Kosovo Syndrome in the Sri Lanka Psyche



By Kusal Perera

(Courtesy: Daily Mirror of 25 February 2008)

Kosovo not only divided Serbia into two independent States, it also divided the world into two differing blocs. One that supports cessation and the other that does not. The major power blocs in the West had consented to accept Kosovo as an independent state even before it made the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on 17th February. The USA was thanked by thousands of Kosovans who came on to the streets of Pristina for giving them an independent country. Yet it was a difficult acceptance for all of those big powers. Bush therefore qualified their stand by saying secession of Kosovo and accepting it, would not be made a precedent.

For most who opposed, there were ample reasons to do so. Russia is pained with separation and still fights against more secessions. China has not given up on Taiwan. Spain has Basque wanting to secede. India has at least Kashmir fighting a liberation struggle. Pakistan has Baluchistan rebelling for freedom. Cyprus torn in two is still sore. So is our own Sri Lanka, waging a war that claims to keep the country as a Unitary State.

The Sri Lankan government cannot therefore felicitate Kosovans over their liberation and would be left in a tight patch, if Palestinians liberate to establish their own State too. Yet the Sinhala South that expects the war to deliver a Unitary State for them, needs to learn a few lessons from the Kosovo issue, whatever this government says about winning the war and annihilating the LTTE. A few words about the war and negotiations with all stakeholders to the conflict as per “Mahinda Chintanaya” to begin with would indicate where this country is being led right now. In the Sinhala version of the Mahinda Chinthana booklet, Presidential candidate Rajapaksa promises to conclude all negotiations within 03 months from assuming office (page / 29) as Executive President. A pledge there would be no war in this country, thereafter from March 2006.

Having assumed office in November 2005, the war was dragged on for two years for now without any semblance of negotiations, but with promises thrown in between by different personalities of high authority on winning the war. Once it was before end 2007 and then before Sinhala New Year 2008. There was the promise of eliminating 10 Tigers every day to finish the war by June this year. The crowning glory to all these promises came from the President himself about a fortnight ago when he told the Indian media he would need  “about an year, or may be one and a half years” to finish the war. That would keep this country bleeding in agony at least till mid 2009. And then who knows for how long thereafter ?

But that had been the war with every government, starting with President J R Jayewardene who wanted General Weeratunge to report back to him after finishing off the Tamil insurgents by end December 1979. That is not all about waging war against an insurgency that has a political reason for its brutal presence. It’s all about the Kosovo Albanians gaining independence with a separate State, for Sri Lanka to learn a lesson or two.

Kosovo Province with 90 percent Muslim Albanians since the Turks ran over all that Balkan land from 1389 stretching up to the doors of Vienna and established the Ottoman rule for over five centuries, enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy since 1963 within the Yugoslav Republic under President Josip Broz Tito. President Tito was a Socialist maverick who opposed Stalin, allowed religious freedom and schemed a different social system that allowed for profit sharing within a state controlled economy. Tito believed in defusing tensions through loosening state controls and the Yugoslav Republic underwent another major constitutional reform in 1974 that gave education, health and housing to the autonomous regions and provinces and Kosovo gained self – government in many areas of social life including police and the judiciary.

Like most Eastern European States with the Yugoslav Republic running into dissenting politics in the decade of 80, Serb nationalism was a rallying call in Belgrade that paved the way for Slobodan Milosevic to rise to power. This on the other hand catalysed Kosovo Albanian sentiments and in 1981, a student protest broke out in six of the major Kosovan cities with a call for a “Kosovo Republic within Yugoslavia”. The protests were brutally suppressed by Belgrade and thus began the organised Kosovo Albanian nationalist movement with a political agenda. The Kosovo Albanian nationalism gained further legitimacy with Milosevic ascending to power in Serbia in late 1987.     

