Wednesday, April 13, 2005

SRI LANKA: How to restore peace in Sri Lanka

How can we get rid of a large sprawling tree, with deep roots in the ground? There are two methods. One is to have strong ropes and many men to use them. The ropes are tied to the big branches and the men pull them down one by one. Later, more time and effort are needed to cut the branches into small pieces and clear the ground. The main trunk may also be attacked. The stump will, however, remain there in any case and after some time the tree may start reproducing itself again. It will be a temporary success at best, despite the use of a lot of time, energy and resources. We may call it "the frontal attack."

The other method is to dig around the tree, isolate its roots and deny them sustenance of any kind. The roots will soon dry and the tree will start withering away. Then it may be easily pulled out, roots and all. Or the nature will take care of it. This method may be called "striking at the roots."

The frontal attack. The problem in the North of Sri Lanka is just like a sprawling tree. To get rid of it, the frontal attack was made right in the beginning. There were infantry forays into the troubled areas, accompanied by tanks and artillery and air attacks. There were offensive attacks as well as combing and mopping up operations. There was sea blockade from all sides. There was show of force as well as defensive action. It has been going on for 15 long years, at a colossal cost of human lives and resources. To outsiders, the whole country appeared to be under siege. The bomb blasts right in the heart of Colombo were heard all over the world. Directly or indirectly, every Lankan has been paying a heavy price. And he yearns for peace. Yet, peace has been as elusive as ever.

If it were an insurgency like the one that took place in the South of the island years ago, it would have been quelled long, long ago. But the roots of the conflict in the North lie deeper and call for a methodical strike at the roots. The roots, however, are not in the bunkers of the rebel hideouts.

The rebels, all over the world, are always prisoners of their own cause. Their motivation and commitment depends entirely on a single, clear objective, with total disregard for any possible alternative. The rebels in the North want a separate state. (They are rebels in every sense and cannot be called "Tigers," in view of the havoc they have caused to their own people.) On the battlefront, they have been fighting for only an outright victory. At the conference table, they expect only an abject surrender by the Government. For them, there is no compromise, no middle ground. Therefore, any peace talks or negotiations with them, however sincere, or any confidence building gestures towards them, however well meaning, will be as fruitless as ever. For the rebels to accept any solution offering less than a separate state will mean ignominy forever. Therefore, they will never be willing to compromise. Talking with them will only a waste of time. There is no use banging one’s head against stones, as we say in Urdu.

Foreign intervention. The rebels would have been much more obstinate if they had any open foreign support for their cause. The covert support never went beyond the supply of arms and ammunition, equipment and other essentials. When the foreign intervention did come, it was luckily against the rebels themselves. (If it were the other way, "Tamil Eelam" would have been created long ago.)

The Indian intervention dashed forever whatever hopes the rebels had. They could no longer expect any outside assistance in achieving their objective. That was an opportune moment for the Lankan Government to end the war through peaceful means. (It is not necessarily a contradiction in terms because wars cannot be won only with weapons of destruction.) The opportunity was lost due to the rigidity of the then rulers. They continued to have an obsession of achieving military victory, irrespective of the disastrous consequences and without much likelihood of success.

If even now an outright military victory is not likely in the very near future, the alternative should be to strike at the roots of the rebels. Those roots lie in the ordinary people of the North. They were promised a land of milk and honey by the rebels and were persuaded to support them for the "great cause." They might have been hopeful in the beginning about the success of the rebels. Now they must be totally disillusioned and yearning for peace. War is never the choice of the common man. For him peace comes first. Now, therefore, is the time to bring him over to the Government side so that he denies cover, information, food or any other sustenance to the rebels. Once isolated, the rebels, like roots of a tree, will not be able to survive long.

Unilateral and immediate cease-fire. To win over the ordinary people in the North, the first bold step by the Government should be to cease fire with immediate effect. It should be unilateral and without any formal agreements with the rebels. (The agreements have been worthless in the past, in any case). There should not be even a formal announcement so that military action may still be possible whenever unavoidable. The Government may simply ask the armed forces stay wherever they are at present and stop military action unless deliberately provoked by the rebels. (For the inquisitive journalists seeking confirmation of a cease-fire, the standard reply in such matters should come handy: "No comments.")

