Mindset of a Military Victory Leads Disadvantaged Young People to Sacrifice their Lives on the Battle Field
Dr. Siri Gamage - University of New England, Australia
It is common these days to see moving pictures of young soldiers and LTTE fighters as dead bodies. These bodies are exchanged at times with the good offices of the International Red Cross. Each side attempts to capture another inch from the other side while sacrificing their lives. Most of these young people come from disadvantaged backgrounds in rural and semi-urban areas of the island. How can a conflict which cannot be resolved by the leaders of the country with all the resources provided by the international friends -both government and non-government- be resolved by the young people involved in both sides of the conflict by shooting at each other? Where are the advocates of young people and their welfare at a time more and more lives are being lost as a result of the growing tendencies of the war?
It is easy to blame one side for all the horrors while sanitizing one's own camp as practiced today. The debate on peace and security for all people in Sri Lanka has now been reduced to a pathetic situation where each side blames the other side for all the ills. Recent conflicts have created hundreds and thousands of internally displaced people. With the introduction of air tigers, some drastic measures have been taken in the South to address the developing situation, e.g. closing of the international airport at nights. The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) is spending months and months -if not years- to deliberate on a diversity of proposals from political parties ranging from significant to insignificant, saying that it is going to develop a consensual resolution (this is another war being fought at the political and ideological level). In the meantime, more and more young lives are being sacrificed on the battlefield in order to 'win the war' (and lose the battle). Who really suffers in this context? It is the poor parents and relatives of young people who are fighting the dirty war in the name of their own ethnicities and leaders.
Sri Lankan leaders of all hues have to realize that they need to accelerate the process of devolving a political solution to the conflict rather than go on the path of war and mutual destruction.
This can only be done by being frank, forthright and intelligent rather than being bellicose and intransigent. Leaders have to evolve an innovative system of governance where all citizens can live with dignity and security within the small island nation. As the systems of rule in the South as well as in Vanni are organized in a highly hierarchical way, only the decisions made by the top leadership can become effective in finding a solution. While each side has a right to engage in defensive actions once attacked, if taken far this can develop into a situation where no body knows which side attacked first. In a conflict going on for decades, memories of those who engaged in the conflict directly (not necessarily the politicians in their safe seats) also serve to foster attacks and inflict heavy damage to the other side. Looking at the dead bodies of the army soldiers and the LTTE fighters through the media, I cannot distinguish between them. They look alike to me, and they are Sri Lankans being sacrificed as cannon fodder.
Whether it is Tamil of Sinhala, all are aspiring young people for a better Sri Lanka. Many young people who had the courage, opportunity, and resources or networks have come to countries like Australia, Canada, UK, and USA to advance their studies and finally become residents or citizens of these countries. Among these are the sons and daughters of Sri Lankan politicians, bureaucrats, professionals, academics, diplomats and business people. To my knowledge, not many of these young people are engaged even in political activity related to the war back home. They have found the 'safe heavens' and their lucky parents in Sri Lanka are happy that their children are out of the war zones and other dangers of disappearances, abductions etc. While these young people are smiling and enjoying life together with their well-to-do parents back home in Sri Lanka, those who are from disadvantaged backgrounds in the countryside and small towns keep sacrificing their lives and destroying their parents’ aspirations on the battlefield. This is a ridiculous irony of the first order.
Lack of peace in Sri Lanka and the turn to war reflects the failure of the leadership, not the presence of LTTE alone. Even the informed commentators and diplomats warn that there cannot be a military solution to an essentially political conflict. Even while the military confrontations continue, the leaders have to make an effort to settle the issues at the negotiation table. The international community has to be more strong in their persuasive abilities in this regard. If the leaders in the South are putting their hopes in the APRC to come up with a political solution acceptable to the recognized political parties, then there has to be a time frame and limit for the process such as a three-month period. There is no point in prolonging the APRC process for years while more and more young people's lives are being sacrificed on the battlefield, and many others are being displaced with spill over effects to other lands.
The much-awaited proposals from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are disappointing in that they do not specify the powers to be devolved to the districts and Grama Rajyas. While they speak about establishing Grama Rajyas at the grass roots levels and strong in concept, it doesn't address the issues on the ground that some researchers have pointed out as obstacles to local governments functioning well, e.g. interference by the central government politicians at the provincial, district and local level (see Decentralization, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Bigdon C, Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics: 2003). Sri Lanka's conflict is not a conflict in concept only. It is very much a conflict that emerged due to the way the gerontologically based system of leadership and governance, mainstream politics and politicians operate on the ground.
Conflict resolution thus requires a significant change in the political culture, ethnic mindset, and the will to promote a pluralist national identity in addition to changing the system on paper, ie. Constitution. While the SLFP proposals include a sentence or two about promoting a Sri Lankan identity, no details have been provided about the strategies for achieving this. It has to be something other than war, and ethnically based politics and politicized bureaucracy.
Furthermore, the leaders have to come up with a system where the trust between electors and the elected can be restored. Even within a Grama Rajaya (smallest council of elected representatives) this trust can be restored only if there is a clearly defined division of power between various layers of government, and politicians from the central layer do not interfere at the level of the province, district, or Grama Rajya levels. There has to be 'independent' institutional mechanisms established to resolve conflicts arising from such interference without the affected parties having to go to the highest courts in the country for redress.
Furthermore, the SLFP document includes contradictory statements about the executive Presidency. At one point it talks about abolishing it and elsewhere it talks about keeping it with amendments. Abolition is dependent on securing a consensus which is highly unlikely. The document has references to the executive presidency more than it has references to its abolition. Clearly therefore, the mindset of those who have drafted the document seems to have been for the continuation of the executive presidency with some amendments. It seems to be a document for the present but not for the future, especially for a future based on a constructive vision for a united but diverse country. It is impossible to think of the current conflict being resolved while continuing with the executive presidency even with minor amendments because it not only symbolizes but also carries in fact 'centralized power'.
