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The military defeat of the LTTE is by no means a defeat of the Tamil people

Nov 24, 2010 9:59:00 AM- transcurrents.com

By Prof. Gamini Keerawellla

A new dawn broke over Sri Lanka last year. There is new promise of a new era of peace and stability over the island. There is optimism in the air; optimism that the time has come to address all outstanding issues in a sprit of understanding and mutual accommodation.

There is expectation that the recent election will sow the seeds for genuine reconciliation between the various communities. At the same time, there is also apprehension that things may not quite work out the way it should and yet another opportunity may slip away. But, one thing is evident there is now a historic opportunity to shape the destiny of Sri Lanka and its people - Nirupama Rao, (10. 05. 2010)

Having defeated the LTTE one year ago, Sri Lanka currently stands at a crucial historical juncture with many opportunities and possibilities as well as problems and challenges before it. The prospects for peace and stability of post-LTTE Sri Lanka depend on the manner in which the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and other stake-holders address these problems and challenges. The transition from conflict to post-conflict society is not a simple shift or a fait accompli with the silencing of the guns. It is a long and multi-deck process that needs to be carried out assiduously with a clear vision. In order to achieve this objective the government has to carefully address many issues ranging from transitional security of political reforms. I intend to discuss some of these issues in my presentation.

Transitional Security

One of the key concerns that should receive priority attention is the transition from conflict to post-conflict environment in terms of security-building process. In the changed context the precise role and the extent of deployment of the security forces need to be decided carefully. Well trained, elitist units capable of attending emerging security concerns in a peace-building environment could be utilized. At the same time, while deviating from more coercive practices, new operational mechanisms relating to security need to be introduced as part of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. A more subtle mechanism for security surveillance and intelligence gathering, which should not appear offensive, is needed. The analysis of security intelligence needs more sophistication.

In the changed context, the difference between dissent and subversion should be clearly identified. Dissent needs to be accepted and allowed as a healthy safety valve embedded in democracy. Subversion needs to be dealt with separately. Putting dissent and subversion in one basket would definitely be counterproductive politically and strategically in the long run. The execution of security functions must be regulated in terms of rule of law to win the trust and confidence of the people. In this context, healthy civil military relations will be a crucial factor in peace and stability in the region for some time to come. It is imperative to develop a comprehensive phenomenon of national security in which the security of the state is integrated with the security of the individual and their collective identities.

Accordingly, the Sri Lankan Government has to adjust itself from a conflict environment to a post-conflict environment. In the last analysis, sustainable security and stability can be achieved by ensuring individual security of Tamil people as well as their collective identity. A security building process with individual and collective identities as the main units is a multi dimensional process with political, economic and social aspects. Hence, transitional security constitutes an important aspect of post-conflict peace and reconciliation.

How to deal with Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism

Another crucial but complex issue is how deal with Tamil nationalism in the post-LTTE context. As a point of departure in the formulation of a proper response to Tamil nationalism is coming to grips with the reality and accepting its existence and also its diversity.

What was manifested in LTTE activities was one facet of Tamil nationalism -"Tamil Ultra-nationalism" However, the issue here is how to deal with the Tamil nationalism in the broader sense of the word. The acid test for solid statesmanship in multi-ethnic societies is the manner in which the challenge of ethno-nationalism is managed by accommodating and diverting it in order to give strength to the multiethnic polity. There are three possible policy options in this regard.

1. To ignore it as if there is no such thing called Tamil nationalism. In this line of thinking, Tamils are not a nation, without a nation there cannot be nationalism. As long as we do not recognize it and accommodate and divert it with appropriate responses, extremist and terrorist elements would come forward to direct it on a suicide course.

2. To consider Tamil nationalism as a monolithic body and put all the variations in one basket and go for a head on confrontation to defeat it politically and ideologically. In the short run, it may appear successful, but in long rum it will fail.

3. To recognize the diversity of Tamil nationalism and, while ideologically confronting ultra-Tamil nationalism, to engage in a constructive dialogue with the other elements of Tamil nationalism. This would be the correct course of action. The role that credible and democratic Tamil political and civil leadership can play in this regard is also very important.

