Sri Lanka has a bizarre intelligentsia. Some don’t really mind the LTTE. Others do but that’s because they also mind any Tamil who speaks his or her mind. Still others mind the LTTE but think that they aren’t the country’s main problem. There are very few whose threat perception of the LTTE is of the correct dimensions, but are also sensitive to the need for a more enlightened consciousness and drastically improved inter-ethnic relations.
SIPRI, the famous Swedish institute of peace research, the pioneering outfit in the field, classifies Sri Lanka’s conflict as a "major conflict". Some others in this category include Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine and India/Kashmir.
The even more famous FBI classifies the LTTE as among the world’s worst terrorist group.
A major conflict involving one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world, fighting a secessionist war on a small island, cannot but amount to the main, the most serious, the worst, the most dangerous, the primary and the principal threat facing that country. It cannot but be accorded highest priority.
The great liberal thinker Prof Isaiah Berlin pointed out the painful truth that public goods are not always compatible and that often one has to make choices. In Sri Lanka’s case the choice is the one of the toughest: Guns or butter? In any other country, it would hardly be a choice. If a powerful separatist movement were waging a war against the state, especially a state that had no geographic defense in depth, i.e. is a small country, then the question of priority would not even arise. Nothing would be allowed to compromise the security of the country.
It must be made clear that this is a question of survival in several senses, many of them fairly basic. If the Tigers are not defeated totally, they will continue to murder our people, we and our loved ones will have to live in perpetual insecurity, as we do now.
If the Tigers are not totally defeated, they will continue to murder our leaders until the Sinhalese and democratic Tamils are decapitated, leaderless.
If the Tigers are not totally defeated, they will bleed our resources until the economy is anemic.
If the Tigers are not totally defeated they may make a comeback and eventually achieve their goal with external help as the Kosovo separatists did – and a totalitarian Tiger state on our soil will be transformed into a heavily militarized entity, a Sparta like garrison state, which will launch air-raids and artillery barrages on a shrunken Sri Lanka any time it chooses.
If on the other hand, we win, then our natural endowments alone will revive the economy: the blockaded Cuban economy is buoyed by a million tourists a year.
What we need is to bring this conflict to a close, and given the character of the enemy that can only be by means of a military defeat inflicted upon it. What we need to win is the political will and resolute determination to push on despite all external pressures, and the superior practice of the art and science of warfare. We also need secure political space externally (regional and international) for our armed forces to do the job. That should be the primary task of our foreign policy and diplomacy.
What we do not need is the wrong set of priorities or a confused mixture.
The reunification of the state, the defense of its territorial integrity and sovereignty, are classically political questions, and as Lenin said replying Bukharin, a brilliant political economist, "politics cannot but take precedence over economics. That is the ABC of Marxism". Mao Ze Dong correctly paraphrased it as "Politics in Command". If Lenin and Mao did not have this clarity, and reduced the politico-military to economics, neither the Russia Revolution nor the emancipation of China would have been possible.
Then again, the dominant if unconscious heritage of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia has been Trotskyism, and that mindset has been critiqued (Regis Debray, Nicholas Krasso, Kostas Mavrakis) for its "sociological reductionism", "economism" and inability to grasp "the radical autonomy of the political instance". This is why the major party of the Lankan Left waged strikes when the world was fighting fascism and Ceylon was threatened by Japanese militarism. This is why the LSSP was launching strikes when it should have been supporting the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact of 1957 against the Sinhala chauvinist forces of the UNP and within the ruling coalition.
That is also why the JVP, which Wijeweera injected with neo-Trotskyism in the post 1971 (actually post 1973) phase, has decided on a campaign of trade unionism, de-stabilizing our military’s rear area, just as Tiger bombs do, while decisive battles are looming against the Tigers in the Wanni.
What we do not need is to take our eyes off the ball. Economics is the base but the politico-military (war plus devolution) is the "key link", to use Lenin’s phrase of which Mao was so fond. Or to put in purely Maoist lexicon, economics is the "main force"but the war is the "leading force".
Our finest "development President", Premadasa, whose far-sighted thinking anticipated both Mahmood Yunoos and Amartya Sen, prioritized development over the war and died as a result of that mistake, and with him died the realizable dream of Sri Lanka as another Malaysia. We can ill afford to dwell in the halfway houses of the past quarter century.
The tragedy of Premadasa and the ensuing fate of Sri Lanka confirm that over the past quarter century, the war has not only been the most dramatic or dominant factor in the country’s contemporary history, but also the determinant factor, the motive force of development of the historical process.
A characteristic of Trotskyism is the inability to understand that processes have interlinked yet distinct, distinguishable stages, in which there are different tasks and alignments. We are in the first stage, which is national and democratic, where the tasks are to reunify the state, protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and devolve power through democratic elections to the provincial councils in keeping with the13th amendment. This is being undertaken. As the late Prof Urmila Phadnis’ last student and protégé, Sudha Ramachandran, a trenchant critic of the Sri Lankan government, wrote recently, the dream of a Tiger Homeland encompassing the Northern and Eastern provinces is dead.
The economic development and public welfare agenda will be the second stage. A post war boom may result from reconstruction and inflows of foreign investment. The Human Rights crisis which in wartime follows a tragic situational logic, will drastically improve in the second stage. The reckoning and reconciliation that takes place in post-conflict peace-building situations cannot realistically be expected in the midst of a major, mid-intensity conflict. The electorate will insist on these post-war tasks.
(These are the personal views of the author)