Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Develop Now and Destroy Later?

by Satheesan Kumaaran, May 7, 2008

"Local elections in Batticaloa and the victory by the TMVP are not likely to ease growing international (Western) pressure on the government over a deepening human rights crisis. With the hardline government committed to an increasingly difficult military project, both the human rights situation and the economic situation will deteriorate. Yet with Asian donors ready to compensate for Western aid cuts, there are few levers with which international actors can influence the government -- either to pursue negotiations or offer a credible political solution to the Tamil question."

While Sri Lankan politicians and the people in the south enthusiastically celebrated May Day 2008, the people in the North East still yearned for permanent peace, waiting to hear what the Sri Lankan leaders would say about the possibility of the government declaring a new truce with the Tamils.  The promises were far from what they had expected and hoped for.  The Eastern people were promised that they would receive peace and economic prosperity if they voted for the paramilitary ‘TMVP group’.  The Northern people were told that they would see great economic development after the elections in the East under the leadership of another government-sponsored paramilitary, the ‘EPDP,’ whose leader is Douglas Devananda. 

The destiny of the Northern Eastern people have been handed over to the paramilitaries and the people have no choice but to face the dire consequences in the months to come, unless and until the LTTE breaks out with its political and military strategies. 

The people in the Sri Lanka’s North are sick and tired of hearing empty promises by Sinhala politicians.

Let’s develop the North now

When Sri Lankan government leaders were energetic over a few important events that took place during the week leading up to May Day 2008, Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, promised that he would liberate the North from the LTTE and establish permanent peace in the East.

Rajapaksa made this announcement the same week that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Sri Lanka and signed a deal with his Sri Lankan counterpart to improve a refinery, and hydro-electric and irrigation schemes.  Last year, Iran agreed to soft loans and grants of $ 1.9 billion US for a hydroelectric and irrigation scheme and to upgrade a refinery, as well as to buy Iranian oil.  Ahmadinejad was escorted to observe the Iranian funded projects during his two-day official visit to Sri Lanka.  He arrived in Colombo on April 28, and Rajapaksa personally welcomed the Iranian delegation at the Bandaranaike International Airport.

Also that week, Rajapaksa’s government set up a multi-party “Task Force Committee for Northern Development” comprised of EPDP leader and cabinet Minister for Social Services, Douglas Devenanda (Tamil), Minister for Rehabilitation, Rishad Badiuddin (Muslim), and the President’s own brother and advisor, Basil Rajapaksa (Sinhalese).  The government said the establishment of this committee would pave the way for the proposed Northern Provincial Council, similar to the Eastern Provincial Council for which people in the East will vote on May 10. 

Rajapksa is waiting to see the results of this May 10 election. 

In the lead-up to the election, he has been urging people in the East to vote for his United People’s Front Alliance coalition with the former LTTE commander Karuna faction “Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal,” now led by Sivanesathurai Chanthirakanthan (alias Pillaiyan).  He appealed to the eastern people that their vote for the coalition would bring peace and development, compared to the LTTE opposition.

He also promised the Northern people that he would set up the Northern Task Force Committee with powers vested in the hands of a once fierce militant group led by Minister Devananda. The President said that Northern people will be liberated as the Eastern people with this Task Force.  Northern people will elect their representatives to the Northern Provincial Council, just as the eastern people do to elect their representatives to the newly established Eastern Provincial Council.

Soon after the government’s announcement about the setting up of the Northern Provincial Council, the excited Devananda said that the Task Force Committee’s functions would be broad based and cover the areas of Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitheevu. Even the Sinhalese people mistrust Devananda. His antecedents are too well known.

Devananda stated that the formation of the council had been a longstanding demand of his for an interim council of peoples’ representatives to run the administration in the Tamil-speaking North and East Sri Lanka. “While the Eastern Province will have an elected provincial council after the May 10 elections, the Northern Province will have a nominated but representative political council till elections are held,” he said.

People in the North have no hope but only despair under the leadership of Douglas Devananda, for they fear that the Tamils will be overrun in the North with abductions and disappearances being the norm. 

Destroy it later – once bitten, twice shy

The fighting between the LTTE and GoSL armed forces has destroyed many properties and lives of the people in the North.  But, each time, as soon as the LTTE engages in peace talks with the Indian and Sri Lankan governments, the people immediately begin to rebuild their residential and commercial establishments.  But, until such talks commence, Northern people live under pathetic economic conditions. 

