x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The model for a lasting solution to insurgency

Wherever government troops are fighting an insurgency, both sides can be heard proclaiming ad nauseam the importance of "winning hearts and minds". Still, like any cliché, it contains some truth.

Wherever government troops are fighting an insurgency, both sides can be heard proclaiming ad nauseam the importance of "winning hearts and minds". Still, like any cliché, it contains some truth. Winning loyalty - and in the end, a war - is more than a matter of military force. It must be accompanied by efforts both to understand the needs of ordinary people and to address them. If hearts and minds are to be won, there must be a commitment to establishing a government that reflects the interests of all a nation's people, not merely the interests of one race, one ethnic group, one tribe or one class.

Nowhere is the need for this understanding of hearts-and-minds more evident today than in Sri Lanka, where the world's longest running insurgency was crushed by government troops last May. After the defeat of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), what remains unattended are the ingredients that fuelled its rise in the first place: unequal economic development, systemic political bias and cultural suppression of the Tamil minority.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa appears in no hurry to address these problems. He has burnt bridges to consolidate his own power instead of reaching out. Most notably, the opposition leader General Sarath Fonseka has been detained for weeks on dubious charges, and faces court martial tomorrow. Both sides made promises to win the Tamil vote in the last election that returned Mr Rajapaksa to power, but turnout was unsurprisingly poor. Tens of thousands of civilians are still confined to camps established during the war and there are deep reservations about the majority Sinhalese parties in Colombo.

Here is another lesson of hearts and minds: the demands of the aggrieved don't give way before mere words. The Tamil National Alliance, made up of some former supporters of the LTTE, has indicated that they are willing to give up long-standing demands for a separate state. But they are insistent on some form of local autonomy in exchange. It is a glimmer of hope for establishing a long-term peace. The details of such autonomy would have to be hammered out, of course, and there is already bickering among Tamils about dropping the statehood claim. But it is a model that has already worked in the Indonesian territory of Aceh, helping end three decades of insurgency.

Recent history is replete with examples of how the struggle to win hearts and minds failed or was ineffectively applied. It was implemented with tragic simple-mindedness by the United States following its invasion of Iraq in 2003. What progress has been made there is due to tangible hard work on political inclusivity, not just public relations efforts. There are too many ethnic, tribal and religious conflicts, in this region and elsewhere, where the real essence of winning hearts and minds must be learnt. Otherwise, from Yemen to Sri Lanka to Afghanistan, these divisions will continue to be flashpoints for future conflicts.