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Development won’t end Sri Lanka’s war

President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s address to the Asia Society last week provided analysts of Sri Lanka’s conflict with insight into her government’s policy on the ethnic question and its immediate international objectives. The Sri Lankan head of state’s address, couched in the liberal language befitting its audience, sought to redefine interpretations of the decades long ethnic problem in the island and its underpinning causes. As such, Kumaratunga’s address was a de-facto policy statement. The argument of a liberal democratic state struggling against a tyrannical rebel organization is a familiar refrain in many of President Kumaratunga’s past speeches. However, this year’s address sought to subtly redefine the island’s problems within framework that might appeal to international policy makers.

President Kumaratunga argued in her speech that the one of the core reasons for the island’s descent into violence was the historical relative lack of development in the Tamil-dominated Northeast of the island. She said inequalities in economic and academic access and competition for scarce resources are to blame for the war. “I have always believed that one of the reasons why the Tamil people in Sri Lanka felt marginalized was because the regions where they have traditionally lived, have been among the least developed in the country,” she said. “These areas have some of the lowest literacy rates, lowest growth rates, and this has been further exacerbated by the armed conflict.”

In this understanding, the Tamils are thus a regional minority frustrated by their lack-lustre performance in the academic and economic spheres who, moreover, have sought to rectify their perceived disadvantages through the violent struggle of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

This seemingly anodyne observation has far-reaching implications. Reducing the multi-faceted causes of Sri Lanka’s conflict to one of poverty and under-development implies that the appropriate solution is first, to halt the violence, and second, to direct developmental funding into the war-zones. This in turn, the logic goes, would lead to rising standards of living, economic growth and educational access. Thereby the economic imbalance that underpins Tamil support for the LTTE would dry up and the conflict will fade.

For its part, the LTTE would no longer be able to take advantage of Tamil grievances and its violent campaign would wither. The LTTE could subsequently be ‘democratised’ (read disarmed) and Sri Lanka could, free of violence (and the threat of violence), pursue the economic success promised by independence in 1948.

To contribute to this project, the international community would simply need entrust the Sri Lankan state with sufficient developmental funds and (help) ensure the LTTE’s violence was curtailed, thereby preventing it from obstructing the Sri Lankan state in its efforts to deliver a ‘permanent’ solution.

The President’s reduction of the conflict’s root causes to one of economic disadvantage is as flawed as it is rudimentary. Contrary to her assertions, the Northeast was comparably well developed at independence. A proliferation of missionary schools underpinned excellent educational standards, so much so that large numbers of Tamils were employed in the colonial administration – Sinhala nationalists even assert the Tamils were disproportionately advantaged by the British (indeed the logic of Sinhala Only was to redress this perceived injustice). Of course Tamils’ position within the state was gradually eroded over the next thirty years by discriminatory policies implemented by successive Sinhala-dominated governments. Education standards and literacy are still high in Jaffna and some other parts, but opportunities for Tamils have become severely limited.

To reject the economic disadvantage argument is not, however, to subscribe to some theory of ancient hatreds. Tamils exist in many multi-ethnic states, but are in conflict only in Sri Lanka. But the misconception of Tamil dominance in affairs of state paved the way for majoritarian politics, beginning with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (Kumaratunga’s Oxford educated father) and his Sinhala Only policy. In the first three post-independence decades, successive Sinhala majority governments exacerbated ethnic tensions with a series of manoeuvres to ‘re-balance’ advantages between Sinhalese and Tamils. In the wake of the 'Sinhalalisation' of the state bureaucracy, there was the imposition of quotas on university admissions and the forcible redistribution of land. Amongst the most insidious of steps unstitching Sri Lanka’s ethnic fabric is the production of history books for primary and secondary school students in which the Tamils are portrayed as filthy invaders who have usurped the Northeastern parts of the Sinhala island.

Undoubtedly, the eruption of armed conflict in the wake of the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983 and its subsequent escalation into a full-blown war has resulted in a rapid decline in living and education standards in the Northeast. But this was not an inevitable consequence of war, but of specific state strategies and policies, including the armed forces’ resort to increasingly heavy weaponry (which the state has always had in excess, compared to the Tamil militants) and, perhaps most devastatingly, decades of economic embargo on large parts of the Northeast. Ironically, it was President Kumaratunga’s administration which took both these strategies to new excesses in the late nineties. The irony of the architect of the ‘war for peace’ now advocating development as a solution to the conflict isn’t lost on residents of the Northeast.

The central flaw in the applying the underdevelopment theory to explain Sri Lanka’s conflict is easily revealed by a casual examination of the character of the state. Incremental advantaging of the Sinhala community and the prioritising of Buddhism has culminating in a constitution that now accords Buddhism ‘a first and foremost place’ in Sri Lanka and obliges the state to ‘foster’ the religion. The organs of state have become Sinhalised through a myriad of policies - now more Sinhala-First than Sinhala-Only. Since the late sixties, a full decade before Tamil militancy emerged, the military began restricting the intake of Tamils – it is now overwhelmingly Sinhala (save informants and paramilitary auxiliaries), as evidenced by the incorporation of Buddhist rituals and practices into military ceremony.

The conflict has thus adopted a clear ethnic faultline, with several facets that have fuelled Tamil accusations of attempted genocide by the Sinhala-dominated state. These have included the targeting of Tamil heritage sites, for example the celebrated archives of the Jaffna library, the destruction or desecration of non-Buddhist places of worship and the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons, as well as massacres by Sri Lankan forces. The sense of latent menace and ethnic hostility is regularly renewed by state action; for example, its refusal to permit international aid to the Northeast in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami and its disruption of Tamil-run aid efforts.

The rise of Tamil militancy and, in particular, the LTTE, is thus not simply an eruption of economic frustrations, but a Tamil counter-reaction to deteriorating human security due to the state itself. A close examination of the history of Tamil political self-reference, from minority to people to nation, correlates with increasing discrimination against them by the state. While Tamil grievances are a thus a result of state action, Tamil violence is correlates to state repression.

The consequences of this framework of analysis – violence as resistance - are very different to the underdevelopment one. This is most evident in considering the role accorded to the LTTE in each. The underdevelopment approach calls for the LTTE to be disarmed as soon as possible to allow development to proceed. The resistance approach calls for the LTTE to retain its weapons until not only has development got underway in earnest, but the Sri Lankan state has been secularised and reformed.

The question is why Kumaratunga has adopted the underdevelopment framework, despite manifest evidence, both anecdotal and scholarly, of the state’s Sinhala-Buddhist character.

To begin with, it is a subtle repositioning of her administration’s longstanding strategy to thwart Tamil autonomy claims. Sri Lanka’s new approach is clearly a refinement of the earlier ‘war for peace’ strategy. Like its utterly destructive predecessor, it hinges on defining the ethnic problem as essentially a combination of poverty and terrorism. With one difference. In 1995, Colombo set out to handle the terrorism part by itself. Sri Lanka’s armed forces would concentrate on destroying the LTTE whilst the international community would provide material, moral and financial support, both for the military campaign, but the subsequent reconstruction/development.

The failure of ‘war for peace’ was two fold. Firstly, the military project failed. The LTTE was not defeated, but instead expanded substantially. It grew militarily, structurally and territorially, culminating at the turn of this century in the most severe threat to Sri Lankan sovereignty since independence. Almost 70% of the Northeast and hundreds of thousands were no longer under Sri Lankan jurisdiction. In short, the military project was too expensive to sell to donors.

Secondly, and more importantly, the development project failed. This was demonstrated most vividly by the fact that although since 1995 the government has controlled all five major towns in the Northeast including the Jaffna and its peninsula, almost no development of any scale has taken place until the February 2002 ceasefire came into place. And much of the recent work, moreover, is taking place under LTTE administration and/or oversight.

Why development failed is fairly obvious: precious little was actually done. The point was raised less than delicately by the Paris Club of donors in 2000 when, whilst refusing to provide more funds, they protested an ‘aid disconnect.’ In short, money was going to Sri Lanka, but not hitting the ground. Amid frozen aid flows the war escalated, the economy went into meltdown in 2001 after Katunayake and the rest is history. That development was not undertaken in the Northeast in the five years since 1995 is at odds with the underdevelopment theory. But the ethnic repression framework does provide a plausible explanation as to why.

The strategy being advocated by Kumaratunga today is a derivative of her ‘war for peace.’ This time, instead of Sri Lanka seeking to destroy the LTTE militarily, the international community is expected to restrain and, ultimately disarm, the organisation, as well as providing the funding for the development project. The logic of ‘democratising’ the LTTE springs from this conception. Military failure has thus prompted, not commitment to resolve the conflict, but a new strategy to win the war.

The fiasco of the Pre-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) can be understood in this light, revealing as it does, another ‘disconnect’ between Sri Lanka’s rhetoric and practice. If the Northeast is to be developed so that the professed cause of the conflict can be ameliorated and the LTTE denied a raison d’etre, it might have made sense to implement the P-TOMS fully and pump money – with close international auditing - into Tiger-controlled areas.

But the P-TOMS failed because the Sri Lankan state doesn’t actually accept the underdevelopment theory it espouses. In short, to develop the Northeast is actually to relatively weaken the south, according to the the prevailing zero-sum calculation . Take fishing for example – for almost a decade Sinhala fishermen exploited Northeastern waters with naval protection during the war. The revival of the local fishing industry is changing that.

A solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict hinges therefore on reform of the state, not simply development of the conflict zones. It even goes beyond issues of autonomy and power sharing. The ethnic bias in the state’s bureaucracy, policies and practice needs to end. For the longer term, the hate mongering in the educational curricula must stop and strong defences against ethnic discrimination must be tested in practice. The issue of power sharing, be it federalism or otherwise, lies beyond this minimum. Conversely, if donors continue to use the Sri Lankan state as a conduit for their funds and the vehicle for developing the Northeast, the resumption of the conflict is only a question of time.

On the other hand, advocating an ethnic-discrimination framework for understanding Sri Lanka’s conflict is not to deny that there is now serious underdevelopment in the Northeast. But if donors’ priorities are alleviating poverty and ending suffering, then as the World Bank chief in Sri Lanka, Peter Harrold, has famously argued, they should be prepared to work with the LTTE. A partnership with the de-facto authority in 70% of the Northeast is a pre-requisite to delivering timely, tangible benefits to the region’s inhabitants.

Moreover, while the LTTE has more than demonstrated its efficacy at both large-scale humanitarian work and long-term project administration, the state’s obstruction of international aid destined for the Northeast in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami has further underscored the need for pragmatic alternative structures led by the LTTE if the substantial developmental requirements of the region are to be met.

In short, if Sri Lanka’s conflict is to be prevented from re-igniting, then the international community, particularly donors, need to ensure the dividends of peace reach the people of the Northeast, as much as the south, whilst ensuring substantial reform of the state takes place. The former requires a preparedness to work constructively with the LTTE, the latter necessitates a preparedness to confront the present state. The alternative approach, as advocated by Colombo, where the immediate goal is the constraining of the LTTE while entrusting the state to develop the Northeast, has failed before. If attempted again, it will in all likelihood fail again, with catastrophic consequences for Sri Lanka.

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