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That sinking feeling

Print edition : Jan 12, 2007 T+T-
MOMENTS AFTER Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa escaped an attack in Colombo on December 1.-SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

MOMENTS AFTER Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa escaped an attack in Colombo on December 1.-SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

The war between the government forces and the LTTE has escalated, and a return to the negotiation table seems unlikely.

AS 2006 draws to a close, Sri Lanka's undeclared war is gaining a new momentum. Right now, intense fighting is going on between the government's armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Vaharai sector of Batticaloa district. Vaharai seems to be the LTTE's last major stronghold in the Eastern province.

While the heavy fighting has resulted in the rising death toll of combatants belonging to both sides, the exchange of long-range artillery between the two sides has caused the displacement of hundreds of civilians. Both sides accuse each other of using civilians as a human shield. After Vaharai, the war is likely to spread to the Northern province.

The events of the past few weeks do not indicate the possibility of any conflict de-escalation. On the contrary, they have only helped to escalate the conflict. In Sri Lanka, no one, not even international actors, seems to want, or seems to be able, to stop the war from escalating. Both the government and the LTTE have moved away from the negotiation option. The LTTE has reiterated its commitment to pursue vigorously its goal of `political independence'. In this context, the American, British and some Asian governments seem to be backing a military outcome in the present phase of the conflict. The stage seems set for a major conflagration in the coming months. Returning to the negotiation table in the foreseeable future seems totally out of the question.

Three recent events are crucial to the understanding of how the present phase of war in Sri Lanka is unfolding. The first is the annual Hero's Day speech made by LTTE chief V. Prabakaran on November 27. For some reason, the Sri Lankan government appears to have expected a conciliatory message from the LTTE leader. But the message in his speech was a hostile one, with a clear indication that the LTTE had no intention of returning to talks on any agenda. Prabakaran reiterated the warning made last year to pursue the struggle for independence. Most analysts believe that it was a declaration of the LTTE's war intentions. Some strategic thinkers linked to the government even interpreted it as a calling for the `final war', whatever that may mean.

The second event is the LTTE's failed attempt to assassinate Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary, Gothabaya Rajapaksa, who happens to be President Mahinda Rajapaksa's younger brother. The suicide squad member, who came in a motorised three-wheeler, struck the Defence Secretary's convoy of vehicles within Colombo city's high-security zone. Although the President's brother escaped unhurt, the attack exposed the vulnerability of Colombo's VIP security system while indicating the extent to which the LTTE has penetrated the capital city. The immediate reaction of the government, shaken by this event, was to ban the LTTE. Re-introduction of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which had become inoperative with the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002, was another move that the government considered. Reports indicate that there was no unanimity in the Cabinet over either of these moves.

In the end, the government promulgated a set of `anti-terrorism' regulations that are no less draconian in their consequences for civil rights, the rule of law, and the relations of the state apparatus with Tamil citizens.

The third is the controversy generated by the report by a majority of members of the Panel of Experts, appointed by the government to draft proposals for the resolution of the ethnic conflict. This was a part of the all-party process initiated by President Rajapaksa in early 2006 to forge a broad consensus in the matter of conflict resolution and negotiations with the LTTE. Members of the Panel of Experts have submitted to the all-party committee three reports; one of them, reflecting the views of the Sinhalese nationalist parties of the government coalition, offers a minimalist programme of power-sharing within a unitary state. The majority report, signed by 11 out of 17 members of the Experts Panel, in contrast, suggests asymmetrical federalism, moving away from the unitary state; substantial powers and autonomy to regional units; and re-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces for 10 years.

This `Majority Report' seemed to have embarrassed President Rajapaksa's government thoroughly. The proposals go far beyond `Mahinda Chinthanaya', the ideological programme on which President Rajapaksa came to power in November last year. While the solution to the ethnic conflict offered in the Chinthanaya document is maximum devolution within a unitary framework, the Majority Report proposes an advanced form of federalism. This has angered the two Sinhalese nationalist allies of the Rajapaksa regime - the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHP). In a damage-control exercise, the President has been trying to distance his government from the Majority Report. But that does not help him to move in the direction of offering a political solution acceptable to even Tamil moderates. If Rajapaksa succumbs to the pressure of the JVP and the JHU for reasons of political survival, he will have to ban the LTTE, reactivate the PTA fully, and go in for a military solution. That will alienate his regime from all the moderate forces in the country as well as India and some European countries that have been arguing for a negotiated political solution within a federal framework.

Despite this risk, the Rajapaksa administration seems to rely on the backing of the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Pakistan and China for military and political assistance to sustain the military pressure on the LTTE for several years. The thinking in Colombo probably is that India will eventually fall in line, or just be an ineffective onlooker of a military process that will first defeat the LTTE in the Eastern province and then corner and beat it to submission in the North. Even though some argue that the Sri Lankan economy might not be able to sustain and withstand another long phase of war, the government seems to think that the economic front would be manageable, though with occasional difficulties.

In this emerging scenario, what will be the LTTE's role? One thing that is quite clear is that the LTTE is not likely to return to the negotiation table. No one knows the LTTE's thinking on the military options. One can only guess that the LTTE might also be preparing for another protracted process of war and violence.

Meanwhile, can the moderate forces in the Sri Lankan polity make any significant intervention to open up a new process for peace? There was some space when two months ago President Rajapaksa and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now the Leader of the Opposition, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to work together to resolve the ethnic conflict. India had particularly backed this Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-United National Party (UNP) understanding in the hope that it would strengthen the negotiation. But, the MoU has so far not produced any fresh political initiative for peace. The two leaders have probably signed the MoU primarily for short-term considerations, such as ensuring each other's political survival, rather than for resolving complex national issues with a long-term vision.

In this grim scenario, the only hope for a fresh political initiative to break Sri Lanka's cycle of war and violence lies in the Majority Report. If the UNP as well as the Tamil and Muslim parties back the recommendations of the Majority Report, President Rajapaksa might show an inclination to manage the JVP-JHU resistance. Meanwhile,if the LTTE wants to make a smart political move, now there is an opportunity to propose a return to the negotiation table on an agenda to discuss the Majority Report as well as the Interim Self-Governing Authority proposals of October 2003.