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Sticking to his guns

Published : Dec 20, 2002 00:00 IST

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Velupillai Prabakaran refuses to abandon the demand for a separate Tamil Eelam even as he offers to consider regional self-rule within a united Sri Lanka in an attempt to achieve international legitimacy for the LTTE.

"The more things change, the more they are the same." Alphonse Karr, French novelist and journalist.

A DAY after Velupillai Prabakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), turned 48, he spelt out "regional self-rule" as an alternative to a separate Tamil Eelam but did not abandon the idea of secession if the demand for "substantial regional autonomy" was not met.

In its own way, Sri Lanka's politics has changed so much, yet remained the same as it was since the 1950s when the Tamils started demanding greater regional powers. The crux of Prabakaran's annual speech was that if his demand for a self-governing Tamil homeland were not conceded within a united Sri Lanka, his fight for a sovereign Tamil state would resume.

The position is not new, but the context in which it was made clear is different. Just a few days before his speech, as part of a global line-up in Oslo, the United States had called for a clear signal that the LTTE would renounce the concept of a separate Tamil Eelam and the use of terror and violence to achieve it. The answer to this from Prabakaran is a clear `no'.

If the core of Prabakaran's speech avoided the issues raised by the international community, the sub-text was the continued search for international legitimacy. The 19-minute exposition by the leader of an organisation that is banned in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, major participants of the Oslo conference, was an attempt to balance both external and internal concerns. The offer to consider "self-rule" aims at opinion-building outside the LTTE while the matter-of-fact statement that he would return to the separatist route if self-rule is denied aims at keeping his organisation in readiness.

Nonetheless, the search for international legitimacy remains as elusive after November 27 as it was before.

On the domestic front, however, there has been some difference. As the Tigers had made it abundantly clear that they would not come to the negotiating table as a banned organisation, the Sri Lankan government faced with Hobson's choice de-proscribed the LTTE just before the first session of talks commenced in September.

Now, the strategy of the LTTE is to expand quickly its apparatuses of state on the ground, thereby making them a part of the status quo. It has been a fact that its own `police force' has been in operation for the past one decade. This has now gained more visibility, with the opening of the 19th `police station' recently. Dressed in blue uniforms and with a distinctly different `salute' compared to the conventional police forces, the LTTE's `policemen' are a highly visible dimension of the domestic consolidation towards further legitimacy.

There are also the `courts' and the `revenue administration' mechanism in place. `Justice' is dispensed based on a `penal code' drawn up by the Tigers who were trained in LTTE `law colleges'. The revenue collection system is as systematic as the organisation's functioning is known to be.

There are no figures available of the extent of money collected by the Tigers, but some sources say that it could be as high as Rs.1 crore a day, if all revenue sources, including overseas repatriation, are taken into account.

"The Tigers have gained a lot of financial stability since the ceasefire came into force," a critic said.

On the military front there have been a gain on two counts. The continued state of military preparedness by both the security forces and the Tigers has necessitated a build-up of arsenal on both sides.

A clearer indication for this is that both sides have only expressed strong hope that there would be no return to war but have not agreed upon a moratorium.

The Sri Lankan government, for its part, has said that the LTTE's latest approach marks a "paradigm shift" in the approach to conflict resolution. It has also said that it would discuss issues relating to law and order at the third round of talks to be held between December 2 and 5 in Oslo. The LTTE and the government have complemented each other on the progress made so far in the peace process.

IT IS against this backdrop that Prabakaran delivered his annual speech. In short, he reiterated the stand that has been taken by Anton S. Balasingham, the LTTE's chief negotiator, since the latest series of talks commenced in Thailand this September. "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 said.

While this is a reiteration of all what Balasingham has said, Prabakaran's endorsement dispels any doubt that the latter would not distance himself from any commitment made at the talks.

The "objective of our struggle," Prabakaran continued, "is based on the concept of self-determination as articulated in the United Nations Charter and other instruments,'' and added that "internal self-determination entitles a people to regional self-rule".

More than what was said, the issues left unsaid gain relevance in the current context. The speech was made at a time when there was clear international pressure on the LTTE to abandon the pursuit of a separate Tamil Eelam and the use of terror and violence to achieve political objectives.

The LTTE's focus, however, continued to remain on the position adopted in the 1980s that the conflict should be resolved on the basis of the Thimphu principles. This was reiterated again when Prabakaran described these principles as "the fundamentals underlying our political struggle".

There was no direct response to international concerns on the use of terror and violence to resolve political problems, and the call for the renunciation of the goal of a separate Tamil Eelam and the acceptance of pluralism, democracy and human rights.

These, the Opposition and critics of the peace process maintain, are important questions that require answers.

Describing the LTTE's engagement in the negotiating process as a "new challenge", Prabakaran said that the propaganda by "Sinhala chauvinists" that the Tigers were "enemies of peace" was "falsified" by "our sincere and dedicated commitment to the peace process".

Prabakaran attributed earlier failures to the hard-line attitude and deceitful political approaches of previous Sri Lanka governments. The present government, he said, was attempting to resolve the problems of Tamils with sincerity and courage.

The Norwegians also came in for praise when he said that their capable and skilful facilitation had "contributed to the steady progress of the peace talks".

Blaming "racism and racist oppression" as the "causative factors for rebellions and secessionist politics" the LTTE leader wanted the Sinhalese people to "identify and reject the racist forces if they desire permanent peace, ethnic harmony and economic prosperity".

The Sinhalese, he said, "should not oppose the Tamils' aspirations to manage their own affairs under a system of self-rule in their own homeland".

The most striking illustration of the similarity between LTTE's reading of the current situation and that of the past came from what Prabakaran said on Sri Lankan politics.

Laying the onus of unity on mainstream Sri Lankan politics, Prabhakaran said: "The politics of the Sinhala nation will eventually determine whether the Sinhalese could peacefully co-exist with the Tamils or to compel the Tamils to secede." This, very broadly, has been the position of the Tigers since the beginning of the conflict.

A true change in the Island's conflict resolution process, it is clear, is still far away.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 20, 2002.)

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