Instead of projecting Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms in a zero-sum frame, it is essential to find a frame and mechanisms which allow projecting both from a multi-sum perspective. Both the government and the democratic Tamil leadership must not once again allow the extremist element to lead and guide a Tamil national movement by default. The political space must be created and widened to integrate it as vital part of civic nationalism and incorporate it as an urge for democracy and justice for the entire country.

Re-settlement of IDPs

The immediate and pressing issue in the post-conflict situation is definitely the resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The IDP issue is not new to Sri Lanka and, since the commencement of the armed conflict Sri Lanka had to grapple with the problems people displaced by the conflict. What is unique in the post-2006 situation was the sheer magnitude and quick influx of IDPs.

The government had to face this challenge in two stages — first in the East and then in the Wanni. In the face of the influx of IPS, the first urgent task was to establish safe gathering centers. It was followed by a transitional step with the establishment of welfare centers. In the East, the Sri Lankan government relatively successfully absorbed the initial shock of avoiding a ‘grave humanitarian crisis’ with the sudden influx of IDPs.

The next task is to launch a systematic resettlement programme. The success of resettlement depended on the provision of essential facilities required for the IDPs to go and settle down in their habitual villages. The IDP challenge in the Wanni was more difficult than in the East and the destruction and land mine problem was more extensive in the Wanni.

As of September 2009, according to the statistics prepared by the Rehabilitation and Disaster Relief Services Ministry, there were a total number of 247,186 IDPs in Vavuniya ‘Welfare Centers’ while 7,379 persons were housed in Jaffna and 7,712 persons in Trincomalee. The initial shock was absorbed with the experience gained from the same situation in the East. However, compared to the situation in the East, moving from here to the next stage became far from easy and the resettlement of IPSs in Wanni could not be commenced for months due to a number of practical problems.

In addition to security related considerations, the government had to attend to the reinstallation of basic infrastructural facilities which were totally damaged due to the intense fighting. Furthermore, clearing land mines remains a time consuming task as the area had been densely mined. Under international pressure, the government lifted certain restrictions in the IDP centers and expedited the resettlement process.

It should be noted that re-settlement is an integrated process and it is not simply the provision of a makeshift dwelling and sending them to their original paces. Its economic and social dimensions must be taken into account. The full gravity of one who was earlier an organic unit of a dignified social and cultural milieu and is now an internally displaced person has to be understood.

The social and economic wellbeing of the people goes beyond the mere provision of emergency relief and the restoration of essential services. A well integrated capacity building programmes is required to promote sustained livelihood and restore their dignity. This will invariably be a long-term venture. Hence, the success of the resettlement of IDPs is ultimately linked with the progress of rehabilitation and reconstruction of the war-torn region and its people.

Rehabilitation and reconstruction

Another crucial aspect in post-conflict scenarios is proper guidance and direction of post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction. It is useful to record here that systematic discussion with the participation of government agencies and other non-governmental stake-holders commenced in order to develop a comprehensive programme for Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (‘Triple R’) as far back as the 1998-9 period. However, it was only after the total military defeat of LTTE in May 2009 that post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction became a priority.

Earlier, after the flushing out of the LTTE from the East, the government launched ‘Negenahira Navodaya’. The entire Eastern province was never under the total control of the LTTE and the Government administrative apparatus functioned more or less similar to that in other parts of the country. In the Wanni area, the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts were different as they were under LTTE control. In June 2009, the Sri Lankan government launched the ‘triple R’ programme named Uthuru Wasanthaya.

It was meant to coordinate all the government ministries and agencies, international agencies, inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations. First of all, it announced a 180 day plan to resettle the IDPs. The process of implementation involved building up basic infrastructure like houses, roads, schools, energy grid, telecommunication etc.

The real success of post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction cannot be measured only in terms of construction of new roads, bridges and buildings. It is not simply a technical or economic venture. Post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction should be carried out with a clear political vision of the direction of post-conflict Sri Lanka.

Hence, the guiding principle for post-conflict reconstruction must be a new vision of the nature of the post-conflict Sri Lankan state. The need for a clear vision on how to restructure the system of power and governance in post-conflict Sri Lanka is particularly important when a comprehensive approach towards rehabilitation and reconstruction is adopted to include

(1) security, (2) justice and reconciliation, (3) social and economic well-being, and (4) governance and participation.

The fourth element, namely governance and participation required a clear broader vision of democracy and it should be directed to achieve four main objectives:

(a) strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights; (b) developing more genuine and competitive political processes; (c) fostering the development of a politically active civil society; and (d) promoting more transparent and accountable government institutions.

Rehabilitation and reconstruction could be uses as a tool for reconciliation.

Hence it should not appear to be one imposed from above, mainly from Colombo. The people of the area must own the reconstruction process. In view of the ground situation, it is not possible at present. There should be a clear road map to transfer the ownership of the process once it is set in motion. The post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction could be used as avenues for economic, social and political empowerment of the people and local communities in the region and the construction of civil society in a post-conflict setting. Finally, if it is properly handled, post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction could develop a matrix of reconstruction, community resource building, and civil society and legitimacy reconstruction. What is essential here is a clear vision and the political will.

How to reach the Tamil People and the politics of symbols

Another important issue that needs to be addressed is how to forge an organic relationship between the Sri Lankan state and the Sri Lankan Tamil people. The alienation of the Tamils and their political leaders from the system of power and governance had created conducive conditions for separatist political projects to present their course. In this back drop, it is a high priority for the Government to reach the Tamil people in the North and the East using the new political space opened up by the military defeat of the LTTE and the collapse of its political project.

The impact of the protracted war and living under the military domination of the LTTE is profound in these dignified people with deep rooted cultural traditions. In this situation, it is a high priority of the government to reach the people in the region to empower the people not only economically but also socially and politically, in the broad sense of the word and not in the definitely narrow party political sense. In order to ‘reach’ them, a clear vision, once again, and a coordinated action plan is required.

First of all, the objective mapping of the ground situation and general perceptions of the people is essential for proper policy direction. The perception of an enemy image that the LTTE assiduously created of the Sri Lankan State and its institutional apparatus cannot be wiped out overnight. In this regard, two perceptions presently prevailing among the Tamil people should be noted;

1. It is the Sinhalese Army;

2. It is a ‘Occupied Territory’.

Practical and effective attempts are urgently needed to remove these perceptions and to convince them otherwise. There should be no room for perception of domination and subordination in social and political relations. The politics of symbols play a crucial role in the present situation. The government must be more conscious of the sensitivities of the Tamil psyche.

The defeat of the LTTE was by no means of a defeat the Tamil people. Just statements by the Government to that effect are not sufficient. To convince Tamil people of it, lots of practical measures have to be initiated including reactivation of the democratic political process and empowerment of civil society. The significance of the dialogue between the Government and the TNA could be viewed in this perspective. Constitutional and political reforms based on devolution to widen the democratic space to incorporate ‘other’ ethnic/political forces are needed more than ever today.


Moving from conflict to post-conflict is not a simple passage; many scars left by the war in the collective psyche of the people on both sides linger for some time and sustain mutual fear and suspicion in every step in accommodation. The importance of reconciliation in the post-conflict recovery and rebuilding process could be understood in this background. Reconciliation is of course a broader phenomenon that covers various aspects. The main element of reconciliation is healing hearts and minds and restoring healthy social relations in the post-conflict environment.

The role of ‘Truth’ Commissions has been brought into focus by the high profile Truth Commissions in post-Apartheid South Africa, Chile and Argentina and especially the Iraq inquiry in Britain. The issue here is what model of reconciliation Sri Lanka could follow. President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed his intention to appoint a Post-conflict Study and Reconciliation Commission on 10 May 2010 when he addressed the Diplomatic Corps in Colombo.

