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Terror and hope

Print edition : Jun 24, 2000 T+T-

Amid terrorist attacks by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the major political parties of Sri Lanka come close to a formula that they hope will lead to a solution to the ethnic strife.

TWO bomb attacks in the capital by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which claimed more than two dozen lives, including that of a senior Minister; a reassuring visit by India's External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh; and, at last, the emergen ce of one area of consensus between the two main political groupings - all within the span of eight days. Sri Lanka was hurtling through a roller-coaster of events, plunging at times to the depths of despair but soon rising in fresh hope.

In furtherance of its stated goal of achieving an independent Tamil state (Eelam), the LTTE uses a two-fold strategy: a conventional war complemented by guerilla tactics in northeastern Sri Lanka, and terrorist attacks against the civilians in the south.

As Colombo seemed to gain the confidence at least to maintain a military stalemate in the Jaffna Peninsula, the LTTE resorted to the second strategy for a second time within a week. The separatist group may have hoped not only to destabilise the governme nt but set the Sinhalese and Tamil communities against each other in the manner of 1983. On June 7, a day of much significance for the government, it chose an easy target. It was the country's first War Heroes' Day and the government had gone all out to commemorate it suitably, with President Chandrika Kumaratunga personally taking the lead. After attending the main ceremony at the President's official home, Temple Trees, members of the government headed for other commemoration ceremonies.

Minister for Industrial Development C.V. Gooneratne, a colourful and popular politician, was to participate in a fund-raising march in his constituency of Mount Lavinia-Dehiwela on the southern fringe of the capital. Ignoring security warnings, CV, as he was known, and his wife decided to walk along with other processionists. An LTTE suicide-bomber, who was lurking in the crowd of onlookers, found the window that he was waiting for. The attack killed CV, his wife and 22 others. As the angry marchers gat hered at the scene, it seemed for a few nasty hours that the LTTE would achieve its objective of instigating retaliatory violence by the Sinhalese majority against the Tamil community. A sizable number of Tamils live in Ratmalana area, where the attack t ook place. However, prompt action by the government saved the day: it declared a curfew in the area and deployed additional police forces to maintain peace.

Exactly a week later the LTTE struck again in the northern suburb of Wattala. This time it missed the intended target, a bus carrying wounded Air Force personnel from the Katunayake air base to Colombo, but killed two civilian passers-by.

The initial theory of a suicide attack was rejected by investigators when it was found that the bomb was transported on a bicycle by a Sinhalese carpenter, who had in all probability been paid by the LTTE for the task. The police are investigating whethe r or not he was aware of his dangerous cargo.

The fact that the LTTE chose for both the attacks residential areas that have significant Tamil populations is evidence that the separatist organisation is trying to unleash Sinhalese anger on the minority community. Although this strategy has not succee ded yet, what the LTTE has managed to achieve with every such attack is to reinforce Sinhala resentment against any concessions to Tamils. Each act of terrorism by the LTTE, in which Sinhalese civilians get killed, tends to blur the original Tamil grieva nces, making it tough for the government to justify any political proposal that would address those grievances.

IT was against the backdrop of the first attack and the mourning for CV, the first member of the present government to be killed by the LTTE, that Colombo received a surprise visitor on a diplomatic mission. Jaswant Singh arrived in Colombo on June 11 to reiterate New Delhi's commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of the island-nation and, for good measure, offered a loan of $100 million to the Sri Lankan government. However, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been busy exp laining to its constituent parties from Tamil Nadu, that the money is not meant to purchase weapons.

Call it by any other name, the fact remains that a generous loan at this juncture is timely economic assistance to a country burdened with additional defence expenditure. A joint communique issued at the end of Jaswant Singh's visit does not specify the purpose for which the loan should be used. (When the garrison at Elephant Pass was run over by the LTTE, Sri Lanka began frantically shopping for arms in the international market in order to stave off the rebels' march into the Jaffna Peninsula.)

Finance Minister G.L. Peiris could not have foreseen the additional defence expenditure in February, when he presented the annual Budget. The defence outlay was fixed at Rs.54.2 billion ($720 million) but developments in the Jaffna Peninsula three months later saw the government adding Rs.24 billion ($320 million) to that figure. The government also raised the national defence levy from 5.5 to 6.5 per cent.

