The recent LTTE attack on Galle was a little push, a little dare. They are daring Sri Lanka to close up and crack down, but the country has so far controlled its temper. The reports are that only two people were killed (condolences to their families), but the impact was much higher. The LTTE is a small terrorist group of about 10,000 cadres funded mostly by drug trafficking and smuggling (Cost of Conflict). They recruit children and in the 90s nearly half of their dead were under 18 (!). The Sri Lankan Army is literally 20 times bigger and much better trained and equipped. Casualities have sorta reached parity, but while the LTTE has lost 150% of its current strength (about 14,000), SLA has only lost about 7%. That is why any LTTE attack on the south is largely symbolic. Sri Lanka, however, is at a time of great instability and a few more nudges could push us in the wrong direction entirely.
What is the J Curve? Imagine a graph on which the vertical axis measures stability and the horizontal axis measures political and economic openness to the outside world. Each nation whose level of stability and openness we want to measure appears as a data point in the graph. These data points, taken together, produce a J shape. Nations to the left of the dip in the J are less open; nations to the right are more open. Nations higher on the graph are more stable: those that are lower are less stable.
In general, the stability of countries on the left side of the J Curve depends on individual leaders – Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin. The stability of states on the right side of the curve depends on institutions – parliaments independent of the executive, judiciaries independent of both, nongovernmental organizations, labor unions, citizen’s groups. Movement from left to right along the J Curve demonstrates that a country that is stable because it is closed must go through a dangerous period of instability as it opens to the outside world. There are no shortcuts because authoritarian elites cannot be quickly replaced with institutions whose legitimacy is widely accepted.
That is to say, you can sacrifice a little freedom for security, but in the end you pay. If you look at the curve above, you’ll see that a closed society is actually a much faster path to immediate security. This, however, is only true in the same sense that I could punch my sister in the face to immediately get more food. In the long term I’ll have less to eat. However, sometimes you just want security right now. Sometimes, in fact, you need it.
When this war started Tamils did not receive security from their government. In the ’56, 58, 61, 65, 72, 73, 78, 83′ riots (please check my dates) police did not come out and protect Tamil homes and businesses as they did today in Galle. Tamils were taken from their homes and killed in the streets and they understandably felt a little insecure. Now, at that point people prolly felt like ‘Shit, I need security right now’. At that point the long, hard slog of producing a functioning democracy probably looked pretty disheartening. Indeed, it still does. What the LTTE and other militant movements offered was a ‘trust us, we’ll handle it’ transaction – freedom for security. Same thing with the JVP, Maoist China, etc. They take authority by the gun and promise security as soon as enough people are dead and the great leader is secure. It is faster, it is easier, and it is wrong. They are headed the wrong direction on the J Curve.
At the point in a country’s life where it has a choice (between dictation and institution) is, as mentioned, a very unstable one. The country is reaching for an open future, but it can’t keep its feet. In Sri Lanka you had the JVP pulling on one leg and the LTTE on the other, both trying to pull the country back into authoritarianism. Now, if the country can survive its instability then institutions and laws can govern it. However, that is a long ways away and not guaranteed, so the LTTE had a logic to wanting security, on their dictatorial terms, right then. The country was (and is) moving haltingly towards openness and the long-tail, but if the country gets really unstable then the nearer peak starts to look good. I know many middle-class people who want a strong-man to come and just fix things. I’m sure there are similar feelings among the Tamil community. For the LTTE to succeed they need the country to be unstable. They need not defeat Sri Lanka militarily, if they just poke and dare the nation enough it will snap of its own accord.
The strategy works. When the LTTE assassinated Lakshman Kadirgamar the checkpoints started coming back. When they left charred bodies on Dickman’s Road and shot Kethesh in its purge of Tamil dissidents, the checks intensified. When they tried to kill the Pakistani High Commissioner the roads started closing and parking became scarce. Of course, the A9 to Jaffna closed a long time ago. More than the roads, Tamil youth I know go home at 7 every night. They get questioned more at checkpoints, detained without cause, etc. These things may be immediately necessary, but they are still a move towards the wrong end of the curve. As the LTTE pushes the country towards authoritarianism, we move more and more onto their playing ground, where their existence makes the most sense. We move to a closed society, one so rigid that it breaks.
The Value of Peace Talks
When the Peace Talks began the A9 reopened, checkpoints disappeared and for a while life seemed normal. The benefits did not trickle down equally to the North and East, but there were benefits. It wasn’t, for example, as shit as now. In that atmosphere of stability, the country was beginning to move towards openness again. And openness, of course, is death to the LTTE. The LTTE are a Tamil organization, devoted to the Tamil language, Tamil culture, much to the detriment of the Sinhala and Muslim people who also share the land. They are calling for a racially defined state, which is not exactly open. Sri Lanka, other hand, is a trilingual democracy that just doesn’t have the mature institutions to deliver. However, with peace, we were moving in that direction. And we have moved very far. The 1983 riots were precipitated by the LTTE killing 13 soldiers. 13. This week they killed almost 100 and the streets were calm. Even after the provocative attack on Galle, rioting began but was controlled. By God it’s not perfect, but the country has moved in the right direction.
Peace Talks sap the LTTEs strength because they thrive on instability. When we move towards a stable and open country – where Tamils security and prosperity are protected – then they have less and less reason to exist. That is partly why they are now choosing to provoke Sri Lanka. That is why they are cutting off water to farmers, setting of car bombs in Colombo and sending suicide bombers to military camps. They want riots, they want death and, in short, they want things to get so shit that they’re relevant again. You can frame it as evil or weak, but it is also a strategic decision. Prabhakaran’s play is for a closed but secure society under his absolute command. For that he needs instability, and that is what he’ll sow.
The challenge for Sri Lanka is to move in the opposite direction, to open ourselves up even when it hurts. To cultivate and protect our Tamil and Muslim citizens and provide the hard and lasting stability that can build generations. It doesn’t mean an end to military action or self-defense. It just means fighting a modern counterinsurgency that secures the country in the long-term. We have to remember where we’re going, cause Prabhakaran sure as hell knows. Literally.