Reflections on 25th Anniversary of July 83
Reports from the North suggest that at long last there seems an end
in sight to LTTE terrorism. This has to be said with circumspection, for
the LTTE is a very capable outfit, its resources reaching far and wide.
It could pull several rabbits out of its hat, and so it continues
essential for the government to guard against assaults on all sides,
offensives in the north, sniping in the East, large scale terror
elsewhere, and also of course its most potent weapon at this stage, the
evocation of massive sympathy from those elements in the international
community that still do not understand how corrosive terror can be.
Advancing without civilian casualties
And yet, with all this, the chances are, if the government is
careful, and does not allow anything counter-productive to happen, the
military might of the LTTE will soon be diminished beyond repair. The
country owes a great debt of gratitude to the forces who have fought a
remarkably clean war, exercising great care with regard to civilians in
the course of operations.
Forces in action in the North
The almost total absence of civilian casualties in the East was an
achievement that has still not been adequately recognized whilst, in
nearly two hundred aerial attacks over the last couple of years, the
number of those in which civilian deaths were even alleged is in single
The cynical claim that avoiding civilian casualties in the East was
easy, because the strategy adopted was to avoid confrontation, which
meant that the Tigers suffered comparatively few military casualties.
So the argument was that, when greater levels of fighting took place,
in the North, there would be more civilian casualties too. But in that
theatre too the strategy followed by the forces has ensured that the
international outcry the LTTE was counting on has not taken place.
However, it has to be noted that the LTTE will try to change this in
the weeks to come, and there may be more active use of human shields. In
one sense this has happened already, because the poor youngsters now
forced to fight are in effect human shields, sacrificed ruthlessly on
the altar of LTTE intransigence.
But such ruthlessness has also led to greater challenges to LTTE
rule, and recent events suggest that the LTTE will not be able to force
as many as it had hoped into its front lines. In short, the monolith has
begun to break up, and the chances are that progress will be even
quicker in the next few weeks.
But there are other dangers also to guard against, in addition to
subtle or forceful military responses. Most worrying perhaps is the
danger of triumphalism, the assumption that, because things are going
well, we can ignore the forces the LTTE claims to represent.
This happened in the past, when successes in the Vadamaarachchi
offensive were not accompanied by sufficient efforts to ensure supply
lines; it happened again after the retaking of Jaffna, when the
celebrations and adulation ignored the fact that that was just victory
in a battle, and that much more had to be done to defeat terrorism.
In that respect this government certainly has a much more sensitive
approach, since its rationale for fighting, after repeated attacks
forced it to take the offensive, is the need to rescue the people of the
East, and now the North, from totalitarianism and the deprivation caused
by such totalitarianism.
For this purpose partnership with democratic Tamil forces is
essential, and the credentials of the government in this respect have
been developed through the elections in the East, and through its
determination to implement at least some aspects of devolution in the
North, pending elections.
But, even though government policy eschews triumphalism and
encourages partnership, there are bound to be those who see the winning
of a war as the solution to Sri Lanka’s problems. This is nonsense, and
such elements should not be permitted to develop tensions again,
tensions that will lead to further violence.
After all, we should not forget that terrorism became so powerful,
and what has turned into war began, precisely because problems were not
dealt with peacefully earlier, because of the determination of the
Jayewardene government to deal with politicians too by bullying.
The triumph of the terrorists over democratic politicians was sealed
by the riots of July 1983. Sri Lanka has suffered since then and, if
terrorism is now defeated, the surest way to promote terrorism again is
to forget the needs of the people represented by the politicians they
had voted for.
We saw this happen in the south, when the JVP, which had taken to
democracy in the early eighties, was hounded out. This facilitated its
turning again to terror, while the neglect of social equity by the
Jayewardene government gave it fertile recruiting grounds.