Through May and June, with the government trying to raise revenue in order to meet the increased defence expenditure, there has been a series of stunning increases in the price of services and essential commodities such as water, electricity, cooking gas and diesel. The 20 per cent increase in the price of diesel has resulted in a general increase in prices and bus fares. The loan from India is not going to help bring down the prices. And, as New Delhi says, Sri Lanka may not use it to buy weapons.

JASWANT SINGH'S visit spurred the two main political parties, the ruling People's Alliance (P.A.) and the United National Party (UNP), to kickstart the process of forging a consensus on a political solution for the Tamils issue. For the first time, the t wo sides actually set aside their differences over the sticky issue in the constitutional reforms proposed by the government: that of the unit of devolution. Over three meetings, Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe decided on the te mporary measure of setting up an interim council to administer the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces as a prelude to the commencement of a new peace process involving the rebels. On June 17, the Sri Lankan government officially informed Indi a about the decision arrived at by the two leaders, who are expected to meet moderate Tamil politicians to discuss the modalities of the setting up council. (The Island newspaper reported that the government expected India to play a major role in making the LTTE participate in the peace process.)

The proposal also contains the proviso for a referendum to decide the issue of merger of the two Provinces within a fixed time-frame. The council is expected to help initiate the democratic process that will ensure a free and fair referendum. Basically, the proposal envisages the status quo, for the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement-propelled 13th Amendment too envisaged one provincial council for northern and eastern Sri Lanka with the provision for a referendum at a later date. Although the council was dissolved in 1990, the unit continues to be administered by a Governor.

The main party representing the majority of Sri Lanka's Muslims, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which is a constituent of the P.A., has already given its assent to the interim council provided there is a guarantee that the referendum on the merger will be held within a given time-frame. The SLMC's stand is that if the north and the east are to be merged, then it would want a southeastern council carved out of three Muslim-majority electorates in Amparai, with built-in guarantees for the safety an d protection of the Muslim population in Batticaloa and Trincomalee. But it would not demand a southeastern council if the north and the east chose to remain separate.

Underlying this is the argument that in a merged northeast, Muslims would be reduced to a minority. This would not only relegate the SLMC to a position playing second fiddle to the Tamil parties but aggravate the friction between the Tamil and Muslim pop ulations. Muslims of northern and eastern Sri Lanka were targeted by the LTTE in the early 1990s. That experience laid the foundation for deep-rooted tensions between the two communities.

Representatives of Tamil parties declined to comment on the interim council plan until they received official confirmation of the proposal, but the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) has long been saying that pending a consensus on the constitutional reforms package the government must set up a nominated council in the northeast and devolve to it at least the non-controversial powers in the package.

Weeks before the 1999 presidential election, perhaps in an effort to win over the EPDP's support for her campaign, Chandrika Kumaratunga even issued a gazette notification for the formation of such a council. Subsequently she went on a high-pitched offen sive against her main political opponent, Wickremasinghe, for promising that if elected he would set up an interim council in the northeast, which the LTTE would be allowed to run without holding elections for a specified period of time.

In specifying that the interim council will include all parties concerned, the P.A.-UNP proposal envisages the LTTE's participation in it. The question is: will the LTTE participate in such an arrangement, and, if not, is the arrangement not doomed to fa ilure? It requires no great leap of imagination to picture the consequences of non-participation by the LTTE.

The response of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) would depend very much on its reading of the LTTE's thoughts on the issue. The party has already pulled out of consultations on constitutional reforms, saying that the present situation in Jaffna is not conducive to such talks.

By continuing the consultations with the EPDP and other Tamil parliamentary parties, Chandrika Kumaratunga has indicated that she does not care for TULF's reservations on the issue anymore. But if the government's experiment with local government in Jaff na was any indication, can it afford to embark on an interim council experiment without the LTTE's cooperation?

At least two more outstanding differences - on the control over land use and the nature of the Sri Lankan state - remain between the main Sri Lankan parties. But the very fact that the two parties have managed to overcome at least one hurdle should in it self have been a cause for celebration. Perhaps it was a reflection of the controversial nature of the proposal to set up an interim council for the north and the east that members of both parties spoke privately of the agreement. Neither side has so far made separate or joint official statements on this historic achievement.

Instead, the two continued their contrary posturing through the media, as if to reassure their respective support base that a deal would never be struck. But irrespective of the postures, what the agreement has shown is that it is not impossible for the two parties to set aside their historical baggage of mutual acrimony in order to forge a national consensus on the country's crucial problem. Whether this small agreement will lead to a larger consensus on devolution, to which the LTTE will also be a par ty, is another question, one on which nobody will yet place a bet.