Saturday, 11 August 2012

Sri Lanka enjoys peace dividend (PO)

By M D Nalapat 
Since 2011,the Sri Lankan army has organised an annual conference that highlights its work and its viewpoint to invitees from across the globe. This year’s conference is being held in Colombo’s Galadari Hotel, and more than a hundred overseas guests have been invited to participate in the discussions, including military personnel from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia,the US and several other countries. The theme of the 2012conference is “Towards Lasting Peace and Stability”,and while the focus last year was how the victorious war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was won,this year it is about the Sri Lankan military’s efforts to win the peace by gaining the trust and affection of the Tamil population of the northern areas (where the LTTE ruled for decades)

In 2009, the Sri Lankan military annihilated the LTTE and its supremo,Velupillai Prabhakaran, known as “Pirabha” to close friends. The fate of Prabhakaran and his organisation shows what happens when the leader of an armed and violent movement believes his strength and his chances to be much better than they are. Several times in the past,including during the initial year of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term, the LTTE leader was offered peace terms that would have made unchallenged his control over more than a fifth of the country,and in some negotiations,even as much as a fourth. However,he would have had to accept the legal fiction that the land he administered was part of Sri Lanka,albeit “autonomous”. Prabhakaran would have none of this.He wanted an independent “Tamil Eelam” both in fact as well as in law. In this stand,he overlooked the fact that after 9/11,tolerance for violent attempts to overthrow authority were frowned upon by the then dominant NATO powers,who changed their stand and switched in favour of violent groups (in Libya and now in Syria) only in 2011, two years after the LTTE fell. Second,he brushed aside the reality that New Delhi would see as a threat to its own stability an independent Tamil state just minutes away from its shores,that advertised itself as a “Tamil homeland” and which had substantial capability in acts of violence. Methods that could easily have been adopted in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu,once Prabhakaran got his “eelam” ( homeland) in northern Sri Lanka. An independent state of the dimensions possible at the time when the LTTE was at the peak of its strength (in the 1990s) would have lacked viability,and could not have survived without forging close ties with Sri Lanka itself. However,Prabhakaran was blinded by the delusion that European countries would come to his assistance and force Colombo to abandon its northern districts,the way Serbia was forced to surrender Kosovo and Indonesia withdraw from East Timor. Since the collapse of the USSR, the LTTE took seriously the widespread thesis that the world was seeing the “end of history” and the resumption of an indefinite period when Europe and countries run by those of European ethnicity would dominate the world.Till then,the LTTE had focussed in its diplomacy on Tamil Nadu,building up coalitions of politicians who backed its demands (on Colombo) even after the LTTE killed Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Unfortunately for Prabhakaran, Colombo got support from India for the continuation of its unitary status, as well as forging close links with Beijing and Islamabad. Although to the last,countries such as Norway sought to pressure the Rajapaksa government into making concessions that would in effect legitimize LTTE rule over defined swathes of Sri Lanka, such pressure was ineffective. President Rajapaksa ignored advice to declare yet another cease fire with the LTTE,opting instead to order his military to finish the job, not flinching even when LTTE cadres surrounded themselves with nearly three hundred thousand civilians.These were used as human shields,to be shot and killed should they seek to escape the LTTE’s grip. While the Sri Lankan military has been given much credit for its success against what was one of the most deadly militant organisations in the world,with its own navy and air force,the fact is that it was the political will demonstrated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa that ensured the elimination of the Tamil Tigers Thanks to this victory,Sri Lanka has changed. The checkpoints that used to dot Colombo and the highways are gone,while concerts take place in the open air,with hundreds attending. In the past,residents of Colombo were afraid even to go out during the evenings,afraid that they would get caught in a terrorist incident. Several thousand lives were indeed lost in such acts of violence. Since 2009,however,the atmosphere has changed,although there are still those who seek a repeat of the 1983-2009 armed struggle. These are two few to have their wish fulfilled,and thus far,the Rajapaksa government has taken care to avoid the mistakes made by earlier regimes,that ignored the sentiments of the Tamils. Should the process of reconciliation continue,Sri Lanka will emerge as a major investment destination. Should many more modern educational institutions get set up,both public and private,the talented people of the island would become a valuable resource to those interested in setting up manufacturing facilities. Indeed,all that is lacking in Sri Lanka is greater attention to the English language. Should a program of making the entire population literate in English get launched, having a common language would promote unity in Sri Lanka the way it has in India. Already,growth is chugging along at 8%. A peaceful Sri Lanka can emerge as a tourism and manufacturing hub, thereby once again proving that violence will not pay.

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