A tactical shift

Print edition : January 03, 2003

The LTTE's decision to explore a federal structure does not seem to be motivated by a genuine reorientation of its political goals and approaches, but appears to be a move that has been made with definite short- and long-term objectives in view.

THE concept of federalism has re-entered Sri Lankan political discourse in a big way after the third round of talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) concluded on December 5.

On October 10, women fighters of the LTTE march through Kilinochchi town to mark Women's Day.-AFP

The talks held in Oslo, the Norwegian capital, from December 2 to December 5 ended on a buoyant note with both parties arriving at an agreement to explore the feasibility of a federal structure to resolve the ongoing ethnic crisis.

Understandably, the decision to pursue a federal solution has generated much euphoria both within and outside Sri Lanka. An important if not the sole reason for this is the willingness shown by the LTTE to explore a federal structure instead of persisting with its original separatist demand. The Tigers have waged a brutal armed struggle for over 25 years and lost more than 17,000 of their cadre. The LTTE has ruthlessly executed Tamil leaders who opted for a political settlement along federal lines within a united Sri Lanka in the past. Moreover, it was widely believed that LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran was deeply committed to the goal of a separate state Tamil Eelam.

Against that backdrop, it is indeed amazing that the LTTE now seems to opt for federalism. Even though there is widespread jubiliation on account of this perceived change of position by the LTTE, much of this jubiliation could evaporate in the future, as the decision to "explore" does not automatically guarantee ultimate success. Given the track record of past negotiating efforts, there is every possibility of a conclusive agreement being an elusive commodity.

Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal touched on this point succinctly during his recent visit to Sri Lanka, when he compared the ongoing negotiations to a 100-metre sprint. Sibal told journalists in Colombo: "You have to run the 100 metres. Right at the start, or after one metre, you cannot say the race is over. Let us see. At the end of the race, we will pronounce." In short, Sibal's perspective was that it was premature to predict the outcome of the peace process.

It is important to note that despite the optimism emanating from Oslo, the possibility of subsequent "exploration" hitting a number of snags cannot be ruled out. Besides, the decision to pursue federalism is by no means coherent or definitive. It is somewhat vague in detail and lends itself to an appearance of ambiguity. What has evolved in Norway is only an overall statement of intent to explore a federal solution without any specific note of unit or substance. When discussions on the nitty-gritty of the issue commence, the whole exercise may reach a deadlock.

As far as the unit of federalism is concerned, it is not known whether the entire Northern and Eastern provinces would form a single entity. If so, the position of the Muslim and Sinhalese communities in that unit is unclear. Since the proviso states that any structure reached must be acceptable to all communities, no solution can be imposed on unwilling sections. On the other hand, it seems highly unlikely that the LTTE will accept a de-merged North-East or a moth-eaten unit if the Muslims and the Sinhalese are provided with alternative arrangements.

There is also the substance aspect. Former Indian High Commissioner to Colombo and ex-Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, when interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), pointed out three areas of possible disagreement finance, lands and law and order. These could cause much friction while seeking a mutually acceptable structure. He said that the Muslim factor also had to be resolved.

There are other problems too. One is whether self-determination, internal or otherwise, in a federal structure would be acceptable to the southern Sinhala polity. It is also doubtful whether a Sinhala consensus would evolve on federalism. There is a strong majoritarian viewpoint that the unitary status should remain. "Federalism" itself is a "dirty" word in the Sinhala perception rightly or wrongly, it is perceived as a euphemism for secession. It may be recalled that the devolution proposals of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, as drafted by Professor G.L. Peiris, envisaged the Island's unitary Constitution being changed in favour of a "union of regions". This was because the concept of federalism was regarded as being obnoxious to the South.

Therefore, if a formal federal scheme incorporating the right of internal self-determination cannot be formulated, there is every chance that the LTTE will call it quits. The LTTE's position on this was enunciated by Prabakaran on November 27 at the "maaveerar naal" (great heroes day) public rally in Puthukudiyiruppu. In his annual address, Prabakaran indicated a willingness to seek a federal solution. He said the LTTE was prepared to accept a federal solution that enshrined the principle of internal self-determination. If the Sinhala polity was not prepared to grant that, then the LTTE would have no choice but to exercise the right of external self-determination and pursue the goal of secession, he warned.

The LTTE leader sought to rationalise his current political approach in the following manner: "As a distinct people the Tamils are entitled to the right to self-determination. The right to self-determination has two aspects internal and external. Internal self-determination entitles a people to self-rule. The Tamil people want to live in freedom and dignity in their own lands, in their historically constituted traditional lands, without the domination of external forces. They want to protect their national identity, pursuing the development of their language, culture and economy. They want to live in their homeland under a system of self-rule. This is the political aspiration of our people. This constitutes the essential meaning of internal self-determination. We are prepared to consider favourably a political framework that offers substantial regional autonomy and self-government in our homeland on the basis of our right to internal self-determination. But if our people's right to self-determination is denied and our demand for regional self-rule is rejected, we have no alternative other than to secede and form an independent state."

Prabakaran appealed directly to the Sinhala people: "The Sinhalese people should not oppose the Tamils' aspirations to manage their own affairs under a system of self-rule in their own homeland. It is the politics of the Sinhala nation that will eventually determine whether the Sinhalese can peacefully co-exist with the Tamils or compel the Tamils to secede. If the Sinhala chauvinistic forces, for their own petty political reasons, scuttle this peace effort, the Tamil people will be compelled to pursue the path of secession and political independence."

