Fruits Of Peace
your memory back
to the hazy beginnings of the war for Eelam, and you will recall that
from the very outset, Sri Lankan society has been polarised between the
hawks and the doves. At the outset of the Tamil insurgency, the violence
was seen largely as an issue of petty crime, something well within the
reach of the police. As militancy escalated on both sides, applying the
‘fight fire with fire’ principle, few Sinhalese — least of all,
Sinhalese politicians — thought of the burgeoning conflict in
political terms. It was a ‘law and order’ issue, and would be
‘dealt with’ as such.
July 1983 put a stop to
all that. The week that will forever shame the Sinhala race upped the ante
without limit, escalating the violence on both sides. In one fell
swoop, the LTTE learned that the Sinhalese government would react
exactly as it thought a Sinhalese government would: by seeking to stamp
out the symptoms while pouring manure on the disease. As for the Tamils,
it was the birth not only of the diaspora, but also of a romantic quest
to get even. In that genesis lie the causes of the conflict inherited by
the UNF government a year ago.
Compared with the PA, the
LTTE’s attrition against the UNP was infinitely greater. Numerous
ministers, a president and a leader of the opposition were brutally
slain. President Kumaratunga is still bitter about the attempt on her
life, which so very nearly succeeded. Her blind eye must remind her
daily that the LTTE are no saints. Yet, in putting the violence of the
past aside and settling down to an agenda leading to peace, the
challenge lies largely in putting past bitterness aside. Old wounds heal
There is today a
perception that the electorate is not as willing to forgive and forget
as Ranil Wickremesinghe and Velupillai Prabhakaran are. To be fair, the
need to put past differences aside was articulated by Wickremesinghe
well in advance of last year’s general election. In fact, in the run
up to the election, both Sajith Premadasa and Naveen Dissanayake clearly
stated that peace was more important than vengeance, indicating
unambiguously that bygones should be bygones: they had forgiven.
Just as in the early
1980s however, today too, Sri Lanka is polarised. There are those who
believe that the course on which the UNF has embarked could lead to an
honourable and constructive peace, and those who think it is a sell-out.
Leading the former group, the UNF government points to the achievements
of the past year: the fact that no one has died in anger; that normalcy
has been restored; that the LTTE has renounced a separate state and
offered to work towards a federal system; that the economy looks like it
is on the rebound.
The critics of this
process however, with equally as much conviction, point to the plethora
of negatives: that the LTTE continues to operate and establish new
‘police’ stations and courts of ‘law’ in its territories; that
the government affords LTTE leaders helicopter transport; that political
freedoms are denied to rival groups such as the EPDP; and that the
Tigers continue to arm and train even as the government talks of peace.
Clearly, all this is utterly unacceptable. The question is, how should
the government seek to curb Tiger excesses?
For 25 years we tried
war. We crippled the economy in the name of ‘defence,’ and gave rise
to a new breed of citizenry who controlled every politician of
significance: the arms dealer. Despite 60,000 lives lost, we failed
miserably. By the time Chandrika Kumaratunga handed the Defence Ministry
over to Tilak Marapone on December 12, 2001, except for Jaffna, the
entirety of the north and much of the east was in LTTE hands. There was
a de facto Eelam.
So long as the war
lasted, its proponents claimed that it was being prosecuted only in
order to bring the rebels to the negotiating table. Well, now they are
at the negotiating table. Now, the more hawkish element in our society
says we have yielded too many concessions to the Tigers and should,
instead, “negotiate from a position of strength.” Nothing could be
more ridiculous, seeing as we have been negotiating from a position of
weakness for a quarter century.
How could the government
negotiate from a position of strength (assuming it is not) without once
again waging war? Is this what the people of Sri Lanka want? It is
certainly what the arms dealers wish for. The question is, whose kids
will go out there and fight? Chandrika Kumaratunga’s? Nope, they are
living it up in the comfort of Great Britain. Anuruddha Ratwatte’s?
Not a hope: the up and coming plutocrats are busy beating up itinerant
musicians in Colombo’s nightspots. The warriors of the war they
advocate must be drawn from those too poor to do anything else, the
impoverished, undernourished rural youth of Sri Lanka. They are, and
have been, fodder to the Tigers’ cannons for 25 years, even as
Kumaratunga and Ratwatte cynically sent them to their deaths.
Rather than looking only
to the negatives, Colombo’s hawks would do well to look also to the
positives. There is a world of difference between 2002 and 2001. We now
have a society that does not live in fear and suspicion, facing daily
roadblocks and checkpoints. We have a glimmer of hope. Above all, not
one precious armed-serve life has been taken in anger this past year.
The challenge before us
now is to bring the LTTE into the mainstream, not just of politics, but
of civilised conduct. Tigers cannot be tamed overnight. It is a process
of winning respect and dispelling suspicion. It is necessary for the
LTTE and the Tamil folk of the north and east once more to begin to
trust Sinhala intentions. In dealing with them, we must remember that we
have hardly been saints, and the rhetoric of the hawks among us must
give them pause. Just imagine the jeopardy they would be in were they to
disarm and dismantle the apparatus of war and statehood they had built
up over so long; they would lay themselves open to destruction
overnight, just like the JVP in 1992!
This newspaper is not an
apologist for the government’s agenda for peace, or the excesses of
the Tamil Tigers. It is our hope however, that the end (viz. peace) will
indeed justify the means. Having said that, there can be no gain saying
that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is running a grave risk in putting
all his eggs in the peace basket. People cannot eat peace. Even as he
focuses on peace, it is only to be expected that his ministers will
focus on development. That, sadly, seems a futile hope. With the sons of
some ministers running amok making a fool of Ranil Wickremesinghe, and
with a good few ministers with their fingers firmly in the till with
impunity, the hope for the UNF being able to fly its flag aloft for much
longer is not high.