POLITICS MAY 21, 2009
After a quarter century of bloodshed and somewhere over 80,000 deaths, Sri Lanka’s civil war didn’t really settle anything. It began in 1983 in a flawed-but-functioning postcolonial democracy whose leaders never seemed quite up to the task of integrating different ethnicities into one nation. It apparently ended on Sunday, in a still-flawed, newly-swaggering postwar democracy where that basic task of integration remains even more elusive.
Fittingly, the last act of the island tragedy took place off-stage, at least as far as the world’s attention was concerned. Ordinarily, an epic battle like the one between Sri Lanka’s army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam would be broadcast around the globe, with cameras focusing on the desperate civilians trapped in the Tigers’ shrinking fiefdom. But with many foreign reporters banned from the country, and domestic ones increasingly menaced by their own government, the climactic final engagement with the legendarily bloody terror group drew relatively little coverage.
Of course, the conflict was little-watched well before the Sri Lankan government decided to make it intentionally opaque. When it began, back in the Cold War, the strife didn’t fit into the sort of left-right framework that drew attention to Angola or El Salvador. Other than during the especially gruesome moments, like the infamous government-abetted 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the conflict didn’t make headlines. India’s bungled efforts to inject itself as a peacekeeper led a Sinhalese soldier to bean Rajiv Gandhi with a rifle butt and a female Tiger cadre to eventually assassinate him, but that was minor stuff in the age of the Superpowers.
Since 9/11, the war has seemed equally distant from the new geopolitcs of the war on terror--no matter how pioneering the Tigers had been when it came to that tactic. Sure, their murderous devotees may have invented the explosive jacket, perfecting suicide bombings back when many Middle Eastern terrorists were still kidnapping college professors. But the lack of a serious Islamic angle nonetheless made it less newsworthy than even minor battlefields in the global struggle against al Qaeda.
In fact, Sri Lanka’s civil carnage has been most tragic precisely because of what the island nation is not. Rather than the sort of misruled colony destined for post-independence proxy-war misery--think Belgian Congo--it emerged from British rule with a decent infrastructure, a relatively efficient civil service, nearly full adult literacy, and a functioning parliamentary system in which defeated pols regularly left office. Voters swung leftward with the third world vogue, but swung back towards the market in the ’80s, positioning the country for trade-based growth well before giant neighbor India did.
It’d be appealing to say that war alone dashed all of that potential. The antecedents, though, were there all along. Under the British, Tamil-speakers (who make up roughly one-fifth of the population) were perceived as having gotten a better deal. With independence, populist candidates played to the Sinhalese majority by promising to reverse that status quo, which meant language laws and reverse affirmative action policies that alienated Tamils. The subsequent rightward tack also played a role in perpetuating a manageable conflict. By the 1990s, when I lived a couple blocks from Colombo’s new KFC, enough people were making enough money that few wanted to devote the state to an all-out war against the Tigers.
Thus did low-intensity civil war become an unremarkable fact of life. In the north, the Tigers ran their own mini-state, complete with tax collection and civil courts. The government in Colombo carried on like any government, even mailing paychecks to northern civil servants, lest it acknowledge losing control. European tourists still flocked to the west coast beaches. The national cricket team won the World Cup. Elections came and went. Peace efforts waxed and waned. The Tigers managed to kill one president and almost kill another, while decimating much of the independent Tamil intelligentsia. Their finances got tougher after 9/11, but they still held a decent chunk of real estate. Life went on.
The 2005 election of Mahinda Rajapaksa changed that. Where many of his predecessors were Oxbridge-educated cosmopolitans, Rajapaksa is beloved by Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinists who see dominion over the entire island as a religious imperative--and view foreign peace efforts with intense suspicion. Rajapaksa announced that the only way to win was via clear military victory. After years of futility from an army that was a minuscule constabulary before the war, the president found a general to bring him that victory. And as humanitarian criticism heated up during the wretched endgame, he didn’t waver, racking up civilian casualties while telling onetime patrons in the west to get lost.
In the wake of Sunday’s victory, capped by the apparent killing of the Tigers’ ruthless, possibly insane supremo Vellupillai Prabhakaran, that’s looking like a smart decision. Like Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, the tough-minded argued, he understood what winning a war entails. In an editorial celebrating the Tiger chieftain’s demise, the pro-government Island newspaper attributed the war’s duration to “blunders of successive pusillanimous and gullible governments,” “[i]ll-planned military operations half-heartedly carried out to deal with terrorism,” and “[p]eace processes [that] only gave [Prabhakaran] succour and strength to emerge stronger.”
But if jingoistic leadership and a militarized state were what won the conventional war, they make it look even less likely that his government will win the peace--a feat that will require magnanimity and humility, and an ability to distinguish between the rebels who were slaughtered on the battlefield and the overall minority population, whose concerns about equality remain valid and unsettled.
In the Sri Lanka that celebrates victory this week, there doesn’t appear to be an oversupply of such grace. Once a relative bastion of civil society, the country has become one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists. NGO workers have been warned against “careless talk,” while three Tamil doctors who told the BBC about alleged battlefield atrocities have been reported missing. The country that once embraced tourism now sports a xenophobic snarl, with jubilant editorialists flaying the purportedly pro-terrorist UN as giddily as American neocons do. A pro-government mob attacked the British embassy, burning an effigy of foreign minister David Milliband, who had criticized the civilian carnage of the final battle. Earlier in the spring, the government became perhaps the first in history to declare a Swedish foreign minister persona non grata for the same reason.
Obviously, making nice with Swedish diplomats is a rather minor function of government, but none of this sounds like the behavior of a polity ready to embrace a beleaguered minority whose grievances are no less real because their self-appointed representatives were such monsters. Rajapaksa hit some of the right notes in a victory speech, even speaking a few words of Tamil, but, given his political style, doubts remain. For hawks, the clich? always was that the island didn’t have an ethnic problem, it had a terrorism problem. Now that the terrorism problem is officially taken care of, perhaps it’s time to get to work on the ethnic one.
For outsiders given little opportunity to follow the final battles of the war, this quieter endeavor may prove even more relevant than the quarter-century of carnage that preceded it. No other civil war on earth featured Buddhists and Tamils and the knotty issues of a small Indian Ocean island. But plenty of struggles in higher-profile places, including some where American policymakers are intimately involved, will someday require the missions Sri Lanka must now accomplish: rehabilitating violent true believers, stitching together a civil society, and restoring a democracy damaged by war. One early way to judge its success will be whether they let you learn anything about their progress.
Michael Schaffer is the author of One Nation Under Dog.