Talking to the Tigers

Print edition : January 16, 1999

LTTE leader V. Prabakaran has said that his organisation is ready for talks with the Sri Lankan Government, with third-party mediation. However, given that the LTTE has often used negotiations as an opportunity to consolidate itself militarily, the prospects for peace remain dim.


ON November 27, 1998, in his annual address to mark Heroes' Day, Velupillai Prabakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), declared that his organisation was "prepared for a negotiated settlement (of the ethnic conflict) if peace talks are mediated by a third party." This statement attracted publicity in Sri Lanka and abroad.

V. Surayanarayan

Some important points emerge from Prabakaran's message:

1. The Tamils, said Prabakaran, "want to live peacefully with freedom and dignity" in their motherland. The Sinhala nation has not only denied this "just and civilised demand", but it continues to suppress the Tamils.

2. Three paragraphs in Prabakaran's address are devoted to the lukewarm international response to the "monumental human tragedy".

3. In a statement that is obviously directed at the Sinhalese, Prabakaran refers to Sri Lanka as a "Buddhist country", a nation governed by the "ideas of love, truth and enlightenment". Launching a vicious attack on the Government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Prabakaran asserts that the military project "has crumbled and failed to achieve any of its objectives". On the other hand, he claims that the LTTE "has grown immensely in strength." Chandrika Kumaratunga, he said, had become the "author of the most blood-stained chapter in the history of the oppression of the Tamils."

4. In the most important part of his address, Prabakaran states that the LTTE has not closed the "doors for peace" and "is open to the civilised method of resolving conflicts through rational dialogue." But since Chandrika Kumaratunga "lacks the political will and sincerity to resolve the problem," the LTTE would "favour third-party mediation for political negotiations." There should be "no preconditions for a political dialogue". At the same time, political negotiations should be held "in an atmosphere of peace and normalcy, free from the conditions of war, military aggression and economic blockades." The LTTE will be "prepared to engage in initial talks to discuss the removal of such pressures and to work out a basic framework for negotiations."

BEFORE analysing Prabakaran's address, it would help to review the LTTE's stance during earlier attempts to address the ethnic conflict. In July and August 1985, two rounds of talks were held in Thimphu, Bhutan, between the Sri Lankan Government and the Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF), which comprised the LTTE, the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the Eelam Revolutionary Students' Organisation (EROS). The People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which were outside the ENLF, broadly agreed to the political strategy set forth.

July 1987: Prima Minister Rajiv Gandhi with (from right) LTTE leaders V. Prabakaran and Anton Balasingham and Tamil Nadu Minister Panruti S. Ramachandran, in New Delhi a day before the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in Colombo.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The Thimphu talks were made possible by Indian mediation. Following Indira Gandhi's assassination, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, assisted by Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari, was determined to find a quick solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis. After discussions with President J.R. Jayewardene, the Indian Government decided to bring the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil groups together. The Tamil militant groups were reluctant to participate in the negotiations, but senior officials in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) told them that if they did not proceed to Thimphu "neither Indian soil nor Indian seas would be available to them."

It was apparent from the beginning that the talks would fail. Demonstrations were organised in Jaffna to protest against the talks. According to Ketheeswaran (who represented the EPRLF in Thimphu), the Tamil militants subjected the Sri Lankan delegation to "lectures" on the ethnic question and why it was up to Colombo to come up with a solution "worthy of our consideration". They placed four "cardinal principles" for Colombo's consideration: recognition of the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a distinct nationality; recognition of an identified Tamil homeland and the guarantee of its territorial integrity; recognition of the inalienable right of self-determination of the Tamil nation; and recognition of the right to full citizenship and other fundamental democratic rights of all Tamils who look upon the island as their country.

The first three principles were deliberately couched in ambiguous terms. To the Sinhalese leaders, who at that time viewed even federalism as the first step towards separation, these principles were like a red rag to a bull. The Sri Lankan delegation, which was led by Hector Jayewardene, rejected the principles outright and the talks failed.

