a profound psychological and political impact on the Iraqi people."

The paper continues that among the themes and messages to be communicated to the Iraqi people should be "USG (U.S Government) approved 'Democracy Series' 'Environmental (Marshlands re-hydration);' 'Mine Awareness;' 'Re-starting the Oil;' 'Justice and rule of law topics;' and 'War Criminals/Truth Commission.'" (IPS 8/Mar/2007).

As in the Pentagon's recommended model in Iraq, the Sri Lanka government too is highlighting the theme of a "prosperous, democratic future" through a hearts and minds operation. The government has said it is allocating Rs.270 million for the development of the Eastern Province, which includes the setting up of the controversial Economic Zone in Trincomalee.

Interestingly, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government held local government elections in Jaffna in 1997 soon after Operation Riviresa, with the identical objective in mind. Among the efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people was the 'book and brick' campaign to restore the Jaffna public library, in which Mangala Samaraweera, then leader of the Sudu Nelum Movement, played no mean role.

The government, while conducting local elections in the East is also trying to break any unified Tamil political front contesting the polls. That was the reason for the government to drive a wedge into the TMVP and, reportedly, back Pillaiyan. The move has crippled Karuna, who had a political agenda in mind based on eastern Tamil identity. Pillaiyan on the other hand, apparently has no political ambitions - he is content to function as a paramilitary cadre of the army. This split was followed by further clashes, this time between the TMVP and EPDP.

The government hopes that if local government elections are held, a multiplicity of Tamil parties will contest them, which will split the Tamil vote and allow parties representing communities other than the Tamils to emerge leaders. Successive governments have long sought to portray the East as multicultural and multiethnic. Engineering the successful de-merger of the East from the North was also part of this campaign.

In other words, what governments have tried to do through colonisation - create demographic changes and thereby split the Tamil vote and reduce Tamil representation in parliament - has now been ingeniously achieved by fragmenting the community. Elections in the East should not be compared to a plebiscite conducted in post-conflict situations in which the people's view is solicited for reconciliation and compromise. Rather, it is a cynical, calculated exercise to cash in at a time when the Tamil public is demoralised by long periods of war and after their political leadership has been fragmented by clever manoeuvring.

The government should however heed history, both Sri Lankan and international. Despite the 1997 local government elections, the efforts to develop Jaffna and the propaganda that attended it, the Peninsula remains today, 10 years later, a hive of seething rebellion subdued only by the gun.

In Iraq, US-led forces held elections on January 30, 2005. On the eve of that election, General George W. Casey Jr., commander of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq said, "This is a counterinsurgency campaign, and in a counterinsurgency campaign, all of the elements of national power must work synergistically to defeat the insurgency. Getting to elections and making sure construction projects proceed, is critically important to helping meet the expectations of the Iraqi people. The military element of power will do part of this. But this is going to be won on the political and economic side. That is how we're going to defeat this insurgency." The US-led forces went through motions of an election without solving the underlying political problem of the Iraqi people. The results are there for all to see.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.