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Crisis deepens

Print edition : Jun 20, 2003 T+T-
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LTTE cadre in northern Sri Lanka. In the perception of the international community, the LTTE continues forcible recruitment, including the recruitment of children into its ranks.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

With the LTTE keen on extending the territorial jurisdiction of its de facto state to the whole of the North-East and the Sri Lankan government ruling out an administrative mechanism falling outside the scope of the Constitution, the divide is growing.

FIFTEEN months after the conclusion of the Ceasefire Agreements and following six rounds of talks between the United National Front government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is sending mixed signals to the outside world. On the positive side, the guns are silent and the people in the war-torn North-East region continue to enjoy relative peace. Many still entertain the hope that the island is on the way to peace and development. However, Sri Lanka watchers in India do not share this sense of optimism. They see that the euphoria that came with the early rounds of peace talks is slowly getting dissipated. Velupillai Prabakaran and Anton Balasingham seem back at their old game of talking peace while preparing for war. What is more, the hiatus between what any government in Colombo can offer and what the Tigers will be prepared to settle for remains as wide as ever.

The exclusion of the Tigers from a seminar of the donor countries in Washington on April 14 was a major setback for the LTTE's relentless quest for regaining international legitimacy. Balasingham characterised the exclusion of the Tigers as a "grave breach of faith". He announced that the LTTE was "temporarily" suspending participation in the peace talks scheduled for the end of April and the Donors Conference scheduled in Tokyo for June. Balasingham explained that the Tigers "have not terminated the negotiating process or walked away from talks". But it was clear that the camaraderie and mutual trust had been eroded in a big way. Despite the fervent appeals made by the Sri Lankan government, the United States, Japan and Norway, at the time of writing this article there was uncertainty over whether the Tigers would come to Tokyo.

That the Ceasefire Agreements are structurally flawed and weighted in favour of the LTTE is a conclusion I offered in an earlier article published in Frontline. Since those agreements were forged, the contradictions between Prabakaran's declared objective of finding a federal solution on the basis of internal self-determination and ground realities have raised serious doubts about the LTTE's short-term objectives and long-term intentions. In order to gain a perspective, it is necessary to keep in mind Prabakaran's immediate objectives, against the backdrop of the past behaviour of the Tigers.

Isolation of the Tigers

Regaining legitimacy has been a prime objective of the LTTE, which has suffered international isolation in recent years. Prabakaran seems to have believed that the de-proscription of his organisation by the Sri Lankan government would result in de-proscribing actions by the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and perhaps even India. The Tigers have been proclaiming from the housetops that they are not a terrorist organisation, but a national liberation movement fighting for the emancipation of the oppressed Tamils. This propaganda offensive has not produced any results.

At the end of April, the Office of the Coordinator of Counter Terrorism, Washington, again included the LTTE in the list of foreign terrorist organisations banned in the U.S. Here is what Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2002 says: "The LTTE has not renounced terrorism; it continues to smuggle in weaponry; and it continues forcible recruitment, including the recruitment of children into its ranks. It is too early to tell whether the Sri Lankan peace process will ultimately bear fruit or whether the LTTE will actually reform itself. Although guarded optimism surrounds the peace process, the United States will continue to designate the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation until it unequivocally renounces terrorism in both word and deed."

In a keynote address at a Conference on "Sri Lanka: Prospects for Peace" organised by the Centre of Strategic and International Studies, Washington, in February 2003, Richard Armitage, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, clarified his government's position on the issue of terrorism vis-a-vis the Tigers: "The U.S. government is encouraged by the vision of the LTTE as a genuine political entity. But for that to happen, we believe that the LTTE must publicly and unequivocally renounce terrorism and prove that its days of violence are over. The U.S. will never accept the tactics of terror, regardless of any legitimate Tamil aspirations. But if the LTTE can move beyond the terror tactics of the past and make a convincing case through its conduct and its actual actions that it is committed to a political solution and to peace, the U.S. will certainly consider removing the LTTE from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations, as well as any other terrorism-related designations."

Responding to Balasingham's claim that the LTTE's "temporary" boycott of the peace talks was to pressure Colombo "to realise the urgency of existential issues ... and to impress upon them the importance of fulfilling pledges and decisions," Ashley Wills, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, was more forthright: "We have strongly supported the ceasefire, even though we have also acknowledged it has not been implemented perfectly. Blame for this does not fall exclusively on the side of the government, however, as the LTTE statement suggested. The Tigers, too, bear heavy responsibility for numerous breaches of the ceasefire. While the talks are suspended, we urge the LTTE to reflect carefully on its own transgressions. Assassination of opponents, intimidation of Muslims, taxation without representation, aggressive Sea Tiger behaviour and continued child recruitment do not build trust in the LTTE's intentions."

