Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

How War Became Possible

by Jana Nayagam, Tamil Guardian, London, January 10, 2007

The ferocious war being thrust upon the Tamils is not the result of a series of unfortunate events.

One year after he came to power, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse can be justifiably pleased with himself. He is well on his way to executing his stated vision and delivering on his election pledges to the Sinhala heartland.  

Rajapakse never made any secret of his intententions. In fact, he laid out its broad contours in his election manifesto, ‘Mahinda Chinthana,’ and openly declared his views later.  


When President Mahinda Rajapakse met with British Premier Tony Blair last August, he had already resumed the war against the LTTE.
Photo: colombopage.com

Sri Lanka’s stuttering peace process was a ‘short sighted’ project implemented in ‘haste’ he said. The 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the international monitoring mechanism would be ‘reviewed’ if he won. The interventions of the Co-chair’s (the US, UK, Japan and Norway) would be restricted whilst greater ‘cooperation’ would be sought with China, Russia and Pakistan.  

As far as solving the decades long conflict was concerned, his administration would reverse the sellout of his predecessors and ensure the undivided (read unitary) state stood.  

Any solution would not be ‘trapped’ within concepts such as Tamil homeland or self-determination, he warned.  

He would, however, come up with a solution. But only after (read if) it received a ‘majority consensus’ – shorthand for approval of the Sinhalese majority.  

He insisted he was for peace, naturally. But he also set timeframes for the LTTE to ‘renounce separatism, demilitarize (read disarm), enter into the democratic process and discussion and implementation of a final solution.’  

Early into his tenure the LTTE, as expected, rejected any negotiations based on a ‘unitary’ state and insisted on Tamil homeland and self-determination as the basis for talks.  

Rajapaksa smoothly shifted gears into the next phase of his project – the implementation of his intended solution to the ethnic question.  

A core aspect of Rajapaksa’s solution is the dilution of any Tamil claims to a traditional homeland. In practice that means ensuring regions where Tamils constitute a majority are demographically altered.  

And that, as can be expected, means colonization, ethnic cleansing and the redrawing of boundaries.  

This is not the first time in the conflict that the Sri Lankan state has embarked on such a policy of demographic reengineering.  

But it is the first time it is being done with the international community in close attendance.  

That the Sri Lankan armed forces would launch a war in the east has long been known. This newspaper, in its June 29, 2005 and April 19, 2006 editions, outlined this eventuality.  

But the wholesale expulsion and scattering of the Tamil population is Rajapakse’s own variant of the plan.  

After the April 2005 suicide bombing that wounded Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the armed forces responded with a massive bombardment of LTTE-controlled areas in Trincomalee district. Over 40,000 people were displaced.   Whilst there has been sporadic criticism of this disproportionate response, few discerned the ethnic cleansing which had begun for what it was.  

And fewer international actors protested when it did become clear.  

The state's long-standing policy of blocking food and medical aid to Tamils in the region is another facet of an integrated strategy. This has also failed to draw any substantive international criticism.  

Even now, despite the dire situation in Vaharai and Verugal, Rajapakse’s fundamental policy of mass displacement has been met with silence (read tacit approval) by the international community.  

Notably, displaced people from Sinhala colonies and most Muslim villages have been quickly resettled in Trincomalee. It is the Tamils who are still being scattered.  

There is no doubt that, provided Rajapakse’s war goes according to plan, aggressive colonization of Tamil areas and redrawing of local electoral zones will follow swiftly n the east.  

Almost every decade since the 1950’s has seen such state-aided colonization projects being implemented, supported by official and paramilitary violence against the Tamils.  

And that was long before Vellupillai Pirapaharan, the LTTE or 1983.  

In the meantime, Rajapakse has been systematically addressing the ‘betrayals’ of the five years of peace process.  

He has effectively sidelined the Norwegian facilitators and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) as he had pledged to do (the peace envoys were subjected to a verbal shelling, the SLMM chiefs to a literal one).  

In the last few months Rajapakse has systematically rendered the CFA meaningless. He closed the A9 highway in August (a ‘standing’ breach of Clause 2.10) and in December he re-introduced Prevention of Terrorism legislation (a ‘standing breach of Clause 2.12).  

At the time of his election, his liberal and leftist advocates argued that Rajapakse’s electoral pacts with the ultra- Sinhala nationalists were merely opportunistic and that he would follow more centric policies once he gained power. They were quite wrong.  

With hindsight it is clear that Rajapaksa is not a typical politician mired in coalition politics. He is in fact a single minded Sinhala nationalist President who has assembled a close team of trusted hardliners and is rolling out a calculated plan to deliver on his nationalist pledges.  

The cotorie includes two of his brothers, Gobathaya, a former Army officer who has been appointed Defence Secretary and Basil, a de-facto chief of staff and trouble shooter in the administration. Another key team member is Army Chief Fonseka, Gobathaya’s former commander.  

This team has now presided over a series of major offensives against the LTTE, throughout much of the past year.  

The CFA is an utter irrelevancy in their calculations, though for appearances sake, the logic of ‘defensive offensive’ is trotted out to the Colombo embassies.  

With a series of victories against the LTTE under Rajapakse’s belt, it is no accident that parallels are being drawn to the Sinhala king Duttu Gemunu, who famously vanquished the Tamils to safeguard the island for the Sinhalese.

