Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sri Lanka's Opportunity of a Generation: The Lessons of the Sri Lankan Civil War

Part 5 of a 5-part article about what the Sri Lankan government should do to rebuild its country after nearly 30 years of civil war, and why the rest of the world has a stake in Sri Lanka's success.

In addition to the practical concerns of the rest of the world, it is important to make sure that Sri Lanka handles its resettlement and reconciliation challenges effectively in order to ensure that one of Asia’s oldest and most brutal conflicts is buried into history. So far, Sri Lanka has provided an interesting case for how today’s seemingly perpetual conflicts around the world might be solved. Years of foreign mediation, from India’s uninspiring peacekeeping effort in the late 1980s to Norway’s well-intentioned but unsuccessful brokering of a peace agreement in 2002, proved ineffective in its attempts to end the conflict. Ultimately, it took a sweeping effort on the part of the Sri Lankan government to eradicate the LTTE and end the civil war. In many respects, the government’s handling of the last phases of the conflict was heavy-handed, but it did prove to be effective.

Sri Lanka’s example poses interesting questions about today’s international peacekeeping and peace-brokering efforts around the world. While some sort of international involvement is ideal so as to prevent mass atrocities, like the ongoing tragedies in Darfur and Congo, perhaps it is possible for there to be too much international involvement, to the point where the conflict that the international community is trying to resolve only ends up getting prolonged and extra diplomatic or military involvement is rendered ineffective, as has been the case with Lebanon for nearly 30 years.

Finding the right balance is always tricky, and there is undoubtedly no general formula for every conflict, but it is important to recognize that more international aid, scrutiny, or involvement of some sort will not always help lead to conflict resolution. Recognizing the realities of the situation, particularly the motives of the people and organizations involved, is essential in determining how much involvement, if any, is appropriate. With regard to the civil war in Sri Lanka, the LTTE had an interest in prolonging the conflict, as the nature of the conflict attracted members and money to its organization, and the prospect of transitioning to a legitimate, internationally recognized political entity was incompatible with its methods of raising money and maintaining order. It was for good reason that the majority of the international community refused to recognize the Taliban’s government in Afghanistan – it had draconian measures in its law code and derived most of its income from illicit opium trade – and the LTTE would have been no exception. Given these realities, perhaps it is not so surprising that the civil war was impossible to end until the LTTE had been eliminated. In this case, then, perhaps the most effective method for the international community to end the conflict was for it to stay uninvolved enough so that the Sri Lankan government would have enough leeway to eliminate the LTTE, which it had a definite interest, and, ultimately, the capability to do.

It is true that the end of the civil war was fairly heavy-handed as a result; indeed, perhaps the international community should have insisted that the Sri Lankan government accept help from the Red Cross with the wounded and from other organizations with building the temporary camps. But at least the fighting is over and lasting peace is possible. Perhaps the international community should adopt this approach more often: relaxing involvement to let a war finish with minimal casualties and damage and then focusing the bulk of its efforts on helping (or encouraging) those involved to move toward permanent resolution and normalization, whether that entails resettlement, repair, or something else.

Hence, it is time for the international community to help Sri Lanka with this last phase, not only for the benefit of itself and Sri Lanka, but for the possible application in other conflicts as well.


Note: A shorter version of this piece appeared in the May 2010 issue of American Foreign Policy, a Princeton monthly foreign policy publication.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: