| by Shahzad Chaudhry
Courtesy: The News Pakistan
( March 1, 2014, Islamabad, Sri Lanka Guardian ) I arrived in Sri Lanka as Pakistan’s high commissioner in September 2006. A new government of an old party under a southern rural leader, Mahinda Rajapakse, had just been swept into power. Seemingly he had won a clear majority on the basis of a strong ethno-nationalist definition – Sinhala Buddhism.
There remained only two parties in the opposition in parliament, the United National Party (UNP), the main opposition, which had seen repeated stints in power under some illustrious political leaders, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represented the Tamils and had a chequered history of a close association with India.
A man of easy manners, comfortable among the people, Rajapakse seemed the farthest from any trappings of academic or intellectual pretension. His nation was, however, caught in the viciousness of a three-decade old insurgency wrought by the inimitable LTTE – in many ways the founders of modern trends in terror. Many a Sri Lankan political leader and an Indian – Rajiv Gandhi – had lost their lives to its most heinous tactic, the suicide bomber, first introduced to Asia by the LTTE. Rajapakse had a promise to keep.
In an effort to re-establish Sinhala predominance in a nation that had let other ethnic compositions such as the Tamils in the north and the east vie for a separate homeland challenging the territorial integrity of this island-state, he sought loyalty and consensus to what he intended to put in place against the insurgency. He placed his brother, a retired lieutenant colonel from the army as the defence secretary and gave him enormous powers and influence. He found in the incumbent army commander, General Fonseka, a man who was willing to go the distance; and he garnered political coalition with many other splinter parties by offering them juicy positions and buying their support for a resolute action to eliminate insurgency. The army commander, in addition, was a hard task master and even more importantly a former colleague of the secretary defence.
Rajapakse was able to forge a consensus in the political arena to any step that he deemed essential in fighting the militant outfit. There remained only two parties in the opposition in parliament, the United National Party (UNP), the main opposition, which had seen repeated stints in power under some illustrious political leaders, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represented the Tamils and had a chequered history of a close association with India. The UNP, for the sake of its own survival and relevance to the political landscape, had only one way to go – sign in on Rajapakse’s plan to bring the insurgency to an end through a war. With such momentum and a consensus in its wake it was left to the military to do the honours.
What had brought Sri Lanka to this state of tenuous existence is also equally illuminating. At different times, especially under the long reigns of various UNP governments, war was always meant to encourage a dialogue. And dialogue is what the LTTE loved. It gave the LTTE a much desired relevance as a bona fide political entity with stakes that needed to be addressed. It also enabled them to espouse a political cause that became a popular rallying point for the reasonably effective Tamil diaspora the world over. Even more importantly, it brought the group unrestrained funds that enabled them to pursue ethno-nationalist ends that had a political objective. The southern states of India, especially Tamil Nadu, found common cause and pushed India to support the Tamil agenda.
This dithering approach to what was essentially a fermented secessionist movement remained the singular weakness in the Sri Lankan political process that brought Sri Lanka to a halt, as a society and as a nation. The military too gradually grew wary of war and turned into a largely ceremonial military. Timidity seeped in soon after. The commanders sought a quiet command and then an easy retirement.
In the meanwhile bombs continued to blow up all across Sri Lanka as the LTTE found the response of a society and the state spineless. Talks or dialogue between the LTTE and the government became the proverbial, and the only, elephant in the room. Nations such as Norway wielded unparalleled influence as they became the mediators and practically determined the LTTE’s responses.
The most debilitating aspect to the Sri Lankan response was the ‘go-stop’ nature of their military action. When applied, it was in phases with very long pauses, only aimed at recovering a pass, or lost ground, or simply pushing back an LTTE advance; never to take the war to its logical end and win it. With every pause the LTTE only grew stronger, politically and militarily, because other nations intervened and took over the process of another round of dialogue cementing the political credentials of what essentially was a terror group.
Rajapakse had to change all that. In his simplistic approach to what he could judge was a monumental national disaster, his solution was simple. Forget the niceties and the intellectual parrying that led to a shameful paralysis in decision-making and opt for elimination of the group and its military cadres. He found strength in his military leadership who began moving their troops from their state of passivity. In turn, the military leadership felt emboldened when they saw a fresh and surprising political resolve to do something about the threat that had practically ruled the psychology of a nation.
Sri Lanka had by then begun to appear as a nation afflicted with a perpetual sickness and a surprising disposition of having accepted the LTTE’s terror as a part of their daily lives. This changed with just one political leader who brought political resolve in play.
The rest is history. Sri Lanka’s real war against the LTTE began with a three-pronged push along three geographical lines to squeeze the space on the LTTE. All this while vertical envelopment with artillery and their air force (a dormant air force was revived) continued to target and attrit the enemy, while the Sri Lankan Navy was deployed to close any escape routes out from the north-eastern geographical extremity of Sri Lanka. Finally the trap closed, and gouged away everything with it – cleaning Sri Lanka of the LTTE. This was in March 2009. The war lasted almost three years.
I have recently returned from Sri Lanka, and have found it a different nation. It is a nation on the go. Rajapakse and his brothers are now leading it in the economic sphere. Yes, there are allegations of violation of human rights and of corruption at certain levels, but largely – and very visibly progress – shows itself in all spheres. Sri Lanka has freed itself from the yoke of war and has taken the energy in the nation to even better ends.
I leave it to the reader to judge whether any similarities exist in this example for Pakistan. A nation has at least shown the way to deal with what had become debilitating.
The writer is a retired air-vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its deputy chief of staff.