‘Sri Lanka First’: Peace Campaign or Insurance Policy?

By C .A. Chandraprema
In the past few days we have seen the birth of a new ‘peace campaign’ named "Sri Lanka First" and we have been bombarded with ‘peace messages’ through TV, radio and the press. They are also supposed to be calling for a ‘peace demonstration’ at 11.55 am today. The Sri Lanka First advertisement called for Sri Lankans to gather near the closest main road near your home or office and to hold hands with your fellow Sri Lankan till 12.10 "in a silent plea to our political leaders to get together and re-start the peace process." The most noteworthy feature of this new organisation is that it is not some foreign funded NGO with shady agendas of its own. This is a genuine civil society organisation comprising not of people who have made a profession and a living off the dual process of war and peace, but of people who are employed in ‘normal’ occupations but who have formed this organisation to promote the cause of peace. Therefore, its bona fides are beyond reproach.

Wealthy ‘peace beggars’

Some of the organisations that have got together to form "Sri Lanka First" are the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, The Sri Lanka Apparel Manufacturers Association, The Colombo Tea Traders Association, the Exporters Association of Sri Lanka the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka and many other such private sector trade organisations. This is one of the few occasions when genuine civil society bodies have shown an interest in campaigning for peace. This initiative is paralleled by another campaign for peace launched by Lalith Kotelawala called the "Society for Love and Understanding"; SOLO-U for short. During the past few weeks, a radical change seems to have come over the business community.

Normally hard headed and pragmatic men, the business community seems to have now become all soulful and mushy. Many people that I have spoken to have told me that they have been totally nonplussed by the so called ‘peace campaign’ launched by Sri Lanka First. Some of their early advertisements had the usual trite factual arguments against the war, that we were spending over 65 billion Rupees a year on the war and that over 65,000 people are said to have lost their lives. There was even one advertisement holding out a carrot to the people of the north and east pointing out that there were 891 garment factories in the south whereas there are only 10 in the entire north and east - what is implied is that capital will also move into the North and east if the war is ended. Subsequent advertisements had various pro-peace comments made by popular artistes and social workers and others.

The facts about the material and human costs of the war are absolutely correct and the sentiments expressed by the artistes are no doubt noble. I particularly liked the advertisement where Sangeetha Weeraratne, the hottest babe in the local film scene, breathes huskily at us saying "I’ll do anything for peace." While all these facts and sentiments are beyond reproach, one wonders whether there is any point in repeating these platitudes ad nauseam? If the war could be stopped by broadcasting peace messages, then the war would have been ended a long time ago. Of all people, businessmen should be the first to know that wishful thinking does not produce results. Only action produces results but the business community has no access to political power, so they are reduced to expressing their wishes to the air in the hope that somebody will hear and help them - that is what we have been seeing in the Sri Lanka First Campaign.

One wag commented that the increasing pressure has sent the business community round the bend. Seven years of economic slowdown, and unending stream of bank foreclosures on failed businesses, JVP instigated strikes, have been compounded by three other shattering developments. The attack on the Katunayake Airport created an unprecedented crisis for the private sector and for a while it was not clear how we could emerge from the mess. We were under attack from within by the LTTE and by the international insurance barons from without. Then came the power crisis leading up to the present eight hour blackouts. Factories are at a standstill. The final blow came when the weak PA government went into a virtual coalition with the JVP a Marxist political entity responsible for more economic havoc than even the LTTE. The business community has suffered a nervous breakdown of sorts under all this pressure and that could be one reason why they have resorted to this kind of wishful thinking and prayer.

Traversing samsara in a BMW

Its time for some philosophical counselling. The business community should remind themselves why there is a war in this country. It is because of the intransigence of one man Prabhakaran, who maintains an iron grip on his organisation and on the Tamil public. He cannot be made to change his mind by publishing facts and figures about the loss of life and property due to the war. Quite on the contrary, the more such figures are published, the more intransigent he would become as it would give him the impression that he was about to prevail over his adversaries. By getting various artistes to utter platitudes about the desirability of peace, no peace is going to dawn. And they speak only to people of the south which is at peace anyway except for the frequent bombs that find its way here from the north and east. The people of the North and east who also may desire peace even more ardently than the people of the south will not respond to the peace messages of Sri Lanka First, because they are under the sway of the LTTE. Any Tamil who dares talk of a peace that requires the LTTE to compromise on the demand for Eelam will be given a one way ticket like Dr Neelan Tiruchchelvam.

