Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sri Lanka: Warning Signs

In a year full of bad news, the ending of war in Sri Lanka was a rare good news. While the end of the war was bloody and full of appalling atrocities, the rest of the world was wary of the vicious tactics of the Tamil leadership and saw no other alternative to end the long-standing conflict. I must admit that despite the agony of my many Tamil and Sri Lankan friends, it seemed the best way out of the crisis, as Mr. Prabhakaran, the Tamil leader, was exceptionally cruel and had demonstrated that he had no interest in pursuing a peaceful solution. Besides, Sri Lanka is a democratic country and despite the system's many faults, one always expect democracies to encourage moderation - and hence, almost everyone watched and waited for Prabhakan to finally surrender.

However, it is only now, after the death of Prabhakaran and the elimination of entire Tamil Eelam leadership, the true cost of the war is becoming apparent. It is not just the scale of human atrocities and the fact the Sri Lankan Army conducted itself in a genocidal manner that should worry us, it is also the way the government of Sri Lanka conducted itself since the war.

Sri Lanka is a modern day tragedy. After gaining Independence roughly around the same time as the rest of the subcontinent, the country represented democracy, stability and progress in the region. It was well ahead of India, its big neighbour, in human development terms, and we would have studied the Sri Lanka as a model of development in college in the 1980s. However, it lost way since the early 80s, when the Tamil separatist movement became bloody, and the country spent enormous resources fighting this one unnecessary war.

This indeed dragged the country down to the bottom of the league table, creating an enormous scale of poverty and destitution, and helped in creating an uncertain environment in the whole region. Indeed, the conflict claimed the lives of many leaders, including an Indian ex-Prime Minister and a Sri Lankan President, and a number of promising Sri Lankan and Tamil leaders. Over time, Prabhakaran, the Tamil leader, earned himself a name for his dictatorial manners, his culture of eliminating anyone who disagreed with him and his complete lack of intent to arrive at a peaceful solution. In this process, he lost the sympathies of the rest of the world, and became a problem by himself. This is indeed the problem the Sri Lankan government finally managed to resolve with the military efforts this year.

However, my visits to Sri Lanka over last few years and conversations with my Sri Lankan friends convinced me that while the government may have solved the Prabhakaran problem, they have a real Tamil problem to resolve. Tamils in Sri Lanka used to be the privileged lot, the educated middle class that run the country for its colonial masters and in the period immediately after the independence. The Sinhala majority took it over, empowered by the democracy, and this led to the Tamil separatism step by step. One can see this whole problem in the context of India, where there were some communities better off than the others, and the Indian government had to solve its own ethnic problem with a combination of affirmative action, federal control and some sort of provincial autonomy. The Tamil demands in Sri Lanka started in the similar way - demanding autonomy for the North-Eastern region with a clear Tamil majority. However, the refusal of the Sri Lankan government to deal with this started the problem in the first place.

The point is that it is not going to be resolved any time soon. The Sri Lankan government failed, so far, to act like a gracious victor and separate the Prabhakaran problem from the Tamil Problem. This myopia may actually cost them dear, and may indeed lead to a second, more vicious round of Tamil struggle as a leader will surely again emerge if the problems are not resolved soon.

The broader consequences of the failure to deal with the Tamil problem will be felt across the region. The South and South-East Asia has many nations with a significant ethnic minority and they need to all acknowledge this and operate within a certain set of rules. We all know by now the genocide does not work and you can not wipe out a complete ethnic group without having serious moral and political consequences for your own society, and it is impossible to do so in the modern world. It needs to be understood that progress, social and economic, can not be achieved unless a country has ensured broad participation of all its population in the common goal and created a fair, equitable, meritocratic but humane system of participation. People like Prabhakaran was always a problem for a national reconciliation of any kind. But with him gone, there is very little excuse for the Sri Lankan government not to attempt this, and if they get away, it will establish precisely the wrong model of governance that we don't need.

Indeed, Prabhakaran was fascist and this is exactly why he failed to represent the legitimate demands of the Tamil autonomy. But that is a tragedy by itself and it should not allow the current Sri Lankan government, or for that matter anyone, should be allowed to get away with mindless marginalization of the minorities. Because, if that happens, soon we will have another country which will get away with murder and effectively go outside the international system in a few short years. None of us need a new Myanmar or North Korea at our hands; but, more than that, I guess everyone needs to look at what a wasted opportunity Sri Lanka has been and bring it back in for everyone's sake.

No comments:

Popular Posts

How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

Creative Commons License

AddThis