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Revaluation of the Past and Reconciliation

Some Reflections on “Long War, Cold Peace”

| by Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke

“Sri Lanka faces a crisis of transition and transformation… Sri Lanka has been unable to make the transition from war to sustainable peace; from what I believe was fundamentally a just war to a just peace.  The crisis is at least in part a crisis of the post war discourse. … The discourse has not been of a character which can facilitate the transition from just war to just peace... Those who maintain it was a just war fail to call for a just peace a peace with justice for the Tamil community. The Tamils for their part have failed to make a clean break from their recent past of sympathy for secessionism and terrorism. There is no post war discourse which combines a strong position in defense of the war with a strong drive for a sustainable peace on a new basis of a fairly re-drawn ethnic compact.” (‘Long War, Cold Peace’ Vijitha Yapa, 2013, P 34)

( August 22, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The two sessions of the Marga Institute’s Panel Discussion on Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’s book “Long War Cold Peace” have been organized under the titles “Was it a just war?” and “Can we have a just peace?”. Those who have read the book will appreciate the appropriateness of these titles for the two main parts of Dr Jayatilleka’s book - first , his analysis of the ethnic conflict as it escalated to the war with the LTTE – the Thirty Year War as he calls it-- and second, his perspective on the complex issues of post war politics and reconciliation. The excerpt from his book reproduced above will help us to focus on some of the key issues raised by him in his book – issues which are fundamental to the processes that must shape the future of post war Sri Lanka.

The first two chapters or the first part deal with all the complex processes and outcomes of Sri Lankan politics during the Thirty year war – from the flawed democratic part to the anti-systemic violent part. There is a brief overview of the policies and events which led to the rise of youth militancy, in which he “deconstructs” as it were, the notion of “root causes”. “‘Who is responsible?’ for what happened” he says “is the standard question. Depending on one’s persuasion and proclivity one identifies either Sinhala chauvinism or Tamil ultra – nationalism. But the truth is, it is not ‘either /or’ it is ‘and/and’ ”. The causes of the conflict in one period are not the causes in the other. In the spiral of violence perpetrator and victim change places time and again. This statement of the author defines the approach taken in the entirety of his narrative and analysis. The spotlight is constantly moving to focus on the excesses, violations and mistakes of all the actors involved in the conflict- Sinhala and Tamil state and non- state. After this overview the author, enters into the main narrative of the Thirty Years War beginning with an assessment of Prabhakaran.

At this point it would be appropriate to comment on the credentials of the book we have selected as the framework for our panel discussion. “Long War and Cold Peace” has the authenticity of an account given by a witness who had intimate knowledge of what he writes. He compels our attention by the first hand knowledge that comes from an intense personal involvement in some of the political processes he describes. His analysis is also a personal testimony, testimony of a committed actor, a brilliant student who in his youth at the height of his academic achievement opted for political action against the prevailing system, with full knowledge of the personal risks involved. At the same time, the book has the intellectual integrity of a piece of research carried out with analytical skills and scholarly erudition of a rare quality. The evidence and information is assembled from a wide variety of sources to include all parties to the conflict which makes his analysis both comprehensive and inclusive. Dr Jayatilleka draws lessons from contemporary conflicts across the globe – from Chechnya to El Salvador from IRA and Hezbollah to the Shining Path. In the comparative analysis he makes he points out the false analogies that are often made and emphasizes the specificities of the Sri Lankan case.

His scholarly reach, the capacity to strengthen his argument with reference to the eminent thinkers and scholars in the relevant field is effortless and masterly. The theoretical and scholarly analysis is interspersed with insights from literature on the human condition, producing a rare combination of the intellect and the imaginative sensibility. As a result, the moral and human dimension of his writing comes across with a high credibility. The final product Dr Jayatilleka’s book is a hybrid of an unusual kind. It is the work of a scholar who has explored the full range of theory and knowledge in his field ; in parts it has the personal involvement of an autobiography ; for example his concluding cameo on Che Guevara is a nostalgic recollection of a role model. The book reads at times like an extended oration delivered with passion. But in all these forms, the book never fails to hold our attention and engage us fully; in all its variety the book raises major substantial issues that are central to the post war future of Sri Lankan society . Dr Jayatilleka examines these issues within a theoretical framework and a system of values which take into account the full range of the global discourse on conflict and human rights. The frame of reference the author uses are the core human values that have been at the heart of that discourse. The author therefore asks us to engage not only with the authenticity of his account of the conflict and the war and his interpretation of its genesis and the course it took; he also wants us to engage with the moral positions he takes and the ethical judgments he makes.
The main purpose of the Panel Discussions organized by the Marga Institute is to use the analysis in Dr Jayatilleka’s book as the basis for an inquiry into the two main challenges that Sri Lankan society faces - truth and accountability in regard to the past and the post war process of reconciliation and national unity . The way in which Dr Jayatilleka has framed the issues for the post war discourse point to some of the intractable problems on reaching a consensus on what the past has been and what the future should be.

