Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna.
Sri Lanka today is one of the safest countries in the world. The country has returned to peace and prosperity, after a long and bloody war ended in May 2009.
Yet this peace is fragile.
Efforts from abroad to influence a revival of the old separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – or Tamil Tigers – and, separately, the emergence of support for Islamic State (IS) among the island-nation’s small Muslim minority threaten to unravel the postwar fabric.
The Rajapaksa regime that crushed the Tigers, one of the world’s most ruthless guerrilla and terrorist groups, was voted out of power, and now, the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickramasinghe coalition is facing security challenges.
In the predominantly Tamil north last month, Sri Lankan authorities uncovered weapons and explosives, including suicide jackets, in Chavakachcheri and Mannar. And in the east, the traditional stronghold of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, extremist ideologies imported from the Mid-East are radicalizing a tiny segment of that population.
Both the Tamils in the north and Muslims in the east are coming under the influence of the LTTE and the so-called Islamic State, respectively. The government cannot neglect these twin challenges to security and stability, and should respond to them through preventive measures and rehabilitative interventions.
IS: A regional menace
IS, for its part, poses a threat to South Asia where hundreds of millions of Muslims live in the shadow of non-Muslim majorities – with the exception of predominantly Islamic Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Maldives.
South Asian Muslims value traditional Islam, and leaders of their communities promote communal co-existence, moderation and tolerance. Yet South Asian leaders should come together to protect the region’s Muslim population from the influence of IS, which seeks to radicalize and militarize Asian Muslims.
Sri Lankan, Indian and Bangladeshi Muslims mostly are resilient to IS ideology. Despite the growing threat of IS, less than 1 percent of the region’s Muslims support IS. The extremist group’s brutality and cruelty has shocked and surprised South Asian Muslims. They do not want atrocities and murders committed in the name of Islam or God.
Until recent developments, Sri Lanka’s Muslims were seen as a model community. They played a crucial role in defeating LTTE-propagated terrorism and restoring harmony in Sri Lanka.
The Muslims suffered much when the Tamil Tiger evicted them from their traditional lands in the north and massacred members of their community in the east.
The bulk of Sri Lankan Muslims do not support extremism and its vicious byproduct, ideological extremism. Although IS has created a few hundred support cells in Asia, there is no organization openly supporting IS in India, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.
Less than 100 nationals have travelled from these three countries to join IS in Syria or Iraq. Even among those who have gone to the Middle East, within a year at least half of them wanted to return home. In Sri Lanka, as well as in India and Bangladesh, the number of Muslims lured into IS, in fact, is very small.
But the IS threat has spread in the nearby Maldives. This is due to political instability and the country’s archipelagic nature.
The government of the island-chain nation should build a rehabilitation program to de-radicalize Muslims who have been indoctrinated by IS, as well as engage the Islamic community with a program to immunize young Muslims from pro-IS messaging.
By developing a holistic approach, the IS threat in South Asia can be managed. The strategy should be both to prevent the spread of ideology and to counter IS supporters. The intelligence services should spearhead the fight against IS. They should guide their governments to build partnerships with religious bodies, educational institutions, community organizations and other stakeholders.
Because IS presents a threat to Islamic way of life, Muslim leaders should lead the fight. As IS neither is Islamic nor a State, the Muslim elders and teachers should work with Muslim communities to preserve the beauty of Islam tarnished by IS.
In Sri Lanka, in helping preserve traditional Islam the government must work closely with all Muslim organizations. The government should develop programs and initiatives to engage Muslim youths and ensure that they are not deceived by the IS ideology.
LTTE cells: Anomaly or trend?
As far as the LTTE is concerned, the Sri Lankan security forces defeated the rebel group at home but its international network among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora remains intact.
The network is controlled by criminals who want wealth and power for themselves. They do not care about the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
With the backing of corrupt politicians in the neighboring south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the LTTE’s remnants overseas are seeking to influence vulnerable segments of Tamils to return to conflict. The Sri Lankan government should deal firmly with such attempts by a handful of personalities and groups to rekindle the war.
To counter the hatred and incitement being spread, Sri Lanka should do three things: Pass a harmony act to promote moderation, toleration and coexistence; empower authorities to investigate, charge and prosecute those who incite and spread hatred; and upgrade the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) by making it a criminal offense for anyone to advocate, support or participate in separatist activity at home, overseas, and in cyberspace.
The government should never take security for granted. When the Maithripala-Wickramasinghe government delisted UN-designated terrorist fronts like the British Tamil Forum, Global Tamil Forum, Canadian Tamil Congress, Australian Tamil Congress and others, it risked exposing the nation to a return to the type of extremism and terrorism propagated by the LTTE.
Politicians in Sri Lanka aren’t helping matters either. They are inviting trouble by calling for repealing the PTA.