One significant fallout of the Thimphu talks deserves mention. Sections of the non-chauvinist, progressive forces in Sri Lanka, led by Vijaya Kumaranatunga and his wife Chandrika Kumaratunga, leaders of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP), visited Chennai in 1986. They blamed the chauvinist Sinhalese leaders for the exacerbation of the ethnic conflict. Through the good offices of N. Ram, they held discussions with a cross-section of Tamils. They carried forward their campaign with a visit to Jaffna. For perceptive Indian observers of the Sri Lankan scene, Vijaya Kumaranatunga and Chandrika Kumaratunga represented the voice of tolerance and sanity.

By 1985, the LTTE had begun to build up its war machine. Simultaneously it began to annihilate its rivals in order to emerge as the only credible fighting force of the Tamils. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran's attempts to bring about a meeting between President J.R. Jayewardene and Prabakaran in November 1986 proved futile. By the end of 1986, it was evident that Prabakaran was unhappy with the peace process.

The sudden shifts in the LTTE's stances can be understood only if one bears in mind that the organisation undertakes negotiations only as a strategy - one step backward, so that it can consolidate itself and later leap forward.

Representatives of the Sri Lankan Government holding talks with the LTTE in Jaffna in January 1995.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

IN July 1987, Prabakaran was taken aback when he was confronted with the fait accompli of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. However, he made use of the opportunity to salvage his position. As several writers have pointed out, he received "financial incentives" from New Delhi; the LTTE received the assurance of majority representation in the interim administration and, above all, it was going to make only a "symbolic gesture" of surrendering arms.

The LTTE viewed the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement as a device that would snatch away the fruits of its struggle. Prabakaran made it clear that he had no faith in the Agreement and that he was waiting for an opportune time to confront the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF). M.R. Narayanaswamy writes in his book Tigers of Sri Lanka: "A Saturday Review Editor, who stumbled upon Mahattaya and Prabhakaran... was told by the LTTE chief: 'So you think, I am for the Accord? I don't like it. At the first opportunity we will sabotage it.' " Prabakaran was equally candid to an Indian journalist, explaining at length how he planned to "play politics" to counter the Indian military establishment. The strategy, he said, would be to provoke the IPKF to attack Sri Lankan Tamil civilians. It would be so fine-tuned that it would not arouse any suspicion.

PRESIDENT RANASINGHE PREMADASA held negotiations with the LTTE between May 1989 and June 1990. The two came together because they found a convergence of interests: to get the IPKF out of Sri Lanka. Asked whether the talks with the LTTE would be within the framework of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne remarked: "No one is going to tell us about the framework within which we have to talk to our countrymen." The LTTE was more arrogant. In an interview to The Times of London, LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham said: "India has no legal or moral right to talk of the security of the Tamil people. This has to be worked out between Sinhalese and Tamils. Foreign intervention has failed to bring peace."

Prabakaran, it must be stated, had no illusions about the bona fides of the Premadasa Government or its willingness and ability to fulfil Tamil aspirations. The negotiations were only tactical moves to take advantage of the common concerns and extract concessions from Colombo.

Bradman Weerakoon, who was Adviser to President Premadasa on International Relations, has given insights into the negotiations. According to him, Colombo made several gestures to the LTTE: "These included permission for the LTTE delegates who came to Colombo to have their own armed security, allocation of an entire floor of a five-star hotel in Colombo, a secret supply of money and weapons to the LTTE to fight the IPKF, arrangements for the wife and children of LTTE leader Prabakaran to be brought from abroad and flown to the Wanni and Premadasa consenting to the LTTE's demand to call publicly for the IPKF to be withdrawn."

The honeymoon lasted only until the IPKF left the island on March 30, 1990. The vacuum left by the IPKF was filled by the LTTE, which gained complete control of the northeastern region. After the IPKF left, Prabakaran put forward two demands - the dissolution of the North-Eastern Provincial Council and the repeal of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The Government rejected the demands and the Second Eelam War broke out. A few months later Premadasa fell victim to an LTTE suicide squad.