As far as India is concerned, there is widespread revulsion against the politics of terror and assassination perfected by the suicide squads of the LTTE. Indian public opinion, cutting across political parties, will not allow the Government of India to have any dealings with the LTTE. The official Indian request for the extradition of Prabakaran and Pottu Amman, two prime accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, is very much with the Sri Lankan government. What must be particularly discouraging for Prabakaran is the fact that while two of his vocal supporters in Tamil Nadu, Vaiko and P. Nedumaran, continue to be detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), there is no public protest of any significance against their detention by the Tamil Nadu government.

Referring to the international support that his government has mobilised for the peace process, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe told the Sri Lankan Parliament in early May that the "safety net of the international community" had been a benign factor. He specifically named the U.S., the U.K., Japan, France and India. What Wickremasinghe implied, but for obvious reasons did not elaborate, was Colombo's perception that in case the Tigers went back on the peace process, Colombo could count on the sympathy and support of the international community.

The Tigers naturally feel that Colombo is seeking international support to "encircle" them. The exclusion of the LTTE from the Washington seminar is perceived by the LTTE as an attempt to downgrade its role as an equal partner in the negotiation process. Prabakaran does not want to alienate the international community, more so after September 11, and therefore has refrained from criticising the U.S. But we can gain a sense of the LTTE's thinkings from occasional comments made by pro-LTTE intellectuals on websites. For instance, The Tamil Canadian in a recent article titled "Substantial Autonomy or Separate State?" took the U.S. to task for its attempts to persuade the Tigers to re-join the peace process. The article stated: "There is no way for the LTTE to re-integrate itself in the peace process without obtaining concrete benefits from the Government of Sri Lanka. Participation in the peace process without the fulfilment of these two conditions would provide much sustenance to the United States that is seeking to interfere in the ethnic conflict in the island. As far as Tamils are concerned, the United States does not have the legitimacy or the moral authority to intervene or influence the course of events in the country."

Existential Problems of the Tamils

During recent weeks, the LTTE has stepped up its demand for restoring normalcy in the Tamil areas in order to facilitate the return of the internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes and villages. It must be recognised that owing to a variety of reasons, the Sri Lankan government has not succeeded in its attempts to restore normalcy in the Tamil areas. In a letter to Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgessen on May 21, 2003, Balasingham pointed out: "This lack of performance and the failure to produce tangible results on urgent humanitarian issues has eroded all confidence of the Tamil people."

The manifold problems faced by the Tamils in the North-East do require immediate attention from the Sri Lankan government and the international community. However, the present attempts by the LTTE to highlight this issue has a remarkable similarity with the correspondence exchanged between Colombo and the Tigers in 1995, just before the collapse of the People's Alliance-LTTE talks and the beginning of the Third Eelam War. As the Exchange of Letters between the two parties and Balasingham's book, Politics of Duplicity: Revisiting Jaffna Talks, make clear, the two sides were speaking on different wavelengths.

According to the LTTE, the peace process should proceed in two stages. In the early stages of negotiation, attention should be focussed on the restoration of normalcy and the creation of a peaceful environment. After normalcy was restored, talks could commence to arrive at a peaceful political solution. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, on the other hand, insisted that there should be simultaneous talks on day-to-day problems of the people and finding a political solution. Finally, the Tigers accused Colombo of "bad faith" and started the Third Eelam war in April 1995.

Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, in contrast to President Kumaratunga, sees sense in the LTTE way of thinking and is prepared to pursue a step-by-step approach. But the basic question remains. Can the Tigers be tamed? As informed Indian observers of the Sri Lankan scene have pointed out, the LTTE's support to a political-constitutional solution is nothing if not conditional. What is worrying about this peace process is that there has been no discussion at all thus far on the likely constitutional structure. Prabakaran is aware that Wickremasinghe's political future is closely intertwined with the success of the negotiations and, therefore, his government can be expected to go to any lengths to accommodate the LTTE's demands. From this arises a key question: is Prabakaran exploiting the mechanics of conflict resolution to extract concession after concession from Colombo so that he can be in total control of a de facto Tamil Eelam?

