Lessons from Sri Lanka - II

Can development projects substitute political reconciliation?

Lessons from Sri Lanka - II
Rehabilitation, reform and reintegration of ex-combatants, and the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) constitute the four important “R” challenges for post-conflict strategies. If handled in a politically injudicious way, they can hardly prevent a relapse of the rebellion.

During my recent visit to Sri Lanka, I saw that Tamil nationalists are still wary of the high-handed and allegedly discriminatory handling of the conflict in the country by Colombo. They are demanding an international probe into the final anti-LTTE assault that reportedly killed tens of thousands in May 2009, and calling for accelerated Tamil-owned development strategies that can help the national integration of the eastern and northern territories. Tamils don’t trust the national Supreme Court, which is dominated by ten Sinhalese judges, although the chief justice is a Tamil.

On the face of it, Colombo has done well as far as de-radicalization and rehabilitation are concerned. Soon after the elimination of LTTE chief, the central government threw in a lot of funds for infrastructure development, including massive uplift of road and rail communication.

India also chipped in with funding for 43,000 housing units – repairs, reconstruction or entirely new construction – to facilitate Sri Lankan IDPs.
They live under the shadows of suspicion

In order to placate the Tamil sentiment, as many as 1,500 former LTTE cadres from Jaffna, Killinochi, Mannar, and Vavuniya districts have already been inducted into the army. Over 400 Tamil women have also joined the army since 2013, including close to 100 from Killinochi, once the LTTE stronghold. Besides the military’s plan to recruit 5,000 rehabilitated LTTE cadres from the North and East, the government also has plans to recruit 2,000 Tamil police officers from the Northern and Eastern provinces.

But mistrust is a major issue. “It is a Catch-22 situation for the government, largely because of the mistrust,” says Muheed Jeeran, a political strategist and consultant.

Pakistan overcame its suspicion and came out of a denial mode by taking up several thousand Baloch youth into the army and government services since 2010, when a Balochistan’s Rights Package was launched. Attempts are also underway – as proposed by the Khyber Paktunkhwa police chief Nasir Durrani – to employ young graduates from FATA in police and Frontier Constabulary (FC). This way, says Mr Durrani, we can integrate them into Pakistan’s security apparatus and cultivate a sense of ownership among them.

Hundreds of Baloch youth are meanwhile studying at the few cadet colleges in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan as part of the national campaign to mainstream the Baloch. We have yet to see a similar campaign in FATA.

In Sri Lanka, salaries and respectable self-employment opportunities could serve as a big incentive for all those who gave up insurgency, according to Jeeran.

But my team’s meeting with half a dozen ex-LTTE combatants at the OBTEC Training Center in Kilinochchi exposed some of the weaknesses of the rehabilitation process, and helped us understand the obstacles that these young men face in their daily lives. It seemed that the state happily applied hard power to neutralize anti-state elements, but paid little attention to using its soft power to give these young people a sense of national identity. They are stigmatized. They face social discrimination, live under the shadows of continuous suspicion, and struggle to lead a normal life.

Most of the youngsters we interviewed complained of apathy by the government and insufficient funds for their post-radicalization life, and recounted instances when they were treated as traitors.

A big issue that potentially feeds into the general discontent – as much as it does in other Asian, African and South American countries – is the centrist, authoritarian tendencies among politicians.

“Power sharing in Sri Lanka is simply a process of changing the baton from one demon to another,” says Jeeran. “Why should official documents ask about the race, ethnicity or religion of its citizens?”

Jehan Parera, a Colombo-based rights activist, agrees that the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the political elites will need a lot of catching-up to do in order to alleviate the sense of deprivation among Tamils.

One big question that hangs over the political landscape of Sri Lanka – valid in the Pakistani context too – is whether material development substitutes resentment and mitigates rebellious tendencies. With massive injection of funds, China is trying to challenge the Islamist, separatist opposition in its western Muslim-majority Xinjiang province. Unfolding CPEC-related development projects in Balochistan and similar work in FATA could perhaps create incentives for the majority, but can it create a lasting impact without political reconciliation based on the principles of trustful accommodation, equal opportunity and inclusion?

The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: Imtiaz@crss.pk