The SLFP document specifies subject areas that will be the realm of the Central government but to the dismay of many it does not specify the subject areas coming under the District or Grama Rajyays. Does this mean that all the subject areas not included in the Central arena will come under the District and Grama Rajayas? These areas include education, police, health, taxation.
Even though it is a document that has been prepared for discussion, as other commentators and parties have already indicated, it is an incomplete and unsatisfactory proposal. It is good in broad statements but lack the details on critical aspects of a new or revised system of governance or strategies for conflict resolution. It very much reads like a document prepared for the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency alone.
Common Sri Lankan identity cannot be developed on paper while reinforcing ethnic identities on the ground by all other means including the establishment and promotion of ethnically based political parties and education being provided primarily in ethnic languages only. This is exactly what has fragmented the Sri Lankan population into ethnic ghettoes and narrow mentalities. Mainstream parties have to be inclusive organizations where the young people from all corners can enter and find meaning in their lives. For this to happen, they have to operate on democratic principles rather than on patronage principles.
One of the main reasons for the political (and armed) conflicts in Sri Lanka - post independence- is the gulf between the young and the old in the society. When we analyse the leadership in the country, including in the hundred plus state owned institutions, one can see a gerontocracy (leadership positions are held by those above 50 years of age sometimes going up to 70+) operating. Many leaders holding powerful positions come to them after completing their careers elsewhere and after completing 60 years. Thus there is a significant gulf between the young and middle aged vs. the old and very old in Sri Lankan politics and government. By changing the constitution or the unit of devolution on paper such sociological problems leading to the creation of conflicts between the young and the old cannot be resolved. It is really time to establish another commission of inquiry to go into the details on this aspect and find out how and where the frustrations of young people are apparent and what strategies are necessary to address these. The mainstream political parties allow a limited number of young people to participate directly and inclusively in the party processes. Even those who participate in political campaigns get frustrated after a party wins power because the perks are distributed according to other criteria such as family and school connections. Politicians often forget their constituents and those who supported them during campaigns once they secure power and move to Colombo. Tamil youths in the north realised this in the 1970s, and those in the South also did the same from early 70s. Consequently we find phenomena such as the LTTE and the JVP.
Thus the conflict in Sri Lanka cannot be resolved in any fundamental way without first acknowledging such sociological issues, e.g. gerontocracy, politicization of governance structures and processes, interference by central government politicians in the operations of local government, inbuilt biases in the political culture including racial/ethnic and class biases. Middle and upper classism rampant in politics and governance have to give way to a more generous and inclusive ideology and practice if a common Sri Lankan identity is to be developed and trust between electors and the elected to be reinstated. The conflict between the governments and the LTTE reflect the breakdown of this trust at a fundamental level. The fact that there is a semblance of unity among Southern political parties to attack the common enemy in the north does not really mean that all these contradictions have been erased from the political landscape in the country. The school and higher education system that derives their sustenance from generous government grants can do more in terms of promoting a common Sri Lankan identity instead of reinforcing separate ethnic identities and positions.
If there is a will among the leaders it is not impossible to find a solution to the conflict. I have reiterated this in my previous media contributions. Leaders have to be direct and forthright in their commitment to peace and prosperity instead of war and destruction. Indigenous solutions can be found to resolve the conflict without further internationalizing it and invoking the wrath of international agencies such as the UN and main NGOs. The only way they can do this is by identifying the common ground among differing ethnic identities, peoples, their representatives and developing effective strategies including via education, media, and mainstream political parties. It is a crime to send disadvantaged young people to the battlefield while opening up opportunities to other young people elsewhere in the country and the world. Safe heavens for the displaced and safe heavens for the well-to-do symbolizes the disparities existing between the larger population and the emerging generation of young people.
When deliberating on the political proposals through the APRC, attempt should be to identify the common ground first and iron out any remaining differences via negotiations and discussions. If the leaders think that the key to the resolution lies only in one party, they are mistaken. A humanist solution is better than one that is achieved via violence and hatred. All religions advocate solutions to human problems via ahimsa (non-violence). Mahatma Gandhi himself adopted this perspective. While the guns can be fired, especially with high speed these days, that should be the last resort.
Sri Lanka can be dragged out of this menace only by being open, frank and forthright in the determination of leaders on all sides to identify common grounds and move forward. I hope there will be a day when I do not see a single dead body of young people, and the faces of those displaced with tears in their eyes!
As a young person from the deep South, I myself grew up with ethnic mentality from my local community. However, the education from the school, and later from the University allowed me to develop a capacity to think about the Other and empathize with the Other. I am not sure if the education system in general serves this function any more. Education has to be a liberating process, and a humanizing process. Even when big power and money politics at various levels of a society can move good people away from the humanizing principles and practices, the education can serve to keep them within the realms of humanism and conflict resolution. High materialist values being developed among the young and the old, irrespective of the religious influences, are no alternative to such humanist values required of a society to make it liveable for everyone. Patronage and materialism and the resulting politics of envy go together.
What people, including in the Sri Lankan diaspora, are aspiring is for the political and civic leaders to work together to develop a humanist, democratic, inclusive and pluralistic solution to the conflict sooner than later. If Britain or any other country with long relations with Sri Lanka is available to facilitate this task, their good offices have to be utilized for this purpose without wasting anymore resources -physical or human - on a war. No war has good endings.
Dr. Siri Gamage, Senior Lecturer, School of Professional Development & Leadership, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies, University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia 2351.
- Asian Tribune -