As for the existential problems of the Sri Lankan Tamils, it must be pointed out that it is not merely the Sri Lankan state that has been guilty of acts of omission and commission. The LTTE must bear a heavy share of the cumulative blame. Did not the Tigers resort to ethnic cleansing in October 1990, when they ordered the Muslims of Jaffna peninsula to vacate their homes in 72 hours? Nearly 75,000 Muslims fled, leaving behind their property, which were subsequently looted by the LTTE. The displaced Muslims have taken refuge in Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala districts. Although Prabakaran and Balasingham have admitted that their policy towards the Muslims was a "mistake", how many Muslims have returned to their homes in the Jaffna Peninsula? Further, although the Tigers frequently speak of the return of the refugees along with the internally displaced to their original homes, they have remained silent on the question of nearly 63,000 refugees living in 108 refugee camps scattered throughout the State of Tamil Nadu.

In a well-researched article on "Economic Revival in North and East of Sri Lanka: What are the Impediments?" in the Economic and Political Weekly, Muthukrishna Sarvanathan describes how the imposition of direct and indirect taxes by the LTTE has adversely affected the lives of the ordinary Tamil people in LTTE-controlled areas. The illegitimate imposition of income tax "has resulted in the exodus of teachers, medical officers and other public servants." Sarvanathan adds that the taxes paid to the LTTE by the farmers, small-scale manufacturers and service providers are passed on to the customers in the form of higher prices. The Tigers are also restricting the movement of young people from their territory to other parts of the country.

Over the past year, there has been capital flight from the North-East Province to the rest of the country, especially Colombo, on account of the financial demands made by the LTTE and political uncertainty about the future. In conclusion, Sarvanathan makes the telling comment that the LTTE should "radically reform itself" in order to qualify as "the sole representative" of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Controversy over High Security Zones

Equally thorny has been issue of High Security Zones in the Jaffna Peninsula. With the intensification of the ethnic conflict, the security forces have extended their network in a big way in the Jaffna Peninsula. As a result, the civilian population in these areas have been displaced and rendered homeless. Almost one-third of the land area in the Jaffna Peninsula (in Valikamam North), with a population of more than 1,00,000, is classified as a High Security Zone and is barred for civilians. Nobody disputes the humanitarian problem arising from the inability of large numbers of displaced persons to return to their homes. But it is naive to believe that the issue is not entwined with vital security issues. The Sri Lankan armed forces are of the view that the LTTE's demand for the dismantling of High Security Zones in the Jaffna Peninsula even before embarking on substantial discussions on a future political set-up is a clever attempt to accomplish the objective of de facto Tamil Eelam. General Fonseka, the Jaffna Forces Commander, has underlined the necessity of linking the dismantling of High Security Zones with the decommissioning of weapons by the LTTE.

The independent appraisal of the security situation undertaken by Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, in his individual capacity, for the Sri Lankan government is a realistic attempt to harmonise the humanitarian angle with the security aspects. Although the Nambiar report is confidential, the Sri Lankan media has quoted extensively from its contents. In the initial report itself, Lt. Gen. Nambiar underlined the important point that whatever may be the final constitutional settlement, "there can be only one army for the whole country, namely the Sri Lankan army". As a measure of confidence building, he has suggested that the long-range weapons of the LTTE could be placed in the existing deployed areas under international monitoring. The Sri Lankan defence forces would also have to subject themselves to this arrangement. The recommendations were mainly intended to reassure the two sides that surprise attacks would not take place.

Lt. Gen. Nambiar's report was a non-starter. The controversy over the recommendations aside, one thing has become clear. It is that Prabakaran believes that power comes from the barrel of the gun and the LTTE will never be a party to any arrangement that will render it militarily vulnerable. In an interview with Lasantha Wikremetunge of the Sunday Leader, Balasingham said: "We have sacrificed 17,000 cadres to get arms mainly from the Sri Lankan armed forces and, if before a settlement, we give back those arms, what will happen? If Ranil's government is immediately dissolved and she [President Kumaratunga] takes power and sets the army on a killing spree, all our cadres will be wiped out. It is a very dangerous suggestion." Balasingham elaborated on this point in an interview with the Tamil Guardian: "In our view any attempt to connect the return of the refugees and the IDPs [internally displaced persons] to their own homes in the Jaffna peninsula to the demobilisation of the LTTE's fighting formations, confined in barracks in Vanni jungles, is illogical and ridiculous. Remodification of the security system of the so-called `high security zones' to facilitate the return of the refugees and the displaced is a cardinal obligation of the state... [The] LTTE will fiercely oppose and reject any proposal that makes resettlement of the refugees conditional upon de-commissioning of LTTE weapons."