In the first two chapters of the book Dr Jayatilleka reconstructs for us the long agony of the Thirty Years War. The author reminds us that the Economist in 1989 described Sri Lanka as “the bloodiest place on earth” (p29).

The first challenge then is for all communities to come to terms with this past, to reach a common understanding of the past and the lessons learnt from it. How did the conflict arise? What was the nature of the war we fought? How is the truth about the past and accountability for it relevant to a future of peaceful co-existence? In moving forward to the desired future, all communities carry with them the burden of the past They each need to seek unflinchingly for the truth and accountability regarding the past and together they need a process of liberation from the past.

Dayan’s analysis in the first two chapters poses this challenge to all of us with a masterly command of the subject. His argument for even those who may strongly disagree with him, calls for a serious re- examination of many of the approaches taken by political leaders and civil society activists in dealing with the ethnic conflict and the war with the LTTE.

The first part of the book is about the war which Dr Jayatilleka defines as essentially “a just war” against the LTTE and how the war became a long war. Dr Jayatilleka gives us an informed account of the evolution of Tamil militancy and how LTTE gained its monopoly. This section with its details of the brutal violence the Tamil militants inflicted on each other is a chamber of horrors that is difficult to contemplate. It is essential reading for all those who continue in their adulation of the LTTE. This part of the book takes us through the Indo Lanka Accord, the Premadasa period, the negotiations and war during the Chandrika Bandaranaike regime and the ceasefire. In each of these the author dissects what he describes as the “ lack of clarity” (quoting Lenin ), the confusion in the approach to the ethnic conflict and the war with the LTTE , the failure to distinguish between the two and recognize the true character of the LTTE. As a result what was essentially a just war became a long war leaving a long trail of blood and terror.
In answer to the question he poses “could or all of this been avoided or ended better?” He goes on (in pages 379 -386) to compile a compendium of what he considers were the grievous errors that might have been avoided on both sides – Sinhala and Tamil. It is an incisive piece of analysis and even if we may not agree with all of it, it helps us to identify the pitfalls that lie ahead and the fundamental readjustments that are needed on the part of both the Sinhala and Tamil communities and their leaderships.

The author provides a summary of his main critique of the policies that led to the war in the following statement: “Sri Lanka’s tragic conflict was a failure of perspectives, of values. The liberals and progressives did not understand the zero sum character of the game with a player such as the Tigers They did not realize, faced with a movement with the character of the LTTE, the game can only be zero sum; one wins or loses and the victory of the one is the defeat of the other.” This conclusion is drawn from the 13 propositions or theses he presents regarding the nature of the conflict Sri Lanka faced with the LTTE. Some of the key propositions are reproduced below:
  • · The success of efforts at conflict resolution depends crucially on the intrinsic character of the armed non-state actor in question.
  • · Distinctions must be drawn between terrorist movements and armed resistance movements, between rational albeit extremist radical organizations and non rational fanatical or fundamentalist ones.
  • · Military action must not be the first resort.
  • · However if the armed struggle is monopolized by a fanatical organization the military factor acquires greater importance.
The author goes on to define the process as it escalates from an insurgency to an armed war and the strategy and objectives that are feasible and possible at each stage.
  • · In the extreme case of an insurgency that is dominated by a terrorist and or fanatical organization and has grown to the level of a war the objective of state policy must indeed can be nothing other than the military defeat of the enemy, the destruction of its military apparatus … in short “the annihilation of the living forces of the enemy.”
  • · Such a war must not be punctuated by ceasefires and negotiations which debilitate the morale of the armed forces.
  • · In the case of an outcome of the decisive military defeat of the enemy socio-political reforms must follow the military victory and do so swiftly.

