Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Brokering Peace in Sri Lanka

(October 2005)

In August 2005, Foreign Minister Lakshmin Kadirgaman was shot in his swimming pool by snipers located in a vacant house next door. His government reasonably suspects the assassins to be members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group fighting for the independence of the ethnic Tamil minority. Though the type of gun used in the killing was one frequently used by the LTTE, authorities have yet to identify his killers, and thus a firm connection between the murder and the rebel group remains elusive.

Kadirgaman’s assassination took place while I traveled in Sri Lanka as a volunteer with the Tsunami Relief Project, and the streets and airwaves of the entire nation were immediately awash in hagiographical tributes to their revered statesman. Because he was an ethnic Tamil working in a government accused of anti-Tamil prejudice, Kadirgaman carried an aura of dignity which transcended partisanship. He had actively worked to attain international aid for the Sri Lankan civil war from nations around the world, particularly Norway (which is currently facilitating negotiations with the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE rebels) and the United States (which has given billions of dollars in military aid as part of the Global War on Terrorism). Kadirgaman was a great individual, and so as to further his legacy, I spread the story of his country’s plight.

There are two main ethnic-religious groups in Sri Lanka: the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese, who make up approximately 74% of this country of 19 million, and who live in the developed South; and the predominantly Hindu Tamils, who make up another 18% of the country and live mostly along the Eastern seaboard and in the Northern jungles. Both groups were treated fairly equitably while under the colonial rule of the British viceroyalty, but when the country became the independent republic of Ceylon in 1948, the Sinhalese imposed a barefaced tyranny of the majority. The country now has a vibrant spoils system in which Sinhalese government officials give most public sector jobs to their lighter-skinned brethren, an unofficial policy which has created an obvious socioeconomic disparity in many communities – communities where the steadiest paycheck comes from the police station. Aspiring Sri Lankan politicians have historically made demagogic appeals to the Sinhalese people’s chauvinistic anxieties against the Tamils, and have banned the Tamil language in public schools, universities, and government offices.

This flagrant bias could even be seen in the government’s actions in response to last December’s tsunami; state-financed refugee camps were quickly constructed in Sinhalese South. In the Tamil East, the Kumaratunge administration handed over lands which used to be home to poor fishing villages to private tourism developers, displacing hundreds of thousands from the mostly darker-skinned underclass inland. And now, nine months afterwards, the Sri Lankan government had still done almost nothing to rebuild Tamil communities hit by the tsunami - almost all relief projects there were sponsored by either private charities or foreigners.

The straw that broke the camel’s back and first ignited the Tamil revolt, however, came in 1983 when members of the notoriously corrupt police forces organized violent riots against the Tamil minority in the capitol city of Colombo. Immediately, Tamils across the island nation went to the streets calling for freedom from violent discrimination, and radicals led by current insurgent leader Colonel Villupillai Prabakharan called for an independent Tamil homeland in the North. The sensitivity of the Tamil minority were no stranger to us Tsunami Relief Project volunteers; while we were working in the mixed-ethnicity city of Batticaloa, riots had broken out along the Jaffna peninsula after a Sri Lankan military officer’s rifle discharged at a barbershop and killed his Tamil barber. News of the outrage quickly spread to the Tamils of Batticaloa and violent demonstrations ensued.

For 22 years the LTTE has waged a guerilla war against the Sri Lankan government, and ruthless acts of terrorism are among their favorite tactics; assassination is in fact their preferred method of changing administrations. So as to expel the Indian peacekeeping force from the Tamil regions, Liberation Tigers killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and in 1993 the insurgent group assassinated Sri Lankan president Rasinghe Premadasa. Civilians targets have also been hit, such as the Temple of the Tooth which houses what is supposedly a mandible from the jaw of Buddha; this act, if it had successfully destroyed the relic, would have had enormous symbolic consequence, since Sri Lankan regimes since antiquity have carefully guarded the tooth as a source of divine legitimacy.

Nevertheless, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are more than just a motley gang of thugs and killers. The LTTE is less like Al Qaeda and more comparable to Hezbollah; they finance their militant activities mostly through taxes from the Tamil population and actually operate what can be called a weakly-functioning civil administration in the territory they control. That is why, though the LTTE is undeniably a terrorist organization and classified as such by the US State Department, it is difficult to lump them into the same category as the religious fundamentalist terrorists on which our FBI, CIA and military have squared their sights.