Given that situation, to whom is the Sri Lanka First message addressed? They seem to be talking to themselves! The business community should know that there are some problems that are part and parcel of human existence -one cannot simply wish those problems away. For instance, all those who are born are doomed to die. Even the richest men finally end up in Kanatte. War is also another problem bound up with the human situation. There is conflict everywhere, even in the business sphere with rival companies literally tearing at each other for market share. Then again, the free enterprise system is itself fraught with so many pitfalls. There is the inevitable business cycle where a boom period is followed by a slump. And when a business slump comes there’s nothing to do but to sit tight and wait for it to pass.

Then take that practice or raising capital direct from the public through the stock market. The stock market is one of the stupidest institutions in human invention. It operates not on rational assessment - even though it is supposed to do that - it operates in reality only on perception, guesswork and follow-the -leader principles. The whole edifice of capitalism thus hangs by a thread. But we have to put up with that because a better alternative has not been found for capitalism. That is the human situation. Conflict between ethnic groups also is a problem that cannot be simply wished away. When the problem presents itself, one has to deal with it as best as one can without freaking out and wandering about in a daze mumbling rubbish. Its painful to see normally bold and enterprising men of the private sector reduced to this.

Further, this campaign launched by the business community underscores the that one man has only one competence. The skills that conduce to producing and selling goods and services do not conduce to understanding political realities. While demanding peace from the air, another oft repeated demand in the Sri Lanka First campaign is for "our leaders to get together". Though it has not been so specified, what is meant by this for the opposition UNP and the ruling PA to ‘join hands’ to revive the economy and the peace process. These are business people and not politicians so they are not aware of the politics of the situation. Economic misfortune has been the heritage of any SLFP led government and the present is no different. That is one of the ‘givens’ in our political reality and it cannot be changed by any ad hoc measures. We have to live through it until it ends. Its like the drought! The wise man will endure as best as he can without suffering a nervous breakdown.

The opposition leader is not keeping away from the PA because of any personal agenda as has been insinuated in one of the Sri Lanka First advertisements. The personal agenda of any politician is to get as close as possible to power, not to keep away from it! If Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe is deliberately keeping away from the PA,, that has to be for a very good reason indeed. The UNP cannot deliver what is expected of them if they become a junior partner of the PA. The UNP’s economic track record is their main stock in trade in a context where in policy terms there isn’t much difference between the PA and the UNP. All these problems are due to an incompetent government. Until that government is sent home, nothing is going to improve. In the private sector, when the CEO fails to produce results or even to maintain the status quo over a seven year period, he will be ignominiously sacked. The same principle applies to the realm of politics.

Its actually Insurance!

But then again, I have been having second thoughts about the Sri Lanka First campaign. Its impossible that all these hard headed business people can be so naive as to believe that their platitudes about the war is going to produce peace. I think the private sector peace campaign is motivated by more practical aims. After the attack by the LTTE on the Katunayake Airport and the terrorists found that the repercussions were even better than they ever dreamed, the possibility of the LTTE increasing attacks on economic targets became an immediate cause for concern. Also economic targets are ‘soft’ targets which can be destroyed with much less effort than trying to overrun military camps in the north and east. The economic targets in Colombo especially the private sector institutions are completely defenceless against the LTTE.

Thus peace activism became the best form of defence. The LTTE cannot attack peace activists who are demanding from the government that the peace process be revived. No peace activist will even dare suggest to the LTTE that they should lay down their arms and join the democratic process. All peace demands are addressed to the government and never to the LTTE. Its almost as if there was only one party to the conflict and that the government was refusing to go in for a negotiated peace simply out of perversity! When peace activism is approached in that manner, they become proxies for the LTTE. When one places the entire onus for conducting peace talks on the government without ever mentioning the LTTE, that turns the government into the aggressor and the LTTE into the aggrieved party. In fact when one demands peace in such a context, what one is doing is asking the government to effectively capitulate to the demands of the LTTE. Almost all peace activism in this country has been of this variety. And the latest campaign by Sri Lanka First is no different.

Why is the Business community talking about the need for peace without talking about the LTTE and placing the entire onus on the government? This is because the Sri Lanka First peace campaign is not really a peace campaign at all but an ‘insurance policy’ to ensure that the LTTE does not attack their establishments. The LTTE cannot attack those very people who are articulating a demand favourable to them. This peace campaign is the business community’s way of insuring themselves against terrorist attacks. It would be well for the international community to take note of the plight of the Sri Lankan business community in the face of terror. This is the situation that most of the world is in today in the wake of the attacks on America. This underscores the need for the speedy eradication of terrorism in all its forms.