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Terrorism and Democratic Regression in Sri Lanka

The military endeavour of the hardline Rajapaksa regime is only helping the chauvinist ideologies of ethnocentrism subscribed to by both the Sinhala nationalists as well as the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.


Terrorism and Democratic Regression in Sri Lanka

Neil DeVotta

The military endeavour of the hardline Rajapaksa regime is only helping the chauvinist ideologies of ethnocentrism subscribed to by both the Sinhala nationalists as well as the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The comments are part of a presentation made at the conference on Internal Conflicts and State-Building Challenges in Asia, March 25-28, 2008. The conference was sponsored by the East-West Center, Washington DC.

Neil DeVotta ( is with the department of political science, Hartwick College, New York.

Economic & Political Weekly

april 5, 2008

he ongoing war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is more intense than the violence that preceded the February 2002 ceasefire agreement. In addition to fighting the Sri Lankan troops along front lines, the LTTE has targeted Sinhalese civilians in the south, thereby hoping to force the security forces to spread out, undermine the island’s economy, and destabilise the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. The Sri Lankan government has made strategic gains in the eastern province and currently enjoys the upper hand in northern areas. It has in the process resorted to indiscriminate bombing of LTTE controlled areas, targeted civilians using troops and paramilitary proxies, and tolerated the extortion, torture, and kidnapping of Tamils (and some Muslims).

The Rajapaksa government is not the first to believe it could impose a military solution to the ethnic conflict. But it is the first government willing to contempt uously and brazenly disregard international opinion on minorities’ fundamental human rights and tolerate insensate, insouciant, and even gratuitous violence against Tamil civilians. It does so because its ideology is rooted in Sinhalese Buddhist

superordination and Tamil (and minority) subordination; it has the support of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists to end the conflict militarily (and this sentiment is most gung ho when they believe the military is being victorious and maybe why the defence ministry on a daily basis releases fantastic numbers on LTTE casualties); and the post 9/11 “war against terrorism” milieu tolerates states resorting to terrorism to defeat terrorism. The Rajapaksa government thus loves parroting the phrase “terrorism anywhere is terrorism everywhere” to vitiate accusations its own terrorist practices in the north-east.

Secessionism’s Undermining

The recent military gains by the Sri Lankan government highlight two major lessons regarding separatism in the modern era. First, a secessionist movement with no regional or international help cannot succeed against a state willing to retaliate with brute force (indiscriminate bombings, murder, kidnappings, extortion, rape


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april 5, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


and torture). Second, a separatist movement must adhere to basic norms even as it militates against the state it seeks to separate from: not doing so undermines the movement. In this sense, Tamil separatism may have been justifiable, given the ethnocentrism and racism successive Sinhalese governments resorted to since 1956. But the means especially the LTTE adopted – assassinating non-LTTE Tamil militants, not tolerating even the slightest dissent among Tamils, forcibly recruiting children for combat, extorting Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad, killing politicians (president Ranasinghe Premadasa and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi), and murdering innocent Sinhalese using suicide bombers and other methods – undermined the moral imperatives justifying the demand for Eelam. Indeed, when the March 2004 split within the LTTE and its subsequent reversals are taken into consideration, one may conclude that it was not so much the Sri Lankan military forces but the fissures and contradictions within Tamil militancy that ultimately undermined the Tamil quest for secession.

Even if the LTTE was able to control the territory it claims as Eelam, the international community cannot allow a separate state in Sri Lanka as that would be a victory for terrorism. But a military defeat of the LTTE would also be a victory for ethnocentrism, and this is what the current regime in Sri Lanka craves. For those who subscribe to the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology, the Tamils who dared challenge Sri Lanka’s unitary status need to be defeated militarily and humiliated. To their minds, the LTTE’s past victories merely add to the colonial era humiliations Sinhalese Buddhists suffered; and the community’s self-respect can be regained and the nationalist project advanced only if the LTTE (and Tamils) are in turn humiliated irredeemably.

Rajapaksa Dynasty

Furthermore, the Rajapaksas would like to create their own south Asian political dynasty. What better way to do so than defeat the LTTE and claim to be protectors and preservers of the nation a la Dutugamunu (the second century BC Sinhalese Buddhist king who defeated a reigning Tamil king

Economic & Political Weekly

april 5, 2008

and whose embellished and dissembled exploits have been deftly used by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists to whip up anti-Tamil sentiment). This narrative promoting the Rajapaksas is now being produced using rhetoric and varied imagery. There are quite a few signals that this regime intends to perpetuate its governance by hook or by crook – (1) The recent statement by the defence secretary (who is the president’s brother) that a constitutional amendment should be introduced to ensure he continues as defence secretary irrespective of who succeeds Mahinda Rajapaksa,

(2) nearly 150 relatives from the Rajapaksa clan being provided influential state appointments and sinecures, (3) nearly 80 per cent of the country’s budget being controlled by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his three siblings through their ministerial portfolios, and (4) the president’s attempts to prevent the constitutional council taking effect, which allows him to arbitrarily make top government appointments. Thus, the strategy to corral the eastern province for Sinhalese and pro-government Tamil paramilitaries is not only designed to further Sinhalese Buddhist colonisation in these predominantly minority areas; it is also to ensure the votes of Tamils (who do not support the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and loathe this particular government) can be “controlled” in future elections – especially during the next presidential election when Mahinda Rajapaksa seeks re-election.

The Rajapaksa government continues to claim that LTTE terrorism is the biggest threat facing Sri Lanka. It is correct, although this represents a short-term obstacle in that the LTTE, especially in light of recent reversals, cannot last as a potent military outfit indefinitely. Tamils in the diaspora have taken heart upon seeing Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence recognised by leading states, and they believe if the LTTE can hold out against the government’s no-holds-barred military campaign the international community would have no choice but intervene more forcefully in Sri Lanka. But the Rajapaksa government is convinced that time is on its side and that the death of LTTE leaders, especially Prabhakaran, would cause the organisation to further splinter or completely crumble. In the meantime, innocent civilians pay a devastating price enduring macabre injuries and lost lives.

Enduring Illiberalism

This means that the bigger (and long-term) danger facing Sri Lanka is the antidemocratic and illiberal forces currently holding sway and justifying their insidious practices by manipulating the war against the LTTE. Indeed, what is not been recognised sufficiently both domestically and abroad is that Sri Lanka is currently burdened with a venal and predatory political elite that is murdering democracy to fight terrorism with the intention of consolidating and perpetuating their control of the state. Defeating terrorism is presented as a panacea, but the methods and mechanisms used to do so are bound to also be employed to consolidate and perpetuate the rule of these predatory elite. The culture of impunity among the armed forces and the regime’s minions, the rampant nepotism, favouritism, and corruption tolerated at the highest levels, the utter disregard for human rights, and the blatant assault against the independent media and the regime’s opponents will continue even after Tamil militancy is defeated. The forces promoting such illiberalism and gangsterism would spread, become further emboldened and entrenched, and target the very Sinhalese who now tolerate such malpractices against minorities. Just like the United National Party thugs who murdered and terrorised Tamils during the 1983 riots turned against Sinhalese supreme court justices, civil society activists, Buddhist monks, Catholic clergy, and the opposition’s supporters when they challenged the Jayewardene regime, today’s brown shirts could be used to browbeat fellow Sinhalese and perpetrate authoritarianism. This may be comeuppance for Sinhalese supporting the current illiberal practices, but it would bode further ill for a post-civil war Sri Lanka.

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