It looks like one of the more winnable conflicts in an age of global War on Terror . Sri Lanka appears on the brink of announcing victory in its drawn out battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The armed separatist group, listed as one of the world s most dangerous terrorist groups has fought successive governments for over quarter century in the guise of liberating the island s Tamil community from a state that has increasingly marginalized linguistic and religious minorities. The question remains however, would victory be pyrrhic when finally manifest consolidated on irreparable damage to the county s increasingly fragile democratic institutions, and centuries-old multicultural, multi-religious and hybrid social fabric?
Several conflicts have been assimilated to the global war on terror in the aftermath of 9/11 and the United States-led global War on Terror that casts a long shadow in South Asia. In 2006 the conflict in Sri Lanka was officially renamed a war on terror after a highly internationalized Norwegian brokered ceasefire agreement collapsed. Prior to that the past quarter century of violence punctuated by three abortive peace processes was known as an ethnic conflict or a liberation struggle -- depending on perspective. The current government has worked hard to portray its battle against the LTTE now in its final stages, as a war on terror . Recapture of the island s northeastern territories controlled by the LTTE s quasi-state, and its leader, who is also wanted by India, for assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a former Prime Minister, is the top priority at this time.
We are familiar with the adage: one man s terrorist is another s liberation fighter a phrase that was common in many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America during the era of postcolonial struggles for self-determination and independence from European empires. The government of Sri Lanka also terms the current bid a humanitarian war to liberate innocent Tamil civilians from the grip of an organization that has held people as a buffer and human shield to deflect the onslaught of the military and air force. On the other had, the LTTE claims that it is seeking to liberate Tamil-speaking people from the abuse and humiliation metered out by the post-colonial state dominated by the majority Sinhala community. There is good evidence to suggest that minority communities in Sri Lanka have had a raw deal in the form of discriminatory policies on language, education, land settlement and development, as well as, episodic riots and pogroms against minority Tamils and Muslims since independence in 1948.
Clearly the conflict in the island is complex and it is necessary to look beyond the blame game between the two principle protagonists and beneath the gloss of war on terror to seek sustainable solutions. After all, sustainable peace would need to be based on an analysis and address of the root causes of conflict. In the case of ethno-nationalist guerrilla movements such as the LTTE, a group once it looses territory may melt into the people and return years or decades later to fight -- if the root causes of the conflict are not addressed. Several long-term, low-intensity conflicts that predate the global war on terror in South Asia make this apparent.
Democracy as collateral damage
The first week of 2009 saw the fall of the capital of the LTTE s de facto State in the north of the country. A few days later troops gained control of the Elephant Pass base and the A-9, the main trunk road that links the southern capital, Colombo, with Jaffna the cultural capital of Sri Lanka Tamils. Celebrations were held throughout the country while government institutions hoisted the national flag. The capture of the LTTE s capital was termed an incomparable victory and the President used the rhetoric of the war on terror: What our heroic troops have achieved is not only the capture of the great fortress of the LTTE, but a major victory in the world s battle against terrorism.
Within days of the celebrations following capture of the LTTE s de facto capital, one of the island s leading journalists, Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor in Chief of the Sunday Leader newspaper, a liberal anti-establishment paper, known for exposing corruption and nepotism in the state apparatus was assassinated in broad daylight in Colombo. At his funeral where thousands gathered an effigy of the President of the country was burnt. The slain journalist s funeral was attended by political leaders, media representatives, civil society organizations, and senior foreign diplomats in Colombo. The slain journalist who was also a lawyer had penned his own obituary three day s before his assassination: And then they came for me, naming in all but words his killers. His final editorial published posthumously which has come to be known as the letter from the grave constitutes a powerful indictment on the regime that would be hard to shake off in a country where astrology, the symbolic, and uncanny carry significant weight in politics. Minimally, the state is accused of promoting a culture of impunity that has rendered Sri Lanka one of the world s most dangerous for journalists according to the organization, Reporters without Borders. In the past two years, at least eight journalists have been killed in the country according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As the war (including an information war) has escalated, the phenomenon of extra-judicial killings has risen. Wickramatunge s assassination was in the wake of a series of killings and intimidation of journalists and lawyers and attacks on independent media institutions in the south. A few weeks earlier the largest independent television station in the capital, MTV, criticized by segments of the state of being unpatriotic was attacked by masked gunman in a city teaming with security forces. A few months earlier, the house of a leading lawyer and head of Transparency International, Sri Lanka who had appeared in several fundamental rights cases was struck by grenades. In August 2008 Sri Lanka lost its seat in the United Nation s Human Rights Council and has since turned down several requests of the United Nations Human Rights Commission to set up an observer mission to monitor the situation in the country.
