Propaganda blitzkrieg

Published : Jan 06, 2001 00:00 IST

In making the ceasefire offer, the LTTE appears to have two main objectives: to buy time to equip itself to meet the new security situation, and to come out of its growing international isolation.

IN his "Heroes Day" speech on November 27, Velupillai Prabakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), declared that his organisation was prepared for "unconditional peace talks" with the Sri Lankan government. He underlined the fact th at the Tigers were "not opposed to peaceful processes of resolving conflicts". He also highlighted the fact that they were "not imposing any preconditions for peace talks". Prabakaran, however, insisted "on the creation of a cordial atmosphere and condit ions of normalcy conducive to peace negotiations".

The speech followed the meeting between Prabakaran and the Norwegian intermediary, Eric Solheim, in the LTTE-controlled Vanni jungles. In an interview to The Hindu, Solheim expressed the hope that "simultaneous and reciprocal action" by the two wa rring parties could create the necessary environment for a cessation of hostilities and the commencement of dialogue. The European Union (E.U) lent unqualified support to the Norwegian initiative and declared that a "negotiated solution" would put an end to the ethnic conflict, which had been a source of untold suffering. Peter Hain, British Deputy Foreign Minister, endorsed the Norwegian steps and remarked that "it is in everybody's interest to end the military conflict... The interests of all parties can be reconciled if the parties are willing to sit down and talk". Karl Inderfurth, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, who was on a visit to Sri Lanka in November, said that a preliminary reading of Prabakaran's speech indica ted "hopeful signs" that the Tigers "are willing to forgo the idea of an independent Eelam". And all these high-profile visits were taking place in the backdrop of the annual Aid Sri Lanka Consortium Meeting in Paris.

The LTTE realised the significance of the heightened international interest in a negotiated settlement. Prabakaran exploited the situation to his advantage. He went a step further and on December 21 offered "a month-long unilateral ceasefire" which would take effect from December 24. Prabakaran naturally claimed that the ceasefire offer was a "genuine expression of goodwill indicating our sincere desire for peace and a negotiated peaceful settlement". As far as one-upmanship is concerned, it was a defin ite victory for Prabakaran. The ball was squarely in Colombo's court. After weighing the pros and cons, Colombo rejected the offer. The government claimed that a ceasefire would follow when "negotiations proceed to mutual satisfaction". Not to be outdone , the Tigers declared that despite the negative stance of the government they would observe a "unilateral truce". To get the maximum mileage, the Tigers asked the government to "reconsider" its stand. What is more, the LTTE appealed to the Western countr ies and India to persuade Colombo to abandon its "belligerent" attitude in the interests of peace. In a veiled threat the Tigers declared that though they would not embark on any military offensive, at the same time they reserved the "right to armed defe nce" against military operations by the government.

Discerning observers of the Sri Lankan scene are aware that in recent months the Tigers have not been averse to a ceasefire monitored by international observers. In an interview to Tamil Guardian on March 25, 2000, Anton Balasingham, the LTTE spok esman, laid down two conditions for negotiations. First, "repressive conditions" imposed on the Tamils as "collective punishment" - in the form of "bans, embargoes, restrictions and prohibitions causing monumental existential problems" - should be remove d. Second, as far as the military situation is concerned, Balasingham remarked that the conflict could be de-escalated through disengagement by both parties, a cessation of hostilities, and the confining of combatants to barracks under international moni toring. If a cessation of hostilities takes place - that is a big if - the Tigers are likely to insist on international monitoring.

How does one explain the current velvet glove approach of Prabakaran? In order to analyse Prabakaran's tactics, it is necessary to highlight certain ground realities. We must also keep in mind the compulsions facing Colombo and the Tigers alike.

First and foremost, the military stalemate on the ground. The Sri Lankan armed forces are better equipped today than ever before. With the acquisition of sophisticated aircraft from Israel, Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers from Pakistan and MiG-27s from Ukr aine, the Tigers' forward movement to recapture Jaffna has been thwarted. What is more, the armed forces are slowly but surely recapturing lost territories from the LTTE.

In his "Heroes Day" speech, Prabakaran admitted that he had to give up the "advance to Jaffna" consequent on massive international military assistance to Colombo. To quote Prabakaran: "The entire world rushed to help Sri Lanka with emergency military ass istance when Chandrika raised the alarm of an impending military disaster claiming that the lives of 30,000 troops were in danger." Despite Prabakaran's tall claim that the Tigers "are determined to liberate Jaffna", the fortunes of war, as far as the Ja ffna theatre is concerned, have definitely turned against the Tigers. The Tigers lack not just manpower; according to informed sources, they are short of anti-aircraft missiles and ammunition. The LTTE operations today consist of suicide attacks on speci fied targets, attacks on naval ships and establishments and hit-and-run operations against the Sri Lankan armed forces.

