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Beyond redemption

Print edition : Dec 07, 2007 T+T-
Sri Lanka Special Task Force troops rehearse for an Independence Day parade at the Galle Face Ground in Colombo, in February 2006. Sri Lanka unveiled its biggest ever war budget in early November as part of a government campaign to crush the Tigers.-SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

Sri Lanka Special Task Force troops rehearse for an Independence Day parade at the Galle Face Ground in Colombo, in February 2006. Sri Lanka unveiled its biggest ever war budget in early November as part of a government campaign to crush the Tigers.-SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

Sri Lankas ethnic war has now reached a point of no return. It can only escalate in the years to come.

Sri Lanka Special

SRI LANKAs undeclared war between the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is taking an irreversible path to greater escalation in both scale and intensity. The tragedy is that there are many people inside and outside Sri Lanka who want and encourage such escalation. Those who foresee the catastrophe and abhor it are few in number. Hence they are unable to do much to prevent the entire country from slipping into war madness.

The present phase of war escalation has two parallel and somewhat independent dynamics. The first is about retaliation. The LTTEs attack on the Anuradhapura airbase and the subsequent killing of its political wing leader S.P. Tamilselvan by the Sri Lanka Air Force are events the meaning of which can best be ascertained in the logic of retaliatory violence. This violence is taking an upward spiral, somewhat independent of the second dynamic of the present stage of war.

The key feature of the second dynamic is the execution of pre-calculated war strategies by the government and the LTTE for unilateral military gains. The government and its allies as well as the LTTE and its well-wishers do not see much value in returning to negotiations or exploring new paths of political engagement. To make matters a little more complicated, there is no objective political space at present in Sri Lanka for the two sides to consider any of the following options seriously: de-escalation of war and military disengagement, demilitarisation of the ethnic conflict, ceasefire, and resumption of negotiations with or without a ceasefire.

How has Sri Lanka come to this sad and sorry state of affairs despite 25 years experience of a protracted and utterly destructive ethnic civil war? Have the parties to the conflict failed to learn any lessons from the bloody and costly war? Are they reinventing the war wheel, with no historical or institutional memories of what happened in the 1980s and 1990s? In explaining this puzzle, one has to acknowledge, though grudgingly, that not everybody in Sri Lanka would see an intensification of the war as unnecessary or futile. In the perspectives of both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists inside Sri Lanka and abroad there is an absolute necessity for war. In their renewed thinking, hardcore Sinhalese nationalists vehemently argue that there is no ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. In their view, what exists is a terrorist problem in the guise of minority grievances. What else but war could help the state deal with terrorism?

Similarly, for hardcore Tamil nationalists of the LTTE and its allies abroad, military power demonstrated and enacted in the battlefield is the essential precondition for a political solution to the ethnic conflict. That political solution could be either secession or a confederal regional state, achieved primarily and essentially through a protracted military struggle.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a subtle, yet fundamental, difference between the approaches of the Rajapaksa administration and the LTTE to the war at present. The former appears to think that an outright military victory for the Sinhalese state is necessary, possible and feasible. In short, it is a winnable war. The LTTE seems to think somewhat differently. Its military doctrine appears to have been shaped by the strategic belief that an outright military victory over the Sri Lankan state is neither possible nor feasible. Therefore, the LTTEs military objective can be thought to contain the essential objective of demonstrating to the world that a military solution to the ethnic conflict as envisioned by the Sinhalese political class is not possible or available.

These are of course theoretical-strategic positions developed by two belligerent sides. They are not beginners in the game of civil war; both are equally experienced in civil war, for a period of two and a half decades, and are deadly serious about state power. That is perhaps why they seem to be having both political and military energy to embark on the present phase of heightened hostility and war.

The question of state power is at the heart of Sri Lankas ethnic conflict and civil war. This point has not been adequately understood by external actors who seek a role in bringing about a termination of war and political settlement in the island. This question of state power is also about the process and trajectories of state formation in Sri Lanka. The government and the LTTE represent two contradictory understandings, imaginations, visions and practices of post-colonial state formation in Sri Lanka. These visions have no common ground at present. They cannot meet half way. There is at present no political language or complementary categories of thinking for the representatives of these mutually exclusive state formation projects to meet and at least compare notes.

The intense political debate, accompanied by the excessive militant-nationalist propaganda, going on at present in the country has in a way taken the understanding of Sri Lankas problem back to the early days of the war, to immediate post-1983 years. In that process of political reversal, what has been happening in the past couple of years is militant re-ethnicisation of Sri Lankas conflict. This has not left any space for a meaningful political reform agenda. It has only revised the fantasies of the unitary state on the one side and secession on the other.

The conduct of an ethnic war with new determination, yet without a parallel political reform programme, constitutes the defining feature as well as the key problem in the overall strategy of the present Sri Lankan government. When a government ignores elementary things about managing an ethnic conflict, the conflict can only escalate.

The present stage of conflict escalation is not merely because of the governments contribution to it. The LTTE has been a willing partner to the government in war escalation. The LTTE leadership ditched the United National Party led by Ranil Wickremasinghe and paved the way for the more belligerent Rajapaksa coalition in the presidential election of December 2005 with the hope of repolarising Sri Lankan polity along ethnic lines and pushing for remilitarisation of the ethnic conflict. The LTTE has so far succeeded in achieving the targets of this specific agenda.

The bottom line then is that war is a necessity when seen from the perspective of the two principal protagonists to the conflict. More war-no peace is the dominant tendency at present. There are no domestic political or social forces that can make significant interventions to prevent war and escalation of the crisis. How about the external forces, the regional and international actors?

The regional and international actors who have been involved in Sri Lankas conflict as well as in peace attempts in one way or the other neither are interested in defusing the crisis nor possess any significant capacity to act in a decisive manner to reverse the process. Many of them are caught up in either their countrys interests or in the United States agenda of global war against terrorism.

It is a bizarre situation. Countries want to maintain good state-to-state relations with mild disagreement publicly expressed on human rights and humanitarian issues. Multilateral firms want the countrys economy to work despite war and violence, just to make the point that liberalisation works amidst civil war. India, the regional superpower, is bogged down by its own problems, such as those relating to Pakistan, China and Japan. For India, Sri Lanka is an ally not to be abandoned despite the Sri Lankan governments dismal failure in the protection of minority rights and on putting forward a political reform programme.

In sum, Sri Lankas ethnic war has now reached a point beyond redemption. It can only escalate, escalate and escalate. Some of us might not even be around to record and comment on the outcome of it.