Bob Rae, the Canadian former shadow foreign minister has charted Sri Lanka’s path into a repressive regime. The full article has been republished below.
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What lessons are we to draw from the Sri Lankan conflict? Something deep in the culture of antagonism that pervades modern Sri Lanka made it impossible for a peace process leading toward genuine reconciliation to be accepted.
The hold of religious zealotry and political extremism in Sri Lanka was strong and depressingly persistent. The stubbornness of the Sinhalese majority created the conditions for a turn to violence by the Tamil minority in the 1970s, and a militant cult of personality and exclusionary nationalism on the part of the LTTE (also known as the Tamil Tigers) set the country on a course of conflict that proved irreversible.
The elimination of the voices of moderation, the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the decision to seek a military victory after the collapse of the ceasefire with the government in 2008: these decisions by the LTTE proved to be disastrous for it and for the entire Tamil community in whose name the LTTE was allegedly fighting. The degeneration of a militant cadre into a death cult is not unique to Sri Lanka, but partly explains why the end was so destructive.
The decision of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to order the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi summed up his ruthlessness and fatal hubris. As Talleyrand might have said, it was worse than wrong, it was stupid.
Gandhi’s death earned Prabhakaran the eternal enmity of the Indian government, particularly the Congress Party government. It led to his death sentence in absentia and his status as an international criminal. It meant that he could not lead a movement from armed struggle to sincere political negotiation. A high-ranking Indian diplomat told me emphatically that whatever political course was charted, “Prabhakaran is a dead man. Is that understood?” Prabhakaran would have known this. He could never become a Nelson Mandela or even a Yasser Arafat. His endgame was martyrdom.
A very different man might have separated himself from the movement in order to save it. Prabhakaran did no such thing — he used the personality cult right to the bitter end, leading thousands of women, men and children to the slaughter with him.
Sri Lanka has now fallen into a dangerous authoritarianism with the Rajapaksa brothers and their government fully in control.
They can point to elections as the source of their legitimacy, but the evidence of a politicized judiciary, widespread corruption, and a deeply repressed and partisan media is a troubling reflection of a political agenda that is leaning far away from the respect for rights and diversity that lies at the heart of the democratic idea.
This is the terrible irony today. President Mahinda Rajapaksa won a massive majority in the presidential election in 2010, defeating General Sarath Fonseka, who had led the government forces to victory. He then promptly threw Fonseka in jail. Opinion is behind him. There are courts that sit, judges that go to work every day, and newspapers written and sold throughout the country, but none of them dare challenge the government. Anyone who does is threatened, harassed, and told they are not welcome. Dozens of journalists have been killed, and many more have left the country.
Democracy is much more than who can win an election. It is how a country is governed between elections. It is government by discussion, not by diktat and decree.
Sri Lanka was at war for half a century, and the end of the war has not reduced the demand for more money and more arms.
Instead, military spending and related racketeering have skyrocketed.
Defence now accounts for over a fifth of all government spending and shows no signs of going down. This militarization has far-reaching implications for democracy. But while the West worries, no one is prepared to do anything about it. Sri Lanka’s closest allies– China, Pakistan, Burma, and Iran — are not going to criticize the government for its authoritarian ways or its democratic deficit. The decision by the International Monetary Fund in 2009 to authorize
US$2.6-billion in credit to Sri Lanka — with Canada’s support, but abstentions from many Western governments — plus Sri Lanka’s success at convincing the United Nations Human Rights Council that there was no merit in an international review of its conduct of the war, is a clear sign that severe repression can take place with impunity.
In 2009, the Worldwide Press Freedom Index placed Sri Lanka between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Today it would be even lower. Transparency International consistently reports corruption at the highest echelons of both the executive and legislative levels of government. A Sri Lanka where mutual respect, some autonomy for Tamils, shared governance, and an abandonment of extremist ideologies are all possible is, tragically, just a dream for now. Becoming involved in the politics of Sri Lanka has affected me deeply. I could see from the outset that peace and reconciliation were an unlikely result, but the extent of the failure, and the full dimensions of the violence involved have forced me to recognize the difficulty of “sharing experiences.”
The resolution of deep conflicts isn’t a matter of good ideas beating bad ones. It requires far more consistent international pressure, a willingness to punish recalcitrant bad behaviour on both sides, and awareness amongst the parties that the costs of a conflict far outweigh the price of compromise. By the time of the ceasefire in 2001, the suspicion between the parties was so deep and so entrenched that bridging the gap would have taken extraordinary acts of leadership on both sides as well as real engagement from the outside world.
But all those who might have been able to steer the talks toward a new workable constitution for the country had been silenced.
If we compare the situation in Sri Lanka to, say, Northern Ireland or South Africa, or even Canada, we begin to understand what is missing. A constitution is not just a piece of paper, crafted after a few weeks of tough discussion. It doesn’t flow from rhetoric about democracy and understanding. The real constitution of any country depends on its political culture and institutions, and while those two things are not immutable, they have to be recognized for the forces they represent.
Successful constitutional change requires that the political leaders of the country set aside partisan differences in the understanding that building the framework of the country is an act of statesmanship that goes beyond day-to-day politics. In Northern Ireland it meant that Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein had to shake hands. In South Africa, it meant that Nelson Mandela and National Party leader Frederik de Klerk had to come to terms. In Canada, the partisanship and ethnic bickering that marked the young colonies for decades had to be set aside for the greater good at the Charlottetown meetings in 1867, just to get the framework right. Every colonial delegation had leaders of every party present, and that made all the difference.
That didn’t happen in Sri Lanka. The two main political parties in the south were at each other’s throats the whole time of the ceasefire, which left the LTTE unsure whether any agreement reached could be sustained. The LTTE’s artificial status as the sole representative of the Tamils meant that no alternative voices were heard at the table. Other Tamil parties and views were stifled, and Sri Lanka’s Muslims were on the margins, trying to get to the table. Partisan politics never left the room. But it has to for sound constitutional change to happen.
The fundamental values of a country have to be shared, or at least shared sufficiently so that it can survive changes in government and political leadership. For Thomas Hobbes this might be simply a matter of superior firepower ending debate. But that isn’t enough, there has to be a moral basis to the consensus. The Sri Lankan majority insists that there is and that if only troublesome agitators and meddlesome outsiders would leave the game everything would be all right. But reconciliation entails accepting the legitimacy of the other, their religion, their language, their personality.
Sri Lanka is not a failed state, but it is now a deeply repressive one, and it faces some clear choices in the years ahead. There is much talk of a closer relationship between all the countries of the Indian subcontinent, of free trade zones, of sharing experience on governance and so on. Now that the LTTE has been defeated, India will become more engaged, and will continue to have concerns about both stability and the recognition of diversity by its smaller neighbour. Sri Lanka will try to encourage China, Pakistan, and even Iran to remain interested in the development of the country (it is unlikely they will be much interested in issues of governance and democracy), but India, if it chooses, can play a central role.
Meanwhile, monitoring by international institutions, public, private, and non-governmental, will continue. Democracy and human rights are not just the idle dreams of Western radicals; they speak to the aspirations of ordinary Sri Lankans in both communities, which I have seen and heard expressed. The institutions that are necessary to nurture and express these aspirations do not yet exist, but in the long term the government cannot avoid pressure from both domestic and international communities. Nor can President Rajapaksa avoid the reality that he remains the leader of an ethnically diverse country, and that oppression can work for a time but it cannot work forever.
– Excerpted with permission from Exporting Democracy: The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea, by Bob Rae, published in 2010 by Mc-Clelland & Stewart.