Evaluating the Norwegian evaluation

| by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

(November 23, Paris, Sri Lanka Guardian) Taken as a whole, the Norwegian study is a valuable and welcome addition to the growing literature on the war and our times. It is however, wrong or empty at its very core. Wrong not only in what it sees and says, but perhaps even more so, in what it does not—in what it fails to or chooses not to see and/or express. The NORAD study is characterised by an absent analytical core. Though I am critical of its post–mortem of the armed conflict and efforts at peace-making, the Norwegian study of the failed peace efforts in Sri Lanka does contain important and valuable observations concerning the international aspect (Ch 7: ‘The International Dimensions of the Peace Process’) and domestic political dynamics and trajectories (Ch 11: ‘The Primacy of Domestic Politics’) .
In the section that deals with the international dimension the report significantly admits that “Possibly, Western pressure may have had an adverse effect, as it created additional anxiety and time pressure for the government during the final offensive” and goes on to quote a Wikileaks cable and an observation by me:
“Senior Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka noted ‘It was a neck-and-neck race between the historic chance of finishing off the Tigers and concerted international pressure interrupting the offensive. […] The international pressure was too strong for the Sri Lankan state simply to ignore but too weak to stop the state’s military campaign. […] We had to outrun the pressure by accelerating the military offensive and closing the endgame as soon as possible’ (Jayatilleka, 2010).” (p 79)
The observations in the Norwegian study on Sri Lankan politics and political history are considerably more objective than most domestic commentaries, both hagiographic and hysterically denunciatory. The scholars from the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Christian Michaelson institute, brought together by NORAD have held up a mirror before the national political developments of the recent past.
The NORAD report sheds light on both government and opposition and explains the current crisis of the Opposition (UNP and JVP) as well as the trajectory and character of the regime.

“…The peace process contributed to this transformation through a number of mechanisms.
First, it contributed to a legitimacy crisis of the mainstream parties, particularly the leadership of the UNP which was seen to be too close to Western actors who threatened the sovereignty and unity of the state…” (p124)
“…with both the UNP and the SLFP politically compromised by their association with the Norwegian supported peace process – and the UNP in particular because of its dual ambitions of peacemaker and economic reformer – the JHU and JVP took over the nationalist baton. Controversial documents like the ISGA proposal or the P-TOMS agreement became rally points for nationalist mobilisation. This volatile period thus marked an important change: previously mainstream parties had depended upon minority kingmakers (mainly SLMC and CWC) and a few crossovers to form a government, but in 2004, the SLFP-JVP tandem won with an almost exclusively Sinhala vote. Rajapaksa’s presidential election a year later repeated that pattern…there is little evidence that the [Norwegian] team appreciated the fundamental shift that was taking place in Sri Lankan politics at the time.” (p 125)
The study does not regard the Rajapaksa administration as some unprecedentedly horrendous regime type, but understands its continuities with previous Sri Lankan governments while discerning the element of change, including the underlying ‘power shift’.

“…Therefore, the peace process played a role in facilitating this power shift in which ultra-nationalism moved from the margins to the centre of Sri Lankan politics. There are of course a lot of intervening factors involved here, as already indicated. Three caveats need to be underlined. First, there are a number of longer-term patterns in relation to Sinhala nationalism, and the Rajapaksa government fits well within the tradition of populist leaders such as former presidents JR Jayewardene and Premadasa. The nationalist rhetoric, market oriented reforms alongside populist state welfarism, the valorization of ‘the rural’, and the emphasis on visible infrastructural development all have clear historical precedents.” (p125)
“….Foreign involvement in sovereign affairs, ‘unconstitutional’ engagement with the LTTE, the pro-Western course of the UNP government and economic reforms associated with it, all enlarged spaces for nationalist mobilisation. These factors, in conjunction with shifts in the international context and the tilting of the military balance, enabled the Rajapaksa government to come to power, but also narrowed its options once there. Sri Lanka’s story is thus not only a story of peace efforts that were thwarted by ethnic nationalisms and terminated by war, but also a story of a peace process that fuelled a nationalist backlash and contributed to a situation where military victory could prevail.” (p127)
“…Bolstered by its military victory, the electoral success of the Rajapaksa government may have marked a transition to a largely uni-polar political system. The UNP was in disarray and proved unable to get back on its feet in the following years. Further impaired by its leadership crisis (Wickremesinghe refusing to step down despite successive electoral defeats), the UNP was unable to formulate a credible response to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s agenda of military victory, state-led growth and international realignment. With its overtly nationalistic, pro-poor rhetoric and strong-arm politics, the Rajapaksa administration also took the wind out of the
JVP’s sails and co-opted the JHU. There were also major implications for the minority parties. With no credible alternative sources of power the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil politicians lost bargaining power. Partly as a result of this, the political space for tabling minority rights became smaller than ever. With no change of regime on the cards any time soon after the defeat of the LTTE, most politicians felt opposition was pointless. Crossovers to the government soared, but on gradually deteriorating terms….” (p126)
The NORAD-SOAS- Chr Michaelson reading is devoid of rhetoric such as ‘despotism’ ‘tyranny’, ‘dictatorship’, and the discourse is a far planet from the shrill epithets of ‘Hitler’, ‘Nazism’ and ‘Germany in the 1930s’ that litter the more lurid of current political critique. Instead, this collective of researchers use the far more accurate scholarly definition to characterise the status-quo, namely, ‘uni-polarity’. Whether that uni-polarity is irreversibly structural, systemic or a conjunctural ‘moment’, is a subject for debate and an object of action. Unlike in the renditions of the local political commentators whose diagnosis places the blame entirely on President Rajapaksa and are therefore unable to point to an accurate policy or political prescription, the key vector is clearly identified by the Norwegian study: no “credible alternative sources of power” stemming from the “leadership crisis” of the UNP, itself due to “Wickremesinghe refusing to step down despite successive electoral defeats” and the party’s “inability to formulate a credible response”.
Running through the entirety of the NORAD study is the dual argument about (i) two contending ethno-nationalisms (or ultra-nationalisms) and (ii) the failure of the Sri Lankan state to reform/restructure. This argument is supported by and often attributed to a few Lankan social scientists. Though containing considerable truth, the dual argument fails to grasp the main thing: as Sartre emphasised, what is most crucial is not what is done to you by others, but what you do with, and about, what is done to you. One is free to choose, and the existential choice one makes tells you about yourself and tells us about you– all the more so if it is a choice that is repeatedly made over time. Not many armed movements faced with the phenomenon of a state that refuses to or is agonisingly slow to reform, respond by assassinating neighbouring peacemakers like Rajiv Gandhi or wiping out competing guerrilla movements and intellectuals who were for federal reforms, such as Rajani Tiranagama and Neelan Tiruchelvam.
Aristotle was the first to point out that one size does not fit all, when he embarked on a comparative study of constitutions of the Greek city states and pioneered the classification of regimes, according to their internal arrangements and ‘animating spirit’ or governing ethos. For many long years I have argued emphatically that the same is true of non-state or anti-state actors.
The Tigers and their leader were of a qualitatively different category from, say, the Guatemalan guerrillas with whom the Norwegians dealt with in the peace process they successfully mediated.
This is not a prejudiced assumption which should have been made apriori by Norway. It is a conclusion that would have flowed had they undertaken a quite basic task of analysis, namely to study the earlier peace efforts that were made by India and Sri Lanka, and have detailed discussions with the Indian and Lankan negotiators. Even if one assumed ideological–cultural bias on the part of the Sri Lankans, searching conversations with the Indian negotiators of the 1980s (such as India’s man currently on the Security Council) should have been an obvious exercise. That this has not been mentioned or undertaken by the Norwegian study reveals that they are still unaware that they attempted to re-invent a wheel.
In an exercise that is pretty standard in the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit at Quantico, a study of the LTTE’s conduct during all previous ceasefires and efforts at negotiation would have yielded an unmistakable profile of the movement and its leader.
That in turn, would have helped construct a far less frail and foredoomed effort at peace by Norway. Given the character of the LTTE as analytically derived from its patterns of political (more correctly, politico-military) behaviour, a different and far stronger strategy could have been drawn up by Norway. Such a strategy would have had to be based on concepts of containment and deterrence, not of appeasement; a model emphasising conflict management rather than of conflict resolution. The primary object of containment and deterrence should have been of that party which had repeatedly returned to war— even against a non-Sinhala, secular, quasi-federal mediator (India) and a reform-minded President (Chandrika).
The final war was the sole option left open after the Norwegian failure to adopt a realist model of peace-making deriving from a comprehension of the character of one of the belligerents, itself deducible from (a) the political behaviour of that actor and (b) a comparative political analysis of other armed movements (e.g. Guatemala, El Salvador, Northern Ireland).
This study does not pose, still less grapple with the quintessential political question involved in the Norwegian and other efforts at a negotiated peace in Sri Lanka, and worldwide: how does one make peace with a non-state (therefore unconstrained) actor that is fanatical, politico-ideologically fundamentalist and totalitarian? Is peace possible, in the final analysis, with such an entity? If so, is it not only as a product of prolonged containment and firm deterrence, until that entity evolves/mutates, or decomposes/implodes? If not, surely war is necessary, and if we are to invert Machiavelli who said the only just war is a necessary war, is not a necessary war, a just war?
It is the enduring intellectual availability and strong international reassertion of a reformist liberal Realism — ‘post-Neocon Realism’ – that enables a clear understanding of why the Norwegian effort was foredoomed, and why the war had to be fought to win. It sheds light on why, with the domestic abdication or absence of a liberal realist political will to defeat the Tigers and defend sovereignty, leaving the task almost by default to a re-emergent ‘nationalist orientation’, the aftermath was pretty much inevitable. A liberal realist perspective also informs us no less crucially, what must be done, undone and not done, for the peace too to be won.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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