Controlled peace

Published : Oct 18, 1997 00:00 IST

Although the Sri Lankan Army has made progress in establishing a visible regime of outward normalcy in Jaffna, for peace to be real, the people should have peace of mind too.

"SEPARATISM within walls" is how resident Jaffna Tamils (as opposed to their non-resident compatriots living elsewhere in the world) sum up the latest political mood in the region. Considerable strides have been made by the Sri Lankan Army in establishing a visible regime of outward normalcy in Jaffna town and its neighbourhood.

Controlled peace reigns in Jaffna. The political idiom of Sri Lankan Tamil separatism is out of sight too. But the important question is whether the political aspiration for separateness has gone underground. The answer, as discerned behind the scenes, is "yes".

A recent visit to Jaffna, the second by this correspondent in less than three months, confirmed the reality of peace on the surface. There is no room for discounting the seriousness of the Sri Lankan military authorities in pursuing the agenda of winning over the residents of the Jaffna peninsula - a geopolitical entity of critical importance to Sri Lanka's overall peace and stability. Military commanders such as Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle and Brig. Susantha Mendis are aware of the sensibilities of the Jaffna Tamils; and the officers seem to be working on a strategy that will help bring about long-term stabilisation of peace in Jaffna without losing sight of the wounded political psyche of its residents.

Jaffna was freed by the Sri Lankan Army from the virtual suzerainty of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1995. Even as the LTTE staged what was later described as a "tactical retreat", and the Sri Lankan military authorities entered the town, the residents fled. It was the LTTE's second major retreat from Jaffna. The first was in 1987 when the Indian Peace-Keeping Force reluctantly began a war against the recalcitrant Tigers.

The LTTE's second flight predated Ahmad Shah Masood's equally well-known retreat from Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, in 1996. Unlike Masood though, Velupillai Prabakaran, the LTTE leader, insisted that his former "subjects" (in all but name) vacate Jaffna. The people complied. For a variety of reasons, a sizable number of Jaffna's residents have since returned, although, according to one estimate, two-thirds of Jaffna district's population (projected at about 1.2 million now) still live outside.

For the Sri Lankan military authorities, the return of at least one-third of Jaffna's residents is an indication that they have succeeded in their "pacification" drive. The people, for the most part, conceded that peace has been restored to Jaffna, at least in a relative sense. However, residents and militant politicians in disguise who spoke to this correspondent outside the "defence lines" in Jaffna maintained that it was not possible to write off Prabakaran vis-a-vis Jaffna. For peace to be real, the people should have peace of mind too, and peace of mind is a scarce phenomenon in Jaffna now. Above all, their quest for a distinctive identity in a milieu in which they can live with dignity is far from over; and this has a message for the Sri Lankan rulers.

The impact of Jaffna's long shadow over the rest of Sri Lanka's political landscape is unmistakable. The LTTE itself has been sending political signals to Sri Lankan Tamil leaders and, through them, to official Colombo, indicating that the Army should vacate the Jaffna peninsula before a fresh dialogue can begin, perhaps with external facilitation or mediation, between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tigers.

The Chandrika Kumaratunga Government, which unveiled on October 2 a set of preliminary political proposals for a final settlement of Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis, has indicated its willingness to initiate talks with the LTTE under certain circumstances. In this context, the Government is seeking the support of the Opposition United National Party (UNP).

The Government's one condition for talks is that the LTTE should demonstrate a desire to discuss substantive "core" issues within a specific timeframe. By not insisting in public, for the first time, that the Tigers should lay down arms as a precondition for talks, official Colombo has made a departure from its previous policy.

Theoretically, the LTTE has time until after the Government presents its political-constitutional proposals to Parliament (perhaps before early November) to react formally to the notion of a fresh dialogue with the Sri Lankan authorities. Ranil Wickremasinghe, leader of the Opposition, has indicated his willingness to join hands with President Chandrika Kumaratunga to construct a "joint framework of principles" for the LTTE's consideration.

The LTTE, whose militant sway is now largely confined to the jungle-ridden tracts of the Vanni region south of the Jaffna peninsula, has already indicated that it is in favour of the United Kingdom using its good offices to bring about a settlement of the Sri Lankan Tamils issue. The U.K. recently spoke of the need for an "incentive" for the LTTE to enter into talks with Colombo. London is now stressing on the need for a "convincing offer" to the LTTE, perhaps in the form of "joint proposals" by the Sri Lankan Government and the UNP, or a package evolved by the former in a "bipartisan" spirit with the latter.

Whether or not the LTTE feels encouraged by Britain's new diplomatic activism, the Tigers continue to be under the harsh glare of the United States' anti-terrorism administrators. It is not clear whether any designation of the LTTE by the U.S. as a terrorist organisation will influence Britain's view of the Tigers. These niceties are of no concern though to the students and ordinary citizens of Jaffna. Their simple prescription to the Sri Lankan crisis is that a new dialogue between Colombo and the Tigers needs to be opened under external mediation. No power has, however, been identified as the best possible mediator, and the people of Jaffna themselves are sceptical about whether an LTTE-Colombo dialogue will take off at all.

For her part, Chandrika Kumaratunga is not averse to the idea of seeking an external mediator if the need arises. This explains Britain's sense of urgency in trying to ensure that the 'dyke' (a diplomat's description of a bipartisan accord) between the Sri Lankan Government and Leader of the Opposition, and brokered by London, does not collapse at a crucial juncture.

Britain has sounded a warning that the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil communities may be "condemned to live separately" if Colombo does not seize the moment of new opportunity for peace. The moment has been determined by Colombo itself in the present run-up to Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary of Independence.

For the U.K., the diplomatic dividend for genuinely playing the part of Sri Lanka's friend is that of regaining the mystique of a major power. Equally important is to gain spin-off benefits from influencing events in a key country of the emerging Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).

More important than the moment for peace is, of course, the substance of a solution. The powers that are to be devolved from the Centre to regions or units of limited self-rule (including one or more Tamil-majority entities) are still being defined and redefined. The Government has, however, proposed a referendum in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts in the eastern sector of the North-East Province. These Tamil-majority districts will be given a choice, under this blueprint, of either uniting with the North, whose hub is Jaffna, or delinking themselves from the North.

In the first scenario, the original Eastern Province will split, with its Tamil-majority areas joining the North and the Muslim and Sinhala pockets in the East being able to determine their future political space independently. In the second scenario, the entire East will be resurrected as an exclusive province or region with no linkage with the North. In either case, the existing North-East entity will break up, meeting a primary demand of the majority Sinhala community that the "areas of historical habitation by Sri Lankan Tamil-speaking peoples," including Muslims, should not stay united and serve as a possible half-way house to a sovereign Sri Lankan Tamil State.

As Jaffna University's Vice-Chancellor P. Balasundarampillai points out, any break-up of the North-East Province is unacceptable to resident Jaffna Tamils, but they have no say over this under the proposals. This sense of deprivation could turn out to be the grounds for yet another ethnic explosion, especially if the Army, taking advantage of peace-stabilisation in Jaffna, launches a southward push against the LTTE. These doomsday prophesies may, however, be proved wrong if the authorities succeed in turning their concern for the widespread minority, now evident over the disappearance of Tamils, into a groundswell of goodwill.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment