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The road ahead

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

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Bangkok and beyond, the shape of things to come in terms of talks, war and peace.

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN in Colombo & Kilinochchi

APRIL 10, the day Velupillai Prabakaran emerged from hiding to meet the world's media, was also the day Sri Lanka played New Zealand at Sharjah. But for once in cricket-crazy Sri Lanka, no one was thinking about the match. Instead, it was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader who kept people glued to their television sets late into the night as two channels beamed the event from northern Sri Lanka into homes across the island.

If there was disappointment that the press conference brought no new dramatic policy announcements by Prabakaran, the government at least did not let it show. The next day, Cabinet spokesman and Minister of Constitutional Affairs G.L. Peiris welcomed the event itself as a significant change from the "bunker mentality" of the LTTE. "The very holding of the press conference is a shift from a military machine to a political party," he said.

At the press conference, Prabakaran, assisted by his consigliere Anton Balasingham, reiterated well-known LTTE positions: commitment to the goal of Eelam with the rider that the only alternative it might be willing to consider was a solution incorporating its demands of the right to self-determination, a homeland and the recognition of Tamils as a distinct nationality.

The difference perhaps was that for the first time in 12 years, none other than the top leader was doing the reasserting of the well-known 1985 Thimphu principles, which were rejected by Sri Lanka then as a virtual recipe for secession. The government, whose main priority at the moment is to keep the peace process moving in the interests of the country's economic recovery, had no choice but to sound upbeat and put a positive spin on the whole event.

As a result, the phrase "internal self-determination" has now gained great currency in the Sri Lankan establishment. Coined by Balasingham to define the concept of self-determination as a right that could be vested in a people without automatically implying secession, especially if they were given autonomy and self-government, the phrase is being projected by the government as evidence of the LTTE's desire for a solution in an undivided Sri Lanka.

"At the press conference, for the first time they have defined self-determination. They mentioned about 'internal self-determination'. They further said external self-determination should be considered only when internal determination is unsuccessful," Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe said, speaking in Parliament.

Evident in the Prime Minister's words was an attempt to keep public euphoria pumped up over the peace process. "This has given us an indication of several points we should take into account in our journey towards a political solution. This also points towards hopefulness for a political solution in an undivided Sri Lanka," Wickremasinghe said.

The Prime Minister went to the extent of saying that the majority of the people in the country now believed that the "self-determination provided for (the Tamils) in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was not sufficient".

"So what we should try to find is a political solution that goes beyond the Indo-Lanka Accord, in an undivided Sri Lanka," he said, adding that governing systems with internal self-determination were in operation in many countries, and that they existed even in medieval Sri Lanka.

It was less than two years ago that a political solution going far beyond the scope of the provisions of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord that were incorporated in the 13th Amendment, was sabotaged by Wickremasinghe's party. It could be argued that the United National Party's (UNP) objections to the 2000 draft Constitution presented by the People's Alliance government were not to the devolution provisions contained in it but to the sections that safeguarded the supremacy of the President. However, the party openly encouraged and also participated in demonstrations by Sinhala hardliners who argued that the proposed Constitution gave away too much to the Tamils. Long before then, the LTTE had rejected the whole package as being too little.

Wickremasinghe's new-found generosity on an issue that is a political Pandora's Box might be based on the knowledge that the LTTE is not even remotely interested at the moment in getting into protracted negotiations on constitutional arrangements for a permanent solution. Neither is the government. Such negotiations carry the attendant danger of a breakdown in the process and a return to war. It is a risk that neither the government nor the LTTE can afford to take right now.

Instead, the upcoming talks between the government and the LTTE are to focus on an "interim" solution, an informal administrative set-up for the north-east. Both sides seem to be in agreement that the arrangement will be controlled or run by the Tigers. Thailand is where the details will be thrashed out. The proposed interim administration is expected to give the LTTE political control of the north-east, with the government legitimising its present de facto rule over many parts of it - a throwback to the period between 1990 and 1995 when the LTTE ran Jaffna, but this time with the east thrown in as well, with the consent of the Sri Lankan state. Some would describe this as a de facto Eelam.

At the press conference, the LTTE made it clear that it is in no hurry to push for a permanent solution. The interim arrangement would perhaps give the Tigers much more than what a negotiated permanent settlement might offer. When the 1995 peace initiative failed, one of the reasons given was that President Chandrika Kumaratunga could not have given Prabakaran anything more than what he had then: full control of Jaffna peninsula which he ran like an independent state. The same argument might be true after the setting up of the north-east interim administration.

By now the Tigers know that a de jure independent state is impossible in the present international circumstances. A de facto Eelam is the next best alternative, especially if it can be described as an "interim" solution. That means it does not have to compromise or renounce publicly its goal of an independent Eelam.

For the government, the advantage of an "interim solution" is obvious. Even the LTTE knows it. In an indication of how well the government and the Tigers understand each other these days, at the press conference Balasingham even took it upon himself to spell out what was in it for the government: time and space to rebuild the economy.

Sri Lanka cannot afford to keep up the war against the LTTE. Last year the economy was in the red with no growth. Tourism was shattered after the July 24 LTTE attack on the airport. The UNP is a party powered by Sri Lanka's big businessmen. The north-east does not figure in their economic calculations, and if the Tigers want to run it in return for keeping the ceasefire going, they are prepared to let them.

For this ad hoc interim set-up, the government does not need parliamentary approval, nor does it need to change the Constitution. In fact, the ruling United National Front (UNF) can even claim a mandate for this plan in the 2001 parliamentary election, because people voted for it in spite of the People's Alliance campaign that it was conspiring to hand over the north-east to the LTTE. Also, Wickremasinghe did say in his election campaign that he proposed to set up an interim administration in the north-east for two years. It is another matter that he did not make it clear who would be running it.

As in the case of the LTTE, for the government too the face-saver lies in the term "interim", an arrangement pending the finalisation of a permanent solution within an undivided Sri Lanka. But the point to remember is that once an interim set-up becomes entrenched, a permanent solution, if it ever comes to that, will have to offer much more than what the LTTE would by then have.

What powers are the LTTE likely to hold in this interim set-up? The press conference provided a few clues. Some of it might have been sheer rhetoric, but was still indicative of a certain mindset. "Ranil Wickremasinghe is the Prime Minister of those who elected him. Here in Tamil Eelam, Mr. Prabakaran is Prime Minister and President," Balasingham said. The region would have its own tax collection system. The LTTE also wants to run a monopoly bus service along the stretch of the recently reopened Jaffna-Kandy road that runs through territory controlled by it, and to levy a highway toll for the maintenance of that stretch. The bottom line is that it will not disarm.

Politically, the LTTE has begun asserting itself as the Big Brother of Sri Lanka's minorities. As part of his quest for legitimacy as the head of a political party rather than the leader of a terrorist group, Prabakaran held a series of meetings with elected politicians of the north-east. He summoned them to LTTE-controlled Kilinochchi for the meetings, and they went. Tamil parliamentarians representing the north-east under the banner of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) were told that the LTTE would be running the interim administration and they had no choice but to agree. This was expected, and if the TNA members are feeling shattered, they have only themselves to blame.

More significant was his meeting with the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Rauf Hakeem. One-third of Sri Lanka's Muslims, all of whom are Tamil-speaking, live on the east coast. The LTTE has treated Muslims as hostiles since 1990. That year, it chased away from Jaffna peninsula nearly 75,000 Muslims who had lived there for centuries. One of the most horrific attacks on civilians by the LTTE was its simultaneous attack in 1993 on two mosques in Batticaloa. It was prayer time, and 160 people were killed. Of late, the Tigers have targeted Muslims for extortion.

But Hakeem, a member of the UNF coalition and a Minister in the Wickremasinghe Cabinet, sees the writing on the wall. He sees the LTTE in control in the north-east, and without losing much time has cut a deal with Prabakaran seeking to ensure the safety and security of Muslims under the coming dispensation. Implicit in the agreement was Hakeem's acceptance of the LTTE as the controller. In return, the LTTE endorsed his leadership of the Muslims and said that in future it would negotiate only with him on Muslim issues. He also got an assurance that even the government was unable to give him: that the talks in Thailand would be tripartite, with the SLMC forming the third party, so that it could discuss power-sharing with the LTTE in an interim administration.

Prabakaran also met two leaders of the plantation labour Indian Tamils, who too are part of the ruling coalition and Cabinet Ministers. It was a sign that the LTTE might have a long-term plan to expand its sphere of influence to the plantations of central Sri Lanka. The workers on the tea estates are Tamils but have so far not indentified themselves with the political aspirations or cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils. But Armugam Thondaman, leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, and P. Chandrasekhar, leader of the Upcountry People's Front, travelled to northern Sri Lanka, met Prabakaran and pledged their backing to the LTTE. In this their attempt was perhaps to pre-empt any LTTE move to establish itself in their constituency and instead get their own parties endorsed by Prabakaran. But by doing so they have also implicitly accepted his authority over them.

As a result of these meetings, Prabakaran is now the uncrowned king of Sri Lanka's minorities with the leadership of each group submitting itself to him.

Both the LTTE and the government have said that they will begin substantive talks on a permanent political solution once the interim administration is established. But the predominant feeling is that this interim set-up is really the end game. Optimists believe that it might by itself evolve into a permanent Serbia-Montenegro-style civilised arrangement. But that is to assume that the militarised LTTE has no territorial ambitions beyond the borders of the north-east.

If the rest of Sri Lanka is worried over the developments, there is no sign of it. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has been expressing some concern, but her main priority now is not to be seen as a spoiler. There are faint stirrings of protest amongst the Sinhala hardliners, but they lack popular support. The majority of the Sinhala population seems to be in a mood to forgive and forget and as of now is not uncomfortable with the idea of living cheek-by-jowl with an LTTE-ruled north-east, armed to the teeth though it is.

In fact, in one more eerie throwback to the Premadasa era, both Tamils and Sinhalese now see India as the main obstacle in the path to peace. Indian journalists are being accused of trying to sabotage Sri Lanka's efforts towards peace by their aggressive questioning of Prabakaran on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Jayalalithaa is being criticised for her tough stand on the LTTE and her demand for the extradition of its leader. The India-wide outrage sparked by Prabakaran's appearance in public seems to have caught its island neighbour by surprise. "If Sri Lanka is willing to forget the killings of Premadasa and all the others, can't India put behind the killing of Rajiv Gandhi?" asked one person. Indeed, this is a fairly common sentiment.

There seems to be hardly any understanding that the Rajiv Gandhi assassination is just one aspect of an entire set of issues that India should start concerning itself about, if it has not done so already, in relation to the Sri Lankan north-east interim administration. What are the security implications of an armed group in control of territory on India's southern flank, with just a narrow strip of water separating it from Tamil Nadu? What are the political implications of having the LTTE, a group wedded to Tamil nationalism, next door to 50 million Tamils? Furthermore, what implications does the arrangement that the Sri Lankan government is about to enter into with the LTTE, have for the Indian nation? India has so far expressed a sort of distant interest in the Norwegian-facilitated peace process, but as yet does not seem to have applied itself seriously to these questions. In that sense, Prabakaran's grim face on TV might have served the purpose of jolting policy-planners into awareness of the developments in Sri Lanka. But New Delhi, still waffling on the issue of allowing Balasingham to obtain medical treatment in Chennai, might have already missed the boat. The interim administration seems a done deal. The Sri Lankan government is preparing to legalise the LTTE ahead of the talks in Thailand, where the two sides might only give formal shape to arrangements that have already been agreed upon. The only uncertainty now is whether Prabakaran will assume a public role or rule from the shadows.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 27, 2002.)

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