An eight member ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ was formally constituted by President Mahinda Rajapkasa on 15 May 2010, a few days prior to the first anniversary of the ‘V Day’

The establishment of the LLRC has not generated much enthusiasm in the domestic sphere. The mandate, timing and the composition of the Commission were partly responsible for this lukewarm response. There is no doubt that a truth commission is a welcome move if its real intention is true reconciliation. What is more important in such initiatives is that it must have credibility and legitimacy from the very outset in order to proceed on rough terrain with wide acceptance. The LLRC should not appear as a hurried response to Western pressures.

No satisfactory explanation has been given for limiting it only to the post-Ceasefire Agreement phase either. The true intentions in constituting the LLRC Commission came to be questioned due to very timing of the Government move. In the face of mounting international calls for some action relating to alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law, the LLRC can be interpreted as just a safety valve vis-a-vis the growing international pressure. Reconciliation is a broader process and restorative justice constitutes only one aspect of it. Apology and forgiveness is the main goal of a truth commission which may pave the way for attitudinal change. First of all, the initiative in that direction should be taken by the government and it should be reflected in its actions and behaviour.

Role of the Tamil Diaspora

In the post-LTTE political situation in Sri Lanka, another key issue that the government needs to address carefully in order to transform a potential challenge and vulnerability to an actual resource base for post-conflict reconstruction, peace and stability is the activities of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. In the light of its power and influence, the Tamil diaspora constitutes a very important aspect of the political equation in relation to the post-conflict peace-building process. The impact of the collapse of the LTTE on the Tamil diaspora should be studied carefully.

It is important to note that even prior to the collapse of the LTTE, the earlier influence enjoyed by the LTTE in the diaspora was gradually declining. The second generation of Tamil expatriates had become less interested in the ideology and activities of the LTTE. It is not realistic to view the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora as a pro-LTTE entity and put them all in the same basket. Internal heterogeneity and divisions should be taken into account to understand the politics of the Tamil Diaspora.

The main issue that the government is to address in the present context would be how to get the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora to be partners in the post-war peace building process. For that, the government needs a clear perspective, direction and work plan with a realistic assessment of the strength as well as the limitations of the Tamil diaspora. At this point, the present role of KP, who is still technically under the detention of the government, is interesting to watch. The Sunday Observer 20th June reported that a delegation of former militants domiciled in Canada, Switzerland, Germany, United Kingdom, France and Australia met Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaka and Minister of External Affairs Prof. G.L. Peiris in Colombo with Regard to the Sri Lankan Government’s peace building efforts".

It further reported that "Pathmanathan (KP) who played a key ole in bringing down the nine-member delegation to Colombo was also present at the meeting held with the Defence Secretary and the Minister of External Affairs.... Pathmanathen said that an understanding has been reached to set up a NGO to streamline financial assistance for the post-conflict humanitarian programmes from abroad". This NGO is expected to be called North and East Development Programme (NEDP). It would be interesting to observe the diverse future implications of the Government-KP link.

Handling International Actors and Situations

Within a year after the defeat of the LTTE, the Mahinda Rajapkasa regime was able to establish its hold firmly in domestic politics, reaping victories in both the Presidential and Parliamentary polls. The main challenges that the government is confronting presently are those coming from the international sphere. Immediately the government has to address carefully and confidently the issue of the demand for an international probe of the alleged misconduct of the war and other human rights issues.

In the broader canvass the important issue is how to build a wider trust and confidence between the government and an array of international actors whose role is crucial in shaping international public opinion. International trust and confidence is also very important not only for averting unacceptable external probes, with very serious implications, but also for promoting the stability and progress of the post-war peace building process.

In order to achieve this objective the government needs a different set of tools and language. In order to be equipped with these tools the policy-makers need to understand the link between trust and confidence and the legitimacy and credibility.

(Lecture delivered by Prof. Gamini Keerawella, Senior Professor of History of the University of Peradeniya at the symposium organized jointly the Center for Security Analysis, Chennai and the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies Sri Lanka in Colombo on October27, 2010. He was also the former Secretary of the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs and National Integration)