Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2525

'Power Sharing' - the key to Resolving Sri Lanka's Politico-Military Conflict

Dr. Siri Gamage, Australia

Every time there is an incident involving the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government armed forces resulting in bloodshed, death and devastation, some commentators are ready to utter the usual Manthra 'kill the Tamil Tigers' or 'kill the terrorists'. This emotional response is generally justified on the grounds that the LTTE is not willing to come to the negotiation table -as if the government is ever willing to do so in good faith. In a broader scale, during the last couple of years, 'war for peace' doctrine has been the corner stone of government's de facto approach to the conflict it has with the LTTE - even though its spokespeople talk about the need for a 'political solution' from time to time while making references to the All Party Conference (APC) which has shown stalled progress in recent months.

Associated with above mentioned kind of emotional responses, some commentators from Sri Lanka and its diaspora, use another extreme response whenever someone talks about the need to devolve power to the provinces, particularly the Northern province and the Eastern province. They argue that federalism is not a suitable model for Sri Lanka. These commentators are good in reacting to incidents involving either the military or LTTE fighters OR political proposals from concerned intellectuals, academics, constitutional experts etc. with an extreme response that negates the value of any power devolution/sharing formula proposed for reforming the state. They seem to put all eggs in the basket of a unitary state, which essentially means the status quo irrespective of its identified loopholes including the centralized power structure under the concept of executive Presidency. To them, waging war on the LTTE, not supporting federalism, and emotional responses like 'kill the Tamil Tigers/terrorists' because they kill our security personnel are the flag points of the solution.

What they or their political masters do not do is to propose an alternative solution to the conflict (that is one different from the existing state structure) just in case the war for peace formula doesn't work in the foreseeable future or indeed in the long run. APRC process is there as if it is going to come up with a formula for state reform just in case that the military approach unscrambles or starts to yield unanticipated results. Some say that it is there to satisfy the international community on whom the government is relying on for support on varied areas of activity in the process of governing the country.

When one thinks about the fundamental cause as well as possible solution to the conflict we have to agree (except in the case of hard-line Sinhala nationalists) that the key lies in 'power sharing' with the Tamils as a significant population different from the majority population in linguistic, cultural and ethnic/racial terms. Whether the LTTE continues to exist as a politico-military force or not in the long run, as a country that prides itself about its democratic traditions has to reflect on the extent to which the legislative and executive power is shared with the minority groups like the Tamils and Muslims. There are writings by political scientists, sociologists, constitutional experts etc, on the fact that the governments that ruled the country since independence have been, 'majoritarian' governments, e.g. Abiding by Sri Lanka by Quadri Ismail (2005). Such governments essentially alienated and excluded the Tamil representation in real time decision-making -therefore gaining meaningful access to power and resources- within the governments. Even though at various times Tamil representatives from different parts of the island cohabited with the government of the day until the LTTE became a potent force, it did not necessarily mean the average Tamil in the north and east had sufficient access to the things that matter in civilian life, e.g. education, employment, land, resources, health services, police powers, welfare, other benefits of political patronage. A plethora of writings on the Sri Lankan conflict, political system, the LTTE, Tamil grievances etc. highlight these issues.

As some do, the emergence, growth and existence of a resistance movement like the LTTE cannot be discarded as a 'terrorist organization' that is simply interested in killing the enemies for the sake of killings or due to racial hatred. To do so is to simply disregard the material reality on the ground as well as the history and actual dynamics of the conflict. While such characterization has some merit in terms of the government's own political agenda, particularly in linking up with the global anti-terrorism agenda, it is a grave mistake to give a blind eye to the politico-economic demands of the Tamils that gave rise to a lethal organization like the LTTE. The LTTE is operating with a political goal/philosophy. It is using its military machine to realize this when confronted with the military machine of the government. Whether we agree/disagree with LTTE's political goals totally or partially - as a responsible government those in charge of addressing this problem has to give due consideration to the much criticized aspects of the governing structure/organization that provide breeding grounds for Tamil grievances and radicalism. This requires a deep analysis of the existing governing structure and its weaknesses, history of the conflict, comparative case studies of similar conflicts and how they have been resolved, and the demands made by representatives of the Tamils including the LTTE. The hard-line Sinhala nationalists say that the LTTE alone does not represent the Tamils which may be true. But it is also true that the LTTE is the dominant force in the North as at present.

