The stalemate in Sri Lanka

Print edition : December 31, 2004

While the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insists on interim self-rule as the basis for a resumption of talks, the Sri Lankan government maintains that it is willing to discuss the proposal but along with the contours of a final settlement.

in Colombo

In Colombo on November 24, Buddhist monks protest outside the Norwegian Embassy against the killing of innocent people by the LTTE and Norway's `soft line' towards the organisation.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

"We must have at least a federal government. If even this is not offered, even God cannot save this country."

- Suresh Premachandran, Tamil National Alliance MP, in the Sri Lankan Parliament on December 6, 2004.

IN many respects the main players in Sri Lanka's conflict resolution process have painted themselves into a corner during 2004. Apart from the deep chasm that developed within the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the consequent internecine bloodbath, the major participants in the separatist conflict have largely maintained the status quo vis--vis their positions though at the start of the year achieving a break with the past seemed a possibility.

For the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), its initial condemnation of the LTTE's proposal and subsequent alliance with the Left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are turning out to be hurdles on the way to peace and devolution. The Opposition United National Party (UNP) is yet to recover from its defeat in the parliamentary elections. After formally announcing the candidature of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe for the next presidential poll, the UNP is gearing its party machinery for a string of protests on various political issues. The LTTE would perhaps best like to forget 2004, when its raison d'etre, formation of a separate, independent state in the traditional homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils, and its claim to be the sole representative of this section of people were seriously challenged.

Paradoxically, the LTTE was dared not by its decades-long battlefield foe - the `Sinhala army' - but by one of its most-efficient military commanders, V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna).

The LTTE was not just dismissive of the contradictions that stared it in the face following Karuna's revolt, but exploited it politically and to a certain extent militarily. Politically, it sidestepped the basic issue that Karuna raised - discrimination by the LTTE leadership against the Tamils of eastern Sri Lanka - and instead used the rebellion to avoid the negotiating table. Militarily, however, the LTTE lost 72 cadre, the highest number since it signed the ceasefire in 2002. It is estimated that around 150 cadre from both sides of the LTTE divide have been killed in the internecine clashes since April.

As the politico-military stalemate continued, the Tigers consolidated themselves against their rivals - both the rebels and anti-LTTE parties such as the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and a faction of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) - by going on a killing spree and blaming it on the internal rebellion.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Thirty months after the ceasefire agreement, there is a clear hardening of stance by an increasingly impatient and frustrated LTTE. In the build-up to the annual Heroes' Day speech by its leader V. Prabakaran in November (Frontline, December 17) and immediately after it, there were direct pointers that the Tigers would push up the stakes on the political and military fronts. The stated sticking point in the resumption of talks - the government's acceptance of the LTTE's proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) as "the basis" - continues to dominate public debate.

In an apparent change of tactic, the LTTE, which seldom misses an opportunity to demonstrate that it is a `politico-military organisation', upped the political ante. Be it in Sri Lanka's 225-member Parliament, which is in its annual budget session, in the media or on the streets of key towns in northern Sri Lanka, the LTTE's hardening political position was obvious.

On November 25 - two days before the Heroes' Day speech - R. Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) group in Parliament, made a significant speech on the current stage of the stalemate. "The vast majority of the people in the north-east, particularly the Tamil people, want autonomous self-rule in the north-east region," he said. The Tamil political parties, he said, "remain committed to a negotiated resolution of the Tamil question in keeping with the will of the Tamil nation".

The concept of an interim body for the north-east "is not new" and an attempt was made to achieve it immediately after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, when the UNP was in power, he said. It was also discussed during 1994-95 by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the LTTE. Moreover, the President's "constitutional proposals of August 2000 contained proposals for the setting up of an interim council for the north-east for a period of 10 years", he said.

Referring to the JVP's opposition to an interim arrangement, Sampanthan said: "The two major parties - the SLFP and the UNP - have accepted the concept of an interim body. The JVP, I would urge, should follow, in the interests of the country." On the charge that the LTTE's proposals were "maximalist", he said "most of the LTTE's proposals are what obtains in federal arrangements in other countries".

One key issue in the resumption of talks is the government's view that the Tigers should reiterate a commitment made two years ago in Oslo that they would explore a federal solution. The government was hoping that the commitment would be made in the Heroes' Day speech, but that was not to be. However, Tamil MPs made it a point to call for federalism as a solution. "Any arrangement, interim or final, has to be within the framework of an undivided country," Sampanthan said. During a debate on the annual budgetary allocations for the Defence Ministry, Suresh Premachandran of the TNA said the Sri Lankan leaders should give "at least a federal government", failing which, he added, "not even God can save this country".

The ceasefire agreement, Premachandran said, was signed "to prepare for peace, not separation". Citing a recent publication, he said the Sri Lankan armed forces had stepped up their strength in terms of weaponry and manpower and was emphatic that "the government's agenda is for war".

According to Deputy Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the government's "clear policy" is that it is willing to discuss the LTTE's proposal for interim self-rule, but along with the contours of a final settlement. Its main objection, according to government sources, is the LTTE's insistence that the ISGA should be "the basis" for negotiations.

"We are not ready to discuss just the ISGA. Talks must be on a final settlement as well. That is our policy and it is very clear," Wickremanayake said on December 6, winding up a five-hour budget debate on the Defence Ministry. The government was "ready to talk about peace", but "as a sovereign nation"; it was also "ready to face any contingency". Wickremanayake told Parliament: "We will strengthen the armed forces in terms of men, material, ideas and weapons."

In the Wanni, on November 27, LTTE leader V. Prabakaran lights a flame in memory of the Tigers killed since the fighting first erupted in 1982.-LTTE HANDOUT/AFP

For the LTTE, which has officially lost 17,780 of its cadre in the fight for a separate state since November 1982, a withdrawal from the separatist option is not on the cards. And, given the current international positions, the Eelamist option is a non-starter. Herein lies the paradox for the LTTE. According to the LTTE's supporters, the Tigers "will not change their position now. How can they give up separation when they have not got anything politically from the negotiations?"

Against this political deadlock, the Tigers may well be running out of options. What has now started as "public protests" could reach a point where the militarist option is exercised. However, the current reading in southern Sri Lanka is that the Tigers will not return to war for two broad reasons. Southern hardliners, who have shown no signs of weakening, say that after Karuna's revolt the LTTE is "militarily weak" and cannot risk a resumption of violence. Liberals in the south are of the view that the LTTE will shift its approach from military offensives to political movements.

History shows that both assumptions are tenuous. The LTTE could carry out a limited operation just to make the point, if not for anything else, that its strike capacity is intact and it is capable of inflicting serious damage. "They could strike just to resume negotiations," a defence analyst said. However, once the first shot is fired, matters may go out of control, and a free fall into war is bound to be costly for both the rebels and the government.

According to all indications, the Tigers are likely to open both political and military fronts. Whether the initial phase of public protests veers towards a resumption of hostilities would depend on the government's reaction. The current stalemate also reflects, to a large extent, the restraint that all the major players have exercised. With the possibilities of an emotional revival strong, the immediate imperative for peace is the resumption of negotiations based on the agreement reached in Oslo, in which Colombo and the LTTE decided to explore a solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

Such a direct federalist commitment, pronounced and demonstrated by both the belligerent Tigers and an unsure Sri Lankan government, is the only way out of a downhill slide into possible violence.

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