All this is fleeting
Posted on May 30th, 2009

THOMAS A. MARKSThe Courtesy Kathmandu Post

History and geography have left Nepal a very imperfect state in search of a nation. As Sri Lanka has been given a second chance, Nepal has been given an opportunity to become a nation-state
When a victorious general was granted a “Triumph” in ancient Rome — a parade through the streets — the sources claim a man rode behind him in his chariot with the specific job of whispering, “All this is fleeting.” So it must seem with Prachanda and his Maoists.

Indeed, “Fierce One” seemed so spooked by ongoing events in Sri Lanka that he scored an own-goal by bringing up the subject in the recent Kathmandu rally. There will be no such end for the Maoists, he railed, lest any be tempted to think that his band of not-somerry men would go the way of the declawed Tigers.

Poor Prachanda — the photos of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) supremo Prabhakaran’s body are widely available on the net. Thus it seems he had been reminded that “all are mortal,” which is the other phrase the man in the chariot is supposed to have been directed to say.

The lessons of antiquity aside, it is useful to draw some lessons for Nepal from the Sri Lankan case. I have spent considerable time in both and cover them in separate chapters of my recent book.

In one sense, they are very different, in another much the same. Dynamics of Sri Lankan conflict Democracies struggle in South Asia, where the holding of elections conceals a great deal that is profoundly undemocratic.

In particular, parliamentary mechanisms often lead to lack of safeguards for minority positions and marginalization of entire communities.

In Sri Lanka, such a dynamic took the post-independence form of marginalization of the Tamil minority (17%) by the very large Sinhalese majority (80%). Though both communities in reality had further divisions, especially the Tamils (notably, between Sri Lanka and Indian Tamils), it was the need to define the identity of Sri Lanka as a state that set the two nations against each other.

Significantly, both before and during the Tamil upheaval, Sri Lanka faced Maoist upheavals. Both were led by the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna, JVP (People’s Liberation Front), 1971 and 1987-90, and had more of a class character (i.e., poor versus “them”).

Even such a general description does not do justice to the complexity of Sri Lankan society that saw the same effort to harness local divisions, whatever they were, by the JVP.

In particular, in a characteristic shared with Nepal’s Maoist insurgency, the first JVP bid for power was driven by upheaval within the young.

An agriculturally-based economy; limited alternative sectors unable to provide employment for a rapidly expanding population; an age-pyramid dominated by youth; an educational system teaching the wrong things (and generally in the wrong languages for the jobs available); strong caste influences that further narrowed opportunities; and a democracy which was neither transparent nor efficient; all served to make “liberation” or “revolution” an attractive prospect.

The result was death and destruction. Crushed, the JVP plotted its comeback, which was provided by Indian intervention. “Peacekeeping” to New Delhi, “invasion” to most Sri Lankans, the social explosion that shook the island led to a level of upheaval that would be familiar to Nepalese.

With the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) locked in its own battle against the Tamil insurgents in the North and East, the Sri Lankans were able to focus on the Southern, terror-driven violence and finish it. The entire JVP leadership was eliminated, and the survivors joined legal politics — where their bizarre positions today make India’s Marxists appear almost rational.

Significantly, by the time the chastised Indians departed (after a thousand-plus dead and twice that wounded), LTTE had become a full-spectrum insurgency, complete with armor and artillery. Ultimately, it would field everything from aircraft to underwater demolitions teams to suicide squads in three dimensions (land, air, and sea). Huge battles saw even entire brigade camps (1,200-men) wiped out on the government side.

A post-9/11 ceasefire left LTTE as the de facto rulers of the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces. Yet LTTE leader Prabhakaran was simply unable to leave well enough alone. Just as the Nepali Maoists had their assassination and bombing command in the Kathmandu Valley during the 1996-2006 war), so LTTE had its equivalent. And just as the Maoist-directed YCL is encouraged to continue its depredations, so LTTE executed a campaign of terror in government-controlled areas.

The main target was moderate Tamils, hundreds of whom (literally) were assassinated. Enabling the LTTE effort were the same external actors one finds so dominant in Nepal — even some of the same countries — any number of which have now been told, in so many ways (some directly), that they are no longer welcome in Colombo. How Did the Sri Lankans Win? Colombo’s position on foreign intervention in its affairs highlights the key element which led to successful resolution of the present stage of conflict: a mobilization of national will.

In this, one could argue that Sri Lanka engaged in a state version of the successful Nepali Maoist mass mobilization in the latter’s surge to power. Taking the analogy a step further, it could be argued that the “lost” decades for Colombo were occasioned by adopting a “Nepali government approach” — unfocused, under-resourced, and lacking mobilization and will. Early on, 1983-87, the Sri Lankan approach was completely military, even as the 1987-90 counter-JVP effort utilized all elements of national power (with, to be sure, a very “big boy rules” mentality guiding the whole).

Thereafter, a gradual but steady shift occurred in which Colombo, while understanding the root causes of the struggle, realized it would have to adopt a philosophy of total mobilization for the ultimate clash. Why had it not done this previously? States invariably seek to fight limited wars until forced by circumstances to do otherwise.