The way forward is for the government to move away from hard-line positions and find common ground and make compromises for the resolution of the conflict and bring the country back to some level of normalcy. Unfortunately, the current trend seems to be to move toward more and more militarization and the loss of democratic rights and freedoms traditionally enjoyed by Sri Lankans. This is justified by saying that extraordinary measures are necessary in extra ordinary times. Nonetheless, when there is no 'road map' for conflict resolution on the basis of political reforms, the countrymen and women have to be alarmed at this trend because it brings back memories of paralyzed governance situations such as those witnessed during 1989/90 for example. Normally, under these circumstances any opposition is not tolerated and those who are critical of the government's approach, strategy and rhetoric face severe penalties enacted and imposed by those who advocate the military approach to the exclusion of others.

Reforming the state structure, how it operates as well as the existing political culture based on patronage relations and expectations assumes high significance in this context. Any ideas that may emerge from the all Party Conference (APRC) also assume significance in this regard. Playing politics - either majority-minority or government-opposition variety- with a national issue like the one Sri Lankans are facing is absurd to say the least. It is high time that the leaders realize the Southern political drama being played out since independence has become irrelevant to the needs of the Northern Tamils and to some extent Muslims in the two provinces. The use-by-date of the existing model of governance has expired a long time ago. The population has moved forward in their thinking and aspirations for a better model of governance where the 'people' have dignity, citizenship rights, and security. People realize how the rule of law -the pillar of a democratic system has been tarnished due to the 'undue influence of politicians' in the administration of civil affairs, particularly at the grass roots level. They are yarning for a just and fair political system for their kith and kin. The voices of those who are desiring 'a just society' governed by a political system that provides security and safety in the country come from all corners of the island -even though such voices are muted for the time being due to the escalation of the conflict.

During the British colonial period, when the imperial rulers acquired land in the Kandyan areas that was later converted to tea plantations, the Kandyan peasants did not want to work in them as wage laborers. This was because of their pride and the loss of peasant way of life based on Sinhalese culture and tradition. The colonial government had to import Indian laborers or plantation workers to meet the objectives of an expanding capitalist enterprise. After the post 77 economic liberalization processes, the unemployed people from all ethnic communities from remote villages and suburbs have been driven to working in mega projects in cities and elsewhere run by foreigners for a meager wage which allows them only to subsist. Many young people have moved out of their villages to factories and other economic enterprises located elsewhere to find a meager living. In the process they are losing their traditional values and cultural roots. This paradigm of free-market economic enterprises haven't been operating successfully in the conflict affected areas - except a very few with high security provided by the government. In any case, the net gain to developing countries from such multinational operations is being debated in academic and professional circles now. Some countries in Latin America are moving in different directions in terms of their economic policies knowing well the destructive effects of the old paradigm of free-market policies at the expense of genuine welfare.

After the so-called liberation of the Eastern province it can be seen that the government is proposing various development activities including those with the involvement of the private sector. However, they seem to be based on the continuation of the same old state structure and processes without substantial reforms as desired by many affected people. It is the very same dominating paradigm of governance which is being proposed where the executive power lies in the hands of a single individual and it is the very same economic paradigm that is being ear-marked for the area in the name of development. How far can the government run with this twin paradigm is anybody's guess? In other examples from around the world, it has already been shown how the people in areas where mega development projects have been implemented with foreign companies have lost existing rights, land, livelihoods etc. Certainly the 'phenomena of displacement' carries with it the dangers of civilians losing their existing rights as described here. The development paradigm for the East and eventually for the North has to be based on sustainability, participatory decision-making and empowerment of the local communities including in resource and management term, and participatory decision-making. Yet the signs are that the paradigm proposed for these areas are the existing 'political' and 'economic' paradigms parallel to those existing in the rest of the country that provide a subsistence level existence for the many and lavish existence for the few.

While the concerns are there about the development and governance paradigms being proposed for the Eastern province, the key to resolving the political conflict with the LTTE is the actual reforms to the state structure and its processes. These reforms may or may not come from the APC depending on the tempo and outcome of the military successes and failures in the coming months/years. Yet the fundamental question about power sharing will remain alive for the foreseeable future. If the current political leaders do not wish to leave the resolution of the conflict to the next generation, they need to seriously come up with the necessary political proposals even in basic form for a start. In my previous writings I have indicated that at least the 'principles' could be identified and released as a start -if not the details. About two years have passed since I made these comments. Sri Lankans and well-wishers are still waiting to see the outcome of the APC process with even a faint hope that they will be available in the near future. This is a sad development indeed.

The purpose of 'political proposals' for power sharing and state reform is to provide a fair and just framework of governance within which all citizens of the country are able to live without fear or favor. For their representatives to be heard and solutions for the day-to-day problems implemented to the satisfaction of the relevant population groups. For the people to feel included in a nation where their identities, histories, and heritages are recognised and promoted. For their symbols to be included in national symbols and ceremonies. To gain access to a fair share of the national resources. To be able to participate in the decision-making processes that matter to the local communities. To protect the human rights of all citizens -not only the powerful and wealthy. Such a framework can only be formulated on sound principles of democratic governance, and inputs from varied population groups and of course their genuine participation.

It seems that now the security forces of the government have circled Vanni from the land and the sea while sending bombing sorties from the air almost regularly. The military strategy seems to be to mount systematic attacks on the LTTE installations located in Vanni in the north. These can intensify in coming months. However, the LTTE approach in this situation seems to be to send out attack units to the South as exemplified in recent attacks in Yala national park, and Anuradhapura air base located in the Sinhala heartland. As the Sri Lankan security forces intensify their offensives in the Vanni stronghold of the Tamil Tigers, the Tigers will come out into the Sinhala South and attempt to destabilize the civilian life while inflicting any damage they can to the security installments and possibly economic targets. Some will of course see their end in the process. This ending applies to both sides. No war has been won without losses on all sides. But the question is whether it is an avoidable war?

What this scenario essentially means is that the current approach to the 'problem', i.e. war for peace, has the potential to bring the problem to the South rather than it being contained in the north. Up to now it has been contained to the Vanni area after the liberation of the East. With the escalation of clashes, the immediate question to ask is whether the LTTE will transform from a guerrilla force operating from the Vanni jungles to an urban guerrilla force that operates from the Sinhala heartland? If this is the case, what impact it will have on the governance, and civilian life of the country as a whole? It is true that the LTTE combatants will not find it easy to operate in the Southern locales without being detected and arrested or imprisoned (in some cases killed). But the issue is given their principles of operation, ie. Swallow cyanide if caught, many will not be there to be caught and imprisoned. They come in small groups depending on the target. Their missions are clear. Once the mission is achieved, they do not care whether they live or die. If the LTTE keeps sending such groups whose members are well trained and equipped, it can certainly destabilize the South to the extent of slowing down the military operations of the government.

If this situation arises, the hardliners will keep saying 'Kill the tigers/terrorists'. They will continue to reject any need for state reform or proposing political solutions for power sharing. But the country will decline economically and the people will suffer further in many ways -as if the sufferings faced up to now are not enough! There will be those who want to flee a war zone. Education of children will be disrupted. Many more lives will be lost. Human rights of many will be affected.

On the other hand, if the government is able to destroy the LTTE and its installations as well as personnel in a short period of time (as some hardliners proclaim), Sri Lanka will see a different day. The hardliners will be right. The whole country will then be brought under an IMF/World bank led, neo-liberal economic development model, the existing system of governance will continue, and the Southern political drama will be played out even more vigorously. Populations belonging to all ethnic communities will be brought under a single legislature, a single individual with executive powers, and party politics based on patronage relations will also continue. More coalitions will emerge, existing ones will disappear and the people will be asked to support their politicians rather than politicians supporting the people. Everybody except the defeated will be happy! Actually, such a scenario eventuated after the defeat of Southern 'terrorists' in 1971 and 1989/90 paving the way for the growth of free-market economy even further. Along with the people lost many welfare measures also. Perhaps the state is attempting to achieve the same result in the Vanni and contemplating the post-war scenario.

Nonetheless, for long term integration of various peoples under a fair and just system of governance where there is transparency and people from the north and the south can take part in decision-making processes as included peoples - the key is 'state reform' for power sharing. Whether this happens under the present APC process or after military successes or failures, or indeed under terms such as federalism, quasi-federalism, unitary concept or some other formula is immaterial. What is imperative is for this to happen sooner rather than later. The lack of action may only prolong the agony of millions of Sri Lankans who have already suffered enough. Intransigence on the two sides and continuing violence can only prolong the agony and transfer the conflict to the next generation even unwittingly. As described earlier, it may also move the conflict from the North to the South.

Dr. Siri Gamage, Senior Lecturer, Contextual Studies & Education School of Education, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia 2351.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this