The people of the North and East have been bitten on many occasions. Many times they saw a hint of the possibility of peace but were disappointed when the battles resumed and their attempts to rebuild their lives were demolished.   

The people in the North want permanent peace to the national question and not piecemeal solutions. 

For that to happen, the GoSL needs to embrace the LTTE.  The setting up of provincial councils is nothing but a political game.

Who will benefit?

Only the paramilitaries, politicians, and international players like India and the U.S. would benefit in the so-called development of the North and East.  As these groups further destabilize the situation in the region, the government in Colombo would blame the LTTE for destroying their own homeland.

The establishment of provincial councils is only an attempt for the politicians in Colombo to buy more time so that the Tamil Eelam struggle will weaken.  In the meantime, the government could seek monetary aid under the guise of rebuilding the Tamil areas regardless of any ethnic battles. 

The international community such as India and the U.S. would also benefit from the establishment of these councils.  It would serve as an example to Indians, who will be going to polling stations next year to elect their representatives for Lok Sabha (Lower House).  New Delhi does not want to antagonize regional political parties such as DMK, PMK, MDMK and VCK as well as the national political parties such as the CPI and BJP, because these parties are waiting to claim that the Congress party did not have good foreign policy towards immediate neighbouring countries.  The regional political parties want immediate peace in Sri Lanka, and believe this can be done – even if in appearance only – through the setting up of the provincial council.  This will definitely boost New Delhi. 

As for the U.S., the U.S. does not want any heavy fighting taking place in Sri Lanka between the GoSL and LTTE.  They want temporary peace for various reasons.  Democrat presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton, remarked few months ago to the effect that she would not paint the freedom fighters of the LTTE with the same brush as the Al Qaeda.

High-powered visits to the North?

The LTTE-controlled areas are ten times larger than the areas controlled by the GoSL in the North, and begs the question whether the President’s Task Force Committee for Northern Development could visit the areas controlled by the LTTE. It is also worth wondering how the LTTE would welcome these high-powered men.  Would they roll out the red carpet or direct the Tamil Eelam judicial department to regard these three men as trespassers into the de jure State of ‘Tamil Eelam’ and deal with them accordingly.

If this is, instead, an effort by the Sri Lankan president to capture all LTTE-controlled areas in the North, will the LTTE launch surprise military operations into the Jaffna peninsula which is now under the control of the Sri Lankan armed forces?  In the past, once the GoSL took control of LTTE areas, the LTTE would take control of the GoSL areas because there would be insufficient government forces left behind to maintain stability.  The LTTE fighters will have two choices if Rajapaksa’s claims materialize: One, the LTTE fighters will commit suicide; or, two, they will have to leave the country and set up military bases in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu or Kerala.  The question is whether India would allow this to happen? 

Whatever plans are devised for wiping out the LTTE from Sri Lanka they will not be fruitful.  The LTTE and the GoSL will maintain the balance of military power by capturing each other’s controlled areas.  The plans to develop North and East without granting the autonomy demanded by the LTTE will be another unsuccessful attempt at peace, and it will, instead inflict heavy economic and political damage to the Tamils in particular and all Sri Lankans in general.

(The author can be reached at e-mail: satheessan_kumaaran@yahoo.com)

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Changing Donor Alliances Bolster Colombo

by Oxford Analytica, March 17, 2008

EVENT: Eastern Province council elections will take place in May, the Election Commission confirmed on March 14.

SIGNIFICANCE: The government last year regained control over the area from the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, holding polls on March 10 for local bodies in the district of Batticaloa that were won by an allied Tamil paramilitary group. However, its claims to be democratising and developing the province have come under question, souring relations with traditional donors and allowing China and other countries to gain influence.

ANALYSIS: The government on March 10 held elections for local bodies in Batticaloa district, Eastern Province. It did so despite a boycott by the main opposition United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance (a coalition of the four largest Tamil parties), as well as vocal criticism of intimidation and vote-rigging from prominent civil society groups in Colombo. The TMVP (Tamil Makkal Vuduthalai Puligal), founded in 2004 by former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), won the elections. The party has attracted controversy:

- It has worked with the military in counter-insurgency operations against the LTTE.

- International human rights groups have held it responsible for widespread abuses, including extra-judicial killings, 'disappearances' and child conscription.

Such criticism is part of wider condemnation of the Sinhala-nationalist President Mahinda Rajapakse administration for its treatment of minority Tamil and Muslim communities.

