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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2642

The Unbalanced State

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"In Bush’s world everyone is two dimensional, at best. They’re either good or evil. Folks is either with us or with the enemy. In Bush’s comic book reality, no issue is ever nuanced. There is only right – which remarkably always happens to be his way – and there’s wrong." David Michael Green (Regressive Anecdote)

Think of an Olympic runner who is intent on winning the gold, practices for that purpose forgetting and neglecting all other concerns and ends up by fatally undermining his health. That fate can befall a country which concentrates on a war, however necessary that war may be, to the detriment of every other area and problem. The current Lankan socio-economic and political trends, if allowed to continue unabated, can do lasting structural damages to the country, damages which will take decades or more to make good. These issues about balance and sustainability acquire a renewed importance given the Army Commander’s (very wise) revision of his earlier promise to end the war this year. He has told a gathering of media personnel that ending the war will take one more year (i.e. around mid 2009).

A war can neither be waged nor won on the battlefield alone. A war does not take place in a vacuum; its fortunes are dependent on (and it in turn influences) developments in other sectors. What happens in other sectors can have as much of an effect on the trajectory and the outcome of a war as the events of the battlefield can. For example, in Sri Lanka, if the economy goes into tailspin or if the South combusts, the war can become unsustainable. Therein is the danger of de-prioritising all other sectors for the sake of the war, of eschewing a more balanced approach in favour of one which subsumes every other issue to that of waging war.

The economic aspect is too obvious to be dealt with in detail. If the country gets caught in a debt trap, the first demand of the creditors would be an immediate cessation of hostilities and commencement of negotiations. The Tigers are likely to drive the hardest possible bargain in such a context, calculated to nullify many of the battlefield advances and victories in the last two years. The regime must manage national finances more prudently and less irrationally; it needs to cut unnecessary expenditure (such as the SAARC extravaganza) and be more circumspect in borrowing. If not, the country will be engulfed in a financial and debt crisis unprecedented in its history. And the first casualty of such a crisis would be our right to make political and economic decisions, including about the war.

The South needs to be stable for the war to be prosecuted successfully. If there is no civil peace in the South our capacity to take on the Tigers in the North-East will obviously be affected. This is something the super patriots who are trying to antagonise every single minority community in Sri Lanka forget. Today members of minority communities (not just Tamils but all non-Sinhala Buddhists) by and large feel more insecure than they have done for years. This is in the main due to the verbal excesses and antics of some government allies and ministers who believe that Sri Lanka is the country of Sinhala Buddhists and do not hesitate to say so at every turn. Such claims of sole ownership imply that minorities are aliens in Sri Lanka, in general untrustworthy, often dangerous.

Minority-phobia

There are great similarities in the way the minds of extremists work, be they of Sinhala Buddhist origin or of White American origin. The nomination of Barrack Obama as the candidate of the Democratic Party of the US has given rise to a venomous campaign of vilification by religio-racial extremists. An anonymous e mail sent to a group of elderly Jewish Americans is headlined ‘Something to think about’, lists 13 terror acts supposedly committed “by Muslim male extremists between the ages of 17 and 40” and goes on to proclaim: “For the award winning Act of Stupidity Now... the People of America want to elect, to the most Powerful position on the face of the Planet — The Presidency of the United States of America to A Muslim Male Between the ages of 17 and 40? Have the American People completely lost their Minds, or just their power of reason? " (Tompaine.com). A Sinhala extremist website which calls Muslims ‘the fist of evil’ has blamed ‘Christian terrorists’ for a fire in a Buddhist seminary in Tripura, India, without a shred of evidence. Absence of rationality, a tendency to blame every member of a minority for the crimes committed by some individuals belonging to that minority, disregard for truth and willingness to twist the truth to suit one’s purposes – these are obviously qualities common to all extremists across the religious and racial spectrum. When these extremists are lodged in the pinnacles of power and they use their elevated positions to spread fear and hatred the damage they can do is enormous.

What would happen if there is a Sinhala vs. Muslim or a Buddhist vs. Christian clash? What will it do to our international image, to our capacity to win over the Tamils, to our chances of convincing the minorities that they are safe in Sri Lanka? Such violence will compel the state to diversify attention and resources from the war; it will cause considerable damage to our international image and our economy; it will weaken the loyalty of the minorities to the Lankan state. And it will diminish the politico-moral distance between the Lankan state and the Tigers, making it that much more difficult to justify the unavoidable war against the LTTE.

A Time magazine commentary explaining why Martin Luther King was included in its list of ‘100 People of the Century’ stated, “For all King did to free blacks from the yoke of segregation, whites may owe him the greatest debt, for liberating them from the burden of America's centuries-old hypocrisy about race. It is only because of King and the movement that he led that the U.S. can claim to be the leader of the "free world" without inviting smirks of disdain and disbelief. Had he and the blacks and whites who marched beside him failed, vast regions of the U.S. would have remained morally indistinguishable from South Africa under apartheid, with terrible consequences for America's standing among nations. How could America have convincingly inveighed against the Iron Curtain while an equally oppressive Cotton Curtain remained draped across the South? (Time special issue - 2000). If we fail to protect our minorities and treat them with justice, it will weaken our own cause against the LTTE.