The formal declaration by the LTTE in Oslo to explore a federal solution was only a logical follow-up to Prabakaran's earlier declaration in the Wanni. Nevertheless, it seems transparent that the LTTE is not going to accept anything less than this as a viable alternative to Tamil Eelam. However, there are serious misgivings about the bona fides of the LTTE and its leader in respect of their avowed intention of being prepared to renounce Tamil Eelam in favour of federalism. At the first "maaveerar naal", observed on November 27, 1989, Prabakaran stated publicly that his cadre could gun him down if he ever committed "thurogam" (treachery) to the "ilatchiyam" (ideal) of Tamil Eelam. Twelve years later, on April 10, 2002, Prabakaran held a press conference in Kilinochchi. An Indian journalist referred to this statement and pointedly asked what his stance on the issue was. A smiling Prabakaran answered clearly and unhesitatingly that the position was the same.

The same LTTE leader is now amenable to jettisoning Tamil Eelam, or so it seems. Perplexing as it seems, other indicators suggest that the LTTE has not revised its fundamental objectives but only engaged in a tactical shift as a political ploy. An illuminating example in this respect is the fact that this year too Prabakaran ended his speech with the customary slogan in Tamil "Puligalin Thagam Thamil Eelath Thayagam" (The thirst of the Tigers is the Tamil Eelam motherland). In a significant move, the English text of the speech, which was released to the media, omitted this reference. The inference from this was that while Prabakaran pursued a federal solution, his emotional commitment to separatism remained.

If so, the LTTE game plan is clear. The proclaimed intention of seeking a federal solution is only for international consumption. It seems the Tigers want the negotiating process to fail at some stage without any blame attaching to them. The peace process should not arrive at a logical conclusion; instead, it should collapse without a satisfactory federal solution being structured. If and when that happens, the LTTE could opt out and exercise its "right of external self-determination" and pursue a "secessionist war" again. Pinpointing the failure of Colombo to arrive at a federal solution, the Tigers would assert that the Sinhala people were incapable of redressing and accommodating Tamil grievances and aspirations within a united Sri Lanka.

In order to ensure the failure of the Sri Lankan polity in formulating an acceptable federal structure, the LTTE is engaging in a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it is resorting to controversial actions such as expanding its parallel structures of police stations and courts in the Tamil areas. This is causing much tension in the South and embarrassing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe immensely. The Tigers were also exploiting the deep differences between the United National Front (UNF) government and the Opposition Peoples Alliance (P.A.) led by Chandrika Kumaratunga. By urging a confrontational course, it appears that the Tigers want to abort any possible Sinhala agreement on federalism.

Further evidence of this approach became available in Oslo itself on December 7, barely two days after the December 5 accord. Addressing a "great hero commemoration" meeting in Oslo, LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham made it clear that the Tigers did not expect the South to deliver on federalism. Highlighting the political divisions in the South, he gloated that it was impossible for the Sinhala people to agree on this.

Claiming that the Tigers had put the ball in the Sinhala court, he said that it was now left to the South to respond. However, the LTTE was not worried about the Sinhala state defaulting on the promise of federalism, Balasingham said. The time when Tamils under the Gandhian S.J.V. Chelvanayagam demanded federalism was gone. Now it was Prabakaran's "kalam" (period), he said. The LTTE relied on heavy weapons, and not non-violence, he said, and warned that if Colombo deceived the Tamils again the consequences would be terrible. A secessionist war would ensue, international opinion would be compelled to support the Tamil quest for freedom, he said. As such, the Tigers were not only unconcerned about being deceived by the Sinhalese but in fact welcomed such deception, Balasingham claimed.

Therefore, the emerging political scenario shows that the LTTE's willingness to opt for federalism is only a tactical shift without the underpinnings of any serious commitment. Its genuine commitment is for Tamil Eelam. By demonstrating a remarkable degree of flexibility, the LTTE seeks to prove its sincerity in seeking a solution short of separation. The cynical calculation in the long term is that the powers that be in Colombo would not be able to evolve a satisfactory federal solution. At the opportune time, the LTTE would cite this as sufficient cause for reverting to its original position.

In the short term, the LTTE hopes to gain certain advantages through this tactical shift. Between President Kumaratunga and Premier Wickremasinghe, who are fighting a political battle, the Tigers prefer the latter. With Kumaratunga now having the power to dissolve Parliament, it is in the interests of the LTTE to help prop up Wickremasinghe as far as possible. In that context, preserving the peace process is a necessity. The readiness to drop separatism and opt for federalism would help maintain and consolidate the negotiating process. Also, if fresh elections are called, this cooperative attitude of the LTTE is expected to boost Wickremasinghe vis-a-vis Kumaratunga.

Secondly, both the UNF government and the LTTE have a common interest in procuring substantial quantum of international financial assistance for rehabilitation, reconstruction and development. The Tigers hope to be in charge of such functions in the Tamil areas. However, the international donor community desires greater progress in the peace process before allocating vast sums of money. Greater confidence in the peace negotiations is necessary. The path-breaking declaration seeking federalism would bestow more credibility on the peace process. Thus the chances of increased aid being available in the future are brighter.

Thirdly, the LTTE is also on the road to international legitimacy. It wants the "terrorist" label affixed to it by countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia removed. As a first step it wants some kind of tacit acceptance. The presence of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and British Overseas Development Minister Claire Short at the Oslo development summit addressed by Anton Balasingham was projected in the LTTE media as a great "victory". Now the LTTE wants its representatives to visit countries that have banned it, to study the federal models of government available there. Balasingham stated this explicitly to his Tamil audience in Oslo.

There was much applause when he said in Tamil "kathavaith thiranthu vidayya" (open the doors for us). Official visits to study "federalism", the LTTE hopes, will strengthen its case for de-proscription in these countries.

Under these circumstances, the LTTE's decision to explore a federal structure does not seem to be motivated by a genuine reorientation of its political goals and approaches. On the contrary, it seems to have engaged in a tactical shift with both short- and long-term objectives, while retaining its basic ideological moorings.

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