The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

How to cope with the Eastern front
While the national backdrop to the peace process was looking to get surreal by the minute, like a Salvador Dali canvas (except gorier) there was nothing much left to do except sit back and watch all the little social niceties nosegays and devices people were making use of to deaden the reality.

Here we were, with the Eastern province almost looking like a zone of anarchy even though not a zone of war or a zone of peace. But, Professors talked of the Sri Lankan weaknesses, the country's intellectual brittleness and its lack of leadership. "We do not have a Mahatma or a Mandela they said ,'' and correct of course, but with the East in disarray it seemed a little abstract and a little too abstruse -- all this talk of finding a leader that is made in the mould of a real hero, without clay feet.

People seemed to be beyond talking about the reason for the violence in the East, and of conflagrations that involved the Muslims who were being eliminated at the drop of a hat. Instead, they wanted to talk of theoretical positions that made them feel more comfortable yet responsible at the same time. It was not as if they were forgetting the problem or its dimensions.

But for the moment they had found a way of dealing with it in the larger canvas -- without bothering about the details of how many people were being killed and why. But yet, you couldn't blame these people. They were coping, even though some said (and they were foreign) how can a peace process go on while they kill so many people -- how can the international community of any of the players countenance it?

Though it's difficult, the government's dilemma too could be appreciated. Nobody really wanted the government to walk out on the peace process. The government was being rendered impotent - but there was hardly any treatment last week for that condition.

Whether it was strategy or not was hard to tell, but it was also possible that the government thought the best way to deal with the problem was to pretend that it does not exist.

Hence all the talk of a war between Ministers and the Treasury, and of the Emirates deal -- as if a few airplanes worth of purchases would make most of the Eastern province disappear from the national consciousness.

Some referred to the situation in Liberia. They figured, that if Liberia could go through so much blood-letting, a little killing here and there in the Eastern province is but a murmur in the long journey to extricate peace out of bedlam. But how is the surreal quality of ritual killing when a peace process is in progress be reconciled with that? The fact is that even peace theories and conflict resolution paradigms have not prepared us for it.

There is nothing much in the books on conflict resolution that says that an "armed group might declare a ceasefire'', engage in negotiations while eliminating detractors and minorities in the process. There is nothing in the conflict resolution books definitely, which tell us what a ceasefire monitoring committee or a mediator for peace should do about it.

The other take on the problem was that the killings were marginal statistically speaking. Muslims were being killed, but in terms of figures the numbers were much less than those who were being killed while there was open hostilities. Therefore, the killings were being seen by some as turf wars, and not real hostilities that had anything serious to do with the peace process. They would of course be held to breaches of the peace, but it was a different 'peace' that was being breached and not the 'peace'' that was being associated with the peace process!

Some also saw it as a breach not of the letter of the document but of the spirit of the document. The ceasefire document for instance does not say in the fine print or in the large print that Muslims returning from chena cultivation cannot be killed during the pendancy of the ceasefire agreement.

Therefore being as it was in violation of the spirit (not the letter) of the ceasefire agreement, it was seen as being less of a violation of the agreement than if it was a violation of the letter of the agreement itself! One thing that makes all of this surreal is the fact that Sri Lanka is not Liberia. Politically incorrect though it may sound, Sri Lanka compared to sub Saharan and some other African countries has been a polity that has been at least orderly and at least marginally democratic. (If there was no all out war that is.)

But the question is whether for the international actors Sri Lanka is on a par with Liberia, or countries like Liberia for instance? For instance, would it be soon before outsiders engineer ''regime change'' within Sri Lanka, as they engineer say regime change within Iraq, and Liberia or some other countries which are not democracies even in a nominal sense?

There may not be leaders of the calibre of Mandela or the Mahatma, but these above are some of the reasons this country calls for extraordinary leadership, perhaps of the type that even Mandela or the Mahatma could not offer. South Africa was ripe for a change of apartheid regime, and the days of colonial hegemony were over, when Gandhi led his movement for non-violence.

But, in Sri Lanka, nobody sees either a need or an imperative to see an end to the violence. The Mahatma if he was here will be seen as a Sarong Johnny, and Mandela as a jailbird.

And even Mandela and Mahatma wouldn't be able to do much about that -- because while there are killings that continue on a daily basis, they seem to be seen as all collateral and needless killings. Nobody in this country has identified a larger purpose for the killings, and hence there is no passion to end it all and almost no room for leaders to rise to the occasion in the vast non-event of our conflict.

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