Archive for July 2011
Yesterday, in a stinging rebuke to the Sri Lankan government, voters in northern and eastern parts of the country defied intimidation to hand an alliance of parties closely linked to the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency majorities in an overwhelming number of local elections.
The results reveal that seething discontent remains among Tamils about the glacial pace of political reconciliation and deep divisions still haunt Sri Lanka two years after the government declared victory over the LTTE and ended one of the world’s bloodiest and longest-running civil wars.
Some members of the Sri Lankan government, still running victory laps from 2009, were quick to declare the results a “great victory”, with one minister touting that “people had used ballots instead of bullets”.
Such a view, however, is alarmingly short-sighted and incredibly blinkered. Yes, Colombo has always been quick to point out (and few would disagree) that a country at peace is better than one riven by war.
But whether Tamil opinion is conveyed through the ballot box or through the barrel of the gun, it embodies the same message: the government, dominated by the Sinhalese majority, must acknowledge and address the legitimate grievances of the Tamil minority if it is to win the support of the people and achieve true reconciliation for Sri Lanka. That means not just more economic development, but greater political representation as well.
Yet there are few signs that the voice of the people is being heard by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, despite the end of the war, minorities and political opponents continue to be either suppressed or excluded from decision-making, draconian emergency and anti-terrorism laws are still exercised, and creeping authoritarianism and heightened militarism appear to be subsuming the country. Aid to Tamil areas has been slow to arrive, development is often conducted without adequate consultation, and the pace of reintegration of former LTTE cadres has been much too slow.
Sadly, even as it is saddled with these myriad problems, the government appears to be devoting most of its political will to resisting true reconciliation than allowing it to occur. It has spent more energy fervently rejecting the establishment of an international inquiry into atrocities committed during the last stages of the war and quibbling over casualty figures when it is clear that tens of thousands of people died in the final weeks of the conflict (which included brutal army atrocities against civilians) and the nationally established Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is virtually powerless.
The Sri Lankan government may think that it can fool the international community through foot-dragging and finagle the Tamil population with false promises of reform in the near term. But at the end of the day, so long as the Tamils at home (and the diaspora abroad) continue to see a better future in a separate state than as part of a Sri Lanka that balances majority rule with minority rights, the wounds of war will not heal, and the deep distrust of government will persist.
Indeed, if the status quo continues unabated, it is not too difficult to imagine a scenario where Tamils conclude that justice may once again be better fulfilled through the barrel of a gun than at the ballot box. That, Mr. Rajapaksa and his triumphalist government may recall, was how the LTTE rose to power in the first place.
Earlier this week, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China reportedly agreed on a preliminary set of guidelines for a code of conduct in the bizarre territorial irritant that is the South China Sea. The event set off the usual half-full, half empty debate over the management of territorial disputes, of which there are several.
Some viewed it as a step in the right direction that will build confidence and hopefully help mitigate skirmishes when they arise. On the other hand, others complained that it falls well short of a fully implemented legally binding code of conduct, which Beijing is still unwilling to enter.
Both sides are right, but, more importantly, it is difficult to see another way to resolve these territorial disputes. The claims of the countries are more rooted in fierce nationalist impulses than any verifiable commercial interest. In any case, the use of force would impose such a high cost for an uncertain benefit that can probably only be maximized through cooperation rather than conflict. The pattern of skirmishes and claim-staking is thus likely to continue, with periods of heightened tension followed by greater urgency toward but only limited progress on negotiation.
But, most important of all, as The Asianist has pointed out before, threats are perceived or constructed through an assessment of both intentions and capabilities, which are in turn based on a combination of perception and reality. Threat perception is also somewhat distorted in an asymmetric relationship such as that between ASEAN and China, because as Brantly Womack has argued, the bigger power expects deference from the smaller power, and the smaller power wants the larger power to understand its vulnerabilities.
In this case, Southeast Asian countries looking at China have little reason to feel secure. While many other elements of the ASEAN-China relationship have been remarkably successful, progress on the South China Sea issue has been painfully slow, even if (even ASEAN officials will admit) there was some movement by China leading up to the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct. For China, as one commentator recently put it:
[The] policy isn’t to negotiate on the issue of sovereignty, but rather to maintain its stance that (a) sovereignty belongs to China, (b) the claimants should shelve the sovereignty disputes and, (c) the claimants should jointly develop the resources with China. Therefore, by ‘negotiation,’ China only means negotiation on temporary arrangements, not negotiation on the issue of sovereignty.
That may seem like a convenient way to minimize disputes over territories that could serve as triggers of nationalism. But to Southeast Asian countries, this is insufficient today because they are uncertain about China’s rise tomorrow. How can they have confidence that a much stronger China in a decade will be as willing to accept ‘dispute-shelving’ as it is now? Given China’s feverish military build-up, expansive claims, preference for bilateral dispute resolution mechanisms and refusal to settle claims by international law (Beijing rejects the Philippines’ call to take the dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea), it is not difficult to understand the sense of threat ASEAN nations feel.
Chinese officials might lay down their maps and insist that their claims are legitimate (and so might ASEAN nations), but that is not the point. Southeast Asian vulnerabilities persist, and China must address or at least manage them not because the world says so, but because it is in Beijing’s own interest to mitigate mistrust and further an otherwise blossoming relationship with ASEAN. The best way to do this is not just through chanting slogans of “peaceful rise”, but by building confidence through multilateral means.
Progress made this week was a small step in this regard, and both sides deserve credit for that. But there is still a long road to managing this asymmetric relationship, and enough room for accidents to occur.
I’ve got a new post up on the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Asia blog, CogitAsia, analyzing Asia’s future energy mix and whether the region might be able to power a “golden age of gas”. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently predicted that this might be the case, and I attended a presentation recently by its chief economist Fatih Birol who offered his insights as well.
In this piece, I argue that while the trend lines look promising, the extent to which natural gas will dominate the energy picture in Asia will depend on two main forces: prices and politics. You can read the full thing here.
Beyond this article, I’d also urge those who follow Asia closely to frequent CogitAsia, because it is a great resource that is regularly updated with insightful commentary.