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Sunday, 25 October 2015

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Back to ethno-politics?

Barely has the country heaved itself out of a morass of hysterical ethno-politics of one kind, than the subsequent efforts to take national politics on to a plane of inter-ethnic dialogue and inter-class alliances are marred by a competition-driven return to ethnic innuendo.

For some time, those defeated political elements that once thrived on the 'Tiger' bogeyman kept harping on that theme until a second electoral defeat at parliamentary level demonstrated public boredom with it.

But competition engenders ingenuity even at the most base level. Has the JVP succumbed to this?

After months of careful political advocacy against ethnic politics of all kinds, and an encouragement of rational public debate on issues of governance, economic policy and other matters of social relevance, the JVP's leadership seems to have decided to try an easier way of electoral completion: back to narrow ethno-nationalism.

Suddenly, according to the JVP's latest pronouncement in Parliament, Jaffna is infested with Indian spies!

The ridiculous ethno-nationalist logic of this JVP 'line' is there for all to see. Why should 'Indian' spies focus on Jaffna alone? Are all 'Indian' spies Tamil? Is Jaffna the sole target for Indian espionage?

In the first place, modern citizens are well aware that espionage is practised by all States, including Sri Lanka. And, just as much as Sri Lankan intelligence must cover the neighbourhood region as well as other, more distant, locations of strategic and security concern to us, the intelligence agencies of other countries will similarly cover Sri Lanka in accordance with their concerns regarding Sri Lanka.

The pointing of suspicion towards one ethnically-dominant area of the country is, sadly, a return to crude ethno-politics which the nation's combined citizenry has only recently sought to overcome.

The JVP has just seen a lesson learnt by a set of politicians who exploited narrow ethnic politics bordering on racism. Does that lesson need to be learnt again by the JVP? What has happened to that once-heroic movement's secular, modernist outlook?


Military hardware in perspective

In their immediate reaction to the sheer ferocity of the Tamil secessionist insurgency - that ferocity itself a reaction to the brutality of anti-Tamil riots - Sri Lanka's political authorities and their Defence bureaucracy rushed to obtain the heaviest weaponry, no doubt in the belief that the bigger the jackboot, the quicker the suppression. Thus, in the 1980s and early 1990s, a political elite that saw politics as ethno-politics and, ethno-politics as territorial dominance, chose to pamper solely the Army with 'main battle tanks' and 'heavy artillery'.

This was done despite defence experts arguing that the undulating, irrigation-dense, terrain, the heavy monsoon rain climate, the small scale of the actual theatre of war and, the guerrilla nature of the insurgency, all weighed against such very heavy equipment. Within months, the Army was losing these weapons as guerrilla offensives that temporarily overran Army bases saw the capture and removal of MBTs and 155 mm heavy guns by the Tigers. The Tigers, themselves, hardly used this ordnance except as propaganda.

The initially less-pampered Air Force and Navy were equipped with weaponry best suited for the war effort - turbo-props (Puccara) and light jets suitable for ground attack purposes and, fast in-shore and coastal patrol vessels suitable for gun-running interdiction and off-shore dominance.

Ultimately, the ground war was won thanks to the sensible procurement of medium and mobile artillery in the form of the multi-barrel rocket launchers (MRBLs), the deployment of troops into highly mobile smaller formations and, the extensive use of drones for ground surveillance as well as interdiction.

While in-expensive fast-attack-craft, like the Dvoras, were crucial for the sea war, the air war against the LTTE was notable more for the smart use of drones and extremely efficient air logistical support rather than for the extensive deployment of expensive and glamorous supersonic fighter jets.

Thus, the future of Sri Lanka's armed forces must be built on a realistic assessment of threats to national security rather than simply the accumulation of glamorous high tech and high impact weaponry. Sri Lanka needs to understand who, in its geo-political environment, are its 'enemies'. We need to see beyond the parameters of competitive nationalism and nation-state defence matrices. As our recent series of insurgencies indicate, 'defence' is no longer inter-state warfare but a complex of socio-economic compulsions, cultural compulsions driving terrorism and, plain piracy. As the war against the Daesh (ISIL) already shows, high-tech airpower cannot be an answer.

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