Eastern promise. Last July, the government announced that it had driven the LTTE out of the Eastern Province after a protracted military campaign. However, the LTTE maintains a discernable presence in the Amparai district and the entire province remains heavily militarised, underlying its volatility. It is in this context that the TMVP has been operating freely in Eastern Province. Despite increasing criticism from human rights groups about the 'climate of terror' in the region, the government has dismissed criticism of the party and its relationship with it. It held local elections last week to:

- legitimise the TMVP; and

- substantiate its assertion that normalcy has returned to the east.

The ruling party and the TMVP contested the polls jointly in Batticaloa town. The decision by opposition parties to boycott the elections was based on security considerations, particularly for the TNA, a number of whose parliamentarians, councillors and party workers have been assassinated.

External expectations. While the international community has been broadly supportive of the government's military drive against the LTTE, there is growing anxiety about a number issues. They include:

- what critics call the attendant 'dirty war';

- the humanitarian crisis; and

- post-conflict strategy.

More specifically, there was an expectation that following the takeover of the east from the LTTE, the government would follow through with its pledge of rapid development to win minority hearts and minds. A substantial amount of foreign aid was pledged for this purpose alongside publicly stated political support for Colombo. However, the period since mid-2007 has seen aggressive (Sinhala) colonisation of Tamil and Muslim areas. TMVP predations (extortion, conscription etc), often supported by the security forces, have taken their toll on both communities.

Shifting focus. Concern about government strategy and the humanitarian impact of the conflict have led to growing frustration among Western donors:

- The United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and Sweden have either slashed aid or frozen future allocations.

- Japan, traditionally the largest donor to Sri Lanka, has proved non-committal; the special relationship still endures that grew out of unequivocal support from Colombo for Japan's rehabilitation after the Second World War.

The Sri Lankan government has brushed off criticism and aid cuts, signaling a strategic shift towards new donors such as China, India and Iran:

- Funds from China last year reached almost 1 billion dollars.

- Iran last year extended Colombo 1.5 billion dollars in credit.

While Western states usually attach human rights and good governance conditions to their aid, Asian states tend not to do so. They are also prepared to ameliorate the effects of Western aid cuts by providing assistance themselves. Such differences have acquired particular salience for Colombo in the wake of Kosovo's declaration of independence and its recognition by Western states, including the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. All three countries have applied pressure on the Sri Lankan government.

Battlefield struggle. The backdrop to these shifting external alliances is the increasing difficulties faced by the Sri Lankan military in the northern battlefronts. The army chief last week visited India to lobby for increased military assistance -- Sri Lanka's key weapons suppliers are currently China and Pakistan -- the most important assistance Colombo needs from Delhi is naval assistance to block the flow of supplies from Tamil Nadu.

For several months the military has sustained a multi-front assault on the LTTE-controlled Vanni region -- from Jaffna in the north, Mannar in the south-west and Weli-Oya/Manal-Aru in the south-east. Unlike in the east, where the military steadily moved through LTTE areas, Tiger resistance has been fierce in the north:

Territory. Government spokesmen regularly announce fresh advances, but it is clear that there has been little progress; captured ground is often lost to LTTE counter-attacks or sometimes abandoned by troops to avoid being cut off. Confident assertions by senior military commanders have given way to the management of expectations.

Casualties. Military casualties have been unexpectedly heavy and the army -- expanded by 34,000 to 150,000 last year -- has announced a fresh recruitment drive for 15,000 more troops. Suggestions that this is financially reckless are misplaced: remittances from military salaries are essential to sustaining many families and the local economy in the rural south.

Data. While LTTE casualties are likely to be heavier than the figures it announces, the military's claims that dozens of guerrillas are being killed every day are exaggerated. The military has sought to justify the pace of advance by saying it is wearing down the LTTE in a 'war of attrition', but this may raise questions about the need for military expansion. Conversely, the LTTE, while taking casualties, is still able to replace losses through fresh recruitment, including conscription, in its controlled areas. More importantly, the LTTE -- just like the military -- has not committed its better units, leaving plenty of scope for the conflict to intensify.

CONCLUSION: Local elections in Batticaloa and the victory by the TMVP are not likely to ease growing international (Western) pressure on the government over a deepening human rights crisis. With the hardline government committed to an increasingly difficult military project, both the human rights situation and the economic situation will deteriorate. Yet with Asian donors ready to compensate for Western aid cuts, there are few levers with which international actors can influence the government -- either to pursue negotiations or offer a credible political solution to the Tamil question.