The news of the cease-fire will spread in the troubled areas by the word of mouth. It will be a message to the ordinary people that they no longer need to be afraid of the presence of the army in their areas. It will also be a message to the rebels that there will be no action against them as long as they do not provoke the army. If there is no rebel activity in an area, there will be no military action either. (It may encourage desertions among the rebel ranks.)

Picking up the pieces. Once the ordinary people are convinced that they will no longer be affected by any military action, their first action will be to start picking up the pieces of their life. Sick and tired of the war, they will naturally be keen to resume a normal living. They are also likely to resist any pressures from the rebels for support because the alternative of siding with the Government will be far more preferable.

To bring about a change of heart among the common people will be an uphill task. It will also require maximum help from the Government. Still, many things can be done to make life easier for them. The normal supply of food and other essentials may be allowed to the affected areas. To rebuild houses and shops, the cement, steel, wood and other construction material may be made available. (With the armed forces remaining in place wherever they are at present, it should not be possible for any supplies to be diverted to the rebels.)

The next step should be to repair and restore the infrastructure. Electricity, postal and telecommunication services should be restored, the roads should be repaired, schools, hospitals and banks should be reopened. The Government offices may resume normal working. The object will be to do whatever is needed, and in minimum possible time, to meet the needs of the war weary people.

It is imperative that people should be able to start earning a living, just as they did before the rebellion started. The farmers should be able to plough their fields and sow crops, the shops should reopen and the businesses and factories should resume operations. They should be given funds for reconstruction, as grants as far as possible. The loans should be on very easy terms, preferably without interest.

The Government employees, including teachers, doctors and hospital staff, should be allowed to resume their duties wherever they had been serving earlier. The transport, particularly on the roads, should be running normally, even though movement from the North to the rest of the country will remain restricted for security reasons. The local people in the North should be given preference for all jobs so that more and more of them have a stake in the new situation.

It is not implied at all that suddenly everything can be made normal. The areas where the rebels are active will continue to be disturbed. But there is far larger territory where people can resume normal life without affecting the military operations in any way. These areas need the initiative and the concentration of peace efforts.

The object will be to assure the ordinary people in every possible way that they are no longer the target and can live just like other citizens elsewhere in the country. There may still be some subversives, who will try to help the rebels. They can be isolated and captured if the others around them are convinced that any help to the rebels will jeopardize the return to peace.

Alternatives for the rebels. With the ordinary people finally returning to normal life, what will happen to the rebels? The rebel leadership, however it may try, is unlikely to convince its cadres of good days to come soon. It cannot give rise to any realistic hope of success, even in the distant future. And, all said and done, the toughest fighters are also human beings and do yearn for a peaceful living at the end of the day. Like the ordinary people, the frustrated rebels should also be given an opportunity to return to a normal life.

The rebels may be offered three alternatives. Those who want to leave the country may be allowed to do so, provided they get sponsors abroad who meet all their expenses and arrange immigration visas for them. Those who want to remain in the country and live a normal life may be asked to provide at least five responsible persons of their own community to stand sureties for their behavior. The remaining rebels, if they surrender voluntarily, may be offered detention in camps where, under tight security, they will do various jobs or may learn new skills (agricultural, manufacturing, processing, technical, services, etc.). Their detention period may be five to ten years, enough to bring about a change in their thinking and plans. Those who committed crimes or become fugitives will be dealt with under the law.

Back to square one. Once the normalization process starts, it will be quite natural for the people in the North to think about their future. That will be the time to convince them that they will be better off with the rest of the nation. The rebels might have succeeded in persuading them in the initial stages that they will soon get the Promised Land. Now, after a decade and a half of misery and sorrow, they know they are nowhere near that, nor are likely ever to be. Therefore, it should be easy to offer peace and prosperity to these disillusioned masses.

That will be actually going back to the square one. During 1981-82, while I was living in Sri Lanka, the Tamil problem did not appear to me to be insurmountable. The leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) essentially demanded (a) elections to the provincial councils under the new constitution and (b) autonomy for the North to be able to solve local problems on its own. It was not something that could not be settled through negotiations. During discussions with friends, I would often quote the example of my own country. The basic dispute between East and West Pakistan was on autonomy and share in power. If the rulers in the West had a proper understanding of the feelings in the East and were magnanimous enough to give and take, the problem could have been solved. However, their stubbornness and megalomania took them to the use of brute force. The covert and overt Indian intervention did the rest. The result was a disaster in 1971. Yet, the rulers in Sri Lanka were repeating the very same behavior. Why didn't they learn a lesson from something that had happened right in their own neighborhood just a few years ago? They did not want to. So, they were condemned to repeat the very same blunder.

Is it now possible to go back to the original constitutional provisions and hold elections for the councils in all provinces (not just in the North and the Northeast)? It is, though it will not be easy. The priority should be not to allow the rebels to come into power in any way. The election rules can provide that no rebels, their frontmen or sympathizers, will be allowed to become candidates for any post. Keeping the rebels away in just two elections will give enough time to the new faces to become old hats. Politics, like nature, abhors vacuum. By the third election, the rebels will have a very hard time even being recognized at the election rallies. In 1985, Benazir Bhutto, living in London, decided to boycott the general elections in her country. Her imperious presumption, as quoted by The Daily Telegraph, of London, was that, without her being in the field, only 10-15% voters would cast their votes. The polling was about 50% and many totally new faces entered the National and Provincial Assemblies. Benazir never again boycotted any elections!

While the new members of the Provincial Councils in the North and the Northeast find their way, their hands should be strengthened with more powers to deal with local problems. They should also be given extra funds (which will still be peanuts, compared to what was being spent on the war.) They will thus be enabled to convince their people that they offer a much better alternative to what the rebels had been promising.

Filling the stomachs. How to heal the wounds? At the human level, it will take a long time, at least a generation or so. However, the hardships of daily life can be reduced immediately. The people in the affected areas will need jobs to be able to stand on their own feet. (Every thing appears hollow and false if ones stomach is empty, as we say in Punjabi.) Economic wellbeing always helps in diluting, and finally forgiving, the bitterness of the past. That will require investment and business activity. With so many burdens and liabilities, the Government will not be able to provide large enough funds. It need not, except for repairing its own infrastructure.

What the Government should do is to set up special industrial zones in Jaffna, Trincolmalee, Batticaloa and some places in the interior. These zones should be primarily for labor-intensive, export-oriented industries. If the basic facilities are provided, it will not be difficult to attract investment, especially for export. The money for projects in these zones will come mostly from the Tamil expatriates in Australia, Europe and North America. The foreign governments and international organizations will also help.

The links between the North and the rest of the country, especially Colombo, should be made stronger than before the war. Easier and comfortable travel will be very helpful. During my stay in Colombo in 1981-82, I would often see a shining luxury bus parked outside a cinema in Wellawatte, on the Galle Road. It would leave Colombo in the evening and reach Jaffna in the morning, without any problem during the night journey. The following night it would travel back. It was a great symbol, of modernity, of national unity, of tranquility in the land. It will be a great day when that bus will start running again on its old route. For one, I would love to be a passenger on that bus. (Somehow, I could not make it the last time.)

Army of peacemakers. Meanwhile, what will happen to the armed forces personnel after the military action in the North is phased out? They will have to be demobilized as peace is restored. However, it has to be recognized that they have been fighting with courage and tenacity and have made tremendous sacrifices for the unity of their country. They certainly deserve full recognition and suitable reward for their services. Since they have excellent relevant experience, they can be placed at the disposal of the UN for peace-keeping duties in various parts of the world. (Coming from a small, neutral country, the offer will not get any opposition.) They will enjoy a permanent stay abroad and salaries (in US dollars) that will be much more than they can get for any job at home. They will deserve it, after peace is restored in their own country.

This paper was written in May 1998 by Muhammad Abd al-Hameed, a Pakistani researcher and writer, with special interest in Sri Lanka. He lived in Colombo in early 1980s and visited the country twice during the 1990s.

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