On the Brink in Sri Lanka

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

THE euphoria generated by an extended spell of non-fighting, which was widely welcomed in Sri Lanka and abroad, has been eroded by the happenings of the past few months. There can be little doubt that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is both author and architect of this erosion. Had the LTTE behaved in any manner other than as an unreconstructed extremist, Pol Potist organisation, the present domestic and international circumstances might have led to a genuine breakthrough. Since the LTTE has behaved entirely in character, Sri Lanka's peace process finds itself not just in an impasse, but, possibly, on the brink of collapse.

To recognise the LTTE's authorship of this crisis is not to gloss over the complications and difficulties inherent in the exercise, or the negative contributions made, now and in the past, by competitive political chauvinism in the South of the island. Basically, the LTTE, having set up an all-too-accommodating United National Front government for a risky ride, is now seeking - through its actions and politico-military demands - to rewrite the agenda to suit its extremist interests and objectives.

Six rounds of talks (`facilitated' by Norway) have been held in the fifteen months since the Ceasefire Agreement was forged. The bonhomie on view did not seem warranted by anything accomplished on the ground, other than the substantial ground yielded to the LTTE by the Sri Lankan government in the face of strong criticism by the executive President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and leading opposition parties. Meanwhile, the LTTE has gone about steadily taking out political opponents and `police informers'; smuggling in weapons by sea; training and recruiting fighters, including children; building up military strength under the guise of maintaining its `bargaining power'; intimidating other Tamil parties and Muslims in the North-East; extorting contributions in the name of `taxes'; operating kangaroo courts; and generally behaving like an organisation operating "a de facto administration of its own in vast tracts of territories under its control in the North-East" (to quote from Balasingham's most recent letter to the Sri Lankan Prime Minister). As for the economy operated in the LTTE-held areas, all that is known suggests an unsavoury picture of oppression, inefficiencies and stagnation.

No one who has had knowledge of the LTTE's character and ways and done a reality check on the Sri Lankan peace process should have been surprised when, in April 2003, the organisation decided it was time to deal a strong blow to the hopes building up in Sri Lanka and elsewhere of an enduring peace. It switched, quite predictably, from a mode of apparent accommodation and conciliation to incrementally hawkish non-cooperation.

The LTTE suspended its participation in the `peace talks' and announced boycott of the June 2003 donor conference in Japan. In recent weeks, its expressions of no confidence in the Ranil Wickremasinghe government's ability to deliver anything substantial have alternated with shrill attacks on the Sri Lankan political system, the 1978 Constitution and the executive President. It has imperiously demanded a major share of the cake promised for the North-East by both the government and international donors. It has complained against the setting up of "a grand international `safety net'... of formidable international forces" to "bring undue pressure on the freedom of our people to determine their political status and destiny." It has revived the demand (highlighted by V. Prabakaran in his April 2002 press conference and then apparently sidelined for several months) for an `interim administration' for the North-East, controlled by the LTTE as "the sole representative of the Sri Lankan Tamil people." It has even suggested that since a final political settlement was nowhere in sight, the Sri Lankan government should go beyond the Constitution to put an LTTE-controlled interim administration in place.

All this fits into the well-known LTTE model of political behaviour, which has been in operation for the past decade and a half. The model seems to have predictive value and has worked roughly like this. The LTTE is uncompromisingly committed to the strategic goal of Tamil Eelam, to be established through armed struggle. This means the organisation's basic mode of existence is war through all means. At the Prabakaran level, the organisation has never indicated that it will decisively settle for anything less than a separate Pol Potist state. In fact, in his April 2002 press conference, the LTTE supremo light-heartedly confirmed that his `instruction' to his cadres to shoot him dead if he reneged on the demand for Tamil Eelam remained live.

The LTTE will simply not be persuaded or pressured to make concrete proposals for any political solution short of Eelam. But from time to time, for tactical purposes and to demonstrate its peaceableness, the organisation will go in for ceasefires and `talks about talks'. It will express willingness to consider reasonable constitutional-political proposals made by the Sri Lankan government, or by third parties. In each round of `peace talks', the organisation will start out by being apparently accommodative and conciliatory, raising hopes all round. It will go along with vague proposals - such as President Premadasa's "ellam except Eelam" ("everything except Eelam") slogan, or a final "solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka" (unveiled, with mesmerising vagueness, in Oslo in December 2002 and hailed internationally as a `breakthrough'). In the right season, the LTTE will even sing the praises of a particular Sri Lankan President or Prime Minister, playing her or him against the Sinhala competition.

Meanwhile, the LTTE's de facto state apparatus and military machine will go into higher gear to stock up and expand the gains to be made from a temporary cessation of hostilities. Soon enough, patience will grow into impatience and there will be public expressions of frustration, increasingly bitter complaints and harsh accusations concerning the sincerity, capability and good faith of the other side. Demands, old and new, will be orchestrated in the name of the Tamil people and the `liberation' cause - setting the stage for a resumption of war, for which the other side will invariably be blamed.

Will it be any different this time? The key question today is: does the present international and regional climate allow the LTTE a real choice? Or is it free to follow the model and return to war? Recent developments do not suggest that the model has been rendered obsolete.

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