Fortunately this government is much more concerned with social
equity, even while realizing that this requires private sector
resourcefulness. The chances then of sustainable growth and development
are much higher, once peace has returned, than under either the statist
socialist excesses of the seventies or the insensitive capitalism of the
But policies to promote sustainable growth will require concentration
on the most deprived areas and therefore attention will have to be
devoted to the North as well as the East. That will require partnership
with the business communities of those areas as well as the politicians,
and indigenous civic movements.
In short, the government has to ensure that a majoritarian mindset
does not once again take over. Democracy means decision making by
majorities but, if decisions are in the hands of an insensitive centre
alone, democracy can degenerate into irresponsible domination.
Certain functions of government, those relating to national security,
must be the responsibility of the centre, but developmental and social
needs require the input of the people who are affected. Ignoring them,
the deprived of Hambantota and Moneragala, as well as of Vavuniya and
Kilinochchi and Batticaloa, and of all the other areas which politicians
since 1948 have failed, will be fatal, and a precursor of new forms of
protest and terror.
Awareness of rights
Empowerment then, of the deprived in particular, is vital. Economic
development is perhaps the most crucial element in this, but we need to
think too of civil and political rights, as well as social and economic
Above all we must make sure that citizens can hold government
accountable, that democracy is not traduced as it was in the eighties so
that dissent was driven underground. For this we need better education,
that will allow all our citizens, not just the fortunate in cities, to
We need to ensure soft skills, we need to develop the ability to
think independently, to solve problems, to make decisions. As the ILO
Head recently put it, Sri Lanka has a social history that should put it
beyond a culture of handouts and dependency. We need to promote a
culture in which all our people can make knowledgeable choices about
Part of this should be greater emphasis on the rights of citizens. We
must accept that there have been shortcomings in this regard,
shortcomings that were most marked a quarter of a century ago, but which
can be reduced further.
The training our forces have received over the last decade has made a
difference, but we can do more to ensure both professionalism and
sensitivity. This is most essential with regard to the police, who have
to interact regularly with the public, but who have been grossly
overstretched over the last decade because of security considerations as
well as a proliferation of non-traditional duties.
At the same time, we need to ensure that a sense of obligations
accompanies an awareness of rights. The confrontational culture of the
last few years has prompted disregard for basic norms amongst critics of
government, which has contributed to tensions where none need have
The situation has not been helped by irresponsible funding
mechanisms, without adherence to national law, or conformity with
reporting requirements that were designed to ensure transparency and
Healing wounds and moving forward
Transparency and accountability then are essential, and must be
ensured, most importantly in the case of all who have access to funds
intended for public purposes. But government, in victory over terror, if
it achieves this, must be generous to former critics, since some of them
may have much to offer in building up an inclusive polity. Ideas as to
the most effective means of social and political empowerment, within a
pluralistic united country, should be welcomed.
Similarly, we will need to work together positively with the
international community, which has already begun to recognize that the
unstructured interventions of the past cannot go on. Partnership means
precisely that, with an elected government, and with an obligation to
develop national capacity to deal with problems.
The idea that perhaps some Sri Lankan authorities too contributed to,
that the international community had to hold a balance between the
elected government and a terrorist organization, must be forgotten. In
turn the government has to make it clear that it represents all the
people of Sri Lanka, and will ensure that benefits will accrue to all on
the basis of equity.
Unless something untoward happens, the government will have a unique
opportunity to preside over a Sri Lanka moving to fulfil its potential
after sixty years of decline in comparison with today’s Asian success
Despite the efforts of the LTTE, and those who mistakenly see it as
providing support for their own aims, it lies largely in the hands of
the government to ensure that nothing untoward does happen. Commitment
to and promotion of the rights of all our people, in all our provinces,
is the best safeguard against the threats of terrorists and others.
Kipling, called upon as the poet of Empire to celebrate a Royal
Jubilee, unexpectedly produced a plea for restraint -
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
As the LTTE fades away, we can ensure it stays away by following this
The writer is Secretary-General, Secretariat for Coordinating the