31 July 2007
No sooner had Sri Lanka's military announced it had occupied the Thoppigala region, described as the last stronghold of the Tamil Tigers in the eastern province, the President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government called for international aid to develop the territories newly captured by the military. Japan, Sri Lanka's biggest donor, was swift to respond. Meanwhile, the military has declared that relief and developmental non-governmental organizations operating in the eastern province must do so through its administration. The logic behind these moves is pacification. Counter-insurgency theory calls for the consolidation of military gains by foreclosing further resistance to occupation forces by transforming the mindsets of the population (winning hearts and minds) through a combination of coercion and incentives.
Working in a framework which unquestioningly declares ethnic harmony can be fashioned out of the present Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state if only the LTTE can be destroyed, several international actors are backing President Rajapakse's war against the Tigers. They also intend to support his pacification program in the eastern province. Denying the fundamental problem in Sri Lanka - the oppression of the Tamils by the Sinhala dominated state - these international actors believe all the government needs to do to win Tamil hearts and minds is carry out development. Once provided with hospitals, schools, etc., the argument goes, the Tamils will drop their outlandish political demands for self-determination and, more importantly, desert the Tigers.
The Sri Lankan state has embarked on pacification programs several times in 25 years of war. None have succeeded. For those less sanguine about the prospects of refashioning the Sri Lankan state, the reasons are obvious. On the ground, the Sinhala military cannot win the trust of the Tamil population, as evidenced by the day to day interaction between troops and the majority of civilians in any of the government controlled areas. The indiscriminate and often deliberate violence the military unleashes on civilian centers during its offensives establishes the fundamental relationship between the Sinhala state and the Tamil citizen. Civilian suffering continues thereafter under occupation amid routine human rights abuses and restrictions on trade (fishing, farming, etc) by a military which (justifiably) views the Tamil population with suspicion.
The fundamental problem is clearly visible in Sri Lanka today: the military is carrying out rights abuses at will and with impunity - even though the international community has a grandstand view.
Indeed, for most of the conflict international aid has been supplied in support of the military's counter-insurgency efforts. Government embargoes on Tamil areas outside its forces' control have including the blocking of food and medicine to the poeple but have always been tacitly supported by the donor community. Relief and rehabilitation aid has instead been made tantalizingly available on the government side of the front line in a bid to tempt the population, also being pressured by indiscriminate bombardment, to cross from LTTE areas to government ones. Once an area has been captured (and only then), international aid has been brought in to rebuild and develop it.
The theory of pacification has failed due to inept execution by the racist, corrupt Sri Lankan state. The state's character was exemplified by its conduct after the 2004 tsunami, when it diverted most aid to the Sinhala south, blocking aid and media from the North-east. Three days after the waves Rajapakse, then Prime Minister, was shrilly protesting that international aid shouldn't be allowed to Vanni. This is the leadership the international community now believes will develop the east and woo the people away from the guerrillas. On top of this racism are Sri Lankan officialdom's all pervasive corruption and entrenched political clientilism.
Jaffna is the quintessential failure of pacification in Sri Lanka, though no program has been more determined. The peninsula was captured by the military in 1996. Aid was pumped in by the donor community in an undisguised and integral role in Sri Lanka's counter-insurgency strategy. Yet a decade later Jaffna remains a heavily armed enclave under military administration where Army-backed paramilitaries prowl at will. All internationally-backed development efforts in Jaffna have foundered due to corruption and patron client networks. A top World Bank official, addressing Sri Lanka's donor forum in 2000 marveled that she could not find a single person that had been helped despite the Bank’s substantive funding there.
The confidence with which international actors are today preparing to fund development in the newly captured eastern is misguided. It is a cliché that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is also a truism.