Needed: An Exit from Violence
Implicit in renaming the conflict in Sri Lanka a war on terror is the suggestion that that the current war is a just war , which has elicited considerable support from members of the international community engaged in the global war on terror. The challenge of war, be it a just war , humanitarian war , a war on terror or even an oxymoronic war for peace is to avoid destruction of the lives, institutions, values and ideals sought to be liberated or protected.
The armed group has been for some time now, fighting a war of diminishing returns. The globally networked organization which draws support from a significant diaspora in north America, Europe and Asia, has been banned in many countries. Likewise, successive regimes in Sri Lanka have periodically used an emergent war economy to benefit from violence, while extended periods of Emergency Rule has seen attenuation of the rule of law, while a growing culture of impunity has stymied investigation of grave human rights violations, corruption, and rent seeking behavior by a range of state actors, non-state actors and paramilitaries. Hence, the conflict has been also referred to as a dirty war . Over the two and a half decades of conflict a variety of politicians, members of the defence industry and paramilitary groups had acquired illegal personal profit and political power as the economy periodically morphed into a war economy . Sri Lanka seems to be in the midst of one such cycle. At the same time, the regime may be increasingly dependent on the use of majoritarian nationalism and the militarization for survival, given the soaring cost of living with one of the highest inflation rates in South Asia. Sri Lanka has the largest defence budget in South Asia in percentage terms. At the November 2008 budget the President who is also Minister of Finance and whose brother is Secretary of Defence promised to raise defence spending by seven percent to a record US$1.6 billion in 2009, according to figures presented to parliament.
Naming a complex conflict such as Sri Lankas a war on terror may be counterproductive. Indeed as John Sidel, a specialist on Indonesia at the University of London noted in his book Riots, Pogroms, Jihad, since 9/11 an industry of terrorism experts has reframed diverse types and forms of complex political conflict in South and South East Asia. To call Sri Lankas complex conflict simply a terrorist war or an ethnic conflict is to get history and indeed geography wrong. For it is necessary to talk of state terrorism in the same breath as the LTTE s no doubt vicious terrorism which has included violence against the very community it seeks to liberate, including assassination of those who do not agree with them, recruitment of women and child soldiers and perfecting the suicide bomb.
While there is little doubt that the LTTE engages in terrorist acts and combating it requires special measures, renaming Sri Lanka s complex conflict a war on terror may leave little space for the reasoned analysis required to understand and address the root causes of the conflict in order to ensure a lasting political solution that would underwrite sustainable peace. The quarter century-long conflict in the country cannot be solved by military means alone but would require a political solution that ensures power-sharing with minorities in the north and east. Otherwise the LTTE would very likely re-group and return to fight another day, as in the past. However, because the current regime in Colombo has key nationalist parties as its allies it seems unlikely that it would be able to deliver a genuine power sharing package at this time. The All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) convened almost three years ago to formulate a political solution has yet to deliver a solution acceptable to all Sri Lankans, particularly the island s minority communities.
Arguably, it was in recognition of the collateral damage that the global war on terror inflicted on democratic rights, values and the rule of law that President Barak Obama who has promised to close down Guantanamo Bay which symbolizes many of the excesses committed, signalled a change in strategy and methods to deal with threats to the peace in his inauguration speech: As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.
Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience`s sake . The global war on terror may no longer be expedient for States required to address complex domestic identity conflicts through genuine power sharing agreements.