The fortunes of war would also depend on our capacity to wean the Tamil people away from the Tigers. If we fail to do so, we will enable the LTTE to prolong the war by gaining more recruits and more support, both nationally and internationally. At the beginning of this war the government stated that the Tiger strength is limited to about 8,000 cadres. If the government’s own kill ratios are to be believed around 9,000 Tigers have been killed since the beginning of the Unofficial Fourth Eelam War. One, and an obvious, explanation for this discrepancy is that the government exaggerates the numbers of dead Tigers in order to retain Southern mass support. The Army Commander has given his own explanation for this discrepancy, that it was due to “additional Tiger recruitment, some of it forced, as well as deployment of homeguards and police officers to fight” (BBC News – 30.6.2008).

If the Army Commander’s explanation is correct it highlights an important factor in this war – the need to deprive the Tigers of new recruits. Given the emphasis Gen. Fonseka has placed on killing Tigers, it makes sense to ensure that the ones killed are not replaced with new ones. The LTTE will always use force to gain new members; the least the government can and must do therefore is to reduce the number of voluntary recruits. And this can be done only by winning over the bulk of the Tamil people. Playing with words and calling the war a ‘humanitarian operation’ will not work, particularly if the ‘humanitarian operation’ affects the Tamils on the ground in a way that is the polar opposite of ‘humanitarian’.

The Tamilnadu Factor

The Human Rights Watch has accused the government of illegally detaining around 400 civilian Tamils who had fled into government controlled territory for safety from ongoing operations, in a camp in Kalimoddai, in Mannar, since March this year. “The Sri Lankan armed forces have imposed severe restrictions on freedom of movement, instituting a daily pass system that limits to 30 the number of people who can leave the camp each day, and only if a family member remains behind to guarantee the detainees return in the evening. No court has authorized their detention and no charges have been filed against any of the camps’s occupants, in violation of international human rights law…… The Sri Lankan army has publicly indicated that Kalimoddai is just the first of more proposed sites in Vavuniya district to detain persons fleeing fighting in the LTTE-held Vanni….. On May 10 and 11, local authorities conducted a survey in Kalimoddai camp to assess the wishes of displaced persons on their preferred place of residence. Out of the then camp population of 257, only five families indicated a wish to remain in Kalimoddai. The large majority indicated that they wished to leave and had alternative places to stay, including with nearby host families. To date, unconfirmed information indicates only 28 people have been released” (Sri Lanka: End Internment of Displaced Persons – 3.7.2008).

Quite obviously this is not the way in which we should treat the people fleeing Tiger territory to escape the ongoing war. Such treatment only proves the LTTE contention that the Lankan state is the enemy of the Tamil people and will treat them not as citizens but as enemy aliens. If the Tamils in the Tiger areas are assured of a friendly reception, freedom and better living conditions in government controlled areas, then many would be tempted to flee. But if all they can look forward to is the life of an unofficial prisoner, many may be tempted to join the Tigers, out of sheer desperation.

The way in which we see and treat the Tamils is intimately linked to another important factor – the Indian position on Sri Lanka. In the final analysis it is the Tamilnadu factor which will be decisive in Indian stance on Sri Lanka. This is particularly so, as elections draw near and the need to win Tamilnadu votes become more important than ever. Quite apart from the reactions in Tamilnadu to the way in which civilian Tamils are treated by the Forces in Sri Lanka, there is another important question, that of Indian fishermen (mostly of Tamil origin). The most worrying statement made on the issue in the recent past came not from a pro-Tiger regional politician but from a leader of the Communist Party of India, which is far from being pro-Tiger. “Accusing the Centre of not understanding the gravity of situation in the wake of recurring incidents of attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen allegedly by Sri Lankan Navy, CPI's Tamil Nadu unit Secretary T Pandian has said India should retaliate such attacks. Addressing a public meeting here last night as part of the party's six-day Fishermen Livelihood Rights Awareness campaign launched by him on Tuesday from Pazhayar, he said in the last five years 400 fishermen were killed and around 100 were missing in "indiscriminate" firing by Sri Lankan Navy” (Expressindia.com – 26.6.2008).

Hundreds of fishermen have begun a strike in Tamilnadu protesting ‘atrocities’ by the Lankan Navy against Indian fishermen. As elections draw near Delhi’s ability to resist such pressure would also diminish. This developing situation in Tamilnadu demonstrates how a militarist approach to war can undermine the war effort, even in the short term.

- Asian Tribune -

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