The LTTE is nonetheless a fringe group primarily limited to the despised and impoverished caste of Untouchables, a group so radical that they impede economic progress so as to maintain the suffering of their constituents, which is then used as a rallying cry for their cause. They are so lacking in willing recruits that they resort to abducting fourteen-year-olds to use as child soldiers. The vast majority of Sri Lankans, Sinhalese and Tamils alike, are weary of this war, which has afflicted thousands of families and costs $700 million a year, out of an annual federal budget of only $4.2 billion. This spending has deprived the economy of funds sorely needed to invest in basic infrastructure; as I was walking along a path of sand and rocks in the war-torn town of Batticaloa, my guide remarked to me, “This is a road. It will never be paved until our civil war ends.”

The truth is that Sri Lanka has so much potential for development and growth that were it not for the Liberation Tigers, it could have possibly been one of the Asian Tigers like nearby India. But such a long-lasting civil war and climate of political instability have frightened off the kind of foreign investors that could create new industries and Western tourists who might otherwise be spending their money there. Peace could very well transform the culture of entrenched poverty which is all-too-familiar for millions.

Since the island’s people so fervently desire peace, in 2001 Lakshmin Kadirgaman and the LTTE rebel leaders settled a cease-fire in what is known as the P-TOMS agreement (“Cease-fire” is an extremely relative term, as shots are routinely exchanged in Batticaloa and kill about one person per day). And while the Norwegian government has since taken the mantle of the international community in an attempt to negotiate a permanent peace treaty, it now seems more elusive without the diplomatic skills of the late Foreign Minister. Nevertheless, if peace is ever to be achieved it will be either through granting the Tamils complete independence or at least a significant degree of autonomy in a federalist scheme. The latter seems much more likely, as neighboring India does not want to kindle the flame of sovereignty among its own Tamil population, and Sinhalese opinion is adamantly against granting independence to a group whom, though they have historically been on the receiving end of Sinhalese oppression, they see as their fellow countrymen.

The world power which could do the most to end the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka – the United States of America – is painfully uninvolved in the peace process. The only evidence of our country’s involvement I found while taking a break from clearing rubble at a beachfront YMCA now used as a base by Sri Lankan soldiers. I went to hang out with the machine gun-wielding platoon that was napping and playing poker, and the commanding officer proudly showed me their dog’s new puppies in his office. There I caught a newspaper on his desk blaring: “US Ambassador Pledges More Military Aid to Combat Terrorism”.

Simply put, giving block grants of military aid to the Sri Lankan government without any further engagement is only slightly better than doing nothing at all, and does little to further our campaign to weaken organized terrorist groups. The amount of change that we can effect by simply sending an ambassador to the peace negotiations, or by commissioning Condoleeza Rice to condemn the LTTE’s use of child soldiers at a press conference, would be incredible for these people. Though the prospects seems bleak when our current administration is so preoccupied with its own ethnic conflicts in a much more strategically important region of the world.

Even so, our country has other tools with which we can attain a lasting peace in Sri Lanka, namely our unrivaled economic power. The deeply-indebted government is wholly dependent on loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which in turn are effectively run by the United States. At the time being we are using this influence over Sri Lanka to make it privatize its banks, deregulate its industries, and institute other policies consistent with orthodox free market ideology – policies which, by the way, led to such a dramatic decrease in the job security of Sinhalese public employees that they vented their rage at the Tamils as scapegoats in the riots of 1983 which precipitated the civil war. But while we are using our influence to make the country more attractive to foreign entrepreneurs, we can also nudge the Sri Lankan economy in a way that services their own desperate needs.

According to the Four Noble Truths adhered to by Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority, all of life is suffering, suffering has a cause, suffering can be ended, and suffering can only be ended by eliminating its cause. The radicalism which fuels the LTTE rebels is a result of an impoverished population – a population that is fairly cognizant of the ethnic discrimination which has caused them such hardships. We as Americans are in a position to at least dull the edges of this radicalism. While Paul Wolfowitz is privatizing and deregulating the Sri Lankan economy at the head of the World Bank, he can also make loans to the government contingent on their being spent more proportionally among the Sinhalese and Tamil populations, or he could he could push for fair distribution of tsunami relief funds and fair hiring practices. And if he wanted to be truly meddling, Wolfowitz could even encourage the Sri Lankan government to make Tamil another official language.

Any of these options are more than feasible and would not require a cent of American tax dollars. Once the Sri Lankan civil war ends, we too can garner a peace dividend by saving money on military aid and gaining a newly dynamic trading partner. We would also gain the goodwill of a small but grateful nation, a commodity for which our country is in desperate need.

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