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What lies ahead for Sri Lanka?

Print edition : Apr 27, 2002 T+T-

THERE can be little doubt that after nearly two decades of debilitating civil war, Sri Lankans of all ethnic categories overwhelmingly favour peace as well as an enduring settlement of the issues on which the civil war has been fought. The deadly, although mostly low-intensity, conflict has been waged in the North-East of the island and has taken an enormous toll of life, property, livelihood, infrastructure and well-being. The impact of the war has been felt in the South of Sri Lanka and even in India - first, in 1983, on account of a genocidal anti-Tamil pogrom unleashed by state-supported Sinhala chauvinism in response to a military attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and subsequently on account of the repeated violent, terrorist strikes by the LTTE, including assassinations and attempted killings of top leaders.

India, thanks to a schizoid policy followed by its Central government between 1983 and 1987, became embroiled in the conflict, paid a heavy price, and was able effectively to disengage itself from a hands-on involvement in its southern neighbour's internal conflict only in March 1990, when the de-induction of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) was completed. Subsequently, it has been a tale of indecisive fighting and failed ceasefires - with the war scenario echoing "previous failed attempts at turning ceasefires into long-term settlements" and "the basic dynamic entail[ing] a re-arming, recruiting and re-grouping by both sides," as Ram Manikkalingam points out in his analysis, "Neither war nor peace," for this Cover Story.

TWO central lessons emerge from this benighted experience. The first is that the establishment of Tamil Eelam as an outcome of the LTTE's armed struggle is a pipe dream. It simply cannot be won against the military strength and resources of the Sri Lankan state, and in the face of strategic Indian and international opposition to the establishment of a separate state. The second lesson is that the attempt to suppress by military force the armed struggle for Eelam seems also incapable of achievement, certainly in the short term and probably in the medium term as well.

It must be acknowledged in all fairness that, post-1987, Sri Lankan governments and leaders have taken the second lesson to heart. They have attempted, quite actively, to find a non-military or political solution to the crisis by crafting a devolution package - along semi-federal or federal lines - for the North-East. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, and the political package that came with it, was a breakthrough in this respect. The constitutional proposals presented by President Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance government in 2000 were a substantive improvement over the 1987 offer. Both attempts were sabotaged by a combination of two factors - the LTTE's armed extremism and terrorism, and unprincipled obstruction by the main Sinhala opposition party in tandem with the efforts of other chauvinist elements.

Sri Lanka's fractured and crisis-ridden polity has been trapped, it seems, in a deadly no-win game over the past two decades.

What is clear is that the Cease-Fire Agreement and the other components of the peace process undertaken by the United National Party (UNP) government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe are full of uncertainty and risk. The LTTE has gained, or is poised to wrest, several advantages on the ground as a direct outcome of the new government's policy gamble. As the analyses in this Cover Story show, this policy appears to offer to the LTTE - an organisation banned or designated as terrorist in Sri Lanka, India, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom - the prospect of de facto control over the North-East, a Big Brother status vis-a-vis the region's minorities, freedom of movement for cadres, an interim set-up that might well turn out to be this peace process's end-game, and political legitimacy. In return, the LTTE seems to have committed itself to remarkably little that is tangible and can sustain the euphoria generated in Sri Lanka.

The April 10 press conference, featuring a star turn in a jungle clearing by Velupillai Prabakaran, revealed that the LTTE's supremo will not even deign to suggest that the Eelam demand is negotiable, or that the time may have possibly come to find a devolution-based or federal solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. Aside from saying, in response to the opening question, that "I don't think the necessity and situation have arisen now for that [a consideration of an alternative to Eelam]," Prabakaran loftily reiterated the LTTE's longstanding position that a solution acceptable to the Sri Lankan Tamil people must be based on three core principles - recognition of the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a distinct nationality, recognition of the North-East as their traditional and indivisible homeland, and the consequential recognition of the Tamils' right to self-determination. Answering another question, Prabakaran even drew laughs by confirming that his instruction to his cadres to kill him in the event of his compromising on the Eelam goal remained operational. It was left to U.K. national, Political Adviser and self-proclaimed theoretician, A.S. Balasingham, to try and beguile Sri Lanka's political leaders and international opinion by proposing, hypothetically, that self-determination could be limited to "internal self-determination." Balasingham, who has no role in the LTTE's strategic and operational decision-making, explained that this can take the form of "autonomy and self-government," and that only in the event of this demand "for autonomy and self-government" being rejected might the secession option become the "last resort."

SIGNIFICANTLY, Prabakaran did not bother to deny his and the LTTE's involvement in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. One outcome of his surfacing at the press conference in northern Sri Lanka is that the demand for his extradition to India to face criminal charges has come to the fore. There is no question of the Indian legal and political system accepting Balasingham's appeal to 'forgive and forget', or of India lifting the ban on the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. There can be said to be an LTTE 'model of political behaviour', which has some predictive value. Not once since 1983 has this extremist organisation given any indication that it is willing to step down from its Eelam demand, which it is convinced can be won only through armed struggle and terrorism. Not only has the LTTE - at the Prabakaran level - been unwilling to compromise on its Eelam goal. It has not once, in its career of monstrous crime, entered into substantive negotiations with a Sri Lankan government to craft an alternative to the secessionist demand. But it has, for its own reasons, gone in for ceasefires, peace processes and 'talks about talks' - as part of the 'basic dynamic' of re-arming, recruiting and re-grouping. The question is: will it be different this time? The related question is: if it turns out to be deja vu, what sensible alternative course will be available to a democratically elected government and to Sri Lanka's troubled polity?