Had Sri Lanka either been bereft of an internal ethno-national question (the Tamil question) or had the Sri Lankan military been multiethnic in composition, the acquisition of private land for high security zones and permanent housing for military families would not have been so serious a problem. We are dealing with the reality of a mono-ethnic, monolingual, mono-religious military establishing permanent housing for their families in a differently mono-ethnic area with a high degree of sub-nationalist consciousness.
There would be those who argue that a mono-ethnic army was able, against all expectation, to win a war against terrorism and separatism on the home turf of the insurgents. This is not strictly true. The achievement of the Sri Lankan armed forces was both greater than that and different from it. The Sri Lankan army defeated a rival secessionist army, a powerful militia, not a guerrilla insurgency or terrorist network. The Tigers had long outgrown those stages and hypertrophied to the socio-politically unsustainable level of a parallel armed force, fighting a quasi-conventional war.
Today, the state must deploy the armed forces in the North and East in a manner that deters and prevents future conflict and rather than sows the seeds for it, either in the forms of terrorism, guerrilla cells or unarmed civic resistance. The establishment of permanent military bases strictly within state (‘Crown’) land is doubtless imperative to guarantee the first objective, but the acquisition of private land and the settlement of military families could trigger the latter. The permanent settlement of military families means places of religious worship, schools, shops, cinemas, services, etc, and the first sign of protest would also mean widening the zone, narrowing access to the civilians of the area, perhaps new access roads and the proliferation of checkpoints. This may seem an excellent method of population mixing, but that works as a method o conflict transformation only if population movement is as a result of natural economic factors, not unilateral state policy. The Tamils in Wellawatte were not brought there as part of state policy.
These ideas for the North and East are not new—and nor is the critique. A read through the Lanka Guardian and The Island’s ‘Kautilya’ column of the 1980s would show the repeated warnings by Mervyn de Silva, who was, among other things, widely acknowledged as the country’s leading expert on Israel/Palestine and the Middle East, about the ideas of a wing of the JR Jayewardene government of the time. These ideas, identified with then Minister of National Security but also shared by the President’s son and security advisor Ravi Jayewardene, located in and derived from an irrelevant external matrix, were dangerously inapplicable to Sri Lanka, would worsen the ethnic problem and generate a backlash from the regional power, warned my father. ‘In an age of identity, ethnicity walks on water’ he said, pointing to inflamed sentiment in proximate Tamil Nadu and the increasingly influential Diaspora, of which the Sinhalese had no equivalent or counterweight to. As it turned out, it was not the Tamil Tiger insurgency which put a halt to Minister Athulathmudali’s and Ravi Jayewardene’s importation of ‘the West Bank model’ as the Lanka Guardian called it, but precisely the ‘geo-political realities’ – the absence or furling of a superpower umbrella in the event of an abrupt assertion by the regional power -- that Mervyn de Silva had tried to drum home into the ruling elite, to no avail, until the external ‘seismic shock’ of mid-1987.
Sri Lanka is today at a crossroads. One road leads to reconciliation and a fresh start which enables us to integrate with Asia’s march to modernity. The other leads to a new and prolonged cycle of conflict. The right kind of security policy for the North and East, a policy which derives from the best practises globally, a policy which is scientific and professional rather than driven by wrong interpretations of history and ethno-religious motivations, will enhance and ensure security. The wrong kind of security policy for the post-war North and East in which Sri Lankan armed forces cantonments become interlinked oases embedded a hostile local population, may turn the entire area into a high insecurity zone.
Realism tells us that the North and East have to be secure over the long term. It tells us that the Sri Lankan security forces will remain overwhelmingly mono-ethnic at least in the short term. Realism, which is drawn in large part from world history, further tells us that in such a situation, a policy of permanent encampments and fortifications must be accompanied by alliances with the local elites and a degree of local autonomy. That autonomy must not be so large as to be dysfunctional to security and strategy but must be sufficiently broad to pre-empt local disaffection. This has been the policy of successful empires from Rome to Britain.
Sadly, it would seem as though Sri Lankan policy projections do not involve this latter aspect of sufficient local autonomy, and that the security aspect is designed to overlook, override, bypass or undermine that local autonomy should it be implemented under external pressure or internal political compulsion. The great Asian strategic thinker-practitioner Mao Ze Dong advocated a policy of ‘walking on two legs’. We seem intent on marching forward on one.
The increased alienation of the Tamil people of the North and a widening gulf between the collective psyches of our main communities cannot be a pathway to stable security and permanent peace. The so-called demographic solution is no solution, as has been proved even in its conceptual birthplace -- and notwithstanding a superpower blank cheque that Sri Lanka will never have.
While ‘facts are being created on the ground’, if the elected representatives of the Tamil people remain divided, with some dreaming of self-determination and others of federalism, and still others refuse to talk to their erstwhile comrades who are in government, instead of collectively pressing for the reasonable demand of the ‘turnkey’ re-activation of the existing Constitutional provisions as reiterated in bilateral statements and international undertakings, then these Tamil representatives will have only themselves to blame for the continuing and perhaps irreversible Tamil tragedy.
Thus, the war is won, the conflict is recessed and latent, but the crisis looks set to continue.