[Editorial] The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has declared that at is resuming the “freedom struggle” which properly translated means full-fledged war against the Government of Sri Lanka headed by President Mahinda Rajapakse. In its wake thousands of Tamil civilians are fleeing northern Sri Lanka.
Mahinda Rajapakse, who was voted President on a hard-line manifesto in alliance with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Jathika Hela Urumaya, both Sinhala chauvinist parties, has reneged on whatever concessions his predecessors had shown to the ethnic minority. Instead he has opted to settle the crisis by unleashing Sri Lanka’s military power to liquidate the LTTE. In this endeavour, naming the Tamil Eelam as a terrorist organisation by India, the European Union, Britain, the USA and many other Western countries has come in handy.
In the event the recent interventions by the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr Robert Blake and British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Dr Kim Howells assumes considerable significance. Describing the situation in Sri Lanka as “serious,” Ambassador Blake has warned against attempts to underestimate the Tamil Tigers and asserted that they cannot be defeated militarily.
To high a price
Dr Howells adds: “A military victory for one side is very unlikely to produce a lasting political solution.” For him a ‘war for peace’ approach inevitably means more war, rather than peace. And violence comes with too high a price. It is the people who suffer, as human rights are eroded, the humanitarian situation deteriorates and mistrust between communities increases.
Ambassador Blake has some candid advice to the war-mongers in the southern part of Sri Lanka, populated mainly by the dominant Sinhalese community who felt that a military solution is possible: “We respectfully disagree. The LTTE cannot be defeated militarily. I don’t think a military solution is possible without a parallel political strategy to address the grievances of the Tamil community. The LTTE has significant capability to attack, using terrorist means. We should not underestimate that. I think there would be costs (to pay) to a military strategy. The most important thing in our view is to come up with a credible (political) process.”
The ‘big powers’ have spoken and it is imperative for the rulers of Sri Lanka to pay heed. But what is the political strategy that would be acceptable to both the parties? To understand this we should briefly trace the recent peace process. The two warring sides held six rounds of direct talks following the 2002 truce agreement. They agreed to exchange prisoners of war for the first time, and the rebels dropped their demand for a separate state. But the Tigers pulled out of the talks in April 2003, claiming they were being sidelined.
Later they wanted to discuss proposals for an interim government in the north, ~ which the government of then Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was unwilling to do. He was under pressure from then President Kumaratunga and other Sinhalese politicians in the south who said too much ground was being given to the Tamil Tigers. The country spent months in political limbo after the two leaders’ uneasy cohabitation escalated into a row in November 2003, which led to fresh elections.
Following President Rajapakse’s election, the two sides met again for talks on shoring up the ceasefire in the Swiss city of Geneva in February. But the Tigers pulled out of a second round in April. Delegations travelled to Oslo in early June 2006 but the rebels refused to meet Sri Lankan officials. Now with the conflict escalating the peace process is in serious jeopardy.
To chalk out a workable political strategy the first thing is to understand as to what the rebels want. The Tigers started fighting in the 1970s for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north and east. They argued that successive majority Sinhalese governments had discriminated against the Tamils. They now say that, while they still want an independent homeland, they are prepared to consider autonomy proposals if they meet the aspirations of the Tamil people.
‘Aspirations of the Tamil people’ was expressed when Tamil politicians pushed for a federal system through the Federal Party that was active from the mid-1950s until the 1970s. This met with suspicion and resistance from many Sinhalese and successive Sri Lankan governments took steps to sabotage this concept itself. Perforce this was replaced by the concept of a separate nation, Tamil Elam, which was proposed by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976. TULF was a coalition of parties who went on to campaign in the 1977 elections for an independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. They won most of the Tamil seats, but the government later banned them from Parliament for advocating an independent state. As a result Tamil leadership passed on to LTTE with the horrendous consequences that Sri Lanka is facing today.
Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy, a vocal critic of the LTTE, is of the view that a federal type of constitution was the only way out of the present crisis in Sri Lanka. According to him the island nation’s unitary constitution needs to be given a federal character. Devolution of powers is needed to end this long-standing crisis that has claimed several innocent lives He has asked the Indian Government to play an active role in resolving the problem, provided Colombo showed commitment about giving a federal character to its constitution. Holding that the root cause of the issue lay in the reverse discrimination adopted by the Sinhalese against the Tamils Dr Swamy stated: “The people of Sri Lanka ~ both Sinhalese and Tamils ~ as well as the international community were looking forward to India playing a crucial and constructive role in resolving the crisis,”
About the role India is playing this is what Mr B Raman, a security expert and former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India has to say: “’Sri Lanka has been bleeding continuously ever since Mr Mahinda Rajapakse took over as the President and immediately thereafter wriggled out of the commitment made to the Sri Lankan Tamils by his predecessors to find a solution to their political aspirations within a federal set-up. India gives the impression of being a helpless spectator of these events, with very little influence either on the Rajapakse Government or the Tamils.”
Sri Lanka’s ruling elite is willing to consider devolution / sharing of power more as an act of expediency rather than a lasting political solution through the federal route. They do not like the word ‘federal’ because the Sinhala chauvinists believe this will equate them with the lowly Tamils!
With a working federal set-up and a functioning democracy where all citizens are equal, India is well placed to usher in a similar set up in Sri Lanka to resolve the crisis once for all. India has the military might and a dominating regional presence to bring the Rajapakse Government to the negotiating table and arm-twist the LTTE supremo Pirabhakaran to join them there. But blurred by prejudiced media stories and obsessed with LTTE and Pirabhakaran, the security and foreign policy establishments in India are adopting an ostrich-like approach totally ignoring the pathetic plight of Sri Lankan Tamils who are virtually orphaned!
Taking advantage of India’s hands-off policy, Sri Lanka government has allowed Pakistan to fill the void and this has disastrous fallout. India’s eastern seaboard with critical nuclear installations is under threat. This portends ill for India and it is time Government in the Centre moved in purposefully and proactively to quench the flames in Sri Lanka and take meaningful steps to usher in abiding peace.
More war, less peace