The Tiger has been mauled, but not yet vanquished. It must be underlined that the Sri Lanka Army is not in a position to inflict a crushing defeat on the Tigers. Desertions continue to plague the Army. The Army is also short of manpower. What is more, mu ch more remains to be done to instill discipline in the armed forces. Prabakaran's offer of a ceasefire has to be viewed in this background. The Tigers badly need an "interval of peace" so that they can equip themselves better to meet the challenges of t he new security situation.

Equally important is the LTTE's objective to come out of growing international isolation. India and the U.S. have banned the LTTE. And thanks to the diplomatic offensive launched by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar , many countries, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Thailand and Myanmar, have become more sensitive to the dangers of Tigers misusing their hospitality. The killing of innocent civilians, the attack on Dalada Maligawa, the cold-blooded murder of political opponents, the ethnic cleansing in Jaffna peninsula (when Muslims were driven out), the use of young boys and girls as cannon fodder, and the alleged involvement of the Tigers in the narcotics trade - all these have created a sense of revuls ion among several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and sections of intellectuals in different parts of the world. It is necessary to recall that in the "Heroes Day" speech in November 1998 Prabakaran had expressed his unhappiness over the lukewarm i nternational response to the "monumental human tragedy". Prabakaran added that he was "saddened by the fact" that the untold sufferings of the Tamil people "have not yet touched the conscience of the world community". Misguided by the "sophisticated misi nformation campaign", the world has "uncritically assimilated the preposterous theories advanced by the Sri Lankan state".

Despite growing international ostracism, Prabakaran has adopted a different approach this year. He boasted that the "international community is more concerned about the Tamil national conflict... It is encouraging to note that the conscience of the world has turned towards our plight. We are impressing upon the world that we are not in any way opposed to peace talks or a negotiated political settlement through peaceful means". In other words, Prabakaran's recent gestures are an attempt to win back inter national favour. He is deliberately projecting the "soft image" of the LTTE, a liberation organisation that is an "aggrieved party" and a "victim of oppression"; a "peace-loving group" pitted against "warmongers".

The prospects of peace in Sri Lanka are bleak because there is a big hiatus between what any government in Colombo can offer and what the Tigers will be prepared to settle for. The LTTE stance can be summarised as follows: 1) It is for a ceasefire and it s monitoring by international observers; 2) It seeks the lifting of the economic blockade and creation of a climate of goodwill and normalcy in Tamil areas; and 3) Prabakaran is completely silent on the issue of a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka. If one analyses the past experience of negotiations with the LTTE, these talks never proceeded beyond issues relating to return of normalcy. Bradman Weerakoon, who was the adviser to President R. Premadasa, has pointed out that "there is no recor d of any serious political talks".

Colombo approaches the question from a different perspective. 1) The ceasefire will follow if preliminary negotiations make substantial progress. 2) The Sri Lanka Army is unlikely to sacrifice its recent gains at the altar of political expediency. Major General Lionel Balagalle explained the viewpoint of the Army as follows: "We should not stop fighting until we come to an agreement (on the resolution of the conflict). Suspicion remains in our minds (about LTTE's intentions). It is up to him (Prabakaran ) to convince us". 3) There must be a definite time -frame for the negotiations. The return of normalcy and the political dialogue about a final settlement should be carried out simultaneously. 4) The Tigers must renounce the idea of a separate state, gi ve up violence and join the political mainstream.

Meanwhile, the savage war in Sri Lanka continues. More than 60,000 lives - Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim - have been lost. Overall, as Chris Smith has pointed out, the 17-year conflict has resulted in a "reduced standard of living, reduced levels of foreign investment, fall in tourist numbers and expenditures, drastic slippages in the production of food and export crop in the north and the east, declining fish catches, and the loss of two or three percentage points in GDP (gross domestic product) growth for a decade". What cannot be quantified, however, is the cost of the brutalisation of Sri Lankan Tamil society. As Rajani Thiranagama has written: "A state of resignation envelops the community. The long shadow of the gun has not only been the source of po wer and glory, but also of fear and terror. In the menacing shadow play, forces complementing each other dance in each other's momentum. The paralysing depression is not due to the violence and authority imposed from outside, but rather to the destructiv e violence emanating from within the womb of our society".

Indian observers of the Sri Lankan scene are convinced that in the new millennium Sri Lanka desperately needs peace. Fresh initiatives should be undertaken to break the deadlock. But any dialogue with the LTTE should be preceded by an agreement between t he two major national parties, the People's Alliance and the United National Party. A Sinhala consensus is essential so that the issues of war and peace are not subjected to the vagaries of competitive politics. In such a situation, Colombo will be able to go beyond the present devolution proposals. New ideas such as asymmetrical devolution should be explored. In the same way, the assistance of international facilitators could be meaningfully used. They could persuade the LTTE to spell out the details o f a "viable alternative". It is certain that no government would extend support to the idea of a separate state. The objective reality today is the international isolation of the Tigers, except for the support of Sri Lankan Tamils settled abroad.

Prof. V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

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