In addition, efforts to dismantle the security and intelligence apparatuses in the north and east encourage the rise of criminal and extremist groups, which will eventually take Sri Lanka back to the era of the late LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.
With LTTE ideology lingering only seven years after the war ended, it is too early for the government to relax its security posture. Ethnic and religious entrepreneurs with funds from overseas seek to create divisions in the north and east.
The Sri Lankan government is partly culpable for creating an atmosphere for new LTTE cells to emerge, when it started to dismantle the security platforms without properly assessing the threat of a Tamil Tiger revival.
Government and opposition leaders, meanwhile, should not compromise security for political gain. Unfortunately, in their quest for funds and votes, power-hungry politicians have compromised national and strategic interests.
Because the nation has paid a heavy price, it is paramount for the government not to flirt with groups that are fronts for, or that sympathize with, the LTTE. The LTTE and its supporters among the diaspora have not abandoned their long-term goal of secession.
Political parties like the Tamil National Alliance, which supported the LTTE and terrorist entities that raised funds and disseminated propaganda for the Tigers, are fanning trouble by seeking to politicize the Tamil community and break up Sri Lanka.
How to deal with the twin threats
The Sri Lankan government has a well-structured military, law enforcement and national security capabilities to manage the LTTE threat. However, the government lacks the legal tools and platforms needed to counter the IS threat.
Sri Lanka cannot afford to take the threat from IS lightly because the group poses a long-term threat to the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious harmony. In its map of the world, IS has claimed sovereignty over Sri Lanka, and three dozen Sri Lankans have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the group.
Sri Lanka needs to take three steps to manage the growing IS threat:
First, Sri Lankan national security, law enforcement and military services should create dedicated units to monitor IS influence, as well as people engaged in disseminating propaganda, raising funds, recruiting, facilitating travel and other activities.
Second, Sri Lanka should create a new harmony law to criminalize incitement and hatred against other ethnic and religious groups. The law should make it mandatory to promote moderation, toleration and coexistence and counter extremism.
The PTA does not adequately cover extremism, the precursor of terrorism. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, however, should be kept because the next phase of extremism is terrorism. The government should enforce the laws against those who spread extremist ideas on the ground in Sri Lanka and over the internet.
Third, Sri Lankan government should partner with mainstream Muslim organizations (religious, educational and community) to engage Muslim youths and guide them away from extremist ideology imported from the Middle East and back to the nation’s traditional and moderate interpretation of Islam.
The Sri Lankan model
After decades of violence in Sri Lanka, it was an uncompromising military campaign that contained, isolated and eliminated the LTTE.
There were many imperfections in that strategy, such as the failure to counter misinformation and disinformation disseminated by the LTTE and its supporters, but overall the campaign brought peace and stability.
Schools function, there is no forced recruitment, bombs do not go off in public places, there is no ethnic cleansing, no assassination of leaders, and, in border villages, there are no massacres.
Today, the Sri Lankan model is a strategy that other governments are revisiting in battling IS, which has many similarities to the old LTTE, such as carrying out suicide attacks, executing prisoners, and indoctrinating fighters. The post-conflict measures in Sri Lanka – humanitarian assistance, socioeconomic development and political engagement – are also a subject of study.
The lesson Sri Lanka has to offer is clear: peace does not always descend from the sky. Rather than wish and wait for peace, when threatened, a government should plan, prepare and fight for it. Even after the enemy’s military defeat, eternal vigilance should be central to maintaining a harmonious society.
In Sri Lanka’s case, considering the sacrifice of 23,790 security-force personnel from 1981-2009, it is paramount for today’s guardians of the nation to not risk the hard-earned peace. The security of Sri Lanka and stability of its society should be the priority.
Harmony in Sri Lanka is fragile, and can be disrupted by anyone. As such, the security and intelligence structures should be kept intact and remain vigilant in order to detect and disrupt any anti-social or anti-national activity.
To prevent the return of instability and insecurity, it is essential to maintain the security measures. Otherwise, before long, the current government will be confronted with twin challenges!
Honoring a lost generation
The Sri Lankan leadership, if wise, must leave it to security professionals to handle matters of national security, and not let politicians interfere with that.
An entire generation of Lankans sacrificed their lives to restore security and stability, and this must not be forgotten by politicians who want to stay in power or are seeking reelection.
Because most threats are instigated and inspired from overseas, the Sri Lankan government should also create a foreign intelligence service to monitor and secure the country from external threats.
The greatest measure of respect that Lankans can pay to those who were killed in the conflict is to prevent its resurgence.
But to do so, they must work day and night to unite all communities – ethnic and religious – to ensure that Sri Lanka never returns to violence again. Every leader must work toward building inter-religious and interracial harmony and raise a generation free of religious and racial prejudice.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.