Rajapakse himself has taken to referring to the conflict as one between him and Pirapaharan (or between the ‘Sinhala Hero’ and the ‘Vanni Hero’, as he once arrogantly told Tamil parliamentarians who came to plead for Vaharai with him).   Despite having restarted the war, Rajapaske has been careful to provide a plausible excuse for international inaction: he is said to be seeking a ‘southern consensus’ on a political solution to offer the Tamils.  

Seasoned observers would say he already has a consensus: ‘defeat terrorism and protect the unitary state.’  

Even the opposition UNP, riven by internal dissent, is only half heartedly clinging to the Oslo and Tokyo declarations on federalism (lest anyone forget, the Oslo Declaration also reiterates the salience of the Tamil homeland).  

Yet the international community continues the pretence that Rajapakse is seriously engaged in working out a power-sharing package ahead of pursuing a negotiated solution.  

But all of Rajapakse’s actions (except the All Party Committee) points to the exact opposite: an all-out war against the Tigers and the dismantling of Tamils’ claims to their homeland in the island’s Northeast.  

The premeditated and ruthless policies of starvation and mass killing directed against the Tamils, particularly in the eastern province, are comparable to those used at the height of military onslaughts by previous Presidents.  

And under the new PTA and Emergency Regulations, the disappearances of pro-independence or autonomy (now federalism) Tamils has rocketed.  

Even before then, large numbers of civil society activists, academics, humanitarian workers, journalists and other key elements of Tamil society have been targeted for assassination and ‘disappearance.’  

The term genocide should not be lightly used. But it is the institutionalized and multi-faceted (physical, cultural, biological, etc.) nature of the oppression against Tamils by Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated state that make it applicable.  

For their part, the international community has consciously aided many aspects of Rajapakse’s phase of this long-running slow genocide.  

It should be remembered that the Sri Lankan military, including most of its senior officers, have all been trained by the United States and likeminded states.  

It should also be remembered that the vast war machine that Rajapaske inherited and is now unleashing has been carefully (re-)built since 2002 with international assistance and funding.  

It was being prepared long before Rajapakse came to power, for whoever might be in office. Such support is part of what Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (who was expected to be President now), smugly called the ‘international safety net under the peace process.’  

With the LTTE seen as the central problem, the peace process was, for the international community, an elaborate exercise in counter-insurgency. The military machine was partly deterrence to keep the LTTE in the negotiation process and partly preparation for the possible eventuality of a return to war.  

But even if this international logic is taken at face value, what is truly shocking is that there has been barely a murmur about the wide-scale violence being unleashed upon the Tamils as a whole (and not just the LTTE).  

Human rights and international humanitarian law, it seems, are not universal principles, after all.  

It has been argued – and this is the view of some policy makers in Western capitals – that the LTTE and the Tamils brought the present crisis on themselves by boycotting the Nov. 2005 elections.  

That allowed Rajapakse, who took the overwhelming majority of Sinhala votes, to come to power despite his arch-rival, Wickremesinghe taking the Muslim, Hill Country Tamils and some Sinhala votes.  

But this logic of blaming of the victim is flawed.  

The fact that Tamils are a numerical minority in Sri Lanka leaves them ever vulnerable to majoritarian domination. The return of a Sinhala hardline government prepared to revoke power-sharing agreements and reinstate supremacist policies and will always be a clear and present danger.  

Throughout the peace process, the implied protection against such an eventuality was, of course, the international community.  

But if this were truly so, then it shouldn’t matter who comes to power in Sri Lanka.  

However, as Rajapakse has amply demonstrated, even international treaties such as the Indo – Sri Lanka agreement, are worthless unless they are backed by credible powers that the Tamils can call on for support.  

Although few believed that the international safety net extended to protecting the Tamils from the Sinhala-dominated state, the international community’s tacit endorsement of Rajapakse brutal actions is the prime reason that humanitarian crises have erupted across the Northeast.  

Indeed, last year this column warned that Rajapakse had nothing to lose from attempting a military solution:  

Were he to pursue a negotiated solution, he would have to concede to some form of federalism, something he and his Sinhala constituency found unacceptable.  

However, were he to launch a war and succeed, then he could dictate the terms of a weaker solution. On the other hand, if the war failed, then he would be back at the negotiating table discussing no more than federalism, because that was the ceiling the international community had set on Tamil aspirations.  

So the ferocious war being thrust upon the Tamils is not the result of a series of unfortunate and unforeseen events though last year.  

Rather it is a result of a combination of factors.  

Firstly, the local and international preparations to contain the Tamil struggle (including the rebuilding and expansion of the Sri Lankan military and economy) that have been underway since the peace process started in 2002;   and, secondly, the ascension to power of a hardline President, who despite his unabashed Sinhala-nationalist mind-set, has the support of the same international community that was underwriting the peace process.  

With arms flowing in from his international allies via Pakistan and with financial support assured from Japan and other donors, it would seem there is very little standing between Rajapakse and a new ethnic map of Sri Lanka. Except for the LTTE, of course.  

In short, what is unfolding in the Northeast is not a consequence of the international community being unable to influence Sri Lanka’s internal politics.  Rather, it is the reverse. It is because, despite all the warning signs, the international community actively intervened to stack the cards against the Tamils and to reinforce the Sinhala-dominated state against them.  

That is why it is so quiet out there now.  

The game, meanwhile, is on. Again.