The last straw on the camel’s back was the Serbian referendum in 1989 that allowed curbing of autonomous powers in the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. Most national minorities and Kosovo Albanians boycotted the referendum. Milosevic’s government was accused of rigging the elections, controlling of media and abuse of human rights. Constitutional reforms that had to be ratified by the provincial governments were done so with tanks and armoured cars lined in front of provincial assemblies. The constitutional reforms thus affected gave the Serbian government of Milosevic, total control over police, the judiciary, economy, language policy and the education system, previously enjoyed by the provincial governments.

The results were obvious. Initial non violent protests led by Kosovo Albanian populist Dr. Ibrahim Rugova failed to resolve the Kosovo conflict. Instead they swelled the presence of Serbo-Yugoslav military and police in Kosovo. The rest is history of ethnic cleansing. Over 100,000 Albanians within the Kosovo province were sacked from state enterprises by the Serbian government. The provincial media was shut down and the Pristina University closed. In 1995, Croatian Serbs were settled in Kosovo in an attempt to change the ethnic balance within Kosovo. 

With non violent politics of Rugova unable to deliver justice to Kosovo Albanians, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) came into existence in 1996 and the struggle to establish an independent Kosovo took a violent turn. With Milosevic’s government choosing war, Albanian villages in Kosovo were looted and burnt down. Whole villages were displaced and thousands of ethnic Albanians sought refuge in neighbouring Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Fleeing ethnic Albanians were killed and dumped in mass graves. In return, Serbs in Kosovo had to flee to Serbia.   

The entry of NATO, the formation of UNMIK and the facilitation of stability and peace within the Kosovo province under UNMIK since 1999, were all results thereof. The NATO took 78 days of heavy bombing to compel Milosevic’s government to agree to withdraw all its military and police from Kosovo. The UN Security Council Resolution 1244 accepted Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo but the majority of the Kosovo Albanians refused to accept Serbian rule. This compelled the UN to facilitate negotiations between Serbia and KLA on the “status of Kosovo”. UN backed negotiations began in February, exactly two years ago.

Lessons to learn are not very complicated.

One, even 2 million people would not accept ethnic or religious ideology based centralised rule over them.

Two, military interventions in controlling nationalist aspirations leads to violent protests that over time changes into armed conflict that we prefer to call “terrorism”.

Three, hyped State nationalism cannot compensate a protracted war, breaking down of social stability, economic devastation and criminalising of social forces.

Four, what we label as “terrorism” that emerges out of political suppression cannot be suppressed militarily and negotiations to end that terrorism have to be with those terrorists themselves.

In short, war is no answer to a politically triggered conflict although it turns into an armed conflict due to authoritarian and sectarian politics of a governing party.

This basic fact was perhaps understood by the post Milosevic Serbian government that negotiated the status of Kosovo with the KLA leadership, although it had to accommodate Serb sentiments. There was no room left any more to compromise on the old autonomous rule that was given by the Yugoslavian State under Josip Broz Tito. It now had to be something more than what was there thirty years ago.

This left the Serbian government of Vojislav Kostunica to choose between another war and an independent Kosovo. He chose the latter by protesting, instead of going back to war even with the backing of the Russian super power.

What is important to us is the strategy that was developed by the KLA which was classified a “terrorist organisation” by the CIA, the USA and the UN. The BBC’s Correspondent in the Balkans, Paul Wood wrote in March 2001 that "the Kosovo Liberation Army became the most successful guerrilla movement of modern times". They had proved to the international community the Serbian authorities are not only violating human rights within a genocidal war, they would not accommodate the Kosovo Albanian aspirations within a democratic power sharing system. That Kosovo Albanians have no alternative but to be independent from Serbian hegemony to achieve peace for both societies.

It is therefore worth reading how the Sri Lankan situation would evolve with Indian backing that may not be enough to plug leaks of robust Southern hegemony. One that avoids accommodating Tamil aspirations with actual power sharing, substituted instead by war for another one and a half years to satisfy Southern sentiments within an economy that holds no promise even for the Sinhala majority.