THE LTTE held negotiations with the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government from November 1994 until April 1995. The two sides were evidently speaking on different wavelengths. The peace process, according to the LTTE, should proceed in two stages. The early stages of negotiations should address the restoration of normalcy and the creation of a peaceful environment. After normalcy was restored, talks could commence to find a political solution that would meet the aspirations of the Tamil people.

Colombo, on the other hand, maintained that talks that addressed the day-to-day problems of the people and the search for a political solution to the problem should proceed simultaneously. Finally, the LTTE accused the Government of acting in "bad faith" and started the Third Eelam War in April 1995.

The LTTE also used the period during which it carried on negotiations to carry forward its policy of annihilation of political opponents. Thus, TULF leader A. Amirthalingam was killed while the LTTE was holding talks with the Premadasa Government. The group even justified the killing. In an interview to Mervyn de Silva, Editor of the Lanka Guardian, Mahattaya justified the assassination of Amirthalingam and his party colleague Yogeswaran: "They were killed not because they held views different from that of the LTTE, but because they were acting as the agents of India, in short, traitors, collaborators." Ironically, Mahattaya himself was executed by Prabakaran on the charge of being "a RAW agent". The LTTE also assassinated Gamini Dissanayake even as negotiations were on with the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government. Neither Premadasa nor Chandrika Kumaratunga accused the LTTE of acting in bad faith, evidently fearing that such statements would affect the talks.

GIVEN these realities, what are the immediate objectives of the LTTE? First and foremost, the LTTE wants to emerge from international isolation. India, the United States and Malaysia have banned the LTTE; other countries are likely to follow suit. Prabakaran's message is an attempt to win back international favour by projecting the "soft face" of the LTTE.

Equally important, the message is intended to widen the chasm between the ruling People's Alliance Government and the main Opposition party, the United National Party. The references to Sri Lanka as a Buddhist state and the emphasis on the Buddha's teachings on compassion and love are intended to signal to the Sinhalese that the LTTE is not opposed to the Sinhalese people, but is only against the "racist" Chandrika Kumaratunga administration. With elections imminent, Sinhala politics has acquired an edge. UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe's call for unconditional talks with the LTTE should be viewed as part of the UNP's attempts to win back the support of the Tamil people. Wickremasinghe's interview to Editor N. Ram (Frontline, January 1, 1999) is illustrative of this strategy. Tamils who live outside the North and the East have traditionally voted for the UNP. (The exceptions were the parliamentary and presidential elections in 1994 when they overwhelmingly voted for the People's Alliance, which had campaigned on the slogan of peace and ethnic harmony.)

Divisions among the Sinhalese people will suit the long-term objective of the LTTE. Without a Sinhala consensus, no settlement is possible. And Prabakaran can drive home the point that the Tamil people will never get a fair deal from Sinhalese-dominated governments and the only solution that would be beneficial to the Tamils is a separate state of Tamil Eelam.

The LTTE's preconditions for talks indicate that it is not sincere about a political settlement. Prabakaran has made it clear that negotiations can take place only in an atmosphere of peace and normalcy, free from conditions of war, military aggression and economic blockade. This should be seen in the light of an important prerequisite which LTTE ideologue Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran highlighted in a speech at Chatham House on October 15, 1998: "Withdrawal of Sri Lankan troops from the occupied areas will reduce the asymmetrical relations between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamils and will contribute to a climate for successful negotiations between the parties... it will additionally provide peace and security to the Tamil people." Such a demand is unlikely to be met by the Sri Lankan Army.

On the question of third-party mediation too, Prabakaran has done a volte-face. During negotiations with the Premadasa Government and the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government, the LTTE said the ethnic issue should be settled by the two principal parties. Colombo's views on this are clear. Chandrika Kumaratunga has said: "We don't want mediation, we are willing to take third-party facilitation - foreign." Above all, India's involvement in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990 illustrates the limitations of what an external power can do to resolve a domestic conflict.

ACCORDING to the LTTE, the Tamils are not a minority but a nation with the inalienable right to self-determination and secession. The Sri Lankan conflict is, therefore, a conflict between two nations. Secondly, the LTTE is not a political party; it is a national liberation movement. It is also the sole representative of the Tamils and should be recognised as such by Colombo, according to it. The LTTE will go to any lengths to thwart Colombo's attempts to come to an agreement with other Tamil groups. The assassination of the two Mayors of Jaffna - Sarojini Yogeswaran and P. Sivapalan - and other such crimes were intended to strike terror among the non-LTTE groups and prevent the restoration of civilian administration.

It is a tragedy that the Third Eelam War commenced at a time when Chandrika Kumaratunga was preparing significant and far-reaching proposals to restructure the political system. The devolution proposals announced on August 3, 1995 were acclaimed by many Sri Lanka watchers as a bold and imaginative attempt to find a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict. For the first time in Sri Lankan history, Chandrika Kumaratunga took the initiative to find a way out of the Sinhala Only trap and the Eelam trap - as N. Ram summed up the Sri Lankan tragedy. She has repeatedly asserted that if the aspirations of the minority Tamils are to be fulfilled, Sri Lanka must go beyond the unitary state. What is more, the devolution proposals apply equally to all regions and all ethnic groups will benefit from these provisions. Equally important, the Government has declared that the proposals must be viewed in the wider context of constitutional reforms, which include the abrogation of the executive presidency and its replacement by a parliamentary form of government.

This point of view is fundamentally different from that of the LTTE, which wants the Tamil problem to be addressed independently and not be mixed with the issue of executive presidency or devolution to other regions. Moreover, the LTTE does not consider Sri Lankan Tamils as a minority, but as a nation. As Balasingham put it a few years ago: "The Government should recognise the Tamil problem as a national problem and recognise us as a nationality, instead of a minority and recognise the homeland and operate a federal model." The LTTE, he said, would consider a federal model "which preserves the distinct character of the Tamil society and the territorial integrity of the Tamil traditional homeland."

President Chandrika Kumaratunga.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Although the LTTE has not explicitly spelt out what it wants, some idea of what it will be prepared to settle for can be gathered from proposals enunciated by some organisations close to it. A few years ago, a London-based firm of solicitors, Bates, Wells and Braith Waite, prepared certain constitutional proposals on a request from a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens in the United Kingdom. According to Prof. A.J. Wilson, these proposals had the approval of the LTTE and were handed over to President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The proposals do not refer to the country as Sri Lanka, but as Ceylon.

The proposals envisage the creation of a Union "which would be in the form of a confederal structure, consisting of two states each being internally autonomous". Each state would adopt its own internal constitution, which would decide the size and structure of the legislature. A Central Council, consisting of "an equal number of representatives from each state", will be constituted. This Council would be "bestowed with powers" to look after foreign affairs, defence, security, monetary policy, common currency and inter-state relations. For the purpose of international law, the citizens of the Union "would share a common nationality". The powers of the Union can be altered by the people after four years through a referendum.

Given the present political impasse where there is no consensus even on the nature of the Sri Lankan state, it is certain that these suggestions will not receive favourable consideration from the two major political parties. In other words, there is a big gap between what any government in Colombo can offer and what the LTTE will be prepared to settle for.

FIFTY years after Independence, there is very little for Sri Lankans to rejoice or celebrate. On February 4, 1998, President Chandrika Kumaratunga underlined the failures of political leadership in building a united nation: "We have failed to forge together the diverse communities of our peoples into one coherent and strong Sri Lankan nation. We have faltered along for fifty years, permitting the differences to emerge and dominate our social fabric, rather than nurture the commonalities." Unless the mindset changes and unless the civic society, both among the Sinhalese and the Tamils, start playing a more constructive role, Sri Lanka will continue to be one of the most notorious "killing fields" of the world.

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