by Jehan Perera
(June 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)There was an anticipation of the government shedding its military focus after the completion of the war a year ago. The ending of emergency rule and reduction of the military budget became possibilities. However, the government has been keeping the war, and its institutions, at the centre of the people’s attention even a year after the war. The victory celebration on June 18 will be the latest effort in this regard. In addition, the government’s concern with security on the ground remains high. Any vehicle travelling from the North and East is thoroughly checked at major checkpoints along the road. This is to ensure that hidden caches of arms, buried by the LTTE, are not smuggled out to other parts of the country.
More remotely but prominently all the same, the government remains on a war footing against pro-LTTE groups outside the country. Military officials have been posted to Sri Lankan embassies abroad to keep an eye on anti Sri Lankan actions and collaborate with law enforcement authorities in those countries to check such actions wherever possible. The pro-LTTE diaspora has been busy setting up branches of a Provisional Government of Tamil Eelam in various countries. This has given further strength to the government’s case for vigilance, including continuing anti-LTTE actions that call for taking the battle abroad.
However, in an all too obvious case of over-kill, the first budget proposed by the government after the war has become controversial even amongst those groups that fully supported the government’s war effort. The high defense spending during the years of war could have been justified by the government’s need to do its utmost to overpower and defeat the LTTE. On the other hand, the government’s decision to increase the size of the defense budget after the end of the war is not reflective of a peace time decision. The Inter University Students Federation has put up posters questioning the massive defence allocation and questioning its rationale in a time of peace. The JVP-backed student union is asking that the allocation for education be increased instead.
In its budget proposal, the government has increased the defence allocation to a record Rs 202 billion. This figure surpasses last year’s defence allocation by over Rs 26 billion. The magnitude of the hike can be seen in comparison to the allocation for education which is Rs 27 billion and the budget for higher education which is Rs 20 billion. The defence budget is so massive that it dwarfs the other ministries of the government, especially those that are directly related to the welfare of the general population. The allocation for health has been reduced by Rs 5 billion to Rs 53 billion, while the allocation for the Ministry of Resettlement is a mere Rs 3 billion.
In the minds of most people, especially those who live outside of the North and East, the end of the war has meant peace. The biggest peace dividend for most people is the absence of air raids, bombs and terrorism. Feeling safe and secure in one’s daily life is an important contributor to the quality of life. The end of the war has brought this peace dividend to the lives of the entire Sri Lankan population. However, the absence of war is not the fullness of what peace is. The world renowned peace researcher Prof. Johan Galtung spoke of negative peace, which is the absence of violence. But he also spoke of positive peace, where the structural reasons for violence are also eliminated, and give rise to social conditions of justice, social welfare and equity for all people.
After nearly three decades of war, there is an urgent need for the government to give more emphasis to the economic and welfare needs of the people. Any country that has limited resources needs to recognize that if it devotes a larger proportion of its resources to the defence sector there will be less to give to the economic and welfare sectors that directly impact upon the lives of the majority of people. In the longer term the government is bound to pay a price with dissatisfaction rising within the general population. This is particularly true of the Tamil population, which suffered tremendously during the years of the war. They will be particularly critical of a government misallocation of resources that marginalizes their urgent concerns of reconstruction, resettlement and rehabilitation.
The traveller to the North of the country would see high quality pre-fabricated materials lying in stacks on the sides of the roads awaiting the funds to set them up into cantonments for the security forces. At the same time the traveller would see resettled people living in shacks by side of the roads, and would wonder how those people eke out a livelihood when there are no sources of irrigation for them to restart their lives as farmers. It is clear that the resettlement of the displaced people in their original homes will not be complete until the irrigation tanks are restored, dams rebuilt, canals cleaned, and internal roads to villages repaired. But the budgetary allocation to agriculture has registered a downward movement of five billion rupees over the last year.
The government’s lop sided budgetary allocations can only be explained by a focus on the security of the state. When the security of the state takes priority over the welfare of the people the outcome is often referred to as a national security state. Government spokespersons have sought to explain the disparity between the budget allocations for defense and other ministries by pointing to the continuing security needs of the country. They have said that the government is establishing new police stations and other security posts in the former war zones of the North and East. The preparations for such efforts are clearly visible on the sides of the roads in those parts.
In the field of security studies, there are two competing notions of security. One is that of human security which argues that a people-centred view of security is essential for national and global stability. It seeks to bring together separate fields of development studies and national security on the one hand and human rights and state sovereignty on the other. The advantage of this concept is that it acknowledges the inter relatedness that contribute to individual well being. By way of contrast the more traditional concept of security is that of a state’s ability to defend itself against security threats. Accordingly, the state’s interest comes first. The understanding is that a state can only rely on its own strength for its survival. Decision making is centralised in the government and the state relies on national power and military defence.
Underlying this emphasis on national security in government today is a consciousness of Tamil alienation and its possible resurgence as militancy. This runs contrary to the perception of the majority of people that the war is over and peace has returned. On its part, the government has done nothing to create awareness amongst the ethnic majority population about the political grievances of the ethnic minorities that laid the foundation for the war that was to follow. While appreciating the peace dividend that has come in the form of freedom from terrorism, the majority of people are also anticipating a peace dividend that will bring economic and social betterment to them. Unless these expectations are also met the government runs the risk of evoking dissatisfaction and a feeling of being let down amongst the people.
The government's approach is that the country needs rapid economic development which will, among other things, address the economic grievances of both the majority of people as well as the ethnic minorities. But economic development by itself will not address the political grievances of the ethnic minorities. Therefore issues of inter ethnic justice and equality need to be brought back to the centre of the government’s agenda. In the 1970s, the grievances of the Tamil people were language, education, employment and land. The structural reasons for these grievances have not changed. This is sustaining the conflict, though it is once again a political conflict in which the ethnic minorities seek not only a voice but also decision making power in governance at least in the areas in which they predominate.
If peace and reconciliation is the goal, the government needs to chart a different path. Building up the military might of the state is not going to make Sri Lanka a happy and united country. Lee Kwan Yew has said that Sri Lanka, even after the war victory of the government, is not a happy and united country. Being critiqued by a foreigner, even one so distinguished as the former Prime Minister of Singapore will undoubtedly not be pleasing to the government nor to the many people who support the governmentposition. But the fact that Sri Lanka is spending more on its military and so little on health, education and resettlement, which added together is only about half that of the military budget, is indeed a problem. If peace has truly come, as claimed and widely believed, the emphasis should at least be on economic and humanitarian rebuilding and not on military re-arming.
by Jehan Perera