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How long will the euphoria last?

Print edition : Oct 11, 2002 T+T-

THE statement by Anton Balasingham, the spokesman of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the leader of its negotiating team in Bangkok, that the Tigers "operate on the concept of homeland and self-determination", that "homeland does not mean separate state as such", and that the concept of self-determination "entails substantial autonomy or self-government in the historical areas where we live" has attracted a lot of media attention in Sri Lanka and abroad. The suggestion is that the LTTE has put its goal of an independent Tamil Eelam in abeyance, so to speak.

Balasingham said that a solution to the longstanding conflict could be worked out through negotiations, with the two sides agreeing to "a particular political system or model". He explained that the Tigers subscribed to the principles found in "the current U.N. literature on self-determination". As for Tamil Eelam, "if our demand for regional autonomy and self-governance is rejected and if conditions of oppression continue, then, as a last resort, our people have no option other than to fight for political independence and statehood."

This theoretical play on the crucial issue of internal self-determination has elicited a favourable response from the Sri Lankan government. Prof. G.L. Peiris, the leader of the Sri Lankan delegation, expressed the hope that a settlement that would "stand the test of time" could be worked out. Adding that the two sides had learnt from past mistakes, he noted "a softening of position on both sides".

Euphoria is not something new in Sri Lanka. Whenever hope has been raised that a peaceful settlement was on the anvil, there has been spontaneous expression of goodwill and solidarity. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987 was hailed as a breakthrough by many Sri Lankan observers. At the popular level, there was unprecedented enthusiasm. During the Premadasa-Prabakaran honeymoon in 1990-91, the Sri Lankan President's statement that he was willing to concede ellam (everything) except an independent state was enthusiastically welcomed. In 1994, when Chandrika Kumaratunga, having won the parliamentary and the presidential elections on a "peace platform", started negotiations with the LTTE, there was an outburst of popular enthusiasm. In Jaffna, the Sri Lankan team was welcomed with flower petals and "Chandrika bangles" sold like hot cakes. But on all these occasions, hope was soon shattered sooner than later on account of the intransigence of the Tigers and the inability of Colombo to forge a Sinhala consensus and go beyond the traditional Sinhala-centred distribution of power.

Much water has flowed down the Mahaveli Ganga since then. The two warring sides seem to have learned some bitter lessons. Despite the sharp swings of fortune in the Third Eelam War, it became absolutely clear that a solution to the conflict could not be found in the battlefield. The two sides have suffered tremendous losses, both in terms of men and material. For the first time since independence, Sri Lanka registered a negative economic growth last year.

The international isolation, especially the alienation from India, has hit the Tigers very badly. Prabakaran is very keen on retrieving his image: hence the desperate attempts to project the image of an "aggrieved party" fighting for a "just cause". "We are not terrorists," Prabakaran has frequently protested, "we are freedom fighters, we are victims of state oppression."

However, for all the attempts to project a benevolent image before the international community, the credibility of Prabakaran and the LTTE stands very low. The series of political assassinations and inhuman acts of terrorism (in Sri Lanka and abroad), ethnic cleansing in the Jaffna Peninsula and the forcible conscription of children into the LTTE's army have all contributed to forging the image of the LTTE as a fascist, inhuman and Pol Potist organisation. As Bryan Pfaffenberger, referring to political assassinations, has pointed out, "whatever the LTTE involvement in these and other murders, they only help to further the notion of Prabakaran as a deeply paranoid, very dangerous megalomaniac, who like the Sinhala and Tamil God Kataragama is ready to wipe out anyone who dares to cross him."

IN Bangkok, the two sides skirted controversial issues such as the mechanics of interim administration, the unit of devolution and likely constitutional settlement. Norway has played its cards carefully. It is functioning as a repository of trust and thus far it has managed to avoid a situation where each group accuses the other of bad faith. The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have expressed keenness that the people should reap the benefits of peace. Hence they have laid emphasis on de-mining as a prelude to the rehabilitation of the North-East. The two sides agree that the negotiations should proceed in stages: each stage will be an end in itself and, hopefully, will lead to the next stage.

In this process, the Tigers have won the first round. The ban on them has been lifted; they are recognised as the sole representative of the Tamils (with the issue of representation of Tamil-speaking Muslims yet to be resolved); and there is a tacit understanding that the LTTE will have a decisive role in the interim administration. What is more, the LTTE and its agents and supporters will soon start an orchestrated propaganda campaign in different parts of the world. Their argument is likely to be: if Sri Lanka could condone the crimes of the LTTE and lift the ban, what prevents India, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom from following suit?

A close analysis of Balasingham's statements on the crucial issue of `internal' self-determination makes it evident that the Tigers have deliberately adopted an ambivalent stance on the subject. In earlier articles in Frontline, this writer pointed out that by advocating a federal/confederal model, the Tigers stood to gain an immense advantage. It would bring the war to an end; it would end their international isolation; it would give Tamil areas clearly defined boundaries; and, what was more, it would give breathing time for them to recoup and consolidate their forces.

Prabakaran's sincerity towards the peace process can be proved only if the Tigers unequivocally declare that the right to `internal' self-determination excludes the right to secession in the Sri Lankan case and proceed to live up to such a proclamation. Iron-clad guarantees to this effect should be included in any constitutional settlement, as and when it is debated and finalised.

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

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