De Facto Tamil Eelam: Immediate Objective of the Tigers

Any realistic assessment of the current impasse in Sri Lanka must begin with the realisation that the six rounds of "peace talks" that have been held so far have been between the Sri Lankan government and a de facto LTTE state holding full sway over part of the island-nation's territory, as distinct from an insurgent movement. The Sri Lankan government's writ does not run over large parts of North-East Sri Lanka. The LTTE has its own armed forces, police, its administrative machinery and its judicial system. By demanding delimitation in the sea and recognition of the Sea Tigers as a de facto navy, the LTTE wants to extend its military advantage to the vital sea-lanes linking the island with the outside world.

The immediate objective of the Tigers is to extend the territorial jurisdiction of their de facto state to the whole of the North-East. If that objective is attained, Sri Lanka will consist of two `nations' - the Sri Lankan `nation' and the Tamil `nation'. It will be one country, but two `nations', two administrative systems and two armies. An analysis of Balasingham's recent letter to the Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister makes this point abundantly clear.

In that letter, Balasingham makes two key points. The first is that a permanent solution to the Tamil national question can come about only if the constitutional structure is completely altered. This cannot be attained "under the current unstable political climate". The second point is that therefore an interim administrative structure should be immediately constituted. It should provide greater participation to the LTTE. The interim administrative structure would devote itself to "decision making", "rebuilding the war ravaged economy", and "restoring normalcy in [the] Tamil homeland". It would supersede the existing "multiplicity of structures" that works at cross-purposes.

The idea of an interim administration is not new. It first came on the agenda when the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 was being implemented. In a perceptive article in Frontline (January 31, 2003), N. Ram pointed out that "the LTTE first agreed to, and then went back on, an extremely liberal proposal made by India and accepted by the government of President J.R. Jayewardene, with consequences that were fatal to the attempted political solution." The idea of an interim administration was raised again by the LTTE before the last parliamentary election and was endorsed by the UNP. But when the issue came up for discussion in the first session of the peace talks in Sattahip in Thailand, the leader of the Sri Lankan government delegation, G.L. Peiris, explained the legal and constitutional bottlenecks. As Balasingham has pointed out, the LTTE wanted to avoid "political controversy" in the early stages of the talks. The idea of an interim administration, therefore, was superseded by the establishment of a Joint Task Force for Humanitarian and Reconstruction Activities. This was further transformed into a Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs (SIHRN). Today, there is general agreement that SIHRN has not delivered the goods, since from the very beginning it was bedevilled by disputes over its scope and functions.

The constitutional position explained by Peiris still remains; there is no question of the Sri Lankan government introducing any administrative mechanism falling outside the scope of the Constitution. Prabakaran evidently does not care for constitutional niceties; after all, his organisation was until recently waging a war to destroy Sri Lanka and carve out a separate state. During the coming phase of social and economic reconstruction, the Tigers are determined to have complete control over the administration of the North-East. To expect Prabakaran, at the present stage, to be conciliatory and sensitive to constitutional forms would be the equivalent of expecting Tigers to discard their stripes.

Sinhala Consensus Fades Away

It is axiomatic that a bipartisan consensus between the two major Sinhala political parties - the UNP and the SLFP - is essential for any meaningful constitutional settlement. This is becoming an impossibility. Opening the debate on the Prime Minister's statement on the peace process, Lakshman Kadirgamar, former Foreign Minister and leading SLFP MP, launched a frontal attack on the Wickremasinghe government's policies. He asserted that the sovereignty of Sri Lanka "has been steadily and visibly eroded to the point where Sri Lanka is in danger of being reduced to a nominal sovereign state" and that "soon Sri Lanka will be a sovereign shell, the major attributes of a sovereign state - the capacity to govern, to resolve justiciable issues, to enforce the law, to protect its citizens throughout the entirety of its territory are being drained away by stealth, fractured by assault and worn down by attrition." President Kumaratunga, on her part, has also made it clear that she is determined to uphold the provisions of the Constitution and will not be a party to any arrangement that dilutes its letter and spirit.

A fractured Sinhala polity can benefit only the LTTE. The Tigers argue, perhaps with justification, that competitive Sinhala politics will not enable the Sri Lankan political system to yield a genuine federal model. It must, however, be pointed out, that the LTTE itself is fishing in troubled waters and is working to widen the chasm between the President and the Prime Minister. What is even more material, even under present conditions of `no war', the LTTE has not shown any signs of transforming itself into a democratic, pluralist and tolerant political formation. A long summer of discontent is ahead of Sri Lanka.

Prof. V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

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