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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2737

The East: show art of the Statecraft

By Dhammika Herath

The Eastern Province of Sri Lanka has been the center of attraction of many segments of Sri Lanka society during the past year or so. The main reason for this increased attention on this part of the country is the changing of hands of control in the region. The government is on the verge of establishing its writ in the province after around a decade or more. However, the victory has not as a gift. Many lives have been sacrificed; both of the security forces and that of the LTTE. Enemies they many be; nonetheless humans they are. Yet, the crucial question that now remains is how we make good of these sacrifices. It is very important to remember that as long as genuine aspirations of minorities are not met through a credible political package (the best possible would be the Indian model), these victories are not permanent.

What went on in the east is extremely significant for military reasons. But, the most often reason cited by the government concerns humanitarian factors. Now, the government should live up to its promise. The East has (almost) been liberated. Now, the government should create conditions conducive for people in the East to rekindle their lives. It can be said without the slightest of hesitation that what ensures the development of the villages in the North and East is the external interventions; both that of the government and Non-governmental organizations.

Hence, it now rests on the government to provide the people with sufficient resources to restart their livelihoods. This requires not only thousands of grassroots development projects undertaken by the village people themselves with injections of financial aid from outside but also infrastructure development in the whole province. First of all people need to government help rebuild their houses, latrines, wells, repair the damaged roads, irrigations channels, community centers and so on. This is what people expect from the government and it is exactly what the government needs to do. This is important for several reasons.

I have experience (through my research work in the North-East) of how people feel about the government. When people are asked about the help that they receive from the government, people usually say that have received none. Of course, relative to what people need and what they deserve, the government has failed to provide them with sufficient resources. Yet, it is incorrect to say that the government has given nothing. The government has channeled its funds though at least two funds; NIAP and NECORD. Unfortunately, the rural populace in the Northeast believes that these are NGOs. The casualty in the process is the “Legitimacy” of the government. For people to accept a government as legitimate, they must believe that the government is capable of meeting their needs of survival, wellbeing and of course “security”.

Thus, if the government fails to provide sufficient resources to the people in the East and if it cannot guarantee wellbeing and physical security for them, then, it will fail to establish its legitimacy despite having control in the region. Right now, it seems there is another grave mistake that the government is doing. To the extent the government considered the LTTE as a menace to people, it seems to be merely replacing that menace with just another which can be even more dangerous and ruthless than the LTTE.

The people in the East well deserve some respite from violence. They have had enough of it by now. If after freeing them from the LTTE, the government allows them to be devoured by any other armed actor, then the government will not make good of the sacrifices its own soldiers made in the battlefield. Right now, it seems the children in the East are no better than they were under the LTTE. Their parents are no less scared about the safety of the children; people are not less afraid; mot freer; not more comfortable; not more secured and not happier than they were. Not all the allies of the government are responsible for these crimes. But, certainly some are.

What the government should do is to win the hearts and minds of the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese in the East. Then, once again, the government would establish its legitimacy in their eyes. For that to happen, people in the East must feel that their lives are now much better than under the control of the LTTE. Specially, they must feel that the new improvement of their lives has come about as result of direct government action. Hence, it would be great folly of the statecraft to push them to be at the mercy of another armed actor. The people should not be asked to go to non-state armed actors to sort out their problems. The government should use its own police and civil administrative machinery to solve their problems.

The government now plans to hold elections in the East. As it seems now, free and fair elections are going to be difficult in the East. If the government lets its allies win elections in the East through rigging, intimidations and violence that will be a big folly of statecraft. Effective local governance is of paramount significance to uplift the lives of the people in the East. We know what it means to have corrupt local government bodies. Recently, I heard a very funny but a convincing story. A monk who had come to America for his studies went back to his village after 10 years for a visit. When he was traveling to his village, the vehicle he was traveling fell on a large pit on the road. Interestingly he realized that he fell on the very same pit ten years earlier when he was going to America. To his notice, there was however one difference. The pit is now larger than it was ten years earlier. This is a true story which I heard; not an exaggeration.

So, it is absolutely important that people in the East have freedom to elect their own representatives; those whom they think will ensure the development of the province by uncorrupt and efficient use of resources. The people in the East will achieve nothing if money-hungry extremely corrupt and undemocratic segments become controllers in the East.

What should the government do with its Tamil allies? It is too dangerous for the government to make enemies with such actors. It is not wise to disarm them at the moment for all those will become easy targets of the LTTE and will be slaughtered in no time. After all, the popular perception is also that these allies have assisted the forces in the conquest of the LTTE. What the government can do is to integrate carders of these allies (those above 18) into the ranks of home guards brigade. This has several good outcomes. It increases the security in the region; it increases legitimacy of the government as they are now part of the government; it will also guarantee a reasonable income for deprived youth. This will lessen the fears of the parents of the carders of Tamil allies and of course more youth will be willing to join voluntarily. It will also discredit the claim that security forces are only Sinhalese and Buddhist. Further, it will bring order instead of chaos that is present now.

The government should encourage these armed actors to fill the political vacuum that exists in the East now. In fact, rather than allowing them to find resources by illegally taxing people and extortions, it is wise for the government to provide them with initial resources to engage in political activities. The collection of tax is the sole prerogative of the government and if it allows an armed actor to tax people, then, immense harm is done to the legitimacy of the government. Moreover, this will certainly drive away entrepreneurs from the East. Hence, illegal taxing and extortions and child recruitment must be stopped. One should be genuine enough to think “Do I like my own teenage child to be forcefully dragged into an armed group?” Instead, these armed actors should be provided openly with sufficient resources to engage in political activities and to win people through legitimate means. This way, people will have their wellbeing, the Tamil allies their place in politics and the government its legitimacy.

Dhammika Herath, Researcher, Unit for Peace and Development Research, Göteborg University, Sweden.

- Asian Tribune -

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