In the narrative and analysis that follows these propositions, Dr Jayatilleka present what most readers would find are convincing and powerful arguments to draw his conclusions regarding the character of the war and the peace that followed. These conclusions are vitally important for the process of reconciliation. All the actors who contributed to the conflict and are engaged in the process of reconciliation must reflect seriously on them.

First, Dr Jayatilleka’s conclusions concern the critical issue: how do we, all of us, come to terms with the past. The past pursues us in the present and will pursue us in the future; it cannot be relegated to oblivion. As in the great tragedy of Orestes the past in the form of the furies is in constant pursuit; it enchains Orestes- “people change and smile but the agony abides”. For Orestes, the smell and sight of blood pervades the present until the past is assuaged through mercy without harsh retribution. That was message in Aeschylus’ drama. How then do we in post war Sri Lanka deal with the past, the agony of the long war? How does the majority Sinhala community come to terms with the past that Dr Jayatilleka has described - the brutal violence inflicted on the Tamils periodically? In his account of that violence, Dr Jayatilleka recalls many things we have chosen to forget. After reading Dr Jayatilleka’s account of the gruesome acts of violence perpetrated by the LTTE, the Tamil community must ask: how do we come to terms with our past , how did any section of our community nurture this monstrous growth in our midst ? These self appraisals have to precede an understanding of the nature of the war that was fought.

The full impact of “ Long War Cold Peace” lies in its unflinching honesty; the unrelenting exposure of all those accountable - Sinhala , Tamil, Indian, the Western Democracies . The framework of accountability in the book encompasses all these aspects. The post-war discourse that the author calls for is what one might call a universal discourse at a turning point in human civilization when universal human values enshrined in international treaties governing human conduct are confronted by a new form of extremist terrorism.

Dr Jayatilleka’s position- a position he takes consistently throughout his book-- is that the war was not one of many choices available; it was the “sole choice.” He argues that all those who advocated a negotiated settlement with the LTTE on the basis that a military solution was not possible or justifiable contributed to this failure – the liberal progressives and the politicians alike. There were many among us who argued that a military solution was not the best option even if it was possible. We did so on the ground that even extremist groups have undergone reform and come into the mainstream of society. Dr Jayatilleka’s characterization of the war and the LTTE eventually proved correct. Then has all the effort of those who campaigned for a peaceful settlement been “an expense of spirit in a waste” of meaningless action – a campaign which as Dr Jayatilleka says debilitated the morale of the armed forces and added to our misery? Or could we argue that the long war was itself inevitable with all its trials and errors that the potential for negotiation had to be fully exhausted before we proved to ourselves and the world that the LTTE had to be defeated militarily. Could there have been a conclusive military solution before India went through the experience of the IPKF and realized that direct intervention was not a feasible option. Would the LTTE have lost the support of the Western powers before their own societies came under the direct threat of terrorist action? It is arguable that no other course was possible in the regional and international context - as the Indian food drop might demonstrate. We might then conclude that the constituency for peace had to be visibly present and active and it contributed positively to the moral foundations of Sri Lanka’s effort to grapple with the problem and maintain Sri Lanka’s unity. A post war discourse of this kind would correct the mindset which regards all those who labored untiringly to avoid war as “traitors” and as guilty of anti-national conduct.

For the post war analysis in the second part of the book Dr Jayatilleka provides a conceptual frame which attempts to capture the multi –dimensional nature of the crisis. He identifies five components of the crisis.

  • · First, “the crisis of national unification - reconciling and reunifying the different identities into an overarching macro identity – that of being Sri Lankan.”
  • · Second, the inability to make “the transition to a state that is neutral as between the constituent communities and with capacity to mediate between them.”
  • · Third, is the crisis of public policy arising out of the war – the depletion of resources to health education public transport and infrastructure.
  • · The fourth, the party system as a whole and the democratic opposition in particular.
  • · The fifth, Dr. Jayatilleka calls the crisis of transition and transformation. It is here that he expresses his thoughts of the post war discourse that is needed. We then need to return to the excerpt from his book with which this note commenced. In the second part of the book Dr Jayatilleka deals with the processes and outcomes of the post war period which need to be assessed in terms of their capacity to deal with the five crises he identified.

The second session of the panel discussion to be held on August 30th will focus on this set of issues dealing with the Cold Peace as analyzed in Dr Jayatilleka’s book. The Institute will prepare a brief background note drawing on the outcome of the first session.


[Godfrey Gunatilleke was founder and is Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute and a former Chairperson of The Gratiaen Trust]

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