Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Two Tests of the Government's Sincerity

by Jehan Perera, Daily Mirror (Columbo), July 3, 2007

The main argument against the notion of a military solution is that eradicating a symptom cannot end the cause of the problem. Even if the government were to defeat the LTTE on the battlefields of Sri Lanka, it will not be able to eradicate the Tamil nationalism. The desire of Tamil people to enjoy equal rights and to have real decision making power in Sri Lanka, whether in the north and east or in Colombo, is not limited to the LTTE-controlled Wanni. It exists in the same measure in other parts of the north and east, in Colombo and elsewhere in the country. In addition, there is a vast reservoir of Tamil nationalism in the Tamil expatriate community that lives abroad, that no amount of military solutions in Sri Lanka can ever hope to subdue.

[Not that the editors agree with Perera's solution to respond to Tamil nationalism.]

There are reports that the government is contemplating new initiatives to revive the peace process. An optimistic reading would be that the government will offer to stop fighting after having cleared up the last remaining LTTE stronghold in the east. By taking control of the Thoppigala jungles the government will have accomplished a major feat that previous governments failed to do. The government is now in a politically strong position with its Sinhalese voter base to offer the international community to have peace talks with the LTTE. No one can accuse the government of wishing to negotiate on bended knees as was unfairly said of previous governments.

Taking a respite from war is also likely to be politically popular with the electorate today. The country is reeling economically from the impact of the ongoing war. The increase in the defence budget has been phenomenal and is virtually double what it was last year. Although economic analysts may attribute the economic crisis to poor economic management and a lack of vision in developmental thinking, most people believe that the economic misfortunes that they are being subjected to have their origins in the war. In addition, the hope of a quick military victory over the LTTE has receded with the passing of over a year of sustained warfare.

There are other compelling reasons also for the government to make known that it is contemplating a change of approach. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a pragmatic sense of balance, and probably is aware that the government’s unabashed military adventure, regardless of the human costs, has earned it the disfavour of the international community. There is increasing pressure from the major donor countries on the government urging it to change track. Although they have not joined publicly with the Western donor countries who are outspoken in their criticism, both Japan and India are reported to be putting serious pressure on the government from behind the scenes.

The donor co-chairs to the peace process who met recently in Oslo are reported to have agreed to put pressure on the government to accept a four point agenda to end the ongoing conflict and resume peace talks. The representatives of the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway have apparently come to a common position to reject a military solution and re-affirm their faith in the possibility of a negotiated political solution. They have also called for an end to human rights abuses by both the government and LTTE and insisted that the Norwegian facilitators should be given access by the government to meet with the LTTE in the Wanni. Fourth, they have urged the government to come up with a credible political package through the All Party Conference process to address the ethnic conflict.

Dual strategy

In deciding to hint at a change of approach the government would also be cognisant of mounting internal criticism of the government’s performance. The abortive attempt by the government to resurrect the Criminal Defamation law can be seen as an indicator of the government’s concerns that media criticism is eroding its credibility. Sections of the media have been reflective of urban discontent, and been outspoken in their criticism of the government’s strategy of a war against terrorism and the high level of expenditures and corruption entailed in it. The cross over of two leading members of the government into the ranks of the opposition may not have tilted the balance of power in Parliament, but it has dented the government’s credibility with the electorate.

So far the government has sought to justify most of its regressive actions by reference to the requirements of a war against terrorism. There is a pattern of regression by the government that is unhealthy and which needs to be changed. The abductions and political killings taking place evoke memories of the period 1988-89 that were thought to be confined to the past. The ruling party’s presentation of political proposals that are at least 25 years out of time, would be another example of regression by the government to the past.

It appears that the government’s willingness to contemplate peace talks with the LTTE are combined with a determination to continue with military operations to counter the LTTE. This suggests that the government’s new approach will, at best, be a two pronged one, reminiscent of that of the government of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who herself declared a war for peace against the LTTE. However, in the latter half of her second and final term of office, the former President lost faith in this dual track approach, and instead focused only on the political approach.

By way of contrast, there is little to suggest that in the one and a half years since his election, President Rajapaksa and his war advisors have reached the level of enlightenment that former President Kumaratunga took nine years to realise. Accordingly, President Rajapaksa’s likely approach will be to give assurances of his government’s commitment to a political solution to the ethnic conflict, but also continuing with the war against the LTTE. In such circumstances, the likelihood of the military prong keeping its dominant place in the thinking and emphasis of the government is very strong.

Only Answer

Tragically the war appears to have a beguiling allure to both the Rajapaksa government and to the LTTE. Those who support the government’s military campaign believe that the government has to defeat the LTTE in order to defeat the threat of Tamil separatism. On the other hand, those who support the LTTE’s military campaign would believe that the LTTE has to wrest Tamil rights, and Tamil territory, by force of arms away from the government. But both are dealing with symptoms, not the causes. The fact is that the ethnic conflict existed before the LTTE was formed or the Rajapaksa government came into power.

The main argument against the notion of a military solution is that eradicating a symptom cannot end the cause of the problem. Even if the government were to defeat the LTTE on the battlefields of Sri Lanka, it will not be able to eradicate the Tamil nationalism. The desire of Tamil people to enjoy equal rights and to have real decision making power in Sri Lanka, whether in the north and east or in Colombo, is not limited to the LTTE-controlled Wanni. It exists in the same measure in other parts of the north and east, in Colombo and elsewhere in the country. In addition, there is a vast reservoir of Tamil nationalism in the Tamil expatriate community that lives abroad, that no amount of military solutions in Sri Lanka can ever hope to subdue.

There is only one answer to Tamil nationalism and that is a just political solution that accords with universal human rights principles. The best hope of arriving at such a political solution today is for the government to re-invigorate the All Party Conference process, as recommended by the donor co-chairs. There are two necessary steps for this. The first is for the government to heed the views of its old left and ethnic minority coalition partners, and improve the proposal that the ruling party has made to the All Party Conference. The second is to include the Tamil National Alliance into the All Party Conference process instead of seeking to exclude them, as the government has done over the past year and a half.

Both of these steps require a fundamental re-orientation in the government’s approach to the ethnic conflict. The government will need to stop placing its faith in the power of Sinhalese nationalism to deliver a military victory over Tamil nationalism. It will need to stop being a hostage to Sinhalese nationalism, and recognise that Sinhalese nationalism cannot provide either military victory or economic prosperity. The TNA parliamentarians as the elected representatives of the Tamil people have the duty to represent the democratic aspirations of the Tamil people without simply being the pawns of the LTTE. Without these two steps, the government’s promise of a new approach to the ethnic conflict is unlikely to come to fruition.