Mixed signals

Print edition : December 25, 2000

Speaking from a position of strength, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran offers talks, but will he negotiate?

IN his annual Great Heroes' Day message on November 27, 1999, Velupillai Prabakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), declared: "We have not abandoned the path of peace. We want to resolve the Tamil conflict through peaceful mea ns, through civilised methods, without recourse to a bloodbath and the destruction of life." Prabakaran's statement naturally attracted a lot of attention in Sri Lanka and abroad.

A careful reading of Prabakaran's speech brings out the following points: First and foremost, the LTTE has catapulted itself to centre stage and Prabakaran is speaking from a position of strength. The military campaign called "Unceasing Waves III" demons trated not only the resilience of the Tigers but also the weakness and vulnerability of the Sri Lankan Army. To quote Prabakaran: "A colossal military structure with multiple military complexes, well-fortified bases and camps suddenly collapsed with the. .. Tiger offensive... This current offensive has turned the balance of military power in our favour."

Second, Prabakaran has elaborated on the LTTE's preconditions for peace talks. "Peace talks should be held in a cordial, peaceful atmosphere of mutual trust and goodwill with... international third-party mediation. By peaceful atmosphere we mean a condit ion of normalcy characterised by cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of troops occupying Tamil lands and the absence of economic blockades." At the same time, Prabakaran is of the view that the Sinhala leadership will not agree to "create a peaceful env ironment". It will not abandon its "long-standing policy of military violence and repression", says Prabakaran and adds that therefore, the Tamils are left with no alternative "other than to fight, secede and establish an independent Tamil state.. Tamil Eelam is the only and final solution to our national conflict".

Before analysing the implications of Prabakaran's statement, it would be worthwhile to keep in mind the LTTE's stance during earlier attempts to resolve the ethnic conflict. The first time the LTTE participated in such an exercise, it was (as an integral part of the Eelam National Liberation Front) in the two rounds of Thimphu talks in July and August 1985. Prabakaran was convinced that these talks, arranged by New Delhi, would not lead to a solution. But he did not want to alienate New Delhi by boycott ing them. In Thimphu, the Tamil groups put forward four cardinal principles, which were deliberately couched in ambiguous terms. These were (1) Recognition of Tamils as a distinct nationality; (2) Recognition of the traditional Tamil homeland and a guara ntee of its territorial integrity; (3) Recognition of the right of self-determination of the Tamil nation and (4) Conferment of citizenship to all Tamils. To Colombo, which viewed even federalism as the first step towards separation, these principles wer e like a red rag before a bull. The Thimphu talks were a fiasco.

The second futile exercise was former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.G. Rama-chandran's attempt to bring about a meeting between President J.R. Jayewardene and Praba-karan during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Bangal ore in November 1986. Although Praba-karan went to Bangalore, he refused to meet Jayewardene. What is more, he made it clear to the Indian emissaries that he would never give up the demand for Tamil Eelam.

Another important phase of LTTE involvement in the peace process began with the India-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987. Prabakaran was unhappy with the Accord, but he knew it was a fait accompli and, therefore, wanted to use the opportunity to salvage his p osition as much as possible. Prabakaran received "financial incentives" from New Delhi; he was also assured of majority representation in the interim administration. Even then, he made only a "symbolic gesture" of surrendering arms. In the famous Sudumal ai Amman temple speech, after giving his version of the background to the Accord, Prabakaran maintained: "But let me make it clear to you here, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I will continue to fight for the objective of attaining Tamil Eelam." In hi s book, Assignment Colombo, J.N. Dixit provides a true assessment of Prabakaran: "One over-arching miscalculation of India was our under-estimating Prabakaran's passionate, even obsessive, commitment to the cause of Tamil Eelam, his authoritarian and single-minded nature, his tactical cleverness and his resilience in adversity."

