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Peace in Lanka?

by Rohini Hensman, 27 October 2008

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Lakbimanews, 26 October 2008

Peace in Lanka? You got a hope!

With the Sri Lankan armed forces inching towards Kilinochchi, the question arises: what next? Spokesmen of the government have assured us that just as peace returned to the South once the JVP was defeated in 1989, so peace will return to Sri Lanka once the LTTE has been defeated. But they forget two important facts. One, the killings in the South continued after the JVP was defeated, and democracy returned only when a new government was elected. And two, even though the JVP was crushed militarily and Rohana Wijeweera killed, the JVP itself survived; indeed, it can be argued that it now enjoys more power than it possessed as a militant group. Being a Sinhala nationalist outfit, it could enter parliamentary politics and aspire to form a government; its supporters could hope to have their grievances addressed through them.
Let us suppose that the armed forces similarly succeed in crushing the LTTE and killing Velupillai Prabhakaran. There will, as in the case of the JVP, be survivors. But under the present Constitution, they would not have the same option as the JVP to enter mainstream parliamentary politics with any hope of achieving real power. At best, they might be given restricted regional power like the TMVP and EPDP, with the president exercising control over them. For LTTE survivors, that would hardly be an attractive option. They would be far more likely to engage in guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks. Their supporters, too, could not hope to have their grievances addressed under the present Constitution. They would continue to support the LTTE, which would therefore grow.

Learning from History

At best, we would have a situation somewhat similar to the situation in 1972. There was no war then, no LTTE. But that year, a new Constitution made Sri Lanka into a Sinhala-Buddhist state by defining it as a unitary state with a special place given to Sinhala and Buddhism, and taking away the rights of minorities to equality. Within a few years, the LTTE was born, and the goal of a separate state was announced by the TULF. As violence against Tamils escalated, culminating in the carnage of 1983, both separatism and armed struggle became more widely acceptable among Tamils, and resulted in the civil war, which continues to this day.
In other words, unless the issues of discrimination and violence against minorities have been addressed, there will be no peace in Sri Lanka; even if the LTTE is wiped out, resistance will rise again. This is because no people will consent to live indefinitely in an unjust, undemocratic society, where their rights to equal treatment and equal respect are denied. And if non-violent protest is crushed, then resistance is likely to become violent. The only way to break out of this cycle of violence is to remove the injustice. This would require a new constitution which affirms the equality of all citizens in all parts of the country and devolves adequate power to the Provincial Councils.

What are the prospects of such a development? Under the present regime, very bleak. On the one hand, we have people like Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and Minister Champika Ranawaka, who are part of the ruling elite, voicing the belief that ‘this country belongs to the Sinhalese’, and ‘other communities are all visitors to the country’. These are the very sentiments that led to the war in the first place: according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people are entitled to their own country, and IF ‘this country’ belongs to the Sinhalese, then ‘other communities’ have a right to a separate country or countries, and the LTTE’s struggle is justified! In fact, these Sinhala nationalists and the LTTE are equally mistaken. Such statements betray ignorance of and contempt for the teachings of the Buddha, who insisted that there were no fundamental distinctions between human beings, as well as the proud history of Sri Lanka, which for millennia has been the home of the diverse peoples who settled here. So long as Sinhala nationalists justify separatism with their idiotic statements, there will be no peace.

On the other hand, we have President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who time and again has made it clear that his only interest in the APRC process, supposedly tasked with finding a political solution to the conflict, is to distract international attention away from human rights violations taking place in Sri Lanka. The UNP opposition has done no better in facilitating progress to a political solution. There will no peace in Sri Lanka until a government which will enact a new Constitution in accordance with the most progressive proposals of the APRC has been elected to power.

It is not just minority communities who would lose out if a democratic political solution is not put in place. We may recall that when the armed forces stopped fighting the LTTE after the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987, peace did not come to the South: far from it. Those same security forces, which had been violating the human rights of innocent Tamil civilians with impunity, proceeded to do the same to innocent Sinhalese civilians in the South. The pretext was the war against JVP terrorism, but the victims included anyone seen by the regime in power as a critic or potential opponent.

We have not yet returned to that level of barbarism, but we’re getting there. The grenade attack on the residence of J.C.Weliamuna, a lawyer fighting against human rights violations and corruption, the assault by army personnel on a doctor at Ragama hospital who made a police complaint against a drug crime, and the gunning down of a woman doctor by a soldier against whom she had filed a case of criminal intimidation, all bear witness to the dangerous breakdown of the rule of law under the present regime of impunity. Unless the executive presidency is abolished and the rule of law restored, the democratic rights of all communities, including the Sinhalese, are threatened.