For insurgents, wars are always total. Similarly, internal wars have phases. What is an appropriate course of action at one point in time, say, 1983-87, is not necessarily the path to take in, say, 2006-2009. In 2006, faced with an LTTE which had wiped out all rival insurgent groups (there were once at least three dozen) — as well as all moderate Tamil politicians it could liquidate – – Colombo saw no recourse but renewed violence.

The increasingly shrill efforts of (overwhelmingly) European actors to push “peace” foundered on the reality that LTTE was already at war even as it (and its enablers) talked “peace.” It had used the latest “ceasefire” in exactly the manner it had done in the past, as a weapon to refit, regroup, and reposition its forces. In this, LTTE was no different than the Nepali Maoists, who used ceasefires for similar purposes.

 As I have pointed out in recent articles, the only surprising element in “Prachandagate” is how many seem to have forgotten the earlier evidence of the same behavior.

 This can not surprise: The Maoists share with LTTE a worldview that sees “struggle” as the normal condition of mankind. Violence and nonviolence are but sides of the same coin. “Heads I win, tails you lose.” To their credit, the Sri Lankan leadership saw through this strategy and turned the coin on its edge.

Indeed, the superb effort at the top, of planning and motivation, was in many respects a family affair, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa relying upon his brothers — Gotabaya, Secretary of Defense, and Basil, special advisor. The three responded with their own “coin,” skillfully constructing a multifaceted effort. The cutting edge was military, led by the increased professionalism of a very large, battle- hardened military led on the ground by General Sarath Fonseka. But it was built upon political and popular mobilization, combined with astute cultivation of foreign support beyond Sri Lanka’s normal, pro-Western allies.

For the Sri Lankans recognized that, when all was said and done, their Western supporters, whether states or INGOs, would see to their own designs and leave Colombo in the lurch. When this indeed turned out to be the case, Sri Lanka had constructed a position, built upon a network of alternative sources of arms and supplies (notably from China and Pakistan), which allowed it to finish the business.

The elimination of the LTTE counterstate was carried out systematically, despite an active, increasingly shrill campaign that sought outright invasion of the country — under the guise, to be sure, of “humanitarian intervention” a la the former Yugoslavia, with, apparently, a “Tamil Kosovo” to follow. That the same approach was used by external actors to neutralize the Nepali state in the 1996-2006 period needs no highlighting. That the result looks rather more like the Balkans and rather less like a nation-state also needs no highlighting.

 For the neo-colonialists, the very fact that Nepal experienced upheaval meant its oldorder lacked legitimacy. Hence, went their logic, it had no right to defend itself. Sri Lanka provides the same evidence of imperfection, as Sri Lankan politicians, pundits, and intellectuals are quick to point out. Still, they note further, they are Sri Lankan imperfections and will now have a Sri Lankan solution.

 Nepal remains yet a neo-colony, and there is no leadership in sight of the quality one sees in Colombo. Road Ahead Nevertheless, a great deal of effort is now being put into discussing what could go wrong in Sri Lanka. It seems something of a parlor game for the Western media, with the more liberal outlets outraged (the only word for it) that any small Asian country would have the gall to ignore the commands of the “usual suspects,” so used to issuing orders backed by threats of aid cut-offs and “war crimes trials.”

As Colombo continues to steer its own course, the threats have again begun to escalate. They are fruitless. Sri Lanka has committed to reconciliation, but it is unwilling to have the terms of its internal arrangements dictated to it. What will matter, then, is sincerity. Whether the state can deliver upon its promises to its marginalized minority will become clear soon enough.

This is the state of play in Nepal, as well, with little sincerity in evidence on the part of the prime culprits in the current mess, the Maoists. Indeed, recent Maoist pronouncements do not bode well for timely or acceptable resolution. Once again, having created a disaster, the Maoists have resorted to threats as their “solution.”

They have stated that they will allow the processes of governance and constitution-writing to go forward — but only if they are given what they have demanded all along — the right to run roughshod over the Nepal Army, as the last stumbling block in their ability to stage a slow-motion coup. That threatening violence, if one does not get his way, is but violence camouflaged does not enter into Maoist calculations (or those of their external backers).

Yet, in the shadow of Sri Lanka, with its carnage enroute to peace, the Maoists have been offered a chance to establish their bonafides. They can either commit to peaceful politics, or they can choose to continue their subrosa violence (much of which is not particularly “sub”). They had eight months to place their cards on the table and proved themselves utterly incompetent at all save 3M: menace, mugging, and murder. If the Maoists are sincere, it is time to disband the goon squads and engage in politics as per the plain definition of the word, the process whereby society decides and implements who gets what — rights, resources, privileges, and obligations. Politics pursued by “other means” is, as per Clausewitz, no longer politics but war. History and geography have left Nepal a very imperfect state in search of a nation.

As Sri Lanka has been given a second chance, so is this the case for Nepal. It has been given an opportunity to become a nation-state. In this, the Maoists have a voice, but they must respect that of others. As for the Nepalese chattering classes, on the verge of trying their hand at the ultimate balancing act, coalition politics: Carpe Diem — seize the day.

(Dr. Thomas A. Marks is a political risk consultant based in Honolulu, Hawaii, who has authored a number of benchmark works on Maoist insurgency, to include his recent Maoist People’s War in Post-Vietnam Asia.)

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