Saturday, January 19, 2008

Up in Smoke...

SayMama kinda pointed out to me that two of my favourite countries seem to have gone up in smoke. I wonder if it was something I said or some kinda hex I carry in my travel trail! Ok, more seriously Sri Lanka, the Pearl of Asia, has gone back to a full blown war. They have been at this for over 20 years. Even the devastation caused by the Tsunami did not stop the hostilities. This is a country I have toured and been back to several times. I loved it for its overwhelming beauty and the incredible hospitality of its people. Now, they are blowing each other up - the insurgents having been the pioneers of suicide bombing. I just can’t explain why people would like to smear such beautiful places with blood, when they could be sitting on the beach sipping a cold beer and enjoying the many beauties cast before them by Mother Nature. Or maybe they blow one another up just because some are deprived of these luxuries, rights and privileges, while others have too much of it? Or is it because others are detremined to keep the nation whole as opposed to splinters? Anyway, I am sure we will explore these questions of unity, access and equality in more detail at some point. Today, as I draft my next blog, I thought, in the meantime, to share an article I wrote about Sri Lanka ( a country that I loved dearly at some point) in 2004 and it is so sad to see the prediction in the last paragraph came true after all. Its one of my more serious ones, so feel free to nod off. Enjoy the pics above of Colombo from the Holiday Inn on the left and Blue Waters hotel in Waduwa on the right. I took them earlier this year. Also, watch out for my next post “ Heart Break Kenya”.

Beyond the Peace Process in Sri Lanka

by DO, APRIL 2004

Barring two salient issues, first the political rivalry between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the erstwhile Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and secondly, the April 2 elections which led to the deposing of the latter, the current discourse on Sri Lankan politics has been saturated with the Peace Process and the related negotiations between the predominantly Singhalese Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As the twenty year internecine conflict between these two parties has claimed some 60,000 thousand lives, displaced about a million civilians, orphaned thousands of children, as well as undermined the country’s economic performance, it is indeed understandable and wholly appropriate that the political spotlight remains firmly on this critical peace process. Peace in Sri Lanka is the fundamental foundation on which enduring social and economic development initiatives can be built to launch a country that is pregnant with enormous potential to the apex of its socio-economic performance. It is also the requisite precursor for political stability and social development in a country, which has for decades tottered precariously on the precipice of implosion. The Ceasefire Agreement signed in February 2002 between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE presents the clearest pathway to peace in recent times and the attendant peace negotiations certainly merits the full attention of all Sri Lankans as well as the international community. However, it is pertinent to highlight that should the country be ill-prepared for the aftermath of a successful peace process and the other challenges that a post-conflict society presents, the peace settlement being arduously negotiated today could be easily undone tomorrow. As such, though the peace process remains a critical priority on the political agenda, there is an equally compelling case for placing analytical lenses on what happens after the process. It can therefore be argued that as Sri Lanka is negotiating its peace, it also needs to commence effective preparation for sustaining this hard-earned peace in future. This article comments briefly on two notable aspects essential for sustaining peace after the (hopeful) successful completion of the peace process.

The relatively peaceful, free and fair democratic elections in Sri Lanka on April 2 2004, indicates increased maturation and a deepening in the culture of democracy in this otherwise embattled polity. Though plagued with some incidents of electoral malpractice and sporadic violence, it is a far cry from the atmosphere of tension and violence that have historically characterised previous elections and thus, the international community is united in rubberstamping these elections as credible and legitimate. However, irrespective of the appreciation of this democratic success for the people of Sri Lanka, it is useful to bear in mind that political stability needs more than just regular and peaceful elections; and democracy should be seen as a process with many phases as opposed to a stand alone event. Social equity and justice are key requirements for political stability, and quite importantly, the institutions and processes that safeguard and uphold them. More relevant in the context of this article, is the reality that this vital journey in the consolidation of Sri Lanka’s democracy can be easily susceptible to derailment if one kind of violence is replaced with another, i.e. the exchange of high intensity intrastate violence for low-intensity, but equally disruptive and devastating violence in the form of crime and civil-military unrest.

As at now majority of the cadres of LTTE combatants, consist of fighters who have relatively limited vocational expertise or education other than their military training. As such, should the peace process be successful and the combatants of the LTTE be disbanded, it is logical to posit that the Sri Lankan society will be awash with thousands of able-bodied individuals with militarised psyches and vocational experience primarily in armed combat only. This will leave an unaccountable lethal military force roaming freely in the streets of Sri Lanka and indeed portends ominous consequences. As a result, Sri Lankan society may have to contend with individuals who are likely to feel dislocated from the wider civilian society; are unable to function positively in a civilian environment; are unable to secure formal employment due to lack of adequate vocational skills and resultantly, highly susceptible to involvement in violent crime executed with military precision. Thus, an increase in violent crime stands as a formidable challenge the Sri Lankan security forces and society in general may have to face after the war. Empirical evidence from the South African experience after the cessation of anti-apartheid centred hostilities proves that an explosion of uncontainable crime is the most likely result of the combination of all the factors stated above. If the language of violence is what the combatants have been trained to speak for decades, little else can be expected from them without making provision for helping them unlearn what they have been taught for several years in the barracks and trenches. Discharged or retired combatants will need training to develop new vocational and civic skills as well as attitudinal postures that will enable them function effectively as regular civilians if they are expected to be peaceful and productive elements in a post-war Sri Lanka. The onus for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the Sri Lankan government and its civil society organisations, preferably working in tandem. Omitting to prepare for this eventuality could result in a reversal of the gains from the peace settlement. The increase in crime could leave Sri Lankan lives and property under continued threat and the concomitant insecurity would stifle domestic business growth as well as reduce investor confidence, deterring foreign direct investment. The combination of these factors will stunt the much needed economic rejuvenation the country thirsts for. In addition, the possible incapability of the security forces to quash military trained organised crime cartels could fuel the formation of ethnic or religion-based militias or vigilante groups which can be manipulated and utilised for political ends, can violate human rights and undermine the rule of law through extrajudicial practices. This is a modest list of possible consequences.

Another critical issue is the need for the transformation of the Sri Lankan armed forces to modify their doctrine, posture and budgeting to respond positively and effectively to the new needs of a post-war Sri Lanka. In attempts to quell the Tamil secessionist insurrection spearheaded by the LTTE, major expansions and increased expenditure have been witnessed over the years in the areas of military personnel, weapons systems, military hardware procurement, equipment and personnel maintenance and also in funding military operations. These towering expenditures have eaten deeply into the national budget at the expense of other pressing areas of public need such as the health and educational sectors as well as the provision of other essential public services. For Sri Lanka to emerge from the stifling socio-economic weight of the war and catch-up on the lost years, defence spending will have to be reduced, the sector downsized and other pivotal sectors of social economic development will have to be placed at the front-burner of the political agenda while they also take centre-stage in the national budget. Additionally, should the strength of the army be downsized, as is likely to be the case should the war officially end, thousands of soldiers will be left without gainful employment. Idle armies or ex-soldiers without engagement in psychologically and financially fulfilling activities or vocations remain perennial dangers to democracies - the many coup d’etats witnessed in Nigeria’s politico-military history between the seventies to the end of nineties serve as good cases in point. The government will not only have to ensure the adequacy and security of military pensions and provide welfare support, but will also have to invest in the retraining of service women and men through effective vocational training programmes. Again, civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will be instrumental partners here.

As the international focus and goodwill for the consolidation of peace in Sri Lanka reaches its apogee, the government and people of Sri Lanka have to seize this auspicious moment in the country’s history to courageously ensure the successful completion of the peace negotiations with an emphasis on birthing a sustainable peace. This is best done by factoring into calculus the extra steps that are needed to consolidate the hard-won peace through a parallel process in conjunction with civil society organisations, to prepare for life after war. To this end, the development of effectively designed demobilisation, demilitarisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for combatants on both sides of the trenches are of utmost importance. The armed forces will have to alter their posture and readiness for peacetime activities such as national infrastructure development projects (as the Japanese army have done for years); emergency disaster relief; supporting other government and international agencies in post-conflict reconstruction efforts and possibly in peacekeeping operations in other war-torn countries. Furthermore, there is much benefit to be gained from the cross-fertilisation of experience and best practice through comparisons between the Sri Lanka experience and those of other conflict affected regions in Africa (for example), which have been able to successfully transform their war-affected countries into stable polities, vibrant economies and peaceful societies.

After over twenty years of conflict and destruction, the Sri Lankan people deserve a stable and peaceful foundation on which they can begin to rebuild their economy, heal the social wounds inflicted by decades of conflict and harness the many resources of both the rich land and its people. A country with such great potential should be given the opportunity to achieve these crucial imperatives by its political leaders with the full support of the international community. However, without taking the critical steps to sustain and safeguard the peace, all the above could remain aspirations as opposed to realties and another generation could be plunged into new dimensions of conflict.

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