President Ranasinghe Premadasa's negotiations with the LTTE extended from May 1989 to June 1990. The two hitherto antagonistic forces came together because they found a convergence of interests - get the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) out of Sri Lanka . Prabakaran had no illusions about the bona fides of the Premadasa Government. Bradman Weerakoon, adviser to President Premadasa, has pointed out that "there is no record of any serious political talks" between the two sides. It is well known tha t Premadasa provided "secret supply of money and weapons to the LTTE to fight the IPKF". What is more, the vacuum left by the IPKF was filled by the LTTE and it gained complete control of the North and East. Prabakaran put forward two demands: the dissol ution of the Northeastern Provincial Council and the repeal of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The Government rejected the two demands, and the Second Eelam War commenced.

The LTTE's negotiations with President Chandrika Kumara-tunga during November 1994-April 1995 reveal-ed that the two parties were speaking on different wavelengths. The peace process, according to the LTTE, should proceed in two stages. The early stages of the negotiations should address the restoration of normalcy and the creation of a peaceful environment. After normalcy is restored, talks can start in order to find a meaningful solution. Colombo, on the other hand, maintained that there should be sim ultaneous talks relating to the day-to-day problems of the people and with the aim of finding a political solution. Finally, the LTTE accused the Government of acting in "bad faith" and started the Third Eelam War in April 1995.

Velupillai Prabakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.-

Considering these past realities, the question arises whether Prabakaran is really interested in finding a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict in the framework of a united Sri Lanka. The immediate objective of the LTTE is to come out of its growing international isolation. Prabakaran's peace offer is a projection of the "soft face" of the LTTE - a liberation organisation that is an "aggrieved party" and a "victim of oppression".

The preconditions laid down by the LTTE for talks indicate that negotiations would be extremely difficult. According to the LTTE, negotiations can take place only in an atmosphere of peace and normalcy, free from conditions of war and economic blockade. Such a demand will not find favour with the Sri Lankan Army, for it will amount to its committing hara-kiri. In an interview to N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, on December 7, 1998, Chandrika Kumaratunga explained the LTTE behaviour as follows: The LTT E will do what they have always done - that is, drag on and on and on until they build themselves up again militarily and then start attacking again." (Frontline, January 1, 1999).

The question of third-party mediation is likely to be another thorny issue. Here again Prabakaran has made a somersault. During the earlier negotiations with Premadasa and Chandrika, the LTTE considered the ethnic issue as one that should be settled by t he two major players. In an interview to The Times of London (during the LTTE-Premadasa negotiations), LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham said: "India has no legal or moral right to talk of security of Tamil people. This has to be worked out betwee n Sinhalese and Tamils. Foreign intervention has failed to bring peace." As far as Colombo is concerned, Chandrika has made the position clear thus: "We don't want mediation, we are willing to take third party facilitation... foreign" (Frontline, January 1, 1999). Above all, the Indian involvement in Sri Lanka (1987-90) is a clear illustration of the inherent limitations of what an external power can do to resolve what is essentially "a domestic conflict".

Equally important, Prabakaran's message, coming as it did in the midst of the presidential election campaign, widened the chasm between the two major Sinhalese parties, the People's Alliance (P.A.) and the United National Party (UNP). While Prabakaran cl ubs the UNP and P.A. together as "chauvinist organisations" which compete with each other in "intensifying the oppression against the Tamil people", Chandrika is singled out for a vitriolic attack. Prabakaran stated: "We do not trust Chandrika. She does not have the honesty and determination to resolve the Tamil national conflict in a fair and reasonable manner."

The UNP naturally wants to exploit Chandrika's predicament to its advantage. Its leader Ranil Wikremasinghe's call for unconditional talks with the LTTE and his suggestion that interim administration in the North-East could be headed by the LTTE should b e viewed as part of the UNP's attempts to win back Tamil support.

It is obvious that increasing divisions among the Sinhalese will suit the long-term objectives of the LTTE. Without a Sinhala consensus, no settlement is possible. And Prabakaran can drive home the point that Tamils will not get a fair deal from Sinhales e-dominated governments. The winter of discontent in Sri Lanka is likely to be prolonged.

V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and South-East Asian Studies, University of Madras.

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