Prof.Indra de Soysa speaks on “Violent Conflict: using theory to guide Sri Lanka’s Defense Policy”

The Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) successfully concluded yet another “Security Salon” on 18th November 2016 at the Ministry of Defence Chaired by Eng.Karunasena Hettiarachchi Secretary Defence/Chairman INSSSL . The guest speaker on the occasion was Prof.Indra de Soysa, Professor of Political Science at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology who’s presentation on “Violent Conflict: using theory to guide Sri Lanka’s Defense Policy” enraptured the audience of scholars, practitioners, diplomats, and senior military officers alike as it was an extremely important and relevant topic to Sri Lanka’s security landscape. Mr.Asanga Abeyagoonasekera Director General INSSSL delivered the opening remarks highlighting the importance of the Security Salon which will feed useful information to research and also educate the public of Sri Lanka. Mr.Abeyagoonasekera then introduced Prof.Indra de Soysa and invited him to deliver his presentation.

The speaker’s presentation was on the latest research on the causes of civil war that addresses the fundamental question of why people engage in this very costly form of behaviour when less costly bargains are always possible. He began by giving an empirical overview of the patterns of conflict around the world, where the bulk of organized armed violence happens as intrastate wars whereas interstate wars are all but absent. The speaker laid out the fundamental theoretical precepts and the underlying causes of civil war. He outlined how theoretical logic points to the fact that armed violence occurs because of opportunity or feasibility rather than for reasons of motive alone. Conflict is organized for private gain rather than as a public good. Prof. de Soysa also shows that exogenous factors rather than purely domestic factors are decisive in many civil wars where regional and superpower power politics play a role. Understanding properly the sources of armed violence can lead to intelligent policymaking for securing Sri Lanka´s domestic and foreign policy interests.

Interestingly, the speaker challenged the dominant views on conflict such as grievances and lack of social, cultural and political rights by denying the concept of ethic conflict. Conversely, he supported the theory of opportunity over grievances and other endogenous factors. The opportunity, not the grievance alone being of significance simply because there are many groups that are downtrodden and never rise up, this being relevant to academics and policymakers as they can better apply policies to try to prevent those factors that make violence more feasible. Financial capability was also shown as a binding constraint as conflict is costly in terms of labour and other resources and plays a decisive role on their ‘opportunity of survival’ against organised state forces. It was also interesting that he singled out countries such as India and Sri Lanka that have relative openness in their political processes as more likely, not less likely, to be faced with rebellion or conflict compared to countries such as North Korea that has no political space for organising dissent, hence a very slim chance of conflict. Low state capacity was also a factor that was said to favour conflict, thus the reason for Sri Lanka being conflict prone in the 1970s and 80s with relatively low state capacity to counter insurgency. Financing and training of rebel groups by external powers was also elucidated proving the point that at times exogenous factors outweigh the endogenous ones. Territory and rough terrain being yet another element that contributes to conflict was highlighted with examples of the Sea Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, both groups that favoured territories they were familiar with and considered a safe haven. The role of geo-politics too cannot be ignored as regional powers and super powers as a part of their agenda, offer support to rebels fighting civil wars.

As reasons for the Sri Lankan government’s eventual success in defeating the LTTE, the speaker alluded to high state capacity and the growth of per capita income over the years. In terms of securing peace in the future, Prof. de Soysa ruled out a complete military solution by bringing to attention that the geo-political positioning of Sri Lanka could pose dangers if the country’s policies are not aligned with that of superpowers. The far bigger threat to national security as he perceives is a non-violent movement for a cause along the lines of a separate state, which if properly financed and motivated around an objective can pose a serious threat to national security. In this respect, a defence policy of good governance and good political processes that will marginalise or counter any element favouring conflict albeit non violent.

During the discussion that followed, some of the issues that were brought up dated back in history to instances of discriminating the Tamil community by the national language act and standardisation of universities followed by the riots in1983 which was a major turning point in their mistrust of the government. As regards ensuring peace in the present context, there were assurances that the present government was well aware of what needs to be done to address the issues of the people in this country and has already taken necessary steps in this direction, by ensuring that justice is being met in all aspects with equal access to resources, education and other spheres.

The question of the diaspora being more active in Europe and other countries promoting the now obsolete slogan of separatism was highlighted as a cause for concern. However, these activities of the diaspora were branded as what has now become a franchise without which the survival and funding of many interested parties would cease to exist. It was suggested that the more moderate elements of the diaspora could be roped in by the government of Sri Lanka in order to marginalise the radical elements of the same. The creation of a diaspora investment fund was suggested as means of gaining their trust. Consequently, the need for a new approach to change the discourse of politics to be more aligned with the inclusion of Tamil political leaders was highlighted as something that should form an integral part of the political discussion and processes in the country. Proximity of India and its interest in Sri Lanka’s politics was an aspect that was also suggested as requiring the highest priority in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

Another important comment was that state capacity and the state’s ability not to be hijacked by any group of the population should be ensured by applying the rule of law across the board, with the adoption of certain hard political decisions by which the rule of law will be applied to all parties. Through this, the government could gain the trust and confidence of its citizens to ensure that everybody lives with dignity.