Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Opportunities for Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka


I haven’t been blogging much these past few days, which doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Not long ago, as those who follow the news from South Asia will know, the Sri Lankan army won a decisive military victory. Government forces virtually obliterated the cadres of the ‘Tamil Tigers’ and killed virtually all of the militant group’s top leadership. This confounded the predictions and advice of ‘experts’ including myself, who believed that a military victory was either not desirable or if desirable, was simply not possible. (My own view was the latter).

Last week ago, Monday, the US Department of State and US Institute of Peace Sponsored a full day ‘roundtable’ on the topic ‘Opportunities for Peace and Reconciliation In Sri Lanka.’ The question on which the roundtable organizers sought guidance was how the U.S. Government might play a constructive role in moving towards peace and reconciliation during the post conflict phase. I was asked to write a give and present a paper, from a historical perspective, that could contribute to the discussion. In my typical last minute style (I rarely complete writing tasks until faced with an imminent deadline) I researched and wrote for most of the week before leaving on an extended trip (I am writing this note from Hungary) and did not finish the task until about 8 PM on the day before the roundtable. Students have nothing on my when it comes to pushing deadlines. The title of my talk was Opportunities for Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Drawing Lessons from Recent History so as not to be Doomed to Repeat it. Here is an abstract of what I wrote.

What opportunities exist for peace, reconciliation and development in ‘postwar’ Sri Lanka? Can Sri Lanka once again become known as an exemplar of development success, rather than protracted civil war? These questions are overriding concerns of Sri Lanka’s political leaders and will remain so in the near-term future. Along with the question of possible roles for the US government in a hoped-for process of peace, reconciliation and accelerated economic development, they provide the rationale for today’s roundtable. What lessons can be drawn from Sri Lanka’s post independence history that might help those seeking answers?

The search for historical lessons must begin by understanding how Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict experienced a qualitative change, becoming protracted, in the 1980s. Conditions contributing to protracted conflict are social, political and institutional, particularly a combination of development failures and security force ineffectiveness. But protracted conflict is, invariably, organized conflict. Militant groups are the organizers. It was the misfortune of successive Sri Lankan governments to have faced a militant group that was both extraordinarily well lead and, through the ebb and flow of violent conflict and negotiations, unwaveringly single-minded in its objectives.

Examining post-1985 negotiations that attempted to reach accommodations between Sri Lanka’s government and the LTTE will remain a matter of historical interest. But it will offer relatively little of value in determining what comes next. Rather it will be useful to focus attention on the period before Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict became protracted. This is what my book, Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict Development and Terrorism from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars, sought to do. Its lessons about how conflict escalation could be prevented were directed at audiences in other countries who might learn from Sri Lanka’s experience, however they have now become relevant to Sri Lanka as well.

While circumstances differ, Sri Lanka’s government, civic society leaders and business community leaders once again face circumstances where the Tamil Community’s aspirations are not irrevocably (if unwillingly) tied to the LTTE’s agenda. In a landmark UN address, President Mahinda Rajapakse stated his government’s commitment to ‘effectively implement political and constitutional solutions to meet the aspirations of all communities.’ He has reaffirmed this commitment in subsequent addresses. In seeking to attain these goals, Sri Lanka is favored with advantages that many nations emerging from protracted ethnic conflict have lacked. There is an opportunity to learn from history rather than repeating it.

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