The two realities

Print edition : May 13, 2000

With the fall of Elephant Pass and with Jaffna threatened, there has got to be a paradigm shift for an end to the war.

JEHAN PERERA

THE day the Sri Lanka Army lost its massive Elephant Pass military base in the Jaffna peninsula, a group of 30 Sinhalese journalists from the south met 60 Tamil journalists from different parts of the north-east.

This civic bridge-building exercise was in the eastern town of Batticaloa which was quiet and relaxed that fateful day. Young women were to be seen cycling within the town, even as dusk fell at 7 p.m. It was impossible to think that elsewhere in the nort h-east, there was carnage taking place.

While the brigade commander of Batticaloa has come in for praise from people for his effective handling of the situation, there are also some structural reasons for the positive environment in the town. One is that it has some 60 non-governmental organis ations, many of them foreign, who would invariably perform a restraining function on human rights abuses. Second is the fact that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) appears to be concentrating its forces at this time in the north. The fact that only handfuls of soldiers were manning the checkpoints, bunkers and mini-camps by the side of the road was a reminder of how tenuous and temporary Batticaloa's peace could be.

The first information about the fall of the Elephant Pass base came from the Tamil journalists who had been listening to the international radio broadcasts. Most people in Batticaloa listen to international radio to get information about what is happenin g on the war front. The Sri Lankan radio is neither trusted for its veracity on war reporting, nor does it have the latest news from the war front.

The Tamil journalists who broke the news to the Sinhalese media persons did so tentatively, undoubtedly sensitive to the high loss of life. But some of the younger Tamil journalists present could not hide their happiness at the news. They locked hands wi th one another. The Sinhalese journalists talked of the soldiers they knew at Elephant Pass.

The forced withdrawal of the Sri Lanka Army at Elephant Pass, the gateway to Jaffna, is a huge blow to the Government and its military-led strategy of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. Whether the Government can, and should, continue to hold Jaf fna under the present circumstances is a question that will be answered very soon. But whether Jaffna is kept by or lost to the Government, the war will not end.

IT was only a little more than five years ago that the LTTE lost Jaffna after having held it for five years. At that time the wresting of Jaffna from LTTE control was viewed as a blow from which the LTTE could not recover. With the loss of the wealthiest and most densely populated part of the north-east, the LTTE's ability to raise resources and recruit personnel was believed to have been crippled.

Likewise, the series of military debacles suffered by the Sri Lanka Army in the past six months may be seen as the end stage of the Sri Lankan state's military resistance to Tamil separatism. But this is unlikely to be the case if the past is going to be any guide to the future. Unless there is a radical shift in thinking away from a primary reliance on military means of conflict resolution to that on a political solution, new forms of military escalation will be found and new theatres of war opened. Th ere has got to be a paradigm shift for an end to the war.

In this context, it is interesting to recall that when the Sri Lanka Army was approaching Jaffna in November 1995 and encircling it, there were some who called on the Government to cease its advance and to negotiate a political solution with the LTTE. Th ese calls were construed by sections of the media and general population to be the voices of traitors seeking to cheat the Government of a decisive victory over the LTTE.

At the funeral in Colombo on April 26 of Brigade Commander, Major-General Percy Fernando, who was killed when the LTTE overran the Elephant Pass military base.-PUSHPA KUMARA / REUTERS

A group of non-governmental organisations meeting at that time in the seaside resort of Bentota at their annual meeting that had been planned out much in advance were accused of conspiring to cheat the Government of victory and were set upon by Governmen t-backed thugs while the police kept away.

Shortly thereafter the Sri Lanka Army entered Jaffna and in Parliament the Government politicians leading the Sri Lanka military presented a scroll to the President announcing the capture of Jaffna, just like they might have thought a feudal prince would have done to a monarch in the ancient period.

Somewhat differently a few weeks ago when Tamil peace activists attempted to mobilise Tamil middle class persons to publicly support the Norwegian mediation effort, the response was lackadaisical. Perhaps scenting victory in the air, the preference was t o let the LTTE continue with its military action and bring about a military solution. By their similar responses, the Sinhalese and Tamils have shown themselves to be mirror images of each other.

THE loss of faith in political means of resolving the problem of conflicting interests, and the preference for military means to impose one's unilateral will upon the other, are features of Sri Lankan public life at this time.

It is important that the political leadership of the country should join together to restore faith in the political process. They need to undo the suspicion that even a catastrophe as enormous as that of the fall of Elephant Pass will be used by the poli ticians to further their electoral prospects in one way or the other.

For instance, there is an apprehension that the Government will use the present crisis to seek a postponement of the impending general elections with the support of a section of the Opposition. Instead of these backstage manoeuvres, there needs to be a d eepening and accelerating of the Government's dialogue with the United National Party (UNP) to find a non-military and democratic path out of the desperate situation.

With the fall of Elephant Pass and with Jaffna threatened, thousands of lives will be at stake in the coming weeks, and funeral homes will be dotting the country. At a time like this, there will be a temptation to angrily find scapegoats who conducted th e war in a corrupt manner and who weakened the morale of the soldiers through inept leadership. There will also be a temptation to go in for retaliation and military victory at any cost, human or otherwise.

Such sentiments are not unique to Sri Lanka. Just over a half century ago, they prevailed in Europe as well, on a vastly greater scale. But the scale of the destruction forced a paradigm shift in thinking that has served Europe well in the decades that h ave followed. Likewise in Sri Lanka, it would be more positive to recognise two realities and to work out a solution based on them.

The first of these realities is that the Sri Lanka Army cannot control the whole of the regions inhabited at one time predominantly by Tamils, although they may be able to control parts of it. It is evident that the Sri Lankan troops cannot muster the sa me degree of fervour and dedication that the LTTE cadres can, fighting in the vicinity of their villages and homes.

The second reality is that the LTTE cannot gain international recognition for a separate Tamil state and acquire the economic and diplomatic resources that flow from it. At best they can expand the de facto separate state they already have achieve d in the "uncleared" areas.

There are surely a variety of mutually beneficial solutions that can be negotiated within these limits. The alternative would be a further military escalation and more rivers of blood.

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