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No solution if the past is repeated – upiasia.com

[MISC, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 12:53 No Comment]

Since the end of the war more than five months ago, Sri Lankans have had the great relief of not seeing daily reports of casualties due to fighting between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Nor have there been bomb attacks that cause mayhem and loss of innocent civilian life.

These constitute major improvements that have uplifted the quality of life for all people without exception. However, the rhetoric of government leaders and some of their actions suggest that the country still remains on a war footing, with institutions of war still everywhere apparent.

The continued detention of a quarter of a million people in government welfare centers is the most visible legacy of the war. Military checkpoints continue to dot the landscape; important cities such as Colombo and Jaffna have them every few hundred meters.

Even the intrusive cordon-and-search operations continue. There are news reports of security forces checking homes in Colombo to see if suspected LTTE cadres from the welfare centers have found sanctuary there.

Indeed, it now appears that with the passage of time and the approach of crucial presidential and general elections, the rhetoric of war and national security is increasing rather than decreasing. High-ranking government officials warn that separatist forces are still active and trying to create a dangerous situation to destabilize the government’s military victory.

State media has reported that conspiracies are at play, involving Sri Lankan and international forces attempting to achieve by political means the very division of the country that the LTTE failed to achieve through military means.

This line of argument implies that the present government needs to win the forthcoming elections if the sovereignty of the country and the victory over the LTTE are to be safeguarded. However, this is not a new argument, nor is it limited to the present government and its supporters. Past governments have resorted to similar arguments at election time to defeat their political opponents, whom they have branded as possible traitors and anti-national elements. But this time perhaps the rhetoric and utilization of state resources to spread this message are greater than ever before.

There is also a second argument, also not new, being used by the government and its nationalist allies with greater vigor than ever before. This is that the victory achieved by the Sri Lankan military at great sacrifice must not, at any cost, be bartered away for political gain. It is argued that the territory the military fought to recapture must not be surrendered through a political solution that concedes any form of autonomy to the Tamil-majority and other ethnic minority areas.

With the approach of elections, the government is engaged in an aggressive campaign to keep its ethnic majority Sinhalese voter base intact. Its primary election-related focus is its greatest achievement, the military defeat of the LTTE, and to warn against its revival in another form unless more military precautions are taken. This may be why government officials appear to be under an embargo to talk about a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Not even the proposals of the All Party Representatives Committee, which were handed over to the president several weeks ago, are being mentioned at all in the government’s campaign.

To woo the ethnic minorities, the government is engaged in other means of ensuring their support. One method has been to offer privileged positions within the government to minority leaders who will function within the limits set by the government. Several political and business leaders have been successfully co-opted by the government.

The logic employed by these people is that it is better to get something from the government by siding with it, rather than getting nothing by opposing it. This pragmatism on the part of some minority leaders has enabled the government to claim a significant ethnic minority representation at the higher levels of governance.

Another government method is to have high-visibility meetings with leaders of minority communities followed by a media barrage on the success and goodwill generated at the meetings. Recent examples include meetings with a visiting parliamentary group from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and also with the Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka. Both meetings were given extensive media coverage.

Scenes of positive interaction in the mass media send a powerful message to the general population, who are not privy to what was actually said and discussed. But beneath the smiling footage released to the mass media, there is a different reality.

The situation on the ground is grim for leaders of the ethnic minority communities. At their meeting with the president, the Catholic bishops’ main concern was the continued detention of displaced persons within welfare centers. They also spoke of the need to reassure the ethnic minorities that their just and reasonable aspirations will be satisfied.

Unfortunately, it appears that the government’s response to the urgent issues raised by the bishops was less than understanding, with a tense atmosphere prevailing at times.

After mobilizing the forces of Sinhalese nationalism to win the war, the government cannot simply negate the demands and fears of Sinhalese nationalists who see the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict as a historical reality. But if the government continues on the course the Sinhalese nationalists would take, it could arouse nationalism in the ethnic minority communities.

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