Thursday, September 30, 2010

500 Days After Victory - Challenges New and Old

It is 500 days today (30 September 2010) after the greatest ever victory to be scored by a modern security force. Since the end of the Second World War, wars are often not fought between nations. Nowadays wars are fought by proxies and between states and rebel/terrorist groups. The May 2009 victory is not the only victory over a terrorist group. There were previous instances of victories over rebel/terrorist groups. However, these rebel/terrorist groups were very small and regionalised. LTTE on the other hand was an octopus with tentacles virtually around the world. Much has been written about the victory of Sri Lanka and the defeat of the LTTE. What has not been highlighted is the fact that the root causes that gave birth to the LTTE are still around.

The Challenges of Development, Ethnic Integration and Overcoming Ethnic Politics
Uneven development was a root cause of the conflict. Districts in the north, the east and the south were neglected in development plans resulting in discontent and wide spread unemployment. Poverty of the poor masses was exploited both by the JVP and the LTTE. It is said that most LTTE cadres came from poverty stricken Batticaloa and Vanni areas than from Jaffna district where the separatist demand was strongest.

The development challenge is not about plain development. It is about development coupled with national unity and ethnic integration. If northern development fails to achieve national unity and ethnic integration, and if the fruits of development go primarily to a single race instead of people of all races, ethnic strife is going to return to this country once again.

Overcoming ethnic politics in the north and the east is the biggest challenge faced by the nation. Ethnic politics engulfed the north even before Independence. Since then it grew uglier and larger and finally produced the LTTE to fight for ethnic demands. Changing ethnic politics in the north is going to be extremely difficult. However, it must be done by creating ever expanding multiethnic settlements in the north. Simply banning racial political parties is not going to achieve anything although it is a good start.

The Real Economic Challenge
The economic challenge is not just about expanding the GDP per capita. It is about uplifting the economy of the poor to alleviate poverty, exploitation of freed-up resources in the north and the east for the direct and indirect benefit of all communities, building up a proud national economy so that outside interferers cannot dictate terms to Sri Lanka on national security, reap the benefits of global scientific developments, award a better quality of life to every Sri Lankan and supporting defence, social, cultural, political and other human endeavours through prosperity.

In ancient times, war victories were followed by rapid economic growth. King Parakramabahu the Great is considered the greatest Sri Lankan king. He treaded a path of war and invaded even faraway lands. At the same time, he rapidly uplifted the economic condition of the country. According to historical accounts, the era of the most daring warrior king was the most prosperous in Lankan history too. Large armies spearheaded the development drive following the war. All Lankan kings followed this approach, which gave them legitimacy to rule. It is the repetition of this performance that people expect from modern rulers.

However, some ancient rulers dismantled the army following war victory. This proved costly as raising an army and providing training when faced with a threat proved difficult. Maintaining a sizable army helps overcome this.  

Against expectations, the defence budget allocation has risen 14% year on year to reach an astronomical 201 billion rupees, which is about 4% of the GDP. Although this percentage ranks Lanka marginally below Singapore, it brings the island nation close to the United States. United States is engaged in two costly wars thousands of miles away from home. It gives an idea how gigantic Sri Lanka’s defence spend is.  In other words, the government takes away 10,000 rupees from every man, woman and child annually claiming that it is for defence. A family of four on average contributes 40,000 rupees a year for defence. This is such a colossal amount of money for most Sri Lankan families. To make matters worse, they see no tangible improvement in their economy following the war. The bottom-line is, people pay more for defence than during the war but get nothing additional in return. If a survey is carried out island-wide asking people if they are willing to contribute 10,000 rupees per person for defence, the overwhelming majority will say ‘no’. Fading patriotism in the society doesn’t do any good either to justify excessive defence allocations. This leads us to the question - where on earth is the peace dividend? 

End of war by itself doesn’t lead to rapid national development. End of war allows development activities to take place, which in turn create economic activity in the long run. Peace dividend comes from the utilization of freed resources. If freed up resources are not put to productive use, there will not be any peace dividend. Improvements in the tourism sector and large projects carried out by foreign parties with loans do not lead to tangible improvements in peoples’ economy. In order to profit from peace, people must own economic assets that generate profit.

Security forced freed up more than 10,000 square kilometres of land and over 750 kilometres of coastline. However, these have not been put to enough productive use. Creating new settlements is as important as resettlement. When creating new settlements, racial considerations must be disregarded. If mono ethnic racial enclaves are to be maintained, then there is no tangible peace that facilitates economic prosperity. In other words, race should not bar anyone from exploiting economic resources freed up by security forces.

Due to huge population density disparities, today there are more landless farmers and fishermen in the ‘south’ than in the ‘north’. If the north is to remain exclusively for a particular race, more than 90% of the population will be deprived of freed up resources. There can be no real improvement in economic development in such an atmosphere. To make matters worse, such conditions may lead to social unrest. Previous instances of similar social unrest killed more civilians in two years than 34 years of war.
Defence establishment must be told in no uncertain terms that public funds are not a bottomless pit. As the biggest employer and one of the largest managers of budget funds, the defence establishment should be compelled to save cost and eventually help convert the defence expenditure into an investment. It